Triumph of the Optimists: Berkshire Hathaway’s 50th Annual Letter

Most assuredly, America’s best days lie ahead of it. That is the refreshingly optimistic message that CEO Warren Buffett maintains in Berkshire Hathaway’s annual letter to shareholders released today.

Buffett has been writing such highly anticipated letters for 50 years and this year’s offering is no disappointment. Oozing with Buffett's rationality, calmness and decisiveness, it is a must read for anyone looking for guidance in the financial markets.

Here are some of its highlights:

On America:

Charlie and I have always considered a “bet” on ever-rising U.S. prosperity to be very close to a sure thing.

Indeed, who has ever benefited during the past 238 years by betting against America? If you compare our country’s present condition to that existing in 1776, you have to rub your eyes in wonder. In my lifetime alone, real per-capita U.S. output has sextupled. My parents could not have dreamed in 1930 of the world their son would see. Though the preachers of pessimism prattle endlessly about America’s problems, I’ve never seen one who wishes to emigrate (though I can think of a few for whom I would happily buy a one-way ticket).

The dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. Gains won’t come in a smooth or uninterrupted manner; they never have. And we will regularly grumble about our government. But, most assuredly, America’s best days lie ahead. (Page 7)

On Building Berkshire’s Per Share Intrinsic Value:

Charlie and I hope to build Berkshire’s per-share intrinsic value by

(1) constantly improving the basic earning power of our many subsidiaries; (2) further increasing their earnings through bolt-on acquisitions; (3) benefiting from the growth of our investees; (4) repurchasing Berkshire shares when they are available at a meaningful discount from intrinsic value; and (5) making an occasional large acquisition. We will also try to maximize results for you by rarely, if ever, issuing Berkshire shares. (Page 7)

On Berkshire’s Performance:

Since 1970, our per-share investments have increased at a rate of 19% compounded annually, and our earnings figure has grown at a 20.6% clip. It is no coincidence that the price of Berkshire stock over the ensuing 44 years has increased at a rate very similar to that of our two measures of value. Charlie and I like to see gains in both sectors, but our main focus is to build operating earnings. (Page 8)

On Investing:

The unconventional, but inescapable, conclusion to be drawn from the past fifty years is that it has been far safer to invest in a diversified collection of American businesses than to invest in securities – Treasuries, for example – whose values have been tied to American currency. That was also true in the preceding half-century, a period including the Great Depression and two world wars. Investors should heed this history. To one degree or another it is almost certain to be repeated during the next century.

Stock prices will always be far more volatile than cash-equivalent holdings. Over the long term, however, currency-denominated instruments are Riskier investments – far riskier investments – than widely-diversified stock portfolios that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions.

That lesson has not customarily been taught in business schools, where volatility is almost universally used as a proxy for risk. Though this pedagogic assumption makes for easy teaching, it is dead wrong: Volatility is far from synonymous with risk. Popular formulas that equate the two terms lead students, investors and CEOs astray.

If the investor, instead, fears price volatility, erroneously viewing it as a measure of risk, he may, ironically, end up doing some very risky things. Recall, if you will, the pundits who six years ago bemoaned falling stock prices and advised investing in “safe” Treasury bills or bank certificates of deposit. People who heeded this sermon are now earning a pittance on sums they had previously expected would finance a pleasant retirement. (The S&P 500 was then below 700; now it is about 2,100.) If not for their fear of meaningless price volatility, these investors could have assured themselves of a good income for life by simply buying a very low-cost index fund whose dividends would trend upward over the years and whose principal would grow as well (with many ups and downs, to be sure).

Decades ago, Ben Graham pinpointed the blame for investment failure, using a quote from Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” (Page 19)

On Berkshire’s Acquisition Criteria:

We are eager to hear from principals or their representatives about businesses that meet all of the following criteria:

(1) Large purchases (at least $75 million of pre-tax earnings unless the business will fit into one of our existing units),

(2) Demonstrated consistent earning power (future projections are of no interest to us, nor are “turnaround” situations),

(3) Businesses earning good returns on equity while employing little or no debt,

(4) Management in place (we can’t supply it),

(5) Simple businesses (if there’s lots of technology, we won’t understand it),

(6) An offering price (we don’t want to waste our time or that of the seller by talking, even preliminarily, about a transaction when price is unknown). (Page 23)

On The Next 50 Years At Berkshire:

First and definitely foremost, I believe that the chance of permanent capital loss for patient Berkshire shareholders is as low as can be found among single company investments. That’s because our per-share intrinsic business value is almost certain to advance over time. (Page 34)

Since I know of no way to reliably predict market movements, I recommend that you purchase Berkshire shares only if you expect to hold them for at least five years. Those who seek short-term profits should look elsewhere. (Page 34)

I believe the chance of any event causing Berkshire to experience financial problems is essentially zero. We will always be prepared for the thousand-year flood; in fact, if it occurs we will be selling life jackets to the unprepared. Berkshire played an important role as a “first responder” during the 2008-2009 meltdown, and we have since more than doubled the strength of our balance sheet and our earnings potential. Your company is the Gibraltar of American business and will remain so. (Page 34)

The bad news is that Berkshire’s long-term gains – measured by percentages, not by dollars – cannot be dramatic and will not come close to those achieved in the past 50 years. The numbers have become too big. I think Berkshire will outperform the average American company, but our advantage, if any, won’t be great. (Page 36)

On The Future CEO Of Berkshire:

To further ensure the continuation of our culture, I have suggested that my son, Howard, succeed me as non-executive Chairman. (Page 36)

Character is crucial: A Berkshire CEO must be “all in” for the company, not for himself. (I’m using male pronouns to avoid awkward wording, but gender should never decide who becomes CEO.) He can’t help but earn money far in excess of any possible need for it. But it’s important that neither ego nor avarice motivate him to reach for pay matching his most lavishly-compensated peers, even if his achievements far exceed theirs. A CEO’s behavior has a huge impact on managers down the line: If it’s clear to them that shareholders’ interests are paramount to him, they will, with few exceptions, also embrace that way of thinking. (Page 36)

My successor will need one other particular strength: the ability to fight off the ABCs of business decay, which are arrogance, bureaucracy and complacency. When these corporate cancers metastasize, even the strongest of companies can falter. The examples available to prove the point are legion, but to maintain friendships I will exhume only cases from the distant past. (Page 37)

If our non economic values were to be lost, much of Berkshire’s economic value would collapse as well. “Tone at the top” will be key to maintaining Berkshire’s special culture. (Page 37)

All told, Berkshire is ideally positioned for life after Charlie and I leave the scene. (Page 37)

On Why Berkshire Under Buffett Did 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. (Page 41)