Normally, a gain of 48.3% would call for handsprings—but not this year. Remember Wagner, whose music has been described as better than it sounds? Well, Berkshire’s progress in 1998—though more than satisfactory—was not as good as it looks. That’s because most of that 48.3% gain came from our issuing shares in acquisitions.
To explain: Our stock sells at a large premium over book value, which means that any issuing of shares we do—whether for cash or as consideration in a merger—instantly increases our per-share book-value figure, even though we’ve earned not a dime. What happens is that we get more per-share book value in such transactions than we give up. These transactions, however, do not deliver us any immediate gain in per-share intrinsic value, because in this respect what we give and what we get are roughly equal. And, as Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Vice Chairman and my partner, and I can’t tell you too often (though you may feel that we try), it’s the per-share gain in intrinsic value that counts rather than the per-share gain in book value. Though Berkshire’s intrinsic value grew very substantially in 1998, the gain fell well short of the 48.3% recorded for book value. Nevertheless, intrinsic value still far exceeds book value.
How Berkshire’s managers run their businesses vs CEOs of public companies
Most of our managers wouldn’t work for us if they got a lot of backseat driving. (Generally, they don’t have to work for anyone, since 75% or so are independently wealthy.) Besides, they are the Mark McGwires of the business world and need no advice from us as to how to hold the bat or when to swing.
Nevertheless, Berkshire’s ownership may make even the best of managers more effective. First, we eliminate all of the ritualistic and nonproductive activities that normally go with the job of CEO. Our managers are totally in charge of their personal schedules. Second, we give each a simple mission: Just run your business as if: 1) you own 100% of it; 2) it is the only asset in the world that you and your family have or will ever have; and 3) you can’t sell or merge it for at least a century. As a corollary, we tell them they should not let any of their decisions be affected even slightly by accounting considerations. We want our managers to think about what counts, not how it will be counted.
Very few CEOs of public companies operate under a similar mandate, mainly because they have owners who focus on short-term prospects and reported earnings. Berkshire, however, has a shareholder base—which it will have for decades to come—that has the longest investment horizon to be found in the public-company universe. Indeed, a majority of our shares are held by investors who expect to die still holding them. We can therefore ask our CEOs to manage for maximum long-term value, rather than for next quarter’s earnings. We certainly don’t ignore the current results of our businesses—in most cases, they are of great importance—but we never want them to be achieved at the expense of our building ever-greater competitive strengths.
I believe the GEICO story demonstrates the benefits of Berkshire’s approach. Charlie and I haven’t taught Tony a thing—and never will—but we have created an environment that allows him to apply all of his talents to what’s important. He does not have to devote his time or energy to board meetings, press interviews, presentations by investment bankers or talks with financial analysts. Furthermore, he need never spend a moment thinking about financing, credit ratings or “Street” expectations for earnings per share. Because of our ownership structure, he also knows that this operational framework will endure for decades to come. In this environment of freedom, both Tony and his company can convert their almost limitless potential into matching achievements.
The Economics of Property-Casualty Insurance
With the acquisition of General Re—and with GEICO’s business mushrooming—it becomes more important than ever that you understand how to evaluate an insurance company. The key determinants are: (1) the amount of float that the business generates; (2) its cost; and (3) most important of all, the long-term outlook for both of these factors.
To begin with, float is money we hold but don’t own. In an insurance operation, float arises because premiums are received before losses are paid, an interval that sometimes extends over many years. During that time, the insurer invests the money. Typically, this pleasant activity carries with it a downside: The premiums that an insurer takes in usually do not cover the losses and expenses it eventually must pay. That leaves it running an “underwriting loss,” which is the cost of float. An insurance business has value if its cost of float over time is less than the cost the company would otherwise incur to obtain funds. But the business is a lemon if its cost of float is higher than market rates for money.
A caution is appropriate here: Because loss costs must be estimated, insurers have enormous latitude in figuring their underwriting results, and that makes it very difficult for investors to calculate a company’s true cost of float. Errors of estimation, usually innocent but sometimes not, can be huge. The consequences of these miscalculations flow directly into earnings. An experienced observer can usually detect large-scale errors in reserving, but the general public can typically do no more than accept what’s presented, and at times I have been amazed by the numbers that big-name auditors have implicitly blessed. As for Berkshire, Charlie and I attempt to be conservative in presenting its underwriting results to you, because we have found that virtually all surprises in insurance are unpleasant ones.
The table that follows shows the float generated by Berkshire’s insurance operations since we entered the business 32 years ago. The data are for every fifth year and also the last, which includes General Re’s huge float. For the table we have calculated our float—which we generate in large amounts relative to our premium volume—by adding net loss reserves, loss adjustment reserves, funds held under reinsurance assumed and unearned premium reserves, and then subtracting agents balances, prepaid acquisition costs, prepaid taxes and deferred charges applicable to assumed reinsurance. (Got that?)
Impressive as the growth in our float has been—25.4% compounded annually—what really counts is the cost of this item. If that becomes too high, growth in float becomes a curse rather than a blessing.
At Berkshire, the news is all good: Our average cost over the 32 years has been well under zero. In aggregate, we have posted a substantial underwriting profit, which means that we have been paid for holding a large and growing amount of money. This is the best of all worlds. Indeed, though our net float is recorded on our balance sheet as a liability, it has had more economic value to us than an equal amount of net worth would have had. As long as we can continue to achieve an underwriting profit, float will continue to outrank net worth in value.
During the next few years, Berkshire’s growth in float may well be modest. The reinsurance market is soft, and in this business, relationships change slowly. Therefore, General Re’s float—⅔rds of our total—is unlikely to increase significantly in the near term. We do expect, however, that our cost of float will remain very attractive compared to that of other insurers.
Charlie and I have the easy jobs at Berkshire: We do very little except allocate capital. And, even then, we are not all that energetic. We have one excuse, though: In allocating capital, activity does not correlate with achievement. Indeed, in the fields of investments and acquisitions, frenetic behavior is often counterproductive.
Accounting distortions: restructuring charge
The distortion du jour is the “restructuring charge,” an accounting entry that can, of course, be legitimate but that too often is a device for manipulating earnings. In this bit of legerdemain, a large chunk of costs that should properly be attributed to a number of years is dumped into a single quarter, typically one already fated to disappoint investors. In some cases, the purpose of the charge is to clean up earnings misrepresentations of the past, and in others it is to prepare the ground for future misrepresentations. In either case, the size and timing of these charges is dictated by the cynical proposition that Wall Street will not mind if earnings fall short by $5 per share in a given quarter, just as long as this deficiency ensures that quarterly earnings in the future will consistently exceed expectations by five cents per share.
This dump-everything-into-one-quarter behavior suggests a corresponding “bold, imaginative” approach to—golf scores. In his first round of the season, a golfer should ignore his actual performance and simply fill his card with atrocious numbers—double, triple, quadruple bogeys—and then turn in a score of, say, 140. Having established this “reserve,” he should go to the golf shop and tell his pro that he wishes to “restructure” his imperfect swing. Next, as he takes his new swing onto the course, he should count his good holes, but not the bad ones. These remnants from his old swing should be charged instead to the reserve established earlier. At the end of five rounds, then, his record will be 140, 80, 80, 80, 80 rather than 91, 94, 89, 94, 92. On Wall Street, they will ignore the 140—which, after all, came from a “discontinued” swing—and will classify our hero as an 80 shooter (and one who never disappoints).
For those who prefer to cheat up front, there would be a variant of this strategy. The golfer, playing alone with a cooperative caddy-auditor, should defer the recording of bad holes, take four 80s, accept the plaudits he gets for such athleticism and consistency, and then turn in a fifth card carrying a 140 score. After rectifying his earlier scorekeeping sins with this “big bath,” he may mumble a few apologies but will refrain from returning the sums he has previously collected from comparing scorecards in the clubhouse. (The caddy, need we add, will have acquired a loyal patron.)
Clearly the attitude of disrespect that many executives have today for accurate reporting is a business disgrace. And auditors, as we have already suggested, have done little on the positive side. Though auditors should regard the investing public as their client, they tend to kowtow instead to the managers who choose them and dole out their pay. (“Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.”)