Warren Buffett — Letters to Shareholders

From the 2011 letter:

Positive updates:

The primary job of a Board of Directors is to see that the right people are running the business and to be sure that the next generation of leaders is identified and ready to take over tomorrow.
We view [our] holdings as partnership interests in wonderful businesses, not as marketable securities to be bought or sold based on their near-term prospects. Over time, though, the undistributed earnings of these companies that are attributable to our ownership are of huge importance to us.
Mistakes and bad news:
However things turn out, I totally miscalculated the gain/loss probabilities when I purchased the bonds. In tennis parlance, this was a major unforced error by your chairman.
Share Repurchases:

Nonetheless, the general importance of share repurchases suggests I should focus for a bit on the subject. Charlie and I favor repurchases when two conditions are met: first, a company has ample funds to take care of the operational and liquidity needs of its business; second, its stock is selling at a material discount to the company’s intrinsic business value, conservatively calculated. Continuing shareholders are hurt unless shares are purchased below intrinsic value.

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.

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.

Manufacturing, Service, and Retail Operations:

This group of companies sells products ranging from lollipops to jet airplanes. Some of the businesses enjoy terrific economics, measured by earnings on unleveraged net tangible assets that run from 25% after-tax to more than 100%. Others produce good returns in the area of 12-20%. A few, however, have very poor returns, a result of some serious mistakes I made in my job of capital allocation. These errors came about because I misjudged either the competitive strength of the business being purchased or the future economics of the industry in which it operated. I try to look out ten or twenty years when making an acquisition, but sometimes my eyesight has been poor. Charlie’s has been better; he voted no more than “present” on several of my errant purchases.

For 29 years, we have regularly laid out Berkshire’s economic principles in these reports 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.

The Basic Choices for Investors and the Ones We Strongly Prefer:

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.

The Annual Meeting:

Soon after the 7 a.m. opening of the doors, we will have a new activity: The Newspaper Tossing Challenge. Late last year, Berkshire purchased the Omaha World-Herald and, in my meeting with its shareholder-employees, I told of the folding and throwing skills I developed while delivering 500,000 papers as a teenager. I immediately saw skepticism in the eyes of the audience. That was no surprise to me. After all, the reporters’ mantra is: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” So now I have to back up my claim. At the meeting, I will take on all comers in making 35-foot tosses of the World-Herald to a Clayton porch. Any challenger whose paper lands closer to the doorstep than mine will receive a dilly bar. I’ve asked Dairy Queen to supply several for the contest, though I doubt that any will be needed. We will have a large stack of papers. Grab one. Fold it (no rubber bands). Take your best shot. Make my day.

From the 2010 letter:

Performance:

Charlie and I believe that those entrusted with handling the funds of others should establish performance goals at the onset of their stewardship. Lacking such standards, managements are tempted to shoot the arrow of performance and then paint the bull’s-eye around wherever it lands.

Yearly figures, it should be noted, are neither to be ignored nor viewed as all-important. The pace of the earth’s movement around the sun is not synchronized with the time required for either investment ideas or operating decisions to bear fruit.

Intrinsic Value:

This “what-will-they-do-with-the-money” factor must always be evaluated along with the “what-do-we-have-now” calculation in order for us, or anybody, to arrive at a sensible estimate of a company’s intrinsic value. That’s because an outside investor stands by helplessly as management reinvests his share of the company’s earnings.

We possess a cadre of truly skilled managers who have an unusual commitment to their own operations and to Berkshire. Many of our CEOs are independently wealthy and work only because they love what they do. They are volunteers, not mercenaries. Because no one can offer them a job they would enjoy more, they can’t be lured away.

Berkshire’s CEOs come in many forms. Some have MBAs; others never finished college. Some use budgets and are by-the-book types; others operate by the seat of their pants. Our team resembles a baseball squad composed of all-stars having vastly different batting styles. Changes in our line-up are seldom required.

Our final advantage is the hard-to-duplicate culture that permeates Berkshire. And in businesses, culture counts. Cultures self-propogate.  Bureaucratic procedures beget more bureaucracy, and imperial corporate palaces induce imperious behavior.

 Your attitude on such matters, expressed by behavior as well as words, will be the most important factor in how the culture of your business develops. Culture, more than rule books, determines how an organization behaves.

This same owner-orientation prevails among our managers. In many cases, these are people who have sought out Berkshire as an acquirer for a business that they and their families have long owned.

Investments:

 How the record has been achieved is crucial, as is the manager’s understanding of – and sensitivity to – risk (which in no way should be measured by beta, the choice of too many academics). In respect to the risk criterion, we were looking for someone with a hard-to-evaluate skill: the ability to anticipate the effects of economic scenarios not previously observed. Finally, we wanted someone who would regard working for Berkshire as far more than a job.

Life and Debt:

The fundamental principle of auto racing is that to finish first, you must first finish. That dictum is equally applicable to business and guides our every action at Berkshire. Unquestionably, some people have become very rich through the use of borrowed money. However, that’s also been a way to get very poor.  And as we all learned in third grade – and some relearned in 2008 – any series of positive numbers, however impressive the numbers may be, evaporates when multiplied by a single zero. History tells us that leverage all too often produces zeroes, even when it is employed by very smart people.

“We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation.”

From the 2009 letter:

What we don’t do:

  • Charlie and I avoid businesses whose futures we can’t evaluate, no matter how exciting their products may be. Just because Charlie and I can clearly see dramatic growth ahead for an industry does not mean we can judge what its profit margins and returns on capital will be as a host of competitors battle for supremacy.
  • We will never become dependent on the kindness of strangers. Too-big-to-fail is not a fallback position at Berkshire. Instead, we will always arrange our affairs so that any requirements for cash we may conceivably have will be dwarfed by our own liquidity.
  • We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that both operating and capital decisions are occasionally made with which Charlie and I would have disagreed had we been consulted.
  • We make no attempt to woo Wall Street. Investors who buy and sell based upon media or analyst commentary are not for us. Instead we want partners who join us at Berkshire because they wish to make a long-term investment in a business they themselves understand and because it’s one that follows policies with which they concur.
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