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Warren Buffett Tells Shareholders He Did "Some Dumb Things" In 2008

In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Warren Buffett says he did some "dumb things in investments" last year.

The company's controversial "equity put" options are not included on that list. There has been some criticism of Buffett as the declining mark-to-market value of those contracts puts pressure on reported earnings. Fourth quarter net fell 96 percent to $117 million, largely due to 'paper' losses on those derivative positions. For the year, net fell to $4.99 billion from $13.21 billion the year before.

Buffett also predicts the economy will "be in shambles throughout 2009 - and for that matter, probably well beyond - but that conclusion does not tell us whether the stock market will rise or fall."

He's still optimistic for the long-term, however, again pointing out that "our country has faced far worse travails in the past" but always "we've overcome them." He says confidently, "America's best days lie ahead."

The letter was posted this morning (Saturday) on the company's website along with Berkshire's 2008 annual report.

BUFFETT'S MISTAKES

Buffett admits that "I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt... Furthermore, I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to re-examine my thinking and promptly take action."

The mistake of commission: buying a large amount of ConocoPhillips stock just as energy prices were near their peak. Buffett writes, "I in no way anticipated the dramatic fall in energy prices that occurred in the last half of the year." He still thinks oil will eventually go well above its current $40-$50 range, "but so far I have been dead wrong."

Even if energy prices do rise, "The terrible timing of my purchase has cost Berkshire several billion dollars."

Buffett also reveals that he spent $244 million for shares of two Irish banks that "appeared cheap" to him. At the end of the year, they were written down to their market price of $27 million, for a loss of 89 percent, and they've continued to drop.

"The tennis crowd would call my mistakes 'unforced errors.'"

But he says he's not bothered by the overall "significant decline" in Berkshire's portfolio. "We enjoy such price declines if we have funds available to increase our positions."

Buffett confirms that he sold some stocks he would have preferred to keep to fund Berkshire's purchases of $14.5 billion in fixed-income securities from Wrigley, Goldman Sachs , and General Electric . He calls the holdings "more than satisfactory" based just on the high current yields they are delivering. Equity participation is a "bonus."

Those sales primarily involved Johnson & Johnson , Procter & Gamble , and Conoco. (See last week's WBW post Why Warren Buffett Isn't a Hypocrite.)

"I have pledged - to you, the rating agencies and myself - to always run Berkshire with more than ample cash. We never want to count on the kindness of strangers in order to meet tomorrow's obligations. When forced to choose, I will not trade even a night's sleep for the chance of extra profits."

BERKSHIRE'S WORST YEAR

The letter also reveals a 9.6 percent decline in Berkshire's book value per-share last year, making 2008 the company's worst year since Buffett took over in 1965. Book value fell by $11.5 billion during the year.

There has been only one annual decline before this one. In 2001, book value fell 6.2 percent.

Compared to the S&P, however, Berkshire's drop is relatively small. With dividends included, the S&P's book value fell 27.4 percent, giving Berkshire its biggest "win" since 2002.

In the letter, Buffett notes that it was also the S&P's biggest decline during the past 44 years.

"By yearend, investors of all stripes were bloodied and confused, much as if they were small birds that had strayed into a badminton game."

DEFENDING THE DERIVATIVES

In a lengthy section on derivatives, Buffett calls them "dangerous" but defends Berkshire's 251 contracts. "I believe each contract we own was mispriced at inception, sometimes dramatically so."

He says the derivatives "float" (payments made to Berkshire by the contracts' buyers minus losses paid by the company) totaled $8.1 billion at the end of the year, money that can be invested.

And "only a small percentage of our contracts call for any posting of collateral when the market moves against us."

He specifically addresses the "equity put" contracts that have caused some concern among investors, revealing that Berkshire has "added modestly" to them.

The contracts, which insure against stock market declines over a period of many years, total $37.1 billion. They're written against the S&P 500, the U.K.'s FTSE 100, the Euro Stoxx 50 in Europe, and Japan's Nikkei 225.

Berkshire is only required to make any payments when the contracts expire. The first comes due in 2019 and the last in 2028. The mark-to-market, or 'paper', loss on the equity put contracts totals $5.1 billion.

Buffett emphasizes a point that he says is often misunderstood. "For us to lose the full $37.1 billion we have at risk, all stocks in all four indices would have to go to zero on their various termination dates." If the indices are down 25 percent, Berkshire would owe about $9 billion between 2019 and 2028, and would have had use of the $4.9 billion premium all along.

Buffett's conclusion: "We have told you before that our derivative contracts, subject as they are to mark-to-market accounting, will produce wild swings in the earnings we report. The ups and downs neither cheer nor bother Charlie (Munger) and me. Indeed, the 'downs' can be helpful in that they give us an opportunity to expand a position on favorable terms. I hope this explanation of our dealers will lead you to think similarly."

EXCERPTS FROM BUFFETT'S LETTER

EXCERPT: BUFFETT ON THE BAILOUT AND ITS AFTEREFFECTS

This debilitating spiral has spurred our government to take massive action. In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone “all in.” Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel.

These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone’s guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation. Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind-boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly.

Whatever the downsides may be, strong and immediate action by government was essential last year if the financial system was to avoid a total breakdown. Had that occurred, the consequences for every area of our economy would have been cataclysmic. Like it or not, the inhabitants of Wall Street, Main Street and the various Side Streets of America were all in the same boat.

"PESSIMISM IS YOUR FRIEND"

Berkshire is always a buyer of both businesses and securities, and the disarray in markets gave us a tailwind in our purchases. When investing, pessimism is your friend, euphoria the enemy. In our insurance portfolios, we made three large investments on terms that would be unavailable in normal markets.

BERKSHIRE'S TWO "YARDSTICKS"

Berkshire has two major areas of value. The first is our investments: stocks, bonds and cash equivalents... Berkshire’s second component of value is earnings that come from sources other than investments and insurance...

In 2008, our investments fell from $90,343 per share of Berkshire (after minority interest) to $77,793, a decrease that was caused by a decline in market prices, not by net sales of stocks or bonds. Our second segment of value fell from pre-tax earnings of $4,093 per Berkshire share to $3,921 (again after minority interest).

Both of these performances are unsatisfactory. Over time, we need to make decent gains in each area if we are to increase Berkshire’s intrinsic value at an acceptable rate. Going forward, however, our focus will be on the earnings segment, just as it has been for several decades. We like buying underpriced securities, but we like buying fairly-priced operating businesses even more.

LESSONS FROM THE HOUSING MESS

EXCERPT: BUFFETT'S LESSONS FROM THE HOUSING MESS

Home ownership is a wonderful thing. My family and I have enjoyed my present home for 50 years, with more to come. But enjoyment and utility should be the primary motives for purchase, not profit or refi possibilities. And the home purchased ought to fit the income of the purchaser.

The present housing debacle should teach home buyers, lenders, brokers and government some simple lessons that will ensure stability in the future. Home purchases should involve an honest-to-God down payment of at least 10% and monthly payments that can be comfortably handled by the borrower’s income. That income should be carefully verified.

Putting people into homes, though a desirable goal, shouldn’t be our country’s primary objective. Keeping them in their homes should be the ambition.

WHY PREMIUMS FOR TAX-EXEMPT BOND INSURANCE HAVE BEEN TOO LOW

Early in 2008, we activated Berkshire Hathaway Assurance Company (“BHAC”) as an insurer of the tax-exempt bonds issued by states, cities and other local entities...

We remain very cautious about the business we write and regard it as far from a sure thing that this insurance will ultimately be profitable for us. The reason is simple, though I have never seen even a passing reference to it by any financial analyst, rating agency or monoline CEO.

The rationale behind very low premium rates for insuring tax-exempts has been that defaults have historically been few. But that record largely reflects the experience of entities that issued uninsured bonds. Insurance of tax-exempt bonds didn’t exist before 1971, and even after that most bonds remained uninsured.

Central Park and midtown Manhattan are shown in this aerial view Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Mark Lennihan
Central Park and midtown Manhattan are shown in this aerial view Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

A universe of tax-exempts fully covered by insurance would be certain to have a somewhat different loss experience from a group of uninsured, but otherwise similar bonds, the only question being how different. To understand why, let’s go back to 1975 when New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy. At the time its bonds – virtually all uninsured – were heavily held by the city’s wealthier residents as well as by New York banks and other institutions. These local bondholders deeply desired to solve the city’s fiscal problems. So before long, concessions and cooperation from a host of involved constituencies produced a solution. Without one, it was apparent to all that New York’s citizens and businesses would have experienced widespread and severe financial losses from their bond holdings.

Now, imagine that all of the city’s bonds had instead been insured by Berkshire. Would similar belttightening, tax increases, labor concessions, etc. have been forthcoming? Of course not. At a minimum, Berkshire would have been asked to “share” in the required sacrifices. And, considering our deep pockets, the required contribution would most certainly have been substantial.

WHY CASH ISN'T KING

EXCERPT: THE "TREASURY BOND BUBBLE" AND WHY CASH ISN'T KING

The investment world has gone from underpricing risk to overpricing it. This change has not been minor; the pendulum has covered an extraordinary arc. A few years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that yields like today’s could have been obtained on good-grade municipal or corporate bonds even while risk-free governments offered near-zero returns on short-term bonds and no better than a pittance on long-terms. When the financial history of this decade is written, it will surely speak of the Internet bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble of the early 2000s. But the U.S. Treasury bond bubble of late 2008 may be regarded as almost equally extraordinary.

Clinging to cash equivalents or long-term government bonds at present yields is almost certainly a terrible policy if continued for long. Holders of these instruments, of course, have felt increasingly comfortable – in fact, almost smug – in following this policy as financial turmoil has mounted. They regard their judgment confirmed when they hear commentators proclaim “cash is king,” even though that wonderful cash is earning close to nothing and will surely find its purchasing power eroded over time.

Approval, though, is not the goal of investing. In fact, approval is often counter-productive because it sedates the brain and makes it less receptive to new facts or a re-examination of conclusions formed earlier. Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns.

CHANGES TO QUESTION TIME

EXCERPT: CHANGES TO QUESTION TIME AT THE ANNUAL MEETING

This year we will be making important changes in how we handle the meeting’s question periods. In recent years, we have received only a handful of questions directly related to Berkshire and its operations. Last year there were practically none. So we need to steer the discussion back to Berkshire’s businesses.

Omaha's Qwest Center, site of Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholders meeting
CNBC.com
Omaha's Qwest Center, site of Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholders meeting

In a related problem, there has been a mad rush when the doors open at 7 a.m., led by people who wish to be first in line at the 12 microphones available for questioners. This is not desirable from a safety standpoint, nor do we believe that sprinting ability should be the determinant of who gets to pose questions. (At age 78, I’ve concluded that speed afoot is a ridiculously overrated talent.) Again, a new procedure is desirable.

In our first change, several financial journalists from organizations representing newspapers, magazines and television will participate in the question-and-answer period, asking Charlie and me questions that shareholders have submitted by e-mail. The journalists and their e-mail addresses are: Carol Loomis, of Fortune, who may be emailed at cloomis@fortunemail.com; Becky Quick, of CNBC, at BerkshireQuestions@cnbc.com, and Andrew Ross Sorkin, of The New York Times, at arsorkin@nytimes.com. From the questions submitted, each journalist will choose the dozen or so he or she decides are the most interesting and important. (In your e-mail, let the journalist know if you would like your name mentioned if your question is selected.)

Hundreds arrived early in the morning at the 2007 annual meeting, waiting to get into the Qwest Center
Hundreds arrived early in the morning at the 2007 annual meeting, waiting to get into the Qwest Center

Neither Charlie nor I will get so much as a clue about the questions to be asked. We know the journalists will pick some tough ones and that’s the way we like it.

In our second change, we will have a drawing at 8:15 at each microphone for those shareholders hoping to ask questions themselves. At the meeting, I will alternate the questions asked by the journalists with those from the winning shareholders. At least half the questions – those selected by the panel from your submissions – are therefore certain to be Berkshire-related. We will meanwhile continue to get some good – and perhaps entertaining – questions from the audience as well.

Current Berkshire stock prices:

Class A:

Class B:

For more Buffett Watch updates follow alexcrippen on Twitter.

Questions? Comments? Email me at buffettwatch@cnbc.com

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