You may recall a 2003 Silicon Valley bumper sticker that implored, “Please, God, Just One More Bubble.” Unfortunately, this wish was promptly granted, as just about all Americans came to believe that house prices would forever rise. That conviction made a borrower’s income and cash equity seem unimportant to lenders, who shoveled out money, confident that HPA—house price appreciation—would cure all problems. Today, our country is experiencing widespread pain because of that erroneous belief. As house prices fall, a huge amount of financial folly is being exposed. You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out—and what we are witnessing at some of our largest financial institutions is an ugly sight.
Long-term competitive advantage in a stable industry
Charlie and I look for companies that have a) a business we understand; b) favorable long-term economics; c) able and trustworthy management; and d) a sensible price tag. We like to buy the whole business or, if management is our partner, at least 80%. When control-type purchases of quality aren’t available, though, we are also happy to simply buy small portions of great businesses by way of stock-market purchases. It’s better to have a part interest in the Hope Diamond than to own all of a rhinestone.
A truly great business must have an enduring “moat” that protects excellent returns on invested capital. The dynamics of capitalism guarantee that competitors will repeatedly assault any business “castle” that is earning high returns. Therefore a formidable barrier such as a company’s being the low-cost producer (GEICO, Costco) or possessing a powerful world-wide brand (Coca-Cola, Gillette, American Express) is essential for sustained success.
Our criterion of “enduring” causes us to rule out companies in industries prone to rapid and continuous change. Though capitalism’s “creative destruction” is highly beneficial for society, it precludes investment certainty. A moat that must be continuously rebuilt will eventually be no moat at all.
Additionally, this criterion eliminates the business whose success depends on having a great manager. Of course, a terrific CEO is a huge asset for any enterprise, and at Berkshire we have an abundance of these managers. Their abilities have created billions of dollars of value that would never have materialized if typical CEOs had been running their businesses.
But if a business requires a superstar to produce great results, the business itself cannot be deemed great. A medical partnership led by your area’s premier brain surgeon may enjoy outsized and growing earnings, but that tells little about its future. The partnership’s moat will go when the surgeon goes. You can count, though, on the moat of the Mayo Clinic to endure, even though you can’t name its CEO.
Long-term competitive advantage in a stable industry is what we seek in a business. If that comes with rapid organic growth, great. But even without organic growth, such a business is rewarding. We will simply take the lush earnings of the business and use them to buy similar businesses elsewhere. There’s no rule that you have to invest money where you’ve earned it. Indeed, it’s often a mistake to do so: Truly great businesses, earning huge returns on tangible assets, can’t for any extended period reinvest a large portion of their earnings internally at high rates of return.
Let’s look at the prototype of a dream business, our own See’s Candy. The boxed-chocolates industry in which it operates is unexciting: Per-capita consumption in the U.S. is extremely low and doesn’t grow. Many once-important brands have disappeared, and only three companies have earned more than token profits over the last forty years. Indeed, I believe that See’s, though it obtains the bulk of its revenues from only a few states, accounts for nearly half of the entire industry’s earnings.
At See’s, annual sales were 16 million pounds of candy when Blue Chip Stamps purchased the company in 1972. (Charlie and I controlled Blue Chip at the time and later merged it into Berkshire.) Last year See’s sold 31 million pounds, a growth rate of only 2% annually. Yet its durable competitive advantage, built by the See’s family over a 50-year period, and strengthened subsequently by Chuck Huggins and Brad Kinstler, has produced extraordinary results for Berkshire.
We bought See’s for $25 million when its sales were $30 million and pre-tax earnings were less than $5 million. The capital then required to conduct the business was $8 million. (Modest seasonal debt was also needed for a few months each year.) Consequently, the company was earning 60% pre-tax on invested capital. Two factors helped to minimize the funds required for operations. First, the product was sold for cash, and that eliminated accounts receivable. Second, the production and distribution cycle was short, which minimized inventories.
Last year See’s sales were $383 million, and pre-tax profits were $82 million. The capital now required to run the business is $40 million. This means we have had to reinvest only $32 million since 1972 to handle the modest physical growth—and somewhat immodest financial growth—of the business. In the meantime pre-tax earnings have totaled $1.35 billion. All of that, except for the $32 million, has been sent to Berkshire (or, in the early years, to Blue Chip). After paying corporate taxes on the profits, we have used the rest to buy other attractive businesses. Just as Adam and Eve kick-started an activity that led to six billion humans, See’s has given birth to multiple new streams of cash for us. (The biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply” is one we take seriously at Berkshire.)
There aren’t many See’s in Corporate America. Typically, companies that increase their earnings from $5 million to $82 million require, say, $400 million or so of capital investment to finance their growth. That’s because growing businesses have both working capital needs that increase in proportion to sales growth and significant requirements for fixed asset investments.
A company that needs large increases in capital to engender its growth may well prove to be a satisfactory investment. There is, to follow through on our example, nothing shabby about earning $82 million pre-tax on $400 million of net tangible assets. But that equation for the owner is vastly different from the See’s situation. It’s far better to have an ever-increasing stream of earnings with virtually no major capital requirements. Ask Microsoft or Google.
One example of good, but far from sensational, business economics is our own FlightSafety. This company delivers benefits to its customers that are the equal of those delivered by any business that I know of. It also possesses a durable competitive advantage: Going to any other flight-training provider than the best is like taking the low bid on a surgical procedure.
Nevertheless, this business requires a significant reinvestment of earnings if it is to grow. When we purchased FlightSafety in 1996, its pre-tax operating earnings were $111 million, and its net investment in fixed assets was $570 million. Since our purchase, depreciation charges have totaled $923 million. But capital expenditures have totaled $1.635 billion, most of that for simulators to match the new airplane models that are constantly being introduced. (A simulator can cost us more than $12 million, and we have 273 of them.) Our fixed assets, after depreciation, now amount to $1.079 billion. Pre-tax operating earnings in 2007 were $270 million, a gain of $159 million since 1996. That gain gave us a good, but far from See’s-like, return on our incremental investment of $509 million.
Consequently, if measured only by economic returns, FlightSafety is an excellent but not extraordinary business. Its put-up-more-to-earn-more experience is that faced by most corporations. For example, our large investment in regulated utilities falls squarely in this category. We will earn considerably more money in this business ten years from now, but we will invest many billions to make it.
Now let’s move to the gruesome. The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.
The airline industry’s demand for capital ever since that first flight has been insatiable. Investors have poured money into a bottomless pit, attracted by growth when they should have been repelled by it. And I, to my shame, participated in this foolishness when I had Berkshire buy U.S. Air preferred stock in 1989. As the ink was drying on our check, the company went into a tailspin, and before long our preferred dividend was no longer being paid. But we then got very lucky. In one of the recurrent, but always misguided, bursts of optimism for airlines, we were actually able to sell our shares in 1998 for a hefty gain. In the decade following our sale, the company went bankrupt. Twice.
To sum up, think of three types of “savings accounts.” The great one pays an extraordinarily high interest rate that will rise as the years pass. The good one pays an attractive rate of interest that will be earned also on deposits that are added. Finally, the gruesome account both pays an inadequate interest rate and requires you to keep adding money at those disappointing returns.
And now it’s confession time. It should be noted that no consultant, board of directors or investment banker pushed me into the mistakes I will describe. In tennis parlance, they were all unforced errors.
To begin with, I almost blew the See’s purchase. The seller was asking $30 million, and I was adamant about not going above $25 million. Fortunately, he caved. Otherwise I would have balked, and that $1.35 billion would have gone to somebody else.
About the time of the See’s purchase, Tom Murphy, then running Capital Cities Broadcasting, called and offered me the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC station for $35 million. The station came with the Fort Worth paper that Capital Cities was buying, and under the “cross-ownership” rules Murph had to divest it. I knew that TV stations were See’s-like businesses that required virtually no capital investment and had excellent prospects for growth. They were simple to run and showered cash on their owners.
Moreover, Murph, then as now, was a close friend, a man I admired as an extraordinary manager and outstanding human being. He knew the television business forward and backward and would not have called me unless he felt a purchase was certain to work. In effect Murph whispered “buy” into my ear. But I didn’t listen.
In 2006, the station earned $73 million pre-tax, bringing its total earnings since I turned down the deal to at least $1 billion—almost all available to its owner for other purposes. Moreover, the property now has a capital value of about $800 million. Why did I say “no”? The only explanation is that my brain had gone on vacation and forgot to notify me. (My behavior resembled that of a politician Molly Ivins once described: “If his I.Q. was any lower, you would have to water him twice a day.”)
Finally, I made an even worse mistake when I said “yes” to Dexter, a shoe business I bought in 1993 for $433 million in Berkshire stock (25,203 shares of A). What I had assessed as durable competitive advantage vanished within a few years. But that’s just the beginning: By using Berkshire stock, I compounded this error hugely. That move made the cost to Berkshire shareholders not $400 million, but rather $3.5 billion. In essence, I gave away 1.6% of a wonderful business—one now valued at $220 billion to buy a worthless business.
To date, Dexter is the worst deal that I’ve made. But I’ll make more mistakes in the future—you can bet on that. A line from Bobby Bare’s country song explains what too often happens with acquisitions: “I’ve never gone to bed with an ugly woman, but I’ve sure woke up with a few.”
An aside: Charlie and I are not big fans of resumes. Instead, we focus on brains, passion and integrity. Another of our great managers is Cathy Baron Tamraz, who has significantly increased Business Wire’s earnings since we purchased it early in 2006. She is an owner’s dream. It is positively dangerous to stand between Cathy and a business prospect. Cathy, it should be noted, began her career as a cab driver.
Evaluating the progress of investments
I should emphasize that we do not measure the progress of our investments by what their market prices do during any given year. Rather, we evaluate their performance by the two methods we apply to the businesses we own. The first test is improvement in earnings, with our making due allowance for industry conditions. The second test, more subjective, is whether their “moats”—a metaphor for the superiorities they possess that make life difficult for their competitors—have widened during the year. All of the “big four” scored positively on that test.
We made one large sale last year. In 2002 and 2003 Berkshire bought 1.3% of PetroChina for $488 million, a price that valued the entire business at about $37 billion. Charlie and I then felt that the company was worth about $100 billion. By 2007, two factors had materially increased its value: the price of oil had climbed significantly, and PetroChina’s management had done a great job in building oil and gas reserves. In the second half of last year, the market value of the company rose to $275 billion, about what we thought it was worth compared to other giant oil companies. So we sold our holdings for $4 billion.
Last year I told you that Berkshire had 62 derivative contracts that I manage. (We also have a few left in the General Re runoff book.) Today, we have 94 of these, and they fall into two categories.
First, we have written 54 contracts that require us to make payments if certain bonds that are included in various high-yield indices default. These contracts expire at various times from 2009 to 2013. At yearend we had received $3.2 billion in premiums on these contracts; had paid $472 million in losses; and in the worst case (though it is extremely unlikely to occur) could be required to pay an additional $4.7 billion.
We are certain to make many more payments. But I believe that on premium revenues alone, these contracts will prove profitable, leaving aside what we can earn on the large sums we hold. Our yearend liability for this exposure was recorded at $1.8 billion and is included in “Derivative Contract Liabilities” on our balance sheet.
The second category of contracts involves various put options we have sold on four stock indices (the S&P 500 plus three foreign indices). These puts had original terms of either 15 or 20 years and were struck at the market. We have received premiums of $4.5 billion, and we recorded a liability at yearend of $4.6 billion. The puts in these contracts are exercisable only at their expiration dates, which occur between 2019 and 2027, and Berkshire will then need to make a payment only if the index in question is quoted at a level below that existing on the day that the put was written. Again, I believe these contracts, in aggregate, will be profitable and that we will, in addition, receive substantial income from our investment of the premiums we hold during the 15- or 20-year period.
Two aspects of our derivative contracts are particularly important. First, in all cases we hold the money, which means that we have no counterparty risk.
Second, accounting rules for our derivative contracts differ from those applying to our investment portfolio. In that portfolio, changes in value are applied to the net worth shown on Berkshire’s balance sheet, but do not affect earnings unless we sell (or write down) a holding. Changes in the value of a derivative contract, however, must be applied each quarter to earnings.
Thus, our derivative positions will sometimes cause large swings in reported earnings, even though Charlie and I might believe the intrinsic value of these positions has changed little. He and I will not be bothered by these swings—even though they could easily amount to $1 billion or more in a quarter—and we hope you won’t be either. You will recall that in our catastrophe insurance business, we are always ready to trade increased volatility in reported earnings in the short run for greater gains in net worth in the long run. That is our philosophy in derivatives as well.
The trade deficit
The U.S. dollar weakened further in 2007 against major currencies, and it’s no mystery why: Americans like buying products made elsewhere more than the rest of the world likes buying products made in the U.S. Inevitably, that causes America to ship about $2 billion of IOUs and assets daily to the rest of the world. And over time, that puts pressure on the dollar.
When the dollar falls, it both makes our products cheaper for foreigners to buy and their products more expensive for U.S. citizens. That’s why a falling currency is supposed to cure a trade deficit. Indeed, the U.S. deficit has undoubtedly been tempered by the large drop in the dollar. But ponder this: In 2002 when the Euro averaged 94.6¢, our trade deficit with Germany (the fifth largest of our trading partners) was $36 billion, whereas in 2007, with the Euro averaging $1.37, our deficit with Germany was up to $45 billion. Similarly, the Canadian dollar averaged 64¢ in 2002 and 93¢ in 2007. Yet our trade deficit with Canada rose as well, from $50 billion in 2002 to $64 billion in 2007. So far, at least, a plunging dollar has not done much to bring our trade activity into balance.
There’s been much talk recently of sovereign wealth funds and how they are buying large pieces of American businesses. This is our doing, not some nefarious plot by foreign governments. Our trade equation guarantees massive foreign investment in the U.S. When we force-feed $2 billion daily to the rest of the world, they must invest in something here. Why should we complain when they choose stocks over bonds?
Our country’s weakening currency is not the fault of OPEC, China, etc. Other developed countries rely on imported oil and compete against Chinese imports just as we do. In developing a sensible trade policy, the U.S. should not single out countries to punish or industries to protect. Nor should we take actions likely to evoke retaliatory behavior that will reduce America’s exports, true trade that benefits both our country and the rest of the world.
Our legislators should recognize, however, that the current imbalances are unsustainable and should therefore adopt policies that will materially reduce them sooner rather than later. Otherwise our $2 billion daily of force-fed dollars to the rest of the world may produce global indigestion of an unpleasant sort. (For other comments about the unsustainability of our trade deficits, see Alan Greenspan’s comments on November 19, 2004, the Federal Open Market Committee’s minutes of June 29, 2004, and Ben Bernanke’s statement on September 11, 2007.)
Direct currency positions
“At Berkshire we held only one direct currency position during 2007. That was in—hold your breath—the Brazilian real. Not long ago, swapping dollars for reals would have been unthinkable. After all, during the past century five versions of Brazilian currency have, in effect, turned into confetti. As has been true in many countries whose currencies have periodically withered and died, wealthy Brazilians sometimes stashed large sums in the U.S. to preserve their wealth.
But any Brazilian who followed this apparently prudent course would have lost half his net worth over the past five years. Here’s the year-by-year record (indexed) of the real versus the dollar from the end of 2002 to yearend 2007: 100; 122; 133; 152; 166; 199. Every year the real went up and the dollar fell. Moreover, during much of this period the Brazilian government was actually holding down the value of the real and supporting our currency by buying dollars in the market.
Our direct currency positions have yielded $2.3 billion of pre-tax profits over the past five years, and in addition we have profited by holding bonds of U.S. companies that are denominated in other currencies. For example, in 2001 and 2002 we purchased €310 million Amazon.com, Inc. 6 ⅞ of 2010 at 57% of par. At the time, Amazon bonds were priced as “junk” credits, though they were anything but. (Yes, Virginia, you can occasionally find markets that are ridiculously inefficient—or at least you can find them anywhere except at the finance departments of some leading business schools.)
The Euro denomination of the Amazon bonds was a further, and important, attraction for us. The Euro was at 95¢ when we bought in 2002. Therefore, our cost in dollars came to only $169 million. Now the bonds sell at 102% of par and the Euro is worth $1.47. In 2005 and 2006 some of our bonds were called and we received $253 million for them. Our remaining bonds were valued at $162 million at yearend. Of our $246 million of realized and unrealized gain, about $118 million is attributable to the fall in the dollar. Currencies do matter.
Fanciful Figures—How Public Companies Juice Earnings
Former Senator Alan Simpson famously said: “Those who travel the high road in Washington need not fear heavy traffic.” If he had sought truly deserted streets, however, the Senator should have looked to Corporate America’s accounting.
An important referendum on which road businesses prefer occurred in 1994. America’s CEOs had just strong-armed the U.S. Senate into ordering the Financial Accounting Standards Board to shut up, by a vote that was 88-9. Before that rebuke the FASB had shown the audacity—by unanimous agreement, no less—to tell corporate chieftains that the stock options they were being awarded represented a form of compensation and that their value should be recorded as an expense.
After the senators voted, the FASB—now educated on accounting principles by the Senate’s 88 closet CPAs—decreed that companies could choose between two methods of reporting on options. The preferred treatment would be to expense their value, but it would also be allowable for companies to ignore the expense as long as their options were issued at market value.
A moment of truth had now arrived for America’s CEOs, and their reaction was not a pretty sight. During the next six years, exactly two of the 500 companies in the S&P chose the preferred route. CEOs of the rest opted for the low road, thereby ignoring a large and obvious expense in order to report higher “earnings.” I’m sure some of them also felt that if they opted for expensing, their directors might in future years think twice before approving the mega-grants the managers longed for.
It turned out that for many CEOs even the low road wasn’t good enough. Under the weakened rule, there remained earnings consequences if options were issued with a strike price below market value. No problem. To avoid that bothersome rule, a number of companies surreptitiously backdated options to falsely indicate that they were granted at current market prices, when in fact they were dished out at prices well below market.
Decades of option-accounting nonsense have now been put to rest, but other accounting choices remain—important among these the investment-return assumption a company uses in calculating pension expense. It will come as no surprise that many companies continue to choose an assumption that allows them to report less-than-solid “earnings.” For the 363 companies in the S&P that have pension plans, this assumption in 2006 averaged 8%. Let’s look at the chances of that being achieved.
The average holdings of bonds and cash for all pension funds is about 28%, and on these assets returns can be expected to be no more than 5%. Higher yields, of course, are obtainable but they carry with them a risk of commensurate (or greater) loss.
This means that the remaining 72% of assets—which are mostly in equities, either held directly or through vehicles such as hedge funds or private-equity investments—must earn 9.2% in order for the fund overall to achieve the postulated 8%. And that return must be delivered after all fees, which are now far higher than they have ever been.
How realistic is this expectation? Let’s revisit some data I mentioned two years ago: During the 20th Century, the Dow advanced from 66 to 11,497. This gain, though it appears huge, shrinks to 5.3% when compounded annually. An investor who owned the Dow throughout the century would also have received generous dividends for much of the period, but only about 2% or so in the final years. It was a wonderful century.
Think now about this century. For investors to merely match that 5.3% market-value gain, the Dow—recently below 13,000—would need to close at about 2,000,000 on December 31, 2099. We are now eight years into this century, and we have racked up less than 2,000 of the 1,988,000 Dow points the market needed to travel in this hundred years to equal the 5.3% of the last.
It’s amusing that commentators regularly hyperventilate at the prospect of the Dow crossing an even number of thousands, such as 14,000 or 15,000. If they keep reacting that way, a 5.3% annual gain for the century will mean they experience at least 1,986 seizures during the next 92 years. While anything is possible, does anyone really believe this is the most likely outcome?
Dividends continue to run about 2%. Even if stocks were to average the 5.3% annual appreciation of the 1900s, the equity portion of plan assets—allowing for expenses of .5%—would produce no more than 7% or so. And .5% may well understate costs, given the presence of layers of consultants and high- priced managers (“helpers”).
Naturally, everyone expects to be above average. And those helpers—bless their hearts—will certainly encourage their clients in this belief. But, as a class, the helper-aided group must be below average. The reason is simple: 1) Investors, overall, will necessarily earn an average return, minus costs they incur; 2) Passive and index investors, through their very inactivity, will earn that average minus costs that are very low; 3) With that group earning average returns, so must the remaining group—the active investors. But this group will incur high transaction, management, and advisory costs. Therefore, the active investors will have their returns diminished by a far greater percentage than will their inactive brethren. That means that the passive group—the “know-nothings”—must win.
I should mention that people who expect to earn 10% annually from equities during this century—envisioning that 2% of that will come from dividends and 8% from price appreciation—are implicitly forecasting a level of about 24,000,000 on the Dow by 2100. If your adviser talks to you about double-digit returns from equities, explain this math to him—not that it will faze him. Many helpers are apparently direct descendants of the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who said: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Beware the glib helper who fills your head with fantasies while he fills his pockets with fees.
Some companies have pension plans in Europe as well as in the U.S. and, in their accounting, almost all assume that the U.S. plans will earn more than the non-U.S. plans. This discrepancy is puzzling: Why should these companies not put their U.S. managers in charge of the non-U.S. pension assets and let them work their magic on these assets as well? I’ve never seen this puzzle explained. But the auditors and actuaries who are charged with vetting the return assumptions seem to have no problem with it.
What is no puzzle, however, is why CEOs opt for a high investment assumption: It lets them report higher earnings. And if they are wrong, as I believe they are, the chickens won’t come home to roost until long after they retire.
After decades of pushing the envelope—or worse—in its attempt to report the highest number possible for current earnings, Corporate America should ease up. It should listen to my partner, Charlie: “If you’ve hit three balls out of bounds to the left, aim a little to the right on the next swing.”
“Whatever pension-cost surprises are in store for shareholders down the road, these jolts will be surpassed many times over by those experienced by taxpayers. Public pension promises are huge and, in many cases, funding is woefully inadequate. Because the fuse on this time bomb is long, politicians flinch from inflicting tax pain, given that problems will only become apparent long after these officials have departed. Promises involving very early retirement—sometimes to those in their low 40s—and generous cost-of-living adjustments are easy for these officials to make. In a world where people are living longer and inflation is certain, those promises will be anything but easy to keep.
Having laid out the failures of an “honor system” in American accounting, I need to point out that this is exactly the system existing at Berkshire for a truly huge balance-sheet item. In every report we make to you, we must guesstimate the loss reserves for our insurance units. If our estimate is wrong, it means that both our balance sheet and our earnings statement will be wrong. So naturally we do our best to make these guesses accurate. Nevertheless, in every report our estimate is sure to be wrong.
At yearend 2007, we show an insurance liability of $56 billion that represents our guess as to what we will eventually pay for all loss events that occurred before yearend (except for about $3 billion of the reserve that has been discounted to present value). We know of many thousands of events and have put a dollar value on each that reflects what we believe we will pay, including the associated costs (such as attorney’s fees) that we will incur in the payment process. In some cases, among them claims for certain serious injuries covered by worker’s compensation, payments will be made for 50 years or more.
We also include a large reserve for losses that occurred before yearend but that we have yet to hear about. Sometimes, the insured itself does not know that a loss has occurred. (Think of an embezzlement that remains undiscovered for years.) We sometimes hear about losses from policies that covered our insured many decades ago.
A story I told you some years back illustrates our problem in accurately estimating our loss liability: A fellow was on an important business trip in Europe when his sister called to tell him that their dad had died. Her brother explained that he couldn’t get back but said to spare nothing on the funeral, whose cost he would cover. When he returned, his sister told him that the service had been beautiful and presented him with bills totaling $8,000. He paid up but a month later received a bill from the mortuary for $10. He paid that, too—and still another $10 charge he received a month later. When a third $10 invoice was sent to him the following month, the perplexed man called his sister to ask what was going on. “Oh,” she replied, “I forgot to tell you. We buried Dad in a rented suit.”
At our insurance companies we have an unknown, but most certainly large, number of “rented suits” buried around the world. We try to estimate the bill for them accurately. In ten or twenty years, we will even be able to make a good guess as to how inaccurate our present guess is. But even that guess will be subject to surprises. I personally believe our stated reserves are adequate, but I’ve been wrong several times in the past.