Long ago, Mark Twain said: “A man who tries to carry a cat home by its tail will learn a lesson that can be learned in no other way.” If Twain were around now, he might try winding up a derivatives business. After a few days, he would opt for cats.
A business in which huge amounts of compensation flow from assumed numbers is obviously fraught with danger. When two traders execute a transaction that has several, sometimes esoteric, variables and a far-off settlement date, their respective firms must subsequently value these contracts whenever they calculate their earnings. A given contract may be valued at one price by Firm A and at another by Firm B. You can bet that the valuation differences—and I’m personally familiar with several that were huge—tend to be tilted in a direction favoring higher earnings at each firm. It’s a strange world in which two parties can carry out a paper transaction that each can promptly report as profitable.
I dwell on our experience in derivatives each year for two reasons. One is personal and unpleasant. The hard fact is that I have cost you a lot of money by not moving immediately to close down Gen Re’s trading operation. Both Charlie and I knew at the time of the Gen Re purchase that it was a problem and told its management that we wanted to exit the business. It was my responsibility to make sure that happened. Rather than address the situation head on, however, I wasted several years while we attempted to sell the operation. That was a doomed endeavor because no realistic solution could have extricated us from the maze of liabilities that was going to exist for decades. Our obligations were particularly worrisome because their potential to explode could not be measured. Moreover, if severe trouble occurred, we knew it was likely to correlate with problems elsewhere in financial markets.
So I failed in my attempt to exit painlessly, and in the meantime more trades were put on the books. Fault me for dithering. (Charlie calls it thumb-sucking.) When a problem exists, whether in personnel or in business operations, the time to act is now.
The second reason I regularly describe our problems in this area lies in the hope that our experiences may prove instructive for managers, auditors and regulators. In a sense, we are a canary in this business coal mine and should sing a song of warning as we expire. The number and value of derivative contracts outstanding in the world continues to mushroom and is now a multiple of what existed in 1998, the last time that financial chaos erupted.
Our experience should be particularly sobering because we were a better-than-average candidate to exit gracefully. Gen Re was a relatively minor operator in the derivatives field. It has had the good fortune to unwind its supposedly liquid positions in a benign market, all the while free of financial or other pressures that might have forced it to conduct the liquidation in a less-than-efficient manner. Our accounting in the past was conventional and actually thought to be conservative. Additionally, we know of no bad behavior by anyone involved.
It could be a different story for others in the future. Imagine, if you will, one or more firms (troubles often spread) with positions that are many multiples of ours attempting to liquidate in chaotic markets and under extreme, and well-publicized, pressures. This is a scenario to which much attention should be given now rather than after the fact. The time to have considered—and improved—the reliability of New Orleans’ levees was before Katrina.
When we finally wind up Gen Re Securities, my feelings about its departure will be akin to those expressed in a country song, “My wife ran away with my best friend, and I sure miss him a lot.”
“Widening the moat”
Every day, in countless ways, the competitive position of each of our businesses grows either weaker or stronger. If we are delighting customers, eliminating unnecessary costs and improving our products and services, we gain strength. But if we treat customers with indifference or tolerate bloat, our businesses will wither. On a daily basis, the effects of our actions are imperceptible; cumulatively, though, their consequences are enormous.
When our long-term competitive position improves as a result of these almost unnoticeable actions, we describe the phenomenon as “widening the moat.” And doing that is essential if we are to have the kind of business we want a decade or two from now. We always, of course, hope to earn more money in the short-term. But when short-term and long-term conflict, widening the moat must take precedence. If a management makes bad decisions in order to hit short-term earnings targets, and consequently gets behind the eight-ball in terms of costs, customer satisfaction or brand strength, no amount of subsequent brilliance will overcome the damage that has been inflicted. Take a look at the dilemmas of managers in the auto and airline industries today as they struggle with the huge problems handed them by their predecessors. Charlie is fond of quoting Ben Franklin’s “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” But sometimes no amount of cure will overcome the mistakes of the past.
Our managers focus on moat-widening—and are brilliant at it. Quite simply, they are passionate about their businesses. Usually, they were running those long before we came along; our only function since has been to stay out of the way. If you see these heroes—and our four heroines as well—at the annual meeting, thank them for the job they do for you.
The P&G–Gillette merger, closing in the fourth quarter of 2005, required Berkshire to record a $5.0 billion pre-tax capital gain. This bookkeeping entry, dictated by GAAP, is meaningless from an economic standpoint, and you should ignore it when you are evaluating Berkshire’s 2005 earnings. We didn’t intend to sell our Gillette shares before the merger; we don’t intend to sell our P&G shares now; and we incurred no tax when the merger took place.
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of who is CEO of a company. Before Jim Kilts arrived at Gillette in 2001, the company was struggling, having particularly suffered from capital-allocation blunders. In the major example, Gillette’s acquisition of Duracell cost Gillette shareholders billions of dollars, a loss never made visible by conventional accounting. Quite simply, what Gillette received in business value in this acquisition was not equivalent to what it gave up. (Amazingly, this most fundamental of yardsticks is almost always ignored by both managements and their investment bankers when acquisitions are under discussion.)
Upon taking office at Gillette, Jim quickly instilled fiscal discipline, tightened operations and energized marketing, moves that dramatically increased the intrinsic value of the company. Gillette’s merger with P&G then expanded the potential of both companies. For his accomplishments, Jim was paid very well—but he earned every penny. (This is no academic evaluation: As a 9.7% owner of Gillette, Berkshire in effect paid that proportion of his compensation.) Indeed, it’s difficult to overpay the truly extraordinary CEO of a giant enterprise. But this species is rare.
Too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance. That won’t change, moreover, because the deck is stacked against investors when it comes to the CEO’s pay. The upshot is that a mediocre-or-worse CEO—aided by his handpicked VP of human relations and a consultant from the ever-accommodating firm of Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo—all too often receives gobs of money from an ill-designed compensation arrangement.
Take, for instance, ten year, fixed-price options (and who wouldn’t?). If Fred Futile, CEO of Stagnant, Inc., receives a bundle of these—let’s say enough to give him an option on 1% of the company—his self-interest is clear: He should skip dividends entirely and instead use all of the company’s earnings to repurchase stock.
Let’s assume that under Fred’s leadership Stagnant lives up to its name. In each of the ten years after the option grant, it earns $1 billion on $10 billion of net worth, which initially comes to $10 per share on the 100 million shares then outstanding. Fred eschews dividends and regularly uses all earnings to repurchase shares. If the stock constantly sells at ten times earnings per share, it will have appreciated 158% by the end of the option period. That’s because repurchases would reduce the number of shares to 38.7 million by that time, and earnings per share would thereby increase to $25.80. Simply by withholding earnings from owners, Fred gets very rich, making a cool $158 million, despite the business itself improving not at all. Astonishingly, Fred could have made more than $100 million if Stagnant’s earnings had declined by 20% during the ten-year period.
Fred can also get a splendid result for himself by paying no dividends and deploying the earnings he withholds from shareholders into a variety of disappointing projects and acquisitions. Even if these initiatives deliver a paltry 5% return, Fred will still make a bundle. Specifically—with Stagnant’s p/e ratio remaining unchanged at ten—Fred’s option will deliver him $63 million. Meanwhile, his shareholders will wonder what happened to the “alignment of interests” that was supposed to occur when Fred was issued options.
A “normal” dividend policy, of course—one-third of earnings paid out, for example—produces less extreme results but still can provide lush rewards for managers who achieve nothing.
CEOs understand this math and know that every dime paid out in dividends reduces the value of all outstanding options. I’ve never, however, seen this manager-owner conflict referenced in proxy materials that request approval of a fixed-priced option plan. Though CEOs invariably preach internally that capital comes at a cost, they somehow forget to tell shareholders that fixed-price options give them capital that is free.
It doesn’t have to be this way: It’s child’s play for a board to design options that give effect to the automatic build-up in value that occurs when earnings are retained. But—surprise, surprise—options of that kind are almost never issued. Indeed, the very thought of options with strike prices that are adjusted for retained earnings seems foreign to compensation “experts,” who are nevertheless encyclopedic about every management-friendly plan that exists. (“Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.”)
Getting fired can produce a particularly bountiful payday for a CEO. Indeed, he can “earn” more in that single day, while cleaning out his desk, than an American worker earns in a lifetime of cleaning toilets. Forget the old maxim about nothing succeeding like success: Today, in the executive suite, the all- too-prevalent rule is that nothing succeeds like failure.
Huge severance payments, lavish perks and outsized payments for ho-hum performance often occur because comp committees have become slaves to comparative data. The drill is simple: Three or so directors—not chosen by chance—are bombarded for a few hours before a board meeting with pay statistics that perpetually ratchet upwards. Additionally, the committee is told about new perks that other managers are receiving. In this manner, outlandish “goodies” are showered upon CEOs simply because of a corporate version of the argument we all used when children: “But, Mom, all the other kids have one.” When comp committees follow this “logic,” yesterday’s most egregious excess becomes today’s baseline.
Comp committees should adopt the attitude of Hank Greenberg, the Detroit slugger and a boyhood hero of mine. Hank’s son, Steve, at one time was a player’s agent. Representing an outfielder in negotiations with a major league club, Steve sounded out his dad about the size of the signing bonus he should ask for. Hank, a true pay-for-performance guy, got straight to the point, “What did he hit last year?” When Steve answered “.246,” Hank’s comeback was immediate: “Ask for a uniform.”
(Let me pause for a brief confession: In criticizing comp committee behavior, I don’t speak as a true insider. Though I have served as a director of twenty public companies, only one CEO has put me on his comp committee. Hmmmm . . .)”
My views on America’s long-term problem in respect to trade imbalances, which I have laid out in previous reports, remain unchanged. My conviction, however, cost Berkshire $955 million pre-tax in 2005. That amount is included in our earnings statement, a fact that illustrates the differing ways in which GAAP treats gains and losses. When we have a long-term position in stocks or bonds, year-to-year changes in value are reflected in our balance sheet but, as long as the asset is not sold, are rarely reflected in earnings. For example, our Coca-Cola holdings went from $1 billion in value early on to $13.4 billion at yearend 1998 and have since declined to $8.1 billion—with none of these moves affecting our earnings statement. Long-term currency positions, however, are daily marked to market and therefore have an effect on earnings in every reporting period. From the date we first entered into currency contracts, we are $2.0 billion in the black.
We reduced our direct position in currencies somewhat during 2005. We partially offset this change, however, by purchasing equities whose prices are denominated in a variety of foreign currencies and that earn a large part of their profits internationally. Charlie and I prefer this method of acquiring non- dollar exposure. That’s largely because of changes in interest rates: As U.S. rates have risen relative to those of the rest of the world, holding most foreign currencies now involves a significant negative “carry.” The carry aspect of our direct currency position indeed cost us money in 2005 and is likely to do so again in 2006. In contrast, the ownership of foreign equities is likely, over time, to create a positive carry—perhaps a substantial one.
The underlying factors affecting the U.S. current account deficit continue to worsen, and no letup is in sight. Not only did our trade deficit—the largest and most familiar item in the current account—hit an all-time high in 2005, but we also can expect a second item—the balance of investment income—to soon turn negative. As foreigners increase their ownership of U.S. assets (or of claims against us) relative to U.S. investments abroad, these investors will begin earning more on their holdings than we do on ours. Finally, the third component of the current account, unilateral transfers, is always negative.
The U.S., it should be emphasized, is extraordinarily rich and will get richer. As a result, the huge imbalances in its current account may continue for a long time without their having noticeable deleterious effects on the U.S. economy or on markets. I doubt, however, that the situation will forever remain benign. Either Americans address the problem soon in a way we select, or at some point the problem will likely address us in an unpleasant way of its own.
How to Minimize Investment Returns
It’s been an easy matter for Berkshire and other owners of American equities to prosper over the years. Between December 31, 1899 and December 31, 1999, to give a really long-term example, the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497. (Guess what annual growth rate is required to produce this result; the surprising answer is at the end of this section.) This huge rise came about for a simple reason: Over the century American businesses did extraordinarily well and investors rode the wave of their prosperity. Businesses continue to do well. But now shareholders, through a series of self-inflicted wounds, are in a major way cutting the returns they will realize from their investments.
The explanation of how this is happening begins with a fundamental truth: With unimportant exceptions, such as bankruptcies in which some of a company’s losses are borne by creditors, the most that owners in aggregate can earn between now and Judgment Day is what their businesses in aggregate earn. True, by buying and selling that is clever or lucky, investor A may take more than his share of the pie at the expense of investor B. And, yes, all investors feel richer when stocks soar. But an owner can exit only by having someone take his place. If one investor sells high, another must buy high. For owners as a whole, there is simply no magic—no shower of money from outer space—that will enable them to extract wealth from their companies beyond that created by the companies themselves.
Indeed, owners must earn less than their businesses earn because of “frictional” costs. And that’s my point: These costs are now being incurred in amounts that will cause shareholders to earn far less than they historically have.
To understand how this toll has ballooned, imagine for a moment that all American corporations are, and always will be, owned by a single family. We’ll call them the Gotrocks. After paying taxes on dividends, this family—generation after generation—becomes richer by the aggregate amount earned by its companies. Today that amount is about $700 billion annually. Naturally, the family spends some of these dollars. But the portion it saves steadily compounds for its benefit. In the Gotrocks household everyone grows wealthier at the same pace, and all is harmonious.
But let’s now assume that a few fast-talking Helpers approach the family and persuade each of its members to try to outsmart his relatives by buying certain of their holdings and selling them certain others. The Helpers—for a fee, of course—obligingly agree to handle these transactions. The Gotrocks still own all of corporate America; the trades just rearrange who owns what. So the family’s annual gain in wealth diminishes, equaling the earnings of American business minus commissions paid. The more that family members trade, the smaller their share of the pie and the larger the slice received by the Helpers. This fact is not lost upon these broker-Helpers: Activity is their friend and, in a wide variety of ways, they urge it on.
After a while, most of the family members realize that they are not doing so well at this new “beat-my-brother” game. Enter another set of Helpers. These newcomers explain to each member of the Gotrocks clan that by himself he’ll never outsmart the rest of the family. The suggested cure: “Hire a manager—yes, us—and get the job done professionally.” These manager-Helpers continue to use the broker-Helpers to execute trades; the managers may even increase their activity so as to permit the brokers to prosper still more. Overall, a bigger slice of the pie now goes to the two classes of Helpers.
The family’s disappointment grows. Each of its members is now employing professionals. Yet overall, the group’s finances have taken a turn for the worse. The solution? More help, of course.
It arrives in the form of financial planners and institutional consultants, who weigh in to advise the Gotrocks on selecting manager-Helpers. The befuddled family welcomes this assistance. By now its members know they can pick neither the right stocks nor the right stock-pickers. Why, one might ask, should they expect success in picking the right consultant? But this question does not occur to the Gotrocks, and the consultant-Helpers certainly don’t suggest it to them.
The Gotrocks, now supporting three classes of expensive Helpers, find that their results get worse, and they sink into despair. But just as hope seems lost, a fourth group—we’ll call them the hyper-Helpers—appears. These friendly folk explain to the Gotrocks that their unsatisfactory results are occurring because the existing Helpers—brokers, managers, consultants—are not sufficiently motivated and are simply going through the motions. “What,” the new Helpers ask, “can you expect from such a bunch of zombies?”
The new arrivals offer a breathtakingly simple solution: Pay more money. Brimming with self- confidence, the hyper-Helpers assert that huge contingent payments—in addition to stiff fixed fees—are what each family member must fork over in order to really outmaneuver his relatives.
The more observant members of the family see that some of the hyper-Helpers are really just manager-Helpers wearing new uniforms, bearing sewn-on sexy names like HEDGE FUND or PRIVATE EQUITY. The new Helpers, however, assure the Gotrocks that this change of clothing is all-important, bestowing on its wearers magical powers similar to those acquired by mild-mannered Clark Kent when he changed into his Superman costume. Calmed by this explanation, the family decides to pay up.
And that’s where we are today: A record portion of the earnings that would go in their entirety to owners—if they all just stayed in their rocking chairs—is now going to a swelling army of Helpers. Particularly expensive is the recent pandemic of profit arrangements under which Helpers receive large portions of the winnings when they are smart or lucky, and leave family members with all of the losses—and large fixed fees to boot—when the Helpers are dumb or unlucky (or occasionally crooked).
A sufficient number of arrangements like this—heads, the Helper takes much of the winnings; tails, the Gotrocks lose and pay dearly for the privilege of doing so—may make it more accurate to call the family the Hadrocks. Today, in fact, the family’s frictional costs of all sorts may well amount to 20% of the earnings of American business. In other words, the burden of paying Helpers may cause American equity investors, overall, to earn only 80% or so of what they would earn if they just sat still and listened to no one.
Long ago, Sir Isaac Newton gave us three laws of motion, which were the work of genius. But Sir Isaac’s talents didn’t extend to investing: He lost a bundle in the South Sea Bubble, explaining later, “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.” If he had not been traumatized by this loss, Sir Isaac might well have gone on to discover the Fourth Law of Motion: For investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases.
Here’s the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this section: To get very specific, the Dow increased from 65.73 to 11,497.12 in the 20th century, and that amounts to a gain of 5.3% compounded annually. (Investors would also have received dividends, of course.) To achieve an equal rate of gain in the 21st century, the Dow will have to rise by December 31, 2099 to—brace yourself—precisely 2,011,011.23. But I’m willing to settle for 2,000,000; six years into this century, the Dow has gained not at all.
Debt and Risk
As we consolidate MidAmerican, our new balance sheet may suggest that Berkshire has expanded its tolerance for borrowing. But that’s not so. Except for token amounts, we shun debt, turning to it for only three purposes:
- We occasionally use repos as a part of certain short-term investing strategies that incorporate ownership of U.S. government (or agency) securities. Purchases of this kind are highly opportunistic and involve only the most liquid of securities. A few years ago, we entered into several interesting transactions that have since been unwound or are running off. The offsetting debt has likewise been cut substantially and before long may be gone.
- We borrow money against portfolios of interest-bearing receivables whose risk characteristics we understand. We did this in 2001 when we guaranteed $5.6 billion of bank debt to take over, in partnership with Leucadia, a bankrupt Finova (which held a broad range of receivables). All of that debt has been repaid. More recently, we have borrowed to finance a widely-diversified, predictably-performing portfolio of manufactured-home receivables managed by Clayton. Alternatively, we could “securitize”—that is, sell—these receivables, but retain the servicing of them. If we followed this procedure, which is common in the industry, we would not show the debt that we do on our balance sheet, and we would also accelerate the earnings we report. In the end, however, we would earn less money. Were market variables to change so as to favor securitization (an unlikely event), we could sell part of our portfolio and eliminate the related debt. Until then, we prefer better profits to better cosmetics.
- At MidAmerican, we have substantial debt, but it is that company’s obligation only. Though it will appear on our consolidated balance sheet, Berkshire does not guarantee it.
Even so, this debt is unquestionably secure because it is serviced by MidAmerican’s diversified stream of highly-stable utility earnings. If there were to be some bolt from the blue that hurt one of MidAmerican’s utility properties, earnings from the others would still be more than ample to cover all debt requirements. Moreover, MidAmerican retains all of its earnings, an equity-building practice that is rare in the utility field.
From a risk standpoint, it is far safer to have earnings from ten diverse and uncorrelated utility operations that cover interest charges by, say, a 2:1 ratio than it is to have far greater coverage provided by a single utility. A catastrophic event can render a single utility insolvent—witness what Katrina did to the local electric utility in New Orleans—no matter how conservative its debt policy. A geographical disaster—say, an earthquake in a Western state—can’t have the same effect on MidAmerican. And even a worrier like Charlie can’t think of an event that would systemically decrease utility earnings in any major way. Because of MidAmerican’s ever-widening diversity of regulated earnings, it will always utilize major amounts of debt.
And that’s about it. We are not interested in incurring any significant debt at Berkshire for acquisitions or operating purposes. Conventional business wisdom, of course, would argue that we are being too conservative and that there are added profits that could be safely earned if we injected moderate leverage into our balance sheet.
Maybe so. But many of Berkshire’s hundreds of thousands of investors have a large portion of their net worth in our stock (among them, it should be emphasized, a large number of our board and key managers) and a disaster for the company would be a disaster for them. Moreover, there are people who have been permanently injured to whom we owe insurance payments that stretch out for fifty years or more. To these and other constituencies we have promised total security, whatever comes: financial panics, stock-exchange closures (an extended one occurred in 1914) or even domestic nuclear, chemical or biological attacks.
We are quite willing to accept huge risks. Indeed, more than any other insurer, we write high-limit policies that are tied to single catastrophic events. We also own a large investment portfolio whose market value could fall dramatically and quickly under certain conditions (as happened on October 19, 1987). Whatever occurs, though, Berkshire will have the net worth, the earnings streams and the liquidity to handle the problem with ease.
Any other approach is dangerous. Over the years, a number of very smart people have learned the hard way that a long string of impressive numbers multiplied by a single zero always equals zero. That is not an equation whose effects I would like to experience personally, and I would like even less to be responsible for imposing its penalties upon others.