Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 2017

Last summer I read each Berkshire shareholder letter published during the 1977-2017 period. As a summer reading challenge, I read one letter per day and published my five key takeaways from each letter here on the blog (you can find links to these posts here). Without a doubt, this is one of the most important and instructive reads related to investing that I have ever come across. Most likely, I will re-read them all this coming summer.

Today is the day when the 2017 letter is published. As I had already planned to read the letter once it was published I thought it would be nice idea to keep my five key takeaways tradition going. Although Warren and Charlie aren’t getting any younger I hope to continue with this tradition for years to come.

From the 2017 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: how to sleep well; people > physical assets; lessons from Kipling; looking unimaginative and foolish and skin in the game.

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 – 2017

1.

“Our aversion to leverage has dampened our returns over the years. But Charlie and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don’t need. We held this view 50 years ago when we each ran an investment partnership, funded by a few friends and relatives who trusted us. We also hold it today after a million or so “partners” have joined us at Berkshire.”

2.

“Betting on people can sometimes be more certain than betting on physical assets.”

3.

“Berkshire, itself, provides some vivid examples of how price randomness in the short term can obscure longterm growth in value. For the last 53 years, the company has built value by reinvesting its earnings and letting compound interest work its magic. Year by year, we have moved forward. Yet Berkshire shares have suffered four truly major dips. Here are the gory details:

Skärmavbild 2018-02-24 kl. 14.07.18

This table offers the strongest argument I can muster against ever using borrowed money to own stocks. There is simply no telling how far stocks can fall in a short period. Even if your borrowings are small and your positions aren’t immediately threatened by the plunging market, your mind may well become rattled by scary headlines and breathless commentary. And an unsettled mind will not make good decisions.

In the next 53 years our shares (and others) will experience declines resembling those in the table. No one can tell you when these will happen. The light can at any time go from green to red without pausing at yellow. When major declines occur, however, they offer extraordinary opportunities to those who are not handicapped by debt. That’s the time to heed these lines from Kipling’s If:

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . .

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting . . .

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim . . .

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you . . .

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.””

4.

“Though markets are generally rational, they occasionally do crazy things. Seizing the opportunities then offered does not require great intelligence, a degree in economics or a familiarity with Wall Street jargon such as alpha and beta. What investors then need instead is an ability to both disregard mob fears or enthusiasms and to focus on a few simple fundamentals. A willingness to look unimaginative for a sustained period – or even to look foolish – is also essential.”

5.

“For good reason, I regularly extol the accomplishments of our operating managers. They are truly All-Stars who run their businesses as if they were the only asset owned by their families. I also believe the mindset of our managers to be as shareholder-oriented as can be found in the universe of large publicly-owned companies. Most of our managers have no financial need to work. The joy of hitting business “home runs” means as much to them as their paycheck.

If managers (or directors) own Berkshire shares – and many do – it’s from open-market purchases they have made or because they received shares when they sold their businesses to us. None , however, gets the upside of ownership without risking the downside. Our directors and managers stand in your shoes.”

Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 2016

From the 2016 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: having no magic plan; changing pockets; 160 IQ > 180 IQ; a Berkshire clarification and finding skilled investment professionals.

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 – 2016

1.

“Some years, the gains in underlying earning power we achieve will be minor; very occasionally, the cash register will ring loud. Charlie and I have no magic plan to add earnings except to dream big and to be prepared mentally and financially to act fast when opportunities present themselves. Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. And that we will do.”

2.

“It’s true, of course, that American owners of homes, autos and other assets have often borrowed heavily to finance their purchases. If an owner defaults, however, his or her asset does not disappear or lose its usefulness. Rather, ownership customarily passes to an American lending institution that then disposes of it to an American buyer. Our nation’s wealth remains intact. As Gertrude Stein put it, “Money is always there, but the pockets change.””

3.

“Tony became CEO of GEICO in 1993, and since then the company has been flying. There is no better manager than Tony, who brings his combination of brilliance, dedication and soundness to the job. (The latter quality is essential to sustained success. As Charlie says, it’s great to have a manager with a 160 IQ – unless he thinks it’s 180.) Like Ajit, Tony has created tens of billions of value for Berkshire.”

4.

“Sometimes the comments of shareholders or media imply that we will own certain stocks “forever.” It is true that we own some stocks that I have no intention of selling for as far as the eye can see (and we’re talking 20/20 vision). But we have made no commitment that Berkshire will hold any of its marketable securities forever.

Confusion about this point may have resulted from a too-casual reading of Economic Principle 11 on pages 110 – 111, which has been included in our annual reports since 1983. That principle covers controlled businesses, not marketable securities. This year I’ve added a final sentence to #11 to ensure that our owners understand that we regard any marketable security as available for sale, however unlikely such a sale now seems.”

5.

“There are, of course, some skilled individuals who are highly likely to out-perform the S&P over long stretches. In my lifetime, though, I’ve identified – early on – only ten or so professionals that I expected would accomplish this feat.

There are no doubt many hundreds of people – perhaps thousands – whom I have never met and whose abilities would equal those of the people I’ve identified. The job, after all, is not impossible. The problem simply is that the great majority of managers who attempt to over-perform will fail. The probability is also very high that the person soliciting your funds will not be the exception who does well. Bill Ruane – a truly wonderful human being and a man whom I identified 60 years ago as almost certain to deliver superior investment returns over the long haul – said it well: “In investment management, the progression is from the innovators to the imitators to the swarming incompetents.”

Further complicating the search for the rare high-fee manager who is worth his or her pay is the fact that some investment professionals, just as some amateurs, will be lucky over short periods. If 1,000 managers make a market prediction at the beginning of a year, it’s very likely that the calls of at least one will be correct for nine consecutive years. Of course, 1,000 monkeys would be just as likely to produce a seemingly all-wise prophet. But there would remain a difference: The lucky monkey would not find people standing in line to invest with him.”