Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 2015

From the 2015 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: 3G vs Berkshire; unknown demand > known demand; second > first; assessing risk and the dark side of innovation.

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 – 2015

1.

“Jorge Paulo and his associates could not be better partners. We share with them a passion to buy, build and hold large businesses that satisfy basic needs and desires. We follow different paths, however, in pursuing this goal.

Their method, at which they have been extraordinarily successful, is to buy companies that offer an opportunity for eliminating many unnecessary costs and then – very promptly – to make the moves that will get the job done. Their actions significantly boost productivity, the all-important factor in America’s economic growth over the past 240 years. Without more output of desired goods and services per working hour – that’s the measure of productivity gains – an economy inevitably stagnates. At much of corporate America, truly major gains in productivity are possible, a fact offering opportunities to Jorge Paulo and his associates.

At Berkshire, we, too, crave efficiency and detest bureaucracy. To achieve our goals, however, we follow an approach emphasizing avoidance of bloat, buying businesses such as PCC that have long been run by cost-conscious and efficient managers. After the purchase, our role is simply to create an environment in which these CEOs – and their eventual successors, who typically are like-minded – can maximize both their managerial effectiveness and the pleasure they derive from their jobs. (With this hands-off style, I am heeding a well-known Mungerism: “If you want to guarantee yourself a lifetime of misery, be sure to marry someone with the intent of changing their behavior.”)”

2.

“Nothing rivals the market system in producing what people want – nor, even more so, in delivering what people don’t yet know they want. My parents, when young, could not envision a television set, nor did I, in my 50s, think I needed a personal computer. Both products, once people saw what they could do, quickly revolutionized their lives. I now spend ten hours a week playing bridge online. And, as I write this letter, “search” is invaluable to me. (I’m not ready for Tinder, however.)”

3.

“Though the early bird gets the worm, the second mouse gets the cheese.”

4.

“We, like all public companies, are required by the SEC to annually catalog “risk factors” in our 10-K. I can’t remember, however, an instance when reading a 10-K’s “risk” section has helped me in evaluating a business. That’s not because the identified risks aren’t real. The truly important risks, however, are usually well known. Beyond that, a 10-K’s catalog of risks is seldom of aid in assessing: (1) the probability of the threatening event actually occurring; (2) the range of costs if it does occur; and (3) the timing of the possible loss. A threat that will only surface 50 years from now may be a problem for society, but it is not a financial problem for today’s investor.

[…]

Let me mention just a few examples. To begin with an obvious threat, BNSF, along with other railroads, is certain to lose significant coal volume over the next decade. At some point in the future – though not, in my view, for a long time – GEICO’s premium volume may shrink because of driverless cars. This development could hurt our auto dealerships as well. Circulation of our print newspapers will continue to fall, a certainty we allowed for when purchasing them. To date, renewables have helped our utility operation but that could change, particularly if storage capabilities for electricity materially improve. Online retailing threatens the business model of our retailers and certain of our consumer brands. These potentialities are just a few of the negative possibilities facing us – but even the most casual follower of business news has long been aware of them.”

5.

“Nevertheless, what’s a small probability in a short period approaches certainty in the longer run. (If there is only one chance in thirty of an event occurring in a given year, the likelihood of it occurring at least once in a century is 96.6%.) The added bad news is that there will forever be people and organizations and perhaps even nations that would like to inflict maximum damage on our country. Their means of doing so have increased exponentially during my lifetime. “Innovation” has its dark side.”

Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 2014

From the 2014 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: a cigar-butt lesson; the cigar-butt strategy pros and cons; Berkshire’s conglomerate structure; the Berkshire system and Buffett’s lollapalooza.

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 – 2014

1.

“I purchased BPL’s (Buffett Partnership Ltd.) first shares of Berkshire in December 1962, anticipating more closings and more repurchases. The stock was then selling for $7.50, a wide discount from per-share working capital of $10.25 and book value of $20.20. Buying the stock at that price was like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it. Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free. Once that momentary pleasure was enjoyed, however, no more could be expected.

Berkshire thereafter stuck to the script: It soon closed another two plants, and in that May 1964 move, set out to repurchase shares with the shutdown proceeds. The price that Stanton offered was 50% above the cost of our original purchases. There it was – my free puff, just waiting for me, after which I could look elsewhere for other discarded butts.

Instead, irritated by Stanton’s chiseling, I ignored his offer and began to aggressively buy more Berkshire shares.

By April 1965, BPL owned 392,633 shares (out of 1,017,547 then outstanding) and at an early-May board meeting we formally took control of the company. Through Seabury’s and my childish behavior – after all, what was an eighth of a point to either of us? – he lost his job, and I found myself with more than 25% of BPL’s capital invested in a terrible business about which I knew very little. I became the dog who caught the car.”

2.

“My cigar-butt strategy worked very well while I was managing small sums. Indeed, the many dozens of free puffs I obtained in the 1950s made that decade by far the best of my life for both relative and absolute investment performance.

Even then, however, I made a few exceptions to cigar butts, the most important being GEICO. Thanks to a 1951 conversation I had with Lorimer Davidson, a wonderful man who later became CEO of the company, I learned that GEICO was a terrific business and promptly put 65% of my $9,800 net worth into its shares. Most of my gains in those early years, though, came from investments in mediocre companies that traded at bargain prices. Ben Graham had taught me that technique, and it worked.

But a major weakness in this approach gradually became apparent: Cigar-butt investing was scalable only to a point. With large sums, it would never work well.

In addition, though marginal businesses purchased at cheap prices may be attractive as short-term investments, they are the wrong foundation on which to build a large and enduring enterprise. Selecting a marriage partner clearly requires more demanding criteria than does dating.”

3.

“So what do Charlie and I find so attractive about Berkshire’s conglomerate structure? To put the case simply: If the conglomerate form is used judiciously, it is an ideal structure for maximizing long-term capital growth.

One of the heralded virtues of capitalism is that it efficiently allocates funds. The argument is that markets will direct investment to promising businesses and deny it to those destined to wither. That is true: With all its excesses, market-driven allocation of capital is usually far superior to any alternative.

Nevertheless, there are often obstacles to the rational movement of capital. As those 1954 Berkshire minutes made clear, capital withdrawals within the textile industry that should have been obvious were delayed for decades because of the vain hopes and self-interest of managements. Indeed, I myself delayed abandoning our obsolete textile mills for far too long.

A CEO with capital employed in a declining operation seldom elects to massively redeploy that capital into unrelated activities. A move of that kind would usually require that long-time associates be fired and mistakes be admitted. Moreover, it’s unlikely that CEO would be the manager you would wish to handle the redeployment job even if he or she was inclined to undertake it.

At the shareholder level, taxes and frictional costs weigh heavily on individual investors when they attempt to reallocate capital among businesses and industries. Even tax-free institutional investors face major costs as they move capital because they usually need intermediaries to do this job. A lot of mouths with expensive tastes then clamor to be fed – among them investment bankers, accountants, consultants, lawyers and such capital-reallocators as leveraged buyout operators. Money-shufflers don’t come cheap.

In contrast, a conglomerate such as Berkshire is perfectly positioned to allocate capital rationally and at minimal cost. Of course, form itself is no guarantee of success: We have made plenty of mistakes, and we will make more. Our structural advantages, however, are formidable.

At Berkshire, we can – without incurring taxes or much in the way of other costs – move huge sums from businesses that have limited opportunities for incremental investment to other sectors with greater promise. Moreover, we are free of historical biases created by lifelong association with a given industry and are not subject to pressures from colleagues having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That’s important: If horses had controlled investment decisions, there would have been no auto industry.

Another major advantage we possess is the ability to buy pieces of wonderful businesses – a.k.a. common stocks. That’s not a course of action open to most managements. Over our history, this strategic alternative has proved to be very helpful; a broad range of options always sharpens decision-making. The businesses we are offered by the stock market every day – in small pieces, to be sure – are often far more attractive than the businesses we are concurrently being offered in their entirety. Additionally, the gains we’ve realized from marketable securities have helped us make certain large acquisitions that would otherwise have been beyond our financial capabilities.

In effect, the world is Berkshire’s oyster – a world offering us a range of opportunities far beyond those realistically open to most companies. We are limited, of course, to businesses whose economic prospects we can evaluate. And that’s a serious limitation: Charlie and I have no idea what a great many companies will look like ten years from now. But that limitation is much smaller than that borne by an executive whose experience has been confined to a single industry. On top of that, we can profitably scale to a far larger size than the many businesses that are constrained by the limited potential of the single industry in which they operate.

I mentioned earlier that See’s Candy had produced huge earnings compared to its modest capital requirements. We would have loved, of course, to intelligently use those funds to expand our candy operation. But our many attempts to do so were largely futile. So, without incurring tax inefficiencies or frictional costs, we have used the excess funds generated by See’s to help purchase other businesses. If See’s had remained a stand-alone company, its earnings would have had to be distributed to investors to redeploy, sometimes after being heavily depleted by large taxes and, almost always, by significant frictional and agency costs.”

4.

Note that author of the text below is Charlie Munger.

“The management system and policies of Berkshire under Buffett (herein together called “the Berkshire system”) were fixed early and are described below:

(1)  Berkshire would be a diffuse conglomerate, averse only to activities about which it could not make useful predictions.

(2)  Its top company would do almost all business through separately incorporated subsidiaries whose CEOs would operate with very extreme autonomy.

(3)  There would be almost nothing at conglomerate headquarters except a tiny office suite containing a Chairman, a CFO, and a few assistants who mostly helped the CFO with auditing, internal control, etc.

(4)  Berkshire subsidiaries would always prominently include casualty insurers. Those insurers as a group would be expected to produce, in due course, dependable underwriting gains while also producing substantial “float” (from unpaid insurance liabilities) for investment.

(5)  There would be no significant system-wide personnel system, stock option system, other incentive system, retirement system, or the like, because the subsidiaries would have their own systems, often different.

(6)  Berkshire’s Chairman would reserve only a few activities for himself.

(i)  He would manage almost all security investments, with these normally residing in Berkshire’s casualty insurers.

(ii)  He would choose all CEOs of important subsidiaries, and he would fix their compensation and obtain from each a private recommendation for a successor in case one was suddenly needed.

(iii)  He would deploy most cash not needed in subsidiaries after they had increased their competitive advantage, with the ideal deployment being the use of that cash to acquire new subsidiaries.

(iv)  He would make himself promptly available for almost any contact wanted by any subsidiary’s CEO, and he would require almost no additional contact.

(v)  He would write a long, logical, and useful letter for inclusion in his annual report, designed as he would wish it to be if he were only a passive shareholder, and he would be available for hours of answering questions at annual shareholders’ meetings.

(vi)  He would try to be an exemplar in a culture that would work well for customers, shareholders, and other incumbents for a long time, both before and after his departure.

(vii)  His first priority would be reservation of much time for quiet reading and thinking, particularly that which might advance his determined learning, no matter how old he became; and

(viii) He would also spend much time in enthusiastically admiring what others were accomplishing.

(7)  New subsidiaries would usually be bought with cash, not newly issued stock.

(8)  Berkshire would not pay dividends so long as more than one dollar of market value for shareholders was being created by each dollar of retained earnings.

(9)  In buying a new subsidiary, Berkshire would seek to pay a fair price for a good business that the Chairman could pretty well understand. Berkshire would also want a good CEO in place, one expected to remain for a long time and to manage well without need for help from headquarters.

(10)  In choosing CEOs of subsidiaries, Berkshire would try to secure trustworthiness, skill, energy, and love for the business and circumstances the CEO was in.

(11)  As an important matter of preferred conduct, Berkshire would almost never sell a subsidiary.

(12)  Berkshire would almost never transfer a subsidiary’s CEO to another unrelated subsidiary.

(13)  Berkshire would never force the CEO of a subsidiary to retire on account of mere age.

(14)  Berkshire would have little debt outstanding as it tried to maintain (i) virtually perfect creditworthiness under all conditions and (ii) easy availability of cash and credit for deployment in times presenting unusual opportunities.

(15)  Berkshire would always be user-friendly to a prospective seller of a large business. An offer of such a business would get prompt attention. No one but the Chairman and one or two others at Berkshire would ever know about the offer if it did not lead to a transaction. And they would never tell outsiders about it.”

5.

Note that author of the text below is Charlie Munger.

“Why did Berkshire under Buffett do so well? Only four large factors occur to me:

(1)  The constructive peculiarities of Buffett,

(2)  The constructive peculiarities of the Berkshire system,

(3)  Good luck, and

(4)  The weirdly intense, contagious devotion of some shareholders and other admirers, including some in the press.

I believe all four factors were present and helpful. But the heavy freight was carried by the constructive peculiarities, the weird devotion, and their interactions.

In particular, Buffett’s decision to limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years, was a lollapalooza. Buffett succeeded for the same reason Roger Federer became good at tennis.

Buffett was, in effect, using the winning method of the famous basketball coach, John Wooden, who won most regularly after he had learned to assign virtually all playing time to his seven best players. That way, opponents always faced his best players, instead of his second best. And, with the extra playing time, the best players improved more than was normal.

And Buffett much out-Woodened Wooden, because in his case the exercise of skill was concentrated in one person, not seven, and his skill improved and improved as he got older and older during 50 years, instead of deteriorating like the skill of a basketball player does.”