Unconventional Commitments

When we can’t find our favorite commitment—a well-run and sensibly-priced business with fine economics—we usually opt to put new money into very short-term instruments of the highest quality. Sometimes, however, we venture elsewhere. Obviously we believe that the alternative commitments we make are more likely to result in profit than loss. But we also realize that they do not offer the certainty of profit that exists in a wonderful business secured at an attractive price. Finding that kind of opportunity, we know that we are going to make money—the only question being when. With alternative investments, we think that we are going to make money. But we also recognize that we will sometimes realize losses, occasionally of substantial size.

We had three non-traditional positions at yearend. The first was derivative contracts for 14.0 million barrels of oil, that being what was then left of a 45.7 million barrel position we established in 1994-95. Contracts for 31.7 million barrels were settled in 1995-97, and these supplied us with a pre-tax gain of about $61.9 million. Our remaining contracts expire during 1998 and 1999. In these, we had an unrealized gain of $11.6 million at yearend. Accounting rules require that commodity positions be carried at market value. Therefore, both our annual and quarterly financial statements reflect any unrealized gain or loss in these contracts. When we established our contracts, oil for future delivery seemed modestly underpriced. Today, though, we have no opinion as to its attractiveness.

Our second non-traditional commitment is in silver. Last year, we purchased 111.2 million ounces. Marked to market, that position produced a pre-tax gain of $97.4 million for us in 1997. In a way, this is a return to the past for me: Thirty years ago, I bought silver because I anticipated its demonetization by the U.S. Government. Ever since, I have followed the metal’s fundamentals but not owned it. In recent years, bullion inventories have fallen materially, and last summer Charlie and I concluded that a higher price would be needed to establish equilibrium between supply and demand. Inflation expectations, it should be noted, play no part in our calculation of silver’s value.

Finally, our largest non-traditional position at yearend was $4.6 billion, at amortized cost, of long-term zero-coupon obligations of the U.S. Treasury. These securities pay no interest. Instead, they provide their holders a return by way of the discount at which they are purchased, a characteristic that makes their market prices move rapidly when interest rates change. If rates rise, you lose heavily with zeros, and if rates fall, you make outsized gains. Since rates fell in 1997, we ended the year with an unrealized pre-tax gain of $598.8 million in our zeros. Because we carry the securities at market value, that gain is reflected in yearend book value.

In purchasing zeros, rather than staying with cash-equivalents, we risk looking very foolish: A macro-based commitment such as this never has anything close to a 100% probability of being successful. However, you pay Charlie and me to use our best judgment—not to avoid embarrassment—and we will occasionally make an unconventional move when we believe the odds favor it. Try to think kindly of us when we blow one. Along with President Clinton, we will be feeling your pain: The Munger family has more than 90% of its net worth in Berkshire and the Buffetts more than 99%.

How We Think About Market Fluctuations

A short quiz: If you plan to eat hamburgers throughout your life and are not a cattle producer, should you wish for higher or lower prices for beef? Likewise, if you are going to buy a car from time to time but are not an auto manufacturer, should you prefer higher or lower car prices? These questions, of course, answer themselves.

But now for the final exam: If you expect to be a net saver during the next five years, should you hope for a higher or lower stock market during that period? Many investors get this one wrong. Even though they are going to be net buyers of stocks for many years to come, they are elated when stock prices rise and depressed when they fall. In effect, they rejoice because prices have risen for the “hamburgers” they will soon be buying. This reaction makes no sense. Only those who will be sellers of equities in the near future should be happy at seeing stocks rise. Prospective purchasers should much prefer sinking prices.

For shareholders of Berkshire who do not expect to sell, the choice is even clearer. To begin with, our owners are automatically saving even if they spend every dime they personally earn: Berkshire “saves” for them by retaining all earnings, thereafter using these savings to purchase businesses and securities. Clearly, the more cheaply we make these buys, the more profitable our owners’ indirect savings program will be.

Furthermore, through Berkshire you own major positions in companies that consistently repurchase their shares. The benefits that these programs supply us grow as prices fall: When stock prices are low, the funds that an investee spends on repurchases increase our ownership of that company by a greater amount than is the case when prices are higher. For example, the repurchases that Coca-Cola, The Washington Post and Wells Fargo made in past years at very low prices benefitted Berkshire far more than do today’s repurchases, made at loftier prices.

At the end of every year, about 97% of Berkshire’s shares are held by the same investors who owned them at the start of the year. That makes them savers. They should therefore rejoice when markets decline and allow both us and our investees to deploy funds more advantageously.

So smile when you read a headline that says “Investors lose as market falls.” Edit it in your mind to “Disinvestors lose as market falls—but investors gain.” Though writers often forget this truism, there is a buyer for every seller and what hurts one necessarily helps the other. (As they say in golf matches: “Every putt makes someone happy.”)

We gained enormously from the low prices placed on many equities and businesses in the 1970s and 1980s. Markets that then were hostile to investment transients were friendly to those taking up permanent residence. In recent years, the actions we took in those decades have been validated, but we have found few new opportunities. In its role as a corporate “saver,” Berkshire continually looks for ways to sensibly deploy capital, but it may be some time before we find opportunities that get us truly excited.

Whenever we buy into an industry whose leading participants aren’t known to me, I always ask our new partners, “Are there any more at home like you?” Upon our purchase of Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1983, therefore, the Blumkin family told me about three outstanding furniture retailers in other parts of the country. At the time, however, none was for sale.

Berkshire always tries to pay cash for acquisitions

I’ve mentioned that we strongly prefer to use cash rather than Berkshire stock in acquisitions. A study of the record will tell you why: If you aggregate all of our stock-only mergers (excluding those we did with two affiliated companies, Diversified Retailing and Blue Chip Stamps), you will find that our shareholders are slightly worse off than they would have been had I not done the transactions. Though it hurts me to say it, when I’ve issued stock, I’ve cost you money.

Be clear about one thing: This cost has not occurred because we were misled in any way by sellers or because they thereafter failed to manage with diligence and skill. On the contrary, the sellers were completely candid when we were negotiating our deals and have been energetic and effective ever since.

Instead, our problem has been that we own a truly marvelous collection of businesses, which means that trading away a portion of them for something new almost never makes sense. When we issue shares in a merger, we reduce your ownership in all of our businesses—partly-owned companies such as Coca-Cola, Gillette and American Express, and all of our terrific operating companies as well. An example from sports will illustrate the difficulty we face: For a baseball team, acquiring a player who can be expected to bat .350 is almost always a wonderful event—except when the team must trade a .380 hitter to make the deal.

Because our roster is filled with .380 hitters, we have tried to pay cash for acquisitions, and here our record has been far better. Starting with National Indemnity in 1967, and continuing with, among others, See’s, Buffalo News, Scott Fetzer and GEICO, we have acquired—for cash—a number of large businesses that have performed incredibly well since we bought them. These acquisitions have delivered Berkshire tremendous value—indeed, far more than I anticipated when we made our purchases.

We believe that it is almost impossible for us to “trade up” from our present businesses and managements. Our situation is the opposite of Camelot’s Mordred, of whom Guenevere commented, “The one thing I can say for him is that he is bound to marry well. Everybody is above him.” Marrying well is extremely difficult for Berkshire.

Merging with public companies presents a special problem for us. If we are to offer any premium to the acquiree, one of two conditions must be present: Either our own stock must be overvalued relative to the acquiree’s, or the two companies together must be expected to earn more than they would if operated separately. Historically, Berkshire has seldom been overvalued. In this market, moreover, undervalued acquirees are almost impossible to find. That other possibility—synergy gains—is usually unrealistic, since we expect acquirees to operate after we’ve bought them just as they did before. Joining with Berkshire does not normally raise their revenues nor cut their costs.

In some mergers there truly are major synergies—though oftentimes the acquirer pays too much to obtain them—but at other times the cost and revenue benefits that are projected prove illusory. Of one thing, however, be certain: If a CEO is enthused about a particularly foolish acquisition, both his internal staff and his outside advisors will come up with whatever projections are needed to justify his stance. Only in fairy tales are emperors told that they are naked.

Though we don’t attempt to predict the movements of the stock market, we do try, in a very rough way, to value it. At the annual meeting last year, with the Dow at 7,071 and long-term Treasury yields at 6.89%, Charlie and I stated that we did not consider the market overvalued if 1) interest rates remained where they were or fell, and 2) American business continued to earn the remarkable returns on equity that it had recently recorded. So far, interest rates have fallen—that’s one requisite satisfied—and returns on equity still remain exceptionally high. If they stay there—and if interest rates hold near recent levels—there is no reason to think of stocks as generally overvalued. On the other hand, returns on equity are not a sure thing to remain at, or even near, their present levels.

In the summer of 1979, when equities looked cheap to me, I wrote a Forbes article entitled “You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.” At that time skepticism and disappointment prevailed, and my point was that investors should be glad of the fact, since pessimism drives down prices to truly attractive levels. Now, however, we have a very cheery consensus. That does not necessarily mean this is the wrong time to buy stocks: Corporate America is now earning far more money than it was just a few years ago, and in the presence of lower interest rates, every dollar of earnings becomes more valuable. Today’s price levels, though, have materially eroded the “margin of safety” that Ben Graham identified as the cornerstone of intelligent investing.




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