When management is “hell-bent on expansion”

We wish to increase Berkshire’s size only when doing that also increases the wealth of its owners. Those two objectives do not necessarily go hand-in-hand as an amusing but value-destroying experience in our past illustrates. On that occasion, we had a significant investment in a bank whose management was hell-bent on expansion. (Aren’t they all?) When our bank wooed a smaller bank, its owner demanded a stock swap on a basis that valued the acquiree’s net worth and earning power at over twice that of the acquirer’s. Our management—visibly in heat—quickly capitulated. The owner of the acquiree then insisted on one other condition: “You must promise me,” he said in effect, “that once our merger is done and I have become a major shareholder, you’ll never again make a deal this dumb.”

Misconceptions about “value investing”

In addition, we think the very term “value investing” is redundant. What is “investing” if it is not the act of seeking value at least sufficient to justify the amount paid? Consciously paying more for a stock than its calculated value—in the hope that it can soon be sold for a still-higher price—should be labeled speculation (which is neither illegal, immoral nor—in our view—financially fattening).

Whether appropriate or not, the term “value investing” is widely used. Typically, it connotes the purchase of stocks having attributes such as a low ratio of price to book value, a low price-earnings ratio, or a high dividend yield. Unfortunately, such characteristics, even if they appear in combination, are far from determinative as to whether an investor is indeed buying something for what it is worth and is therefore truly operating on the principle of obtaining value in his investments. Correspondingly, opposite characteristics—a high ratio of price to book value, a high price-earnings ratio, and a low dividend yield—are in no way inconsistent with a “value” purchase.

Similarly, business growth, per se, tells us little about value. It’s true that growth often has a positive impact on value, sometimes one of spectacular proportions. But such an effect is far from certain. For example, investors have regularly poured money into the domestic airline business to finance profitless (or worse) growth. For these investors, it would have been far better if Orville had failed to get off the ground at Kitty Hawk: The more the industry has grown, the worse the disaster for owners.

Growth benefits investors only when the business in point can invest at incremental returns that are enticing—in other words, only when each dollar used to finance the growth creates over a dollar of long-term market value. In the case of a low-return business requiring incremental funds, growth hurts the investor.

In The Theory of Investment Value, written over 50 years ago, John Burr Williams set forth the equation for value, which we condense here: The value of any stock, bond or business today is determined by the cash inflows and outflows—discounted at an appropriate interest rate—that can be expected to occur during the remaining life of the asset. Note that the formula is the same for stocks as for bonds. Even so, there is an important, and difficult to deal with, difference between the two: A bond has a coupon and maturity date that define future cash flows; but in the case of equities, the investment analyst must himself estimate the future “coupons.” Furthermore, the quality of management affects the bond coupon only rarely—chiefly when management is so inept or dishonest that payment of interest is suspended. In contrast, the ability of management can dramatically affect the equity “coupons.”

The investment shown by the discounted-flows-of-cash calculation to be the cheapest is the one that the investor should purchase—irrespective of whether the business grows or doesn’t, displays volatility or smoothness in its earnings, or carries a high price or low in relation to its current earnings and book value. Moreover, though the value equation has usually shown equities to be cheaper than bonds, that result is not inevitable: When bonds are calculated to be the more attractive investment, they should be bought.

Leaving the question of price aside, the best business to own is one that over an extended period can employ large amounts of incremental capital at very high rates of return. The worst business to own is one that must, or will, do the opposite—that is, consistently employ ever-greater amounts of capital at very low rates of return. Unfortunately, the first type of business is very hard to find: Most high-return businesses need relatively little capital. Shareholders of such a business usually will benefit if it pays out most of its earnings in dividends or makes significant stock repurchases.

Two ways to avoid costly mistakes when investing in equities

Though the mathematical calculations required to evaluate equities are not difficult, an analyst—even one who is experienced and intelligent—can easily go wrong in estimating future “coupons.” At Berkshire, we attempt to deal with this problem in two ways. First, we try to stick to businesses we believe we understand. That means they must be relatively simple and stable in character. If a business is complex or subject to constant change, we’re not smart enough to predict future cash flows. Incidentally, that shortcoming doesn’t bother us. What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don’t know. An investor needs to do very few things right as long as he or she avoids big mistakes. Second, and equally important, we insist on a margin of safety in our purchase price. If we calculate the value of a common stock to be only slightly higher than its price, we’re not interested in buying. We believe this margin-of-safety principle, so strongly emphasized by Ben Graham, to be the cornerstone of investment success.

Primary market vs. secondary market

Despite the success we experienced with our Gillette preferred, which converted to common stock in 1991, and despite our reasonable results with other negotiated purchases of preferreds, our overall performance with such purchases has been inferior to that we have achieved with purchases made in the secondary market. This is actually the result we expected. It corresponds with our belief that an intelligent investor in common stocks will do better in the secondary market than he will do buying new issues.

The reason has to do with the way prices are set in each instance. The secondary market, which is periodically ruled by mass folly, is constantly setting a “clearing” price. No matter how foolish that price may be, it’s what counts for the holder of a stock or bond who needs or wishes to sell, of whom there are always going to be a few at any moment. In many instances, shares worth x in business value have sold in the market for ½x or less.

The new-issue market, on the other hand, is ruled by controlling stockholders and corporations, who can usually select the timing of offerings or, if the market looks unfavorable, can avoid an offering altogether. Understandably, these sellers are not going to offer any bargains, either by way of a public offering or in a negotiated transaction: It’s rare you’ll find x for ½x here. Indeed, in the case of common-stock offerings, selling shareholders are often motivated to unload only when they feel the market is overpaying. (These sellers, of course, would state that proposition somewhat differently, averring instead that they simply resist selling when the market is underpaying for their goods.)

Shareholders should understand that companies incur costs when they deliver something of value to another party and not just when cash changes hands. Moreover, it is both silly and cynical to say that an important item of cost [Buffett is referring to, among other things, stock options here] should not be recognized simply because it can’t be quantified with pinpoint precision. Right now, accounting abounds with imprecision. After all, no manager or auditor knows how long a 747 is going to last, which means he also does not know what the yearly depreciation charge for the plane should be. No one knows with any certainty what a bank’s annual loan loss charge ought to be. And the estimates of losses that property-casualty companies make are notoriously inaccurate.

Does this mean that these important items of cost should be ignored simply because they can’t be quantified with absolute accuracy? Of course not. Rather, these costs should be estimated by honest and experienced people and then recorded. When you get right down to it, what other item of major but hard-to-precisely-calculate cost—other, that is, than stock options—does the accounting profession say should be ignored in the calculation of earnings?

Moreover, options are just not that difficult to value. Admittedly, the difficulty is increased by the fact that the options given to executives are restricted in various ways. These restrictions affect value. They do not, however, eliminate it. In fact, since I’m in the mood for offers, I’ll make one to any executive who is granted a restricted option, even though it may be out of the money: On the day of issue, Berkshire will pay him or her a substantial sum for the right to any future gain he or she realizes on the option. So if you find a CEO who says his newly-issued options have little or no value, tell him to try us out. In truth, we have far more confidence in our ability to determine an appropriate price to pay for an option than we have in our ability to determine the proper depreciation rate for our corporate jet.

It seems to me that the realities of stock options can be summarized quite simply: If options aren’t a form of compensation, what are they? If compensation isn’t an expense, what is it? And, if expenses shouldn’t go into the calculation of earnings, where in the world should they go? [Buffett’s remarks have become partly mitigated since, starting in 2006, companies are now required to expense grants of employee stock options.]

Those readers with particularly sharp eyes will note that our corporate expense fell from $5.6 million in 1991 to $4.2 million in 1992. Perhaps you will think that I have sold our corporate jet, The Indefensible. Forget it! I find the thought of retiring the plane even more revolting than the thought of retiring the Chairman. (In this matter I’ve demonstrated uncharacteristic flexibility: For years I argued passionately against corporate jets. But finally my dogma was run over by my karma.)




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