We intend to continue our practice of working only with people whom we like and admire. This policy not only maximizes our chances for good results, it also ensures us an extraordinarily good time. On the other hand, working with people who cause your stomach to churn seems much like marrying for money—probably a bad idea under any circumstances, but absolute madness if you are already rich.
The second job Charlie and I must handle is the allocation of capital, which at Berkshire is a considerably more important challenge than at most companies. Three factors make that so: we earn more money than average; we retain all that we earn; and, we are fortunate to have operations that, for the most part, require little incremental capital to remain competitive and to grow. Obviously, the future results of a business earning 23% annually and retaining it all are far more affected by today’s capital allocations than are the results of a business earning 10% and distributing half of that to shareholders. If our retained earnings—and those of our major investees, GEICO and Capital Cities/ABC, Inc.—are employed in an unproductive manner, the economics of Berkshire will deteriorate very quickly. In a company adding only, say, 5% to net worth annually, capital-allocation decisions, though still important, will change the company’s economics far more slowly.
Meanwhile, we had no new ideas in the marketable equities field, an area in which once, only a few years ago, we could readily employ large sums in outstanding businesses at very reasonable prices. So our main capital allocation moves in 1986 were to pay off debt and stockpile funds. Neither is a fate worse than death, but they do not inspire us to do handsprings either. If Charlie and I were to draw blanks for a few years in our capital-allocation endeavors, Berkshire’s rate of growth would slow significantly.
We must, of necessity, hold marketable securities in our insurance companies and, as money comes in, we have only five directions to go: (1) long-term common stock investments; (2) long-term fixed-income securities; (3) medium-term fixed-income securities; (4) short-term cash equivalents; and (5) short-term arbitrage commitments.
Common stocks, of course, are the most fun. When conditions are right—that is, when companies with good economics and good management sell well below intrinsic business value—stocks sometimes provide grand-slam home runs. But we currently find no equities that come close to meeting our tests. This statement in no way translates into a stock market prediction: we have no idea—and never have had—whether the market is going to go up, down, or sideways in the near- or intermediate term future.
What we do know, however, is that occasional outbreaks of those two super-contagious diseases, fear and greed, will forever occur in the investment community. The timing of these epidemics will be unpredictable. And the market aberrations produced by them will be equally unpredictable, both as to duration and degree. Therefore, we never try to anticipate the arrival or departure of either disease. Our goal is more modest: we simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.
We should note that we expect to keep permanently our three primary holdings, Capital Cities/ABC, Inc., GEICO Corporation, and The Washington Post. Even if these securities were to appear significantly overpriced, we would not anticipate selling them, just as we would not sell See’s or Buffalo Evening News if someone were to offer us a price far above what we believe those businesses are worth.
This attitude may seem old-fashioned in a corporate world in which activity has become the order of the day. The modern manager refers to his “portfolio” of businesses—meaning that all of them are candidates for “restructuring” whenever such a move is dictated by Wall Street preferences, operating conditions or a new corporate “concept.” (Restructuring is defined narrowly, however: it extends only to dumping offending businesses, not to dumping the officers and directors who bought the businesses in the first place. “Hate the sin but love the sinner” is a theology as popular with the Fortune 500 as it is with the Salvation Army.)
Investment managers are even more hyperkinetic: their behavior during trading hours makes whirling dervishes appear sedated by comparison. Indeed, the term “institutional investor” is becoming one of those self-contradictions called an oxymoron, comparable to “jumbo shrimp,” “lady mudwrestler” and “inexpensive lawyer.”
Despite the enthusiasm for activity that has swept business and financial America, we will stick with our ‘til-death-do-us-part policy. It’s the only one with which Charlie and I are comfortable, it produces decent results, and it lets our managers and those of our investees run their businesses free of distractions.
I say this knowing that over the years there has been a lot of fuzzy and often partisan commentary about who really pays corporate taxes—businesses or their customers. The argument, of course, has usually turned around tax increases, not decreases. Those people resisting increases in corporate rates frequently argue that corporations in reality pay none of the taxes levied on them but, instead, act as a sort of economic pipeline, passing all taxes through to consumers. According to these advocates, any corporate-tax increase will simply lead to higher prices that, for the corporation, offset the increase. Having taken this position, proponents of the “pipeline” theory must also conclude that a tax decrease for corporations will not help profits but will instead flow through, leading to correspondingly lower prices for consumers.
Conversely, others argue that corporations not only pay the taxes levied upon them, but absorb them also. Consumers, this school says, will be unaffected by changes in corporate rates. What really happens? When the corporate rate is cut, do Berkshire, The Washington Post, Cap Cities, etc., themselves soak up the benefits, or do these companies pass the benefits along to their customers in the form of lower prices? This is an important question for investors and managers, as well as for policymakers.
Our conclusion is that in some cases the benefits of lower corporate taxes fall exclusively, or almost exclusively, upon the corporation and its shareholders, and that in other cases the benefits are entirely, or almost entirely, passed through to the customer. What determines the outcome is the strength of the corporation’s business franchise and whether the profitability of that franchise is regulated.
For example, when the franchise is strong and after-tax profits are regulated in a relatively precise manner, as is the case with electric utilities, changes in corporate tax rates are largely reflected in prices, not in profits. When taxes are cut, prices will usually be reduced in short order. When taxes are increased, prices will rise, though often not as promptly.
A similar result occurs in a second arena—in the price-competitive industry, whose companies typically operate with very weak business franchises. In such industries, the free market “regulates” after-tax profits in a delayed and irregular, but generally effective, manner. The marketplace, in effect, performs much the same function in dealing with the price-competitive industry as the Public Utilities Commission does in dealing with electric utilities. In these industries, therefore, tax changes eventually affect prices more than profits.
In the case of unregulated businesses blessed with strong franchises, however, it’s a different story: the corporation and its shareholders are then the major beneficiaries of tax cuts. These companies benefit from a tax cut much as the electric company would if it lacked a regulator to force down prices.
Many of our businesses, both those we own in whole and in part, possess such franchises. Consequently, reductions in their taxes largely end up in our pockets rather than the pockets of our customers. While this may be impolitic to state, it is impossible to deny. If you are tempted to believe otherwise, think for a moment of the most able brain surgeon or lawyer in your area. Do you really expect the fees of this expert (the local “franchise-holder” in his or her specialty) to be reduced now that the top personal tax rate is being cut from 50% to 28%?
Neither rule changes the amount of the annual tax accrual in our reports to you, but each materially accelerates the schedule of payments. That is, taxes formerly deferred will now be front-ended, a change that will significantly cut the profitability of our business. An analogy will suggest the toll: if, upon turning 21, you were required to immediately pay tax on all income you were due to receive throughout your life, both your lifetime wealth and your estate would be a small fraction of what they would be if all taxes on your income were payable only when you died.
Buying a corporate jet
We bought a corporate jet last year. What you have heard about such planes is true: they are very expensive and a luxury in situations like ours where little travel to out-of-the-way places is required. And planes not only cost a lot to operate, they cost a lot just to look at. Pre-tax, cost of capital plus depreciation on a new $15 million plane probably runs $3 million annually. On our own plane, bought for $850,000 used, such costs run close to $200,000 annually.
Cognizant of such figures, your Chairman, unfortunately, has in the past made a number of rather intemperate remarks about corporate jets. Accordingly, prior to our purchase, I was forced into my Galileo mode. I promptly experienced the necessary “counter-revelation” and travel is now considerably easier—and considerably costlier—than in the past. Whether Berkshire will get its money’s worth from the plane is an open question, but I will work at achieving some business triumph that I can (no matter how dubiously) attribute to it. I’m afraid Ben Franklin had my number. Said he: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
Accounting numbers, of course, are the language of business and as such are of enormous help to anyone evaluating the worth of a business and tracking its progress. Charlie and I would be lost without these numbers: they invariably are the starting point for us in evaluating our own businesses and those of others. Managers and owners need to remember, however, that accounting is but an aid to business thinking, never a substitute for it.
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