Warren Buffett describes a great 'American Tailwind' in annual letter — here are the highlights
The most widely anticipated shareholder letter on Wall Street was released on Saturday.
Warren Buffett discussed many topics including Wall Street's obsession with quarterly results, Berkshire Hathaway's $112 billion cash pile and what he wants to do with it, his first stock purchase, the dangers of too much debt, and what he sees as the biggest risks ahead.
The "Oracle of Omaha" also gave a touching tribute to what he described as the "American Tailwind."
"It is beyond arrogance for American businesses or individuals to boast that they have 'done it alone,'" Buffett writes in tribute to America and its military personnel.
Here are the highlights from the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway:
Don't pay attention to quarterly fluctuations
"Wide swings in our quarterly GAAP earnings will inevitably continue. That's because our huge equity portfolio – valued at nearly $173 billion at the end of 2018 – will often experience one-day price fluctuations of $2 billion or more, all of which the new rule says must be dropped immediately to our bottom line. Indeed, in the fourth quarter, a period of high volatility in stock prices, we experienced several days with a 'profit' or 'loss' of more than $4 billion. Our advice? Focus on operating earnings, paying little attention to gains or losses of any variety. My saying that in no way diminishes the importance of our investments to Berkshire. Over time, Charlie and I expect them to deliver substantial gains, albeit with highly irregular timing."
Quotes Abraham Lincoln
"Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: 'If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does it have?' and then answered his own query: 'Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one.' Abe would have felt lonely on Wall Street."
Financial Fortress: $112 billion
"In our fourth grove, Berkshire held $112 billion at yearend in U.S. Treasury bills and other cash equivalents, and another $20 billion in miscellaneous fixed-income instruments. We consider a portion of that stash to be untouchable, having pledged to always hold at least $20 billion in cash equivalents to guard against external calamities. We have also promised to avoid any activities that could threaten our maintaining that buffer.
Berkshire will forever remain a financial fortress. In managing, I will make expensive mistakes of commission and will also miss many opportunities, some of which should have been obvious to me. At times, our stock will tumble as investors flee from equities. But I will never risk getting caught short of cash."
Wants to buy, but 'prices are sky-high'
"In the years ahead, we hope to move much of our excess liquidity into businesses that Berkshire will permanently own. The immediate prospects for that, however, are not good: Prices are sky-high for businesses possessing decent long-term prospects.
That disappointing reality means that 2019 will likely see us again expanding our holdings of marketable equities. We continue, nevertheless, to hope for an elephant-sized acquisition. Even at our ages of 88 and 95 – I'm the young one – that prospect is what causes my heart and Charlie's to beat faster. (Just writing about the possibility of a huge purchase has caused my pulse rate to soar.)
My expectation of more stock purchases is not a market call. Charlie and I have no idea as to how stocks will behave next week or next year. Predictions of that sort have never been a part of our activities. Our thinking, rather, is focused on calculating whether a portion of an attractive business is worth more than its market price."
"It is likely that – over time – Berkshire will be a significant repurchaser of its shares, transactions that will take place at prices above book value but below our estimate of intrinsic value."
Never trying to 'hit' quarterly number
"Berkshire has no company-wide budget (though many of our subsidiaries find one useful). Our lack of such an instrument means that the parent company has never had a quarterly ''number' to hit. Shunning the use of this bogey sends an important message to our many managers, reinforcing the culture we prize.
Over the years, Charlie and I have seen all sorts of bad corporate behavior, both accounting and operational, induced by the desire of management to meet Wall Street expectations. What starts as an "innocent" fudge in order to not disappoint 'the Street' – say, trade-loading at quarter-end, turning a blind eye to rising insurance losses, or drawing down a "cookie-jar" reserve – can become the first step toward full-fledged fraud. Playing with the numbers 'just this once' may well be the CEO's intent; it's seldom the end result. And if it's okay for the boss to cheat a little, it's easy for subordinates to rationalize similar behavior.
At Berkshire, our audience is neither analysts nor commentators: Charlie and I are working for our shareholder-partners. The numbers that flow up to us will be the ones we send on to you."
"Moreover, our P/C companies have an excellent underwriting record. Berkshire has now operated at an underwriting profit for 15 of the past 16 years, the exception being 2017, when our pre-tax loss was $3.2 billion. For the entire 16-year span, our pre-tax gain totaled $27 billion, of which $2 billion was recorded in 2018.
That record is no accident: Disciplined risk evaluation is the daily focus of our insurance managers, who know that the benefits of float can be drowned by poor underwriting results. All insurers give that message lip service. At Berkshire it is a religion, Old Testament style."
Dangers of Debt
"We use debt sparingly. Many managers, it should be noted, will disagree with this policy, arguing that significant debt juices the returns for equity owners. And these more venturesome CEOs will be right most of the time.
At rare and unpredictable intervals, however, credit vanishes and debt becomes financially fatal. A Russianroulette equation – usually win, occasionally die – may make financial sense for someone who gets a piece of a company's upside but does not share in its downside. But that strategy would be madness for Berkshire. Rational people don't risk what they have and need for what they don't have and don't need."
"As I have often done before, I will emphasize that this happy outcome is far from a sure thing: Mistakes in assessing insurance risks can be huge and can take many years to surface. (Think asbestos.) A major catastrophe that will dwarf hurricanes Katrina and Michael will occur – perhaps tomorrow, perhaps many decades from now. 'The Big One' may come from a traditional source, such as a hurricane or earthquake, or it may be a total surprise involving, say, a cyber attack having disastrous consequences beyond anything insurers now contemplate. When such a megacatastrophe strikes, we will get our share of the losses and they will be big – very big. Unlike many other insurers, however, we will be looking to add business the next day."
The man who made Berkshire $50 billion: Geico's Tony Nicely
"By my estimate, Tony's management of GEICO has increased Berkshire's intrinsic value by more than $50 billion. On top of that, he is a model for everything a manager should be, helping his 40,000 associates to identify and polish abilities they didn't realize they possessed. Last year, Tony decided to retire as CEO, and on June 30th he turned that position over to Bill Roberts, his long-time partner. I've known and watched Bill operate for several decades, and once again Tony made the right move. Tony remains Chairman and will be helpful to GEICO for the rest of his life. He's incapable of doing less. All Berkshire shareholders owe Tony their thanks. I head the list."
First stock purchase
"On March 11th, it will be 77 years since I first invested in an American business. The year was 1942, I was 11, and I went all in, investing $114.75 I had begun accumulating at age six. What I bought was three shares of Cities Service preferred stock. I had become a capitalist, and it felt good."
The 'American Tailwind'
"Charlie and I happily acknowledge that much of Berkshire's success has simply been a product of what I think should be called The American Tailwind. It is beyond arrogance for American businesses or individuals to boast that they have 'done it alone.' The tidy rows of simple white crosses at Normandy should shame those who make such claims.
There are also many other countries around the world that have bright futures. About that, we should rejoice: Americans will be both more prosperous and safer if all nations thrive. At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders.
Over the next 77 years, however, the major source of our gains will almost certainly be provided by The American Tailwind. We are lucky – gloriously lucky – to have that force at our back."
'Niagara of cash-generation'
"For 54 years, Charlie (Munger) and I have loved our jobs. Daily, we do what we find interesting, working with people we like and trust. And now our new management structure has made our lives even more enjoyable.
With the whole ensemble – that is, with Ajit (Jain) and Greg (Abel) running operations, a great collection of businesses, a Niagara of cash-generation, a cadre of talented managers and a rock-solid culture – your company is in good shape for whatever the future brings."
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