Warren Buffett has been dispensing wisdom in Berkshire shareholder letters since 1965. Over that time, he transformed the company from a decent business with a great investment portfolio to a conglomerate of great businesses with a decent investment portfolio.
The transformation was done at a rate of a 20.8% return (based on market value) or a 1,972,595% gain over that period. Mind boggling.
Buffett’s latest letter doesn’t fall short on things to learn.
The Cost of Mistakes
As is the case in marriage, business acquisitions often deliver surprises after the “I do’s.” I’ve made some dumb purchases, paying far too much for the economic goodwill of companies we acquired. That later led to goodwill write-offs and to consequent reductions in Berkshire’s book value.
I earlier described our gradual shift from a company obtaining most of its gains from investment activities to one that grows in value by owning businesses. Launching that transition, we took baby steps – making small acquisitions whose impact on Berkshire’s profits was dwarfed by our gains from marketable securities. Despite that cautious approach, I made one particularly egregious error, acquiring Dexter Shoe for $434 million in 1993. Dexter’s value promptly went to zero. The story gets worse: I used stock for the purchase, giving the sellers 25,203 shares of Berkshire that at yearend 2016 were worth more than $6 billion.
That wreck was followed by three key happenings – two positive, one negative – that set us firmly on our present course. At the beginning of 1996, we acquired the half of GEICO we didn’t already own, a cash transaction that changed our holding from a portfolio investment into a wholly-owned operating business…
Unfortunately, I followed the GEICO purchase by foolishly using Berkshire stock – a boatload of stock – to buy General Reinsurance in late 1998. After some early problems, General Re has become a fine insurance operation that we prize. It was, nevertheless, a terrible mistake on my part to issue 272,200 shares of Berkshire in buying General Re, an act that increased our outstanding shares by a whopping 21.8%. My error caused Berkshire shareholders to give far more than they received (a practice that – despite the Biblical endorsement – is far from blessed when you are buying businesses).
Early in 2000, I atoned for that folly by buying 76% (since grown to 90%) of MidAmerican Energy, a brilliantly-managed utility business that has delivered us many large opportunities to make profitable and socially-useful investments. The MidAmerican cash purchase – I was learning – firmly launched us on our present course of (1) continuing to build our insurance operation; (2) energetically acquiring large and diversified non-insurance businesses and (3) largely making our deals from internally-generated cash. (Today, I would rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares.)
If you read Buffett’s letters you probably notice he points out his mistakes early and annually. Yes, Buffett is human. Yes, he makes mistakes. And yes, the annual letter is a reminder to shareholders and himself of that fact.
As Buffett points out, the cost of mistakes compound over time.
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.
If part of your strategy involves taking advantage of opportunities, you need to be ready before they arise. That involves having some type of plan in place.
Buffett’s plan uses a cash position, the size of which tends to move inversely with the market. But his cash position is useless if he can’t pull the trigger. Being mentally prepared to act when things appear to be at its worst is the other half of that plan.
American business – and consequently a basket of stocks – is virtually certain to be worth far more in the years ahead. Innovation, productivity gains, entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of capital will see to that. Ever-present naysayers may prosper by marketing their gloomy forecasts. But heaven help them if they act on the nonsense they peddle.
Many companies, of course, will fall behind, and some will fail. Winnowing of that sort is a product of market dynamism. Moreover, the years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks. No one can tell you when these traumas will occur – not me, not Charlie, not economists, not the media. Meg McConnell of the New York Fed aptly described the reality of panics: “We spend a lot of time looking for systemic risk; in truth, however, it tends to find us.”
During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.
Doomsayers, fear mongers, and forecasters abound. No matter what is going on in the markets, someone is always predicting a crisis. And sometimes their noise is deafening.
As if that wasn’t enough, investors must put up with any emotional conflict created from all that noise. Few things are worse than acting against your stated goals because you lost the battle with yourself. Yet, it happens to everyone at some point.
Recognizing fear, without falling victim to it, is a hard but necessary part of investing. Taking advantage of it is a close second, for those with the courage to be nimble.
In the investment world, discussions about share repurchases often become heated. But I’d suggest that participants in this debate take a deep breath: Assessing the desirability of repurchases isn’t that complicated.
From the standpoint of exiting shareholders, repurchases are always a plus. Though the day-to-day impact of these purchases is usually minuscule, it’s always better for a seller to have an additional buyer in the market.
For continuing shareholders, however, repurchases only make sense if the shares are bought at a price below intrinsic value. When that rule is followed, the remaining shares experience an immediate gain in intrinsic value. Consider a simple analogy: If there are three equal partners in a business worth $3,000 and one is bought out by the partnership for $900, each of the remaining partners realizes an immediate gain of $50. If the exiting partner is paid $1,100, however, the continuing partners each suffer a loss of $50. The same math applies with corporations and their shareholders. Ergo, the question of whether a repurchase action is value-enhancing or value-destroying for continuing shareholders is entirely purchase-price dependent.
It is puzzling, therefore, that corporate repurchase announcements almost never refer to a price above which repurchases will be eschewed. That certainly wouldn’t be the case if a management was buying an outside business. There, price would always factor into a buy-or-pass decision.
When CEOs or boards are buying a small part of their own company, though, they all too often seem oblivious to price. Would they behave similarly if they were managing a private company with just a few owners and were evaluating the wisdom of buying out one of them? Of course not.
It is important to remember that there are two occasions in which repurchases should not take place, even if the company’s shares are underpriced. One is when a business both needs all its available money to protect or expand its own operations and is also uncomfortable adding further debt. Here, the internal need for funds should take priority. This exception assumes, of course, that the business has a decent future awaiting it after the needed expenditures are made. The second exception, less common, materializes when a business acquisition (or some other investment opportunity) offers far greater value than do the undervalued shares of the potential repurchaser. Long ago, Berkshire itself often had to choose between these alternatives. At our present size, the issue is far less likely to arise. My suggestion: Before even discussing repurchases, a CEO and his or her Board should stand, join hands and in unison declare, “What is smart at one price is stupid at another.”
One final observation for this section: As the subject of repurchases has come to a boil, some people have come close to calling them un-American – characterizing them as corporate misdeeds that divert funds needed for productive endeavors. That simply isn’t the case: Both American corporations and private investors are today awash in funds looking to be sensibly deployed. I’m not aware of any enticing project that in recent years has died for lack of capital. (Call us if you have a candidate.)
The criticism of share buybacks has been ongoing for several years. Some people believe money put toward buybacks could be used in more constructive ways. That may be so.
There’s a long history of companies buying back shares near the top of the market, only to reissue shares at the bottom. That tends to be the cycle of things. Usually, the best time to buy back shares is when a company needs cash the most. And CEOs are hardly exempt from paying too high a price.
Anyways, Buffett lays out the case for buybacks, which is similar to what he’s said in the past. All capital allocation decisions should be determined based on the return on a dollar spent.
So all else equal, buybacks are one worthy option. But the decision is not mutually exclusive. Organic growth, M&A, debt reduction, buybacks, dividends, and doing nothing are all on the table and money is directed towards more than one.
Yet, only one – dividends – offers immediate results for shareholders, while the rest could take months or years for the market to price in the benefit, which might explain the criticism.
Just keep in mind that buybacks are more tax efficient for shareholders than dividends. And based on performance, companies that buy back shares tend to outperform those that don’t. Of course, companies that buy back shares, reduce debt, and pay dividends perform even better.
If Group A (active investors) and Group B (do-nothing investors) comprise the total investing universe, and B is destined to achieve average results before costs, so, too, must A. Whichever group has the lower costs will win. (The academic in me requires me to mention that there is a very minor point – not worth detailing – that slightly modifies this formulation.) And if Group A has exorbitant costs, its shortfall will be substantial.
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.
Finally, there are three connected realities that cause investing success to breed failure. First, a good record quickly attracts a torrent of money. Second, huge sums invariably act as an anchor on investment performance: What is easy with millions, struggles with billions (sob!). Third, most managers will nevertheless seek new money because of their personal equation – namely, the more funds they have under management, the more their fees.
The bottom line: When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.
Human behavior won’t change. Wealthy individuals, pension funds, endowments and the like will continue to feel they deserve something “extra” in investment advice. Those advisors who cleverly play to this expectation will get very rich. This year the magic potion may be hedge funds, next year something else. The likely result from this parade of promises is predicted in an adage: “When a person with money meets a person with experience, the one with experience ends up with the money and the one with money leaves with experience.”
A large portion of the letter relayed the bet Buffett made pitting an S&P 500 index fund versus a hedge fund. Buffett chose the index fund. Short of a market crash, Buffett should win the bet next year by a wide margin.
Buffett’s simple reasoning shows the battle is mainly about costs. Every dollar spent on fees is one less that can compound for you over time.
This should be an idea that everyone can agree with. And yet, as Buffett so aptly points out, few people won’t change. Human nature at its best.
While active investing is hard, the decision on fees should be easy. Low-cost matters.
- Shoe Dog by Phil Knight