Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 2011

From the 2011 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: the first law of capital allocation; a lesson about float accounting; the Berkshire rational for holding on to mistakes; a formula for business success and the three major investment categories.

Please comment if you have read the letter and what you thought of it. Also, if you have found a worldly wisdom in the letter that you think I should have included please comment on that as well. I’m very interested in what caught your eye while reading and why.

Worldly wisdom’s from Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter – 2011

1.

“The first law of capital allocation – whether the money is slated for acquisitions or share repurchases – is that what is smart at one price is dumb at another.

[…]

This discussion of repurchases offers me the chance to address the irrational reaction of many investors to changes in stock prices. When Berkshire buys stock in a company that is repurchasing shares, we hope for two events: First, we have the normal hope that earnings of the business will increase at a good clip for a long time to come; and second, we also hope that the stock underperforms in the market for a long time as well. A corollary to this second point: “Talking our book” about a stock we own – were that to be effective – would actually be harmful to Berkshire, not helpful as commentators customarily assume.

Let’s use IBM as an example. As all business observers know, CEOs Lou Gerstner and Sam Palmisano did a superb job in moving IBM from near-bankruptcy twenty years ago to its prominence today. Their operational accomplishments were truly extraordinary.

But their financial management was equally brilliant, particularly in recent years as the company’s financial flexibility improved. Indeed, I can think of no major company that has had better financial management, a skill that has materially increased the gains enjoyed by IBM shareholders. The company has used debt wisely, made value-adding acquisitions almost exclusively for cash and aggressively repurchased its own stock.

Today, IBM has 1.16 billion shares outstanding, of which we own about 63.9 million or 5.5%. Naturally, what happens to the company’s earnings over the next five years is of enormous importance to us. Beyond that, the company will likely spend $50 billion or so in those years to repurchase shares. Our quiz for the day: What should a long-term shareholder, such as Berkshire, cheer for during that period?

I won’t keep you in suspense. We should wish for IBM’s stock price to languish throughout the five years.

Let’s do the math. If IBM’s stock price averages, say, $200 during the period, the company will acquire 250 million shares for its $50 billion. There would consequently be 910 million shares outstanding, and we would own about 7% of the company. If the stock conversely sells for an average of $300 during the five-year period, IBM will acquire only 167 million shares. That would leave about 990 million shares outstanding after five years, of which we would own 6.5%.

If IBM were to earn, say, $20 billion in the fifth year, our share of those earnings would be a full $100 million greater under the “disappointing” scenario of a lower stock price than they would have been at the higher price. At some later point our shares would be worth perhaps $11⁄2 billion more than if the “high-price” repurchase scenario had taken place.

The logic is simple: If you are going to be a net buyer of stocks in the future, either directly with your own money or indirectly (through your ownership of a company that is repurchasing shares), you are hurt when stocks rise. You benefit when stocks swoon. Emotions, however, too often complicate the matter: Most people, including those who will be net buyers in the future, take comfort in seeing stock prices advance. These shareholders resemble a commuter who rejoices after the price of gas increases, simply because his tank contains a day’s supply.

Charlie and I don’t expect to win many of you over to our way of thinking – we’ve observed enough human behavior to know the futility of that – but we do want you to be aware of our personal calculus. And here a confession is in order: In my early days I, too, rejoiced when the market rose. Then I read Chapter Eight of Ben Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, the chapter dealing with how investors should view fluctuations in stock prices. Immediately the scales fell from my eyes, and low prices became my friend. Picking up that book was one of the luckiest moments in my life.

In the end, the success of our IBM investment will be determined primarily by its future earnings. But an important secondary factor will be how many shares the company purchases with the substantial sums it is likely to devote to this activity. And if repurchases ever reduce the IBM shares outstanding to 63.9 million, I will abandon my famed frugality and give Berkshire employees a paid holiday.”

2.

“As noted in the first section of this report, we have now operated at an underwriting profit for nine consecutive years, our gain for the period having totaled $17 billion. I believe it likely that we will continue to underwrite profitably in most – though certainly not all – future years. If we accomplish that, our float will be better than cost-free. We will profit just as we would if some party deposited $70.6 billion with us, paid us a fee for holding its money and then let us invest its funds for our own benefit.

So how does this attractive float affect intrinsic value calculations? Our float is deducted in full as a liability in calculating Berkshire’s book value, just as if we had to pay it out tomorrow and were unable to replenish it. But that’s an incorrect way to view float, which should instead be viewed as a revolving fund. If float is both costless and long-enduring, the true value of this liability is far lower than the accounting liability.”

3.

“Berkshire’s newer shareholders may be puzzled over our decision to hold on to my mistakes. After all, their earnings can never be consequential to Berkshire’s valuation, and problem companies require more managerial time than winners. Any management consultant or Wall Street advisor would look at our laggards and say “dump them.”

That won’t happen. For 29 years, we have regularly laid out Berkshire’s economic principles in these reports (pages 93-98) and Number 11 describes our general reluctance to sell poor performers (which, in most cases, lag because of industry factors rather than managerial shortcomings). Our approach is far from Darwinian, and many of you may disapprove of it. I can understand your position. However, we have made – and continue to make – a commitment to the sellers of businesses we buy that we will retain those businesses through thick and thin. So far, the dollar cost of that commitment has not been substantial and may well be offset by the goodwill it builds among prospective sellers looking for the right permanent home for their treasured business and loyal associates. These owners know that what they get with us can’t be delivered by others and that our commitments will be good for many decades to come.

Please understand, however, that Charlie and I are neither masochists nor Pollyannas. If either of the failings we set forth in Rule 11 is present – if the business will likely be a cash drain over the longer term, or if labor strife is endemic – we will take prompt and decisive action. Such a situation has happened only a couple of times in our 47-year history, and none of the businesses we now own is in straits requiring us to consider disposing of it.”

4.

““Buy commodities, sell brands” has long been a formula for business success. It has produced enormous and sustained profits for Coca-Cola since 1886 and Wrigley since 1891. On a smaller scale, we have enjoyed good fortune with this approach at See’s Candy since we purchased it 40 years ago.”

5.

“Investing is often described as the process of laying out money now in the expectation of receiving more money in the future. At Berkshire we take a more demanding approach, defining investing as the transfer to others of purchasing power now with the reasoned expectation of receiving more purchasing power – after taxes have been paid on nominal gains – in the future. More succinctly, investing is forgoing consumption now in order to have the ability to consume more at a later date.

From our definition there flows an important corollary: The riskiness of an investment is not measured by beta (a Wall Street term encompassing volatility and often used in measuring risk) but rather by the probability – the reasoned probability – of that investment causing its owner a loss of purchasing-power over his contemplated holding period. Assets can fluctuate greatly in price and not be risky as long as they are reasonably certain to deliver increased purchasing power over their holding period. And as we will see, a non-fluctuating asset can be laden with risk.

Investment possibilities are both many and varied. There are three major categories, however, and it’s important to understand the characteristics of each. So let’s survey the field.

Investments that are denominated in a given currency include money-market funds, bonds, mortgages, bank deposits, and other instruments. Most of these currency-based investments are thought of as “safe.” In truth they are among the most dangerous of assets. Their beta may be zero, but their risk is huge.

Over the past century these instruments have destroyed the purchasing power of investors in many countries, even as the holders continued to receive timely payments of interest and principal. This ugly result, moreover, will forever recur. Governments determine the ultimate value of money, and systemic forces will sometimes cause them to gravitate to policies that produce inflation. From time to time such policies spin out of control.

[…]

Under today’s conditions, therefore, I do not like currency-based investments. Even so, Berkshire holds significant amounts of them, primarily of the short-term variety. At Berkshire the need for ample liquidity occupies center stage and will never be slighted, however inadequate rates may be. Accommodating this need, we primarily hold U.S. Treasury bills, the only investment that can be counted on for liquidity under the most chaotic of economic conditions. Our working level for liquidity is $20 billion; $10 billion is our absolute minimum.

[…]

The second major category of investments involves assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else – who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive will pay more for them in the future. Tulips, of all things, briefly became a favorite of such buyers in the 17th century.

This type of investment requires an expanding pool of buyers, who, in turn, are enticed because they believe the buying pool will expand still further. Owners are not inspired by what the asset itself can produce – it will remain lifeless forever – but rather by the belief that others will desire it even more avidly in the future.

The major asset in this category is gold, currently a huge favorite of investors who fear almost all other assets, especially paper money (of whose value, as noted, they are right to be fearful). Gold, however, has two significant shortcomings, being neither of much use nor procreative. True, gold has some industrial and decorative utility, but the demand for these purposes is both limited and incapable of soaking up new production. Meanwhile, if you own one ounce of gold for an eternity, you will still own one ounce at its end.

What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis. As “bandwagon” investors join any party, they create their own truth – for a while.

Over the past 15 years, both Internet stocks and houses have demonstrated the extraordinary excesses that can be created by combining an initially sensible thesis with well-publicized rising prices. In these bubbles, an army of originally skeptical investors succumbed to the “proof” delivered by the market, and the pool of buyers – for a time – expanded sufficiently to keep the bandwagon rolling. But bubbles blown large enough inevitably pop. And then the old proverb is confirmed once again: “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.”

Today the world’s gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons. If all of this gold were melded together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.) At $1,750 per ounce – gold’s price as I write this – its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A.

Let’s now create a pile B costing an equal amount. For that, we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge). Can you imagine an investor with $9.6 trillion selecting pile A over pile B?

Beyond the staggering valuation given the existing stock of gold, current prices make today’s annual production of gold command about $160 billion. Buyers – whether jewelry and industrial users, frightened individuals, or speculators – must continually absorb this additional supply to merely maintain an equilibrium at present prices.

A century from now the 400 million acres of farmland will have produced staggering amounts of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops – and will continue to produce that valuable bounty, whatever the currency may be. Exxon Mobil will probably have delivered trillions of dollars in dividends to its owners and will also hold assets worth many more trillions (and, remember, you get 16 Exxons). The 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.

Admittedly, when people a century from now are fearful, it’s likely many will still rush to gold. I’m confident, however, that the $9.6 trillion current valuation of pile A will compound over the century at a rate far inferior to that achieved by pile B.

Our first two categories enjoy maximum popularity at peaks of fear: Terror over economic collapse drives individuals to currency-based assets, most particularly U.S. obligations, and fear of currency collapse fosters movement to sterile assets such as gold. We heard “cash is king” in late 2008, just when cash should have been deployed rather than held. Similarly, we heard “cash is trash” in the early 1980s just when fixed-dollar investments were at their most attractive level in memory. On those occasions, investors who required a supportive crowd paid dearly for that comfort.

My own preference – and you knew this was coming – is our third category: investment in productive assets, whether businesses, farms, or real estate. Ideally, these assets should have the ability in inflationary times to deliver output that will retain its purchasing-power value while requiring a minimum of new capital investment. Farms, real estate, and many businesses such as Coca-Cola, IBM and our own See’s Candy meet that double-barreled test. Certain other companies – think of our regulated utilities, for example – fail it because inflation places heavy capital requirements on them. To earn more, their owners must invest more. Even so, these investments will remain superior to nonproductive or currency-based assets.

Whether the currency a century from now is based on gold, seashells, shark teeth, or a piece of paper (as today), people will be willing to exchange a couple of minutes of their daily labor for a Coca-Cola or some See’s peanut brittle. In the future the U.S. population will move more goods, consume more food, and require more living space than it does now. People will forever exchange what they produce for what others produce.

Our country’s businesses will continue to efficiently deliver goods and services wanted by our citizens. Metaphorically, these commercial “cows” will live for centuries and give ever greater quantities of “milk” to boot. Their value will be determined not by the medium of exchange but rather by their capacity to deliver milk. Proceeds from the sale of the milk will compound for the owners of the cows, just as they did during the 20th century when the Dow increased from 66 to 11,497 (and paid loads of dividends as well). Berkshire’s goal will be to increase its ownership of first-class businesses. Our first choice will be to own them in their entirety – but we will also be owners by way of holding sizable amounts of marketable stocks. I believe that over any extended period of time this category of investing will prove to be the runaway winner among the three we’ve examined. More important, it will be by far the safest.”

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