In one respect, 2004 was a remarkable year for the stock market, a fact buried in the maze of numbers on page 2. If you examine the 35 years since the 1960s ended, you will find that an investor’s return, including dividends, from owning the S&P has averaged 11.2% annually (well above what we expect future returns to be). But if you look for years with returns anywhere close to that 11.2%—say, between 8% and 14%—you will find only one before 2004. In other words, last year’s “normal” return is anything but.
Over the 35 years, American business has delivered terrific results. It should therefore have been easy for investors to earn juicy returns: All they had to do was piggyback Corporate America in a diversified, low-expense way. An index fund that they never touched would have done the job. Instead many investors have had experiences ranging from mediocre to disastrous.
There have been three primary causes: first, high costs, usually because investors traded excessively or spent far too much on investment management; second, portfolio decisions based on tips and fads rather than on thoughtful, quantified evaluation of businesses; and third, a start-and-stop approach to the market marked by untimely entries (after an advance has been long underway) and exits (after periods of stagnation or decline). Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.
Last year MidAmerican wrote off a major investment in a zinc recovery project that was initiated in 1998 and became operational in 2002. Large quantities of zinc are present in the brine produced by our California geothermal operations, and we believed we could profitably extract the metal. For many months, it appeared that commercially-viable recoveries were imminent. But in mining, just as in oil exploration, prospects have a way of “teasing” their developers, and every time one problem was solved, another popped up. In September, we threw in the towel.
Our failure here illustrates the importance of a guideline—stay with simple propositions—that we usually apply in investments as well as operations. If only one variable is key to a decision, and the variable has a 90% chance of going your way, the chance for a successful outcome is obviously 90%. But if ten independent variables need to break favorably for a successful result, and each has a 90% probability of success, the likelihood of having a winner is only 35%. In our zinc venture, we solved most of the problems. But one proved intractable, and that was one too many. Since a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, it makes sense to look for—if you’ll excuse an oxymoron—mono-linked chains.
National Indemnity (“NICO”)
When we purchased the company—a specialist in commercial auto and general liability insurance it did not appear to have any attributes that would overcome the industry’s chronic troubles. It was not well-known, had no informational advantage (the company has never had an actuary), was not a low-cost operator, and sold through general agents, a method many people thought outdated. Nevertheless, for almost all of the past 38 years, NICO has been a star performer. Indeed, had we not made this acquisition, Berkshire would be lucky to be worth half of what it is today.
What we’ve had going for us is a managerial mindset that most insurers find impossible to replicate. Take a look at the facing page. Can you imagine any public company embracing a business model that would lead to the decline in revenue that we experienced from 1986 through 1999? That colossal slide, it should be emphasized, did not occur because business was unobtainable. Many billions of premium dollars were readily available to NICO had we only been willing to cut prices. But we instead consistently priced to make a profit, not to match our most optimistic competitor. We never left customers—but they left us.
Most American businesses harbor an “institutional imperative” that rejects extended decreases in volume. What CEO wants to report to his shareholders that not only did business contract last year but that it will continue to drop? In insurance, the urge to keep writing business is also intensified because the consequences of foolishly-priced policies may not become apparent for some time. If an insurer is optimistic in its reserving, reported earnings will be overstated, and years may pass before true loss costs are revealed (a form of self-deception that nearly destroyed GEICO in the early 1970s).
Finally, there is a fear factor at work, in that a shrinking business usually leads to layoffs. To avoid pink slips, employees will rationalize inadequate pricing, telling themselves that poorly-priced business must be tolerated in order to keep the organization intact and the distribution system happy. If this course isn’t followed, these employees will argue, the company will not participate in the recovery that they invariably feel is just around the corner.
To combat employees’ natural tendency to save their own skins, we have always promised NICO’s workforce that no one will be fired because of declining volume, however severe the contraction. (This is not Donald Trump’s sort of place.) NICO is not labor-intensive, and, as the table suggests, can live with excess overhead. It can’t live, however, with underpriced business and the breakdown in underwriting discipline that accompanies it. An insurance organization that doesn’t care deeply about underwriting at a profit this year is unlikely to care next year either.
Naturally, a business that follows a no-layoff policy must be especially careful to avoid overstaffing when times are good. Thirty years ago Tom Murphy, then CEO of Cap Cities, drove this point home to me with a hypothetical tale about an employee who asked his boss for permission to hire an assistant. The employee assumed that adding $20,000 to the annual payroll would be inconsequential. But his boss told him the proposal should be evaluated as a $3 million decision, given that an additional person would probably cost at least that amount over his lifetime, factoring in raises, benefits and other expenses (more people, more toilet paper). And unless the company fell on very hard times, the employee added would be unlikely to be dismissed, however marginal his contribution to the business.
It takes real fortitude—embedded deep within a company’s culture—to operate as NICO does. Anyone examining the table can scan the years from 1986 to 1999 quickly. But living day after day with dwindling volume—while competitors are boasting of growth and reaping Wall Street’s applause—is an experience few managers can tolerate. NICO, however, has had four CEOs since its formation in 1940 and none have bent. (It should be noted that only one of the four graduated from college. Our experience tells us that extraordinary business ability is largely innate.)
The current managerial star—make that superstar—at NICO is Don Wurster (yes, he’s “the graduate”), who has been running things since 1989. His slugging percentage is right up there with Barry Bonds’ because, like Barry, Don will accept a walk rather than swing at a bad pitch. Don has now amassed $950 million of float at NICO that over time is almost certain to be proved the negative-cost kind. Because insurance prices are falling, Don’s volume will soon decline very significantly and, as it does, Charlie and I will applaud him ever more loudly.
Portrait of a Disciplined Underwriter—National Indemnity Corporation
|Year||Written Premium (In $ millions)||No. of Employees at Year-End||Ratio of Operating Expenses to Written Premium||Underwriting Profit (Loss) as a Percentage of Premiums (Calculated as of year end 2004)*|
Another way to prosper in a commodity-type business is to be the low-cost operator. Among auto insurers operating on a broad scale, GEICO holds that cherished title. For NICO, as we have seen, an ebb- and-flow business model makes sense. But a company holding a low-cost advantage must pursue an unrelenting foot-to-the-floor strategy. And that’s just what we do at GEICO.
A century ago, when autos first appeared, the property-casualty industry operated as a cartel. The major companies, most of which were based in the Northeast, established “bureau” rates and that was it. No one cut prices to attract business. Instead, insurers competed for strong, well-regarded agents, a focus that produced high commissions for agents and high prices for consumers.
In 1922, State Farm was formed by George Mecherle, a farmer from Merna, Illinois, who aimed to take advantage of the pricing umbrella maintained by the high-cost giants of the industry. State Farm employed a “captive” agency force, a system keeping its acquisition costs lower than those incurred by the bureau insurers (whose “independent” agents successfully played off one company against another). With its low-cost structure, State Farm eventually captured about 25% of the personal lines (auto and homeowners) business, far outdistancing its once-mighty competitors. Allstate, formed in 1931, put a similar distribution system into place and soon became the runner-up in personal lines to State Farm. Capitalism had worked its magic, and these low-cost operations looked unstoppable.
But a man named Leo Goodwin had an idea for an even more efficient auto insurer and, with a skimpy $200,000, started GEICO in 1936. Goodwin’s plan was to eliminate the agent entirely and to deal instead directly with the auto owner. Why, he asked himself, should there be any unnecessary and expensive links in the distribution mechanism when the product, auto insurance, was both mandatory and costly. Purchasers of business insurance, he reasoned, might well require professional advice, but most consumers knew what they needed in an auto policy. That was a powerful insight.
Originally, GEICO mailed its low-cost message to a limited audience of government employees. Later, it widened its horizons and shifted its marketing emphasis to the phone, working inquiries that came from broadcast and print advertising. And today the Internet is coming on strong.
Between 1936 and 1975, GEICO grew from a standing start to a 4% market share, becoming the country’s fourth largest auto insurer. During most of this period, the company was superbly managed, achieving both excellent volume gains and high profits. It looked unstoppable. But after my friend and hero Lorimer Davidson retired as CEO in 1970, his successors soon made a huge mistake by under- reserving for losses. This produced faulty cost information, which in turn produced inadequate pricing. By 1976, GEICO was on the brink of failure.
Jack Byrne then joined GEICO as CEO and, almost single-handedly, saved the company by heroic efforts that included major price increases. Though GEICO’s survival required these, policyholders fled the company, and by 1980 its market share had fallen to 1.8%. Subsequently, the company embarked on some unwise diversification moves. This shift of emphasis away from its extraordinary core business stunted GEICO’s growth, and by 1993 its market share had grown only fractionally, to 1.9%. Then Tony Nicely took charge.
And what a difference that’s made: In 2005 GEICO will probably secure a 6% market share. Better yet, Tony has matched growth with profitability. Indeed, GEICO delivers all of its constituents major benefits: In 2004 its customers saved $1 billion or so compared to what they would otherwise have paid for coverage, its associates earned a $191 million profit-sharing bonus that averaged 24.3% of salary, and its owner—that’s us—enjoyed excellent financial returns.
There’s more good news. When Jack Byrne was rescuing the company in 1976, New Jersey refused to grant him the rates he needed to operate profitably. He therefore promptly—and properly—withdrew from the state. Subsequently, GEICO avoided both New Jersey and Massachusetts, recognizing them as two jurisdictions in which insurers were destined to struggle.
In 2003, however, New Jersey took a new look at its chronic auto-insurance problems and enacted legislation that would curb fraud and allow insurers a fair playing field. Even so, one might have expected the state’s bureaucracy to make change slow and difficult.
But just the opposite occurred. Holly Bakke, the New Jersey insurance commissioner, who would be a success in any line of work, was determined to turn the law’s intent into reality. With her staff’s cooperation, GEICO ironed out the details for re-entering the state and was licensed last August. Since then, we’ve received a response from New Jersey drivers that is multiples of my expectations.
We are now serving 140,000 policyholders—about 4% of the New Jersey market—and saving them substantial sums (as we do drivers everywhere). Word-of-mouth recommendations within the state are causing inquiries to pour in. And once we hear from a New Jersey prospect, our closure rate—the percentage of policies issued to inquiries received—is far higher in the state than it is nationally.
We make no claim, of course, that we can save everyone money. Some companies, using rating systems that are different from ours, will offer certain classes of drivers a lower rate than we do. But we believe GEICO offers the lowest price more often than any other national company that serves all segments of the public. In addition, in most states, including New Jersey, Berkshire shareholders receive an 8% discount. So gamble fifteen minutes of your time and go to GEICO.com—or call 800-847-7536—to see whether you can save big money (which you might want to use, of course, to buy other Berkshire products).
Berkshire’s common stock investments
December 31, 2004
|Shares||Company||Percentage of Company Owned||Cost*||Market|
|151,610,700||American Express Company||12.1||$1,470||$ 8,546|
|200,000,000||The Coca-Cola Company||8.3||1,299||8,328|
|96,000,000||The Gillette Company||9.7||600||4,299|
|14,350,600||H&R Block, Inc.||8.7||223||703|
|6,708,760||M&T Bank Corporation||5.8||103||723|
|2,338,961,000||PetroChina “H” shares (or equivalents)||1.3||488||1,249|
|1,727,765||The Washington Post Company||18.1||11||1,698|
|56,448,380||Wells Fargo & Company||3.3||463||3,508|
|1,724,200||White Mountains Insurance||16.0||369||1,114|
|Total Common Stocks||$9,056||$37,717|
Some people may look at this table and view it as a list of stocks to be bought and sold based upon chart patterns, brokers’ opinions, or estimates of near-term earnings. Charlie and I ignore such distractions and instead view our holdings as fractional ownerships in businesses. This is an important distinction. Indeed, this thinking has been the cornerstone of my investment behavior since I was 19. At that time I read Ben Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, and the scales fell from my eyes. (Previously, I had been entranced by the stock market, but didn’t have a clue about how to invest.)
Let’s look at how the businesses of our “Big Four”—American Express, Coca-Cola, Gillette and Wells Fargo—have fared since we bought into these companies. As the table shows, we invested $3.83 billion in the four, by way of multiple transactions between May 1988 and October 2003. On a composite basis, our dollar-weighted purchase date is July 1992. By yearend 2004, therefore, we had held these “business interests,” on a weighted basis, about 12½ years.
In 2004, Berkshire’s share of the group’s earnings amounted to $1.2 billion. These earnings might legitimately be considered “normal.” True, they were swelled because Gillette and Wells Fargo omitted option costs in their presentation of earnings; but on the other hand they were reduced because Coke had a non-recurring write-off.
Our share of the earnings of these four companies has grown almost every year, and now amounts to about 31.3% of our cost. Their cash distributions to us have also grown consistently, totaling $434 million in 2004, or about 11.3% of cost. All in all, the Big Four have delivered us a satisfactory, though far from spectacular, business result.
That’s true as well of our experience in the market with the group. Since our original purchases, valuation gains have somewhat exceeded earnings growth because price/earnings ratios have increased. On a year-to-year basis, however, the business and market performances have often diverged, sometimes to an extraordinary degree. During The Great Bubble, market-value gains far outstripped the performance of the businesses. In the aftermath of the Bubble, the reverse was true.
Clearly, Berkshire’s results would have been far better if I had caught this swing of the pendulum. That may seem easy to do when one looks through an always-clean, rear-view mirror. Unfortunately, however, it’s the windshield through which investors must peer, and that glass is invariably fogged. Our huge positions add to the difficulty of our nimbly dancing in and out of holdings as valuations swing.
Nevertheless, I can properly be criticized for merely clucking about nose-bleed valuations during the Bubble rather than acting on my views. Though I said at the time that certain of the stocks we held were priced ahead of themselves, I underestimated just how severe the overvaluation was. I talked when I should have walked.
What Charlie and I would like is a little action now. We don’t enjoy sitting on $43 billion of cash equivalents that are earning paltry returns. Instead, we yearn to buy more fractional interests similar to those we now own or—better still—more large businesses outright. We will do either, however, only when purchases can be made at prices that offer us the prospect of a reasonable return on our investment.
We’ve repeatedly emphasized that the “realized” gains that we report quarterly or annually are meaningless for analytical purposes. We have a huge amount of unrealized gains on our books, and our thinking about when, and if, to cash them depends not at all on a desire to report earnings at one specific time or another. A further complication in our reported gains occurs because GAAP requires that foreign exchange contracts be marked to market, a stipulation that causes unrealized gains or losses in these holdings to flow through our published earnings as if we had sold our positions.
Despite the problems enumerated, you may be interested in a breakdown of the gains we reported in 2003 and 2004. The data reflect actual sales except in the case of currency gains, which are a combination of sales and marks to market.
|Category||Pre-Tax Gain (in $ millions)||Pre-Tax Gain (in $ millions)|
|Common Stocks||$ 870||$ 448|
|U.S. Government Bonds||104||1,485|
|Foreign Exchange Contracts||1,839||825|
The junk bond profits include a foreign exchange component. When we bought these bonds in 2001 and 2002, we focused first, of course, on the credit quality of the issuers, all of which were American corporations. Some of these companies, however, had issued bonds denominated in foreign currencies. Because of our views on the dollar, we favored these for purchase when they were available.
As an example, we bought €254 million of Level 3 bonds (10 –% of 2008) in 2001 at 51.7% of par, and sold these at 85% of par in December 2004. This issue was traded in Euros that cost us 88¢ at the time of purchase but that brought $1.29 when we sold. Thus, of our $163 million overall gain, about $85 million came from the market’s revised opinion about Level 3’s credit quality, with the remaining $78 million resulting from the appreciation of the Euro. (In addition, we received cash interest during our holding period that amounted to about 25% annually on our dollar cost.)
Lou Simpson manages about $2½ billion of equities that are held by GEICO, and it is his transactions that Berkshire is usually reporting. Customarily his purchases are in the (200-)300 million range and are in companies that are smaller than the ones I focus on. Take a look at the facing page to see why Lou is a cinch to be inducted into the investment Hall of Fame.
You may be surprised to learn that Lou does not necessarily inform me about what he is doing. When Charlie and I assign responsibility, we truly hand over the baton—and we give it to Lou just as we do to our operating managers. Therefore, I typically learn of Lou’s transactions about ten days after the end of each month. Sometimes, it should be added, I silently disagree with his decisions. But he’s usually right.
Portrait of a Disciplined Investor—Lou Simpson
|Year||GEICO Equities||S&P Return||Relative Results|
|Average Annual |
The U.S. trade deficit
Berkshire owned about $21.4 billion of foreign exchange contracts at yearend, spread among 12 currencies. As I mentioned last year, holdings of this kind are a decided change for us. Before March 2002, neither Berkshire nor I had ever traded in currencies. But the evidence grows that our trade policies will put unremitting pressure on the dollar for many years to come—so since 2002 we’ve heeded that warning in setting our investment course. (As W.C. Fields once said when asked for a handout: “Sorry, son, all my money’s tied up in currency.”)
Be clear on one point: In no way does our thinking about currencies rest on doubts about America. We live in an extraordinarily rich country, the product of a system that values market economics, the rule of law and equality of opportunity. Our economy is far and away the strongest in the world and will continue to be. We are lucky to live here.
But as I argued in a November 10, 2003 article in Fortune, (available at berkshirehathaway.com), our country’s trade practices are weighing down the dollar. The decline in its value has already been substantial, but is nevertheless likely to continue. Without policy changes, currency markets could even become disorderly and generate spillover effects, both political and financial. No one knows whether these problems will materialize. But such a scenario is a far-from-remote possibility that policymakers should be considering now. Their bent, however, is to lean toward not-so-benign neglect: A 318-page Congressional study of the consequences of unremitting trade deficits was published in November 2000 and has been gathering dust ever since. The study was ordered after the deficit hit a then-alarming $263 billion in 1999; by last year it had risen to $618 billion.
Charlie and I, it should be emphasized, believe that true trade—that is, the exchange of goods and services with other countries—is enormously beneficial for both us and them. Last year we had $1.15 trillion of such honest-to-God trade and the more of this, the better. But, as noted, our country also purchased an additional $618 billion in goods and services from the rest of the world that was unreciprocated. That is a staggering figure and one that has important consequences.
The balancing item to this one-way pseudo-trade—in economics there is always an offset—is a transfer of wealth from the U.S. to the rest of the world. The transfer may materialize in the form of IOUs our private or governmental institutions give to foreigners, or by way of their assuming ownership of our assets, such as stocks and real estate. In either case, Americans end up owning a reduced portion of our country while non-Americans own a greater part. This force-feeding of American wealth to the rest of the world is now proceeding at the rate of $1.8 billion daily, an increase of 20% since I wrote you last year. Consequently, other countries and their citizens now own a net of about $3 trillion of the U.S. A decade ago their net ownership was negligible.
The mention of trillions numbs most brains. A further source of confusion is that the current account deficit (the sum of three items, the most important by far being the trade deficit) and our national budget deficit are often lumped as “twins.” They are anything but. They have different causes and different consequences.
A budget deficit in no way reduces the portion of the national pie that goes to Americans. As long as other countries and their citizens have no net ownership of the U.S., 100% of our country’s output belongs to our citizens under any budget scenario, even one involving a huge deficit.
As a rich “family” awash in goods, Americans will argue through their legislators as to how government should redistribute the national output—that is who pays taxes and who receives governmental benefits. If “entitlement” promises from an earlier day have to be reexamined, “family members” will angrily debate among themselves as to who feels the pain. Maybe taxes will go up; maybe promises will be modified; maybe more internal debt will be issued. But when the fight is finished, all of the family’s huge pie remains available for its members, however it is divided. No slice must be sent abroad.
Large and persisting current account deficits produce an entirely different result. As time passes, and as claims against us grow, we own less and less of what we produce. In effect, the rest of the world enjoys an ever-growing royalty on American output. Here, we are like a family that consistently overspends its income. As time passes, the family finds that it is working more and more for the “finance company” and less for itself.
Should we continue to run current account deficits comparable to those now prevailing, the net ownership of the U.S. by other countries and their citizens a decade from now will amount to roughly $11 trillion. And, if foreign investors were to earn only 5% on that net holding, we would need to send a net of $.55 trillion of goods and services abroad every year merely to service the U.S. investments then held by foreigners. At that date, a decade out, our GDP would probably total about $18 trillion (assuming low inflation, which is far from a sure thing). Therefore, our U.S. “family” would then be delivering 3% of its annual output to the rest of the world simply as tribute for the overindulgences of the past. In this case, unlike that involving budget deficits, the sons would truly pay for the sins of their fathers.
This annual royalty paid the world—which would not disappear unless the U.S. massively underconsumed and began to run consistent and large trade surpluses—would undoubtedly produce significant political unrest in the U.S. Americans would still be living very well, indeed better than now because of the growth in our economy. But they would chafe at the idea of perpetually paying tribute to their creditors and owners abroad. A country that is now aspiring to an “Ownership Society” will not find happiness in—and I’ll use hyperbole here for emphasis—a “Sharecropper’s Society.” But that’s precisely where our trade policies, supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, are taking us.
Many prominent U.S. financial figures, both in and out of government, have stated that our current-account deficits cannot persist. For instance, the minutes of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee of June 29-30, 2004 say: “The staff noted that outsized external deficits could not be sustained indefinitely.” But, despite the constant handwringing by luminaries, they offer no substantive suggestions to tame the burgeoning imbalance.
In the article I wrote for Fortune 16 months ago, I warned that “a gently declining dollar would not provide the answer.” And so far it hasn’t. Yet policymakers continue to hope for a “soft landing,” meanwhile counseling other countries to stimulate (read “inflate”) their economies and Americans to save more. In my view these admonitions miss the mark: There are deep-rooted structural problems that will cause America to continue to run a huge current-account deficit unless trade policies either change materially or the dollar declines by a degree that could prove unsettling to financial markets.
Proponents of the trade status quo are fond of quoting Adam Smith: “What is prudence in the conduct of every family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.”
I agree. Note, however, that Mr. Smith’s statement refers to trade of product for product, not of wealth for product as our country is doing to the tune of $.6 trillion annually. Moreover, I am sure that he would never have suggested that “prudence” consisted of his “family” selling off part of its farm every day in order to finance its overconsumption. Yet that is just what the “great kingdom” called the United States is doing.
If the U.S. was running a $.6 trillion current-account surplus, commentators worldwide would violently condemn our policy, viewing it as an extreme form of “mercantilism”—a long-discredited economic strategy under which countries fostered exports, discouraged imports, and piled up treasure. I would condemn such a policy as well. But, in effect if not in intent, the rest of the world is practicing mercantilism in respect to the U.S., an act made possible by our vast store of assets and our pristine credit history. Indeed, the world would never let any other country use a credit card denominated in its own currency to the insatiable extent we are employing ours. Presently, most foreign investors are sanguine: they may view us as spending junkies, but they know we are rich junkies as well.
Our spendthrift behavior won’t, however, be tolerated indefinitely. And though it’s impossible to forecast just when and how the trade problem will be resolved, it’s improbable that the resolution will foster an increase in the value of our currency relative to that of our trading partners.
We hope the U.S. adopts policies that will quickly and substantially reduce the current-account deficit. True, a prompt solution would likely cause Berkshire to record losses on its foreign-exchange contracts. But Berkshire’s resources remain heavily concentrated in dollar-based assets, and both a strong dollar and a low-inflation environment are very much in our interest.
If you wish to keep abreast of trade and currency matters, read The Financial Times. This London-based paper has long been the leading source for daily international financial news and now has an excellent American edition. Both its reporting and commentary on trade are first-class.
And, again, our usual caveat: macro-economics is a tough game in which few people, Charlie and I included, have demonstrated skill. We may well turn out to be wrong in our currency judgments. (Indeed, the fact that so many pundits now predict weakness for the dollar makes us uneasy.) If so, our mistake will be very public. The irony is that if we chose the opposite course, leaving all of Berkshire’s assets in dollars even as they declined significantly in value, no one would notice our mistake.
John Maynard Keynes said in his masterful The General Theory: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” (Or, to put it in less elegant terms, lemmings as a class may be derided but never does an individual lemming get criticized.) From a reputational standpoint, Charlie and I run a clear risk with our foreign-exchange commitment. But we believe in managing Berkshire as if we owned 100% of it ourselves. And, were that the case, we would not be following a dollar-only policy.
Charlie and I love the idea of shareholders thinking and behaving like owners. Sometimes that requires them to be pro-active. And in this arena large institutional owners should lead the way.
So far, however, the moves made by institutions have been less than awe-inspiring. Usually, they’ve focused on minutiae and ignored the three questions that truly count. First, does the company have the right CEO? Second, is he/she overreaching in terms of compensation? Third, are proposed acquisitions more likely to create or destroy per-share value?
On such questions, the interests of the CEO may well differ from those of the shareholders. Directors, moreover, sometimes lack the knowledge or gumption to overrule the CEO. Therefore, it’s vital that large owners focus on these three questions and speak up when necessary.
Instead many simply follow a “checklist” approach to the issue du jour. Last year I was on the receiving end of a judgment reached in that manner. Several institutional shareholders and their advisors decided I lacked “independence” in my role as a director of Coca-Cola. One group wanted me removed from the board and another simply wanted me booted from the audit committee.
My first impulse was to secretly fund the group behind the second idea. Why anyone would wish to be on an audit committee is beyond me. But since directors must be assigned to one committee or another, and since no CEO wants me on his compensation committee, it’s often been my lot to get an audit committee assignment. As it turned out, the institutions that opposed me failed and I was re-elected to the audit job. (I fought off the urge to ask for a recount.)
Some institutions questioned my “independence” because, among other things, McLane and Dairy Queen buy lots of Coke products. (Do they want us to favor Pepsi?) But independence is defined in Webster’s as “not subject to control by others.” I’m puzzled how anyone could conclude that our Coke purchases would “control” my decision-making when the counterweight is the wellbeing of $8 billion of Coke stock held by Berkshire. Assuming I’m even marginally rational, elementary arithmetic should make it clear that my heart and mind belong to the owners of Coke, not to its management.
I can’t resist mentioning that Jesus understood the calibration of independence far more clearly than do the protesting institutions. In Matthew 6:21 He observed: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Even to an institutional investor, $8 billion should qualify as “treasure” that dwarfs any profits Berkshire might earn on its routine transactions with Coke.
Measured by the biblical standard, the Berkshire board is a model: (a) every director is a member of a family owning at least $4 million of stock; (b) none of these shares were acquired from Berkshire via options or grants; (c) no directors receive committee, consulting or board fees from the company that are more than a tiny portion of their annual income; and (d) although we have a standard corporate indemnity arrangement, we carry no liability insurance for directors.
At Berkshire, board members travel the same road as shareholders.
Charlie and I have seen much behavior confirming the Bible’s “treasure” point. In our view, based on our considerable boardroom experience, the least independent directors are likely to be those who receive an important fraction of their annual income from the fees they receive for board service (and who hope as well to be recommended for election to other boards and thereby to boost their income further). Yet these are the very board members most often classed as “independent.”
Most directors of this type are decent people and do a first-class job. But they wouldn’t be human if they weren’t tempted to thwart actions that would threaten their livelihood. Some may go on to succumb to such temptations.
Let’s look at an example based upon circumstantial evidence. I have first-hand knowledge of a recent acquisition proposal (not from Berkshire) that was favored by management, blessed by the company’s investment banker and slated to go forward at a price above the level at which the stock had sold for some years (or now sells for). In addition, a number of directors favored the transaction and wanted it proposed to shareholders.
Several of their brethren, however, each of whom received board and committee fees totaling about $100,000 annually, scuttled the proposal, which meant that shareholders never learned of this multi-billion offer. Non-management directors owned little stock except for shares they had received from the company. Their open-market purchases in recent years had meanwhile been nominal, even though the stock had sold far below the acquisition price proposed. In other words, these directors didn’t want the shareholders to be offered X even though they had consistently declined the opportunity to buy stock for their own account at a fraction of X.
I don’t know which directors opposed letting shareholders see the offer. But I do know that $100,000 is an important portion of the annual income of some of those deemed “independent,” clearly meeting the Matthew 6:21 definition of “treasure.” If the deal had gone through, these fees would have ended.
Neither the shareholders nor I will ever know what motivated the dissenters. Indeed they themselves will not likely know, given that self-interest inevitably blurs introspection. We do know one thing, though: At the same meeting at which the deal was rejected, the board voted itself a significant increase in directors’ fees.
While we are on the subject of self-interest, let’s turn again to the most important accounting mechanism still available to CEOs who wish to overstate earnings: the non-expensing of stock options. The accomplices in perpetuating this absurdity have been many members of Congress who have defied the arguments put forth by all Big Four auditors, all members of the Financial Accounting Standards Board and virtually all investment professionals.
I’m enclosing an op-ed piece I wrote for The Washington Post describing a truly breathtaking bill that was passed 312-111 by the House last summer. Thanks to Senator Richard Shelby, the Senate didn’t ratify the House’s foolishness. And, to his great credit, Bill Donaldson, the investor-minded Chairman of the SEC, has stood firm against massive political pressure, generated by the check-waving CEOs who first muscled Congress in 1993 about the issue of option accounting and then repeated the tactic last year.
Because the attempts to obfuscate the stock-option issue continue, it’s worth pointing out that no one—neither the FASB, nor investors generally, nor I—are talking about restricting the use of options in any way. Indeed, my successor at Berkshire may well receive much of his pay via options, albeit logically-structured ones in respect to 1) an appropriate strike price, 2) an escalation in price that reflects the retention of earnings, and 3) a ban on his quickly disposing of any shares purchased through options. We cheer arrangements that motivate managers, whether these be cash bonuses or options. And if a company is truly receiving value for the options it issues, we see no reason why recording their cost should cut down on their use.
The simple fact is that certain CEOs know their own compensation would be far more rationally determined if options were expensed. They also suspect that their stock would sell at a lower price if realistic accounting were employed, meaning that they would reap less in the market when they unloaded their personal holdings. To these CEOs such unpleasant prospects are a fate to be fought with all the resources they have at hand—even though the funds they use in that fight normally don’t belong to them, but are instead put up by their shareholders.
Option-expensing is scheduled to become mandatory on June 15th. You can therefore expect intensified efforts to stall or emasculate this rule between now and then. Let your Congressman and Senators know what you think on this issue.
 Every shareholder letter lists the performance of the S&P 500 index and of Berkshires’s shares, starting in 1965.