Warren Buffett's highly anticipated annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders released on Saturday did not disappoint this year with a little something for all fans of the Oracle of Omaha, from professional value investors to the casual admirers of his wit and wisdom.
Most newsworthy in this year's edition, the 87-year old billionaire pointed out that Berkshire Hathaway now has a $116 billion war chest to spend on a deal, but that prices were too high for him to spend any of it in a big way last year.
Buffett went on to give a valuable investing lesson that involved quoting a Rudyard Kipling poem from the 1800s. There are plenty of quips in the letter, including a joke likening a CEO's penchant for dealmaking to the sex drive of teenagers.
Here are the highlights below:
The tax cut:
"Berkshire's gain in net worth during 2017 was $65.3 billion, which increased the per-share book value of both our Class A and Class B stock by 23%...A large portion of our gain did not come from anything we accomplished at Berkshire. The $65 billion gain is nonetheless real – rest assured of that. But only $36 billion came from Berkshire's operations. The remaining $29 billion was delivered to us in December when Congress rewrote the U.S. Tax Code."
Why he didn't make a big deal in 2017:
"In our search for new stand-alone businesses, the key qualities we seek are durable competitive strengths; able and high-grade management; good returns on the net tangible assets required to operate the business; opportunities for internal growth at attractive returns; and, finally, a sensible purchase price. That last requirement proved a barrier to virtually all deals we reviewed in 2017, as prices for decent, but far from spectacular, businesses hit an all-time high."
'Telling your ripening teenager...'
"Indeed, price seemed almost irrelevant to an army of optimistic purchasers. Why the purchasing frenzy? In part, it's because the CEO job self-selects for 'can-do' types. If Wall Street analysts or board members urge that brand of CEO to consider possible acquisitions, it's a bit like telling your ripening teenager to be sure to have a normal sex life. Once a CEO hungers for a deal, he or she will never lack for forecasts that justify the purchase. Subordinates will be cheering, envisioning enlarged domains and the compensation levels that typically increase with corporate size. Investment bankers, smelling huge fees, will be applauding as well. (Don't ask the barber whether you need a haircut.) If the historical performance of the target falls short of validating its acquisition, large 'synergies' will be forecast. Spreadsheets never disappoint."
'Insane to risk what you have....to obtain what you don't need.'
"Our aversion to leverage has dampened our returns over the years. But Charlie and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don't need. We held this view 50 years ago when we each ran an investment partnership, funded by a few friends and relatives who trusted us. We also hold it today after a million or so 'partners' have joined us at Berkshire."
Berkshire lost an estimated $3 billion from the hurricanes
"We currently estimate Berkshire's losses from the three hurricanes to be $3 billion (or about $2 billion after tax). If both that estimate and my industry estimate of $100 billion are close to accurate, our share of the industry loss was about 3%. I believe that percentage is also what we may reasonably expect to be our share of losses in future American mega-cats."
Need to make one or more 'huge acquisitions'
"Berkshire's goal is to substantially increase the earnings of its non-insurance group. For that to happen, we will need to make one or more huge acquisitions. We certainly have the resources to do so. At yearend Berkshire held$116.0 billion in cash and U.S. Treasury Bills (whose average maturity was 88 days), up from $86.4 billion at yearend 2016. This extraordinary liquidity earns only a pittance and is far beyond the level Charlie and I wish Berkshire to have. Our smiles will broaden when we have redeployed Berkshire's excess funds into more productive assets."
Stock investments are not just 'ticker symbols'
"Charlie and I view the marketable common stocks that Berkshire owns as interests in businesses, not as ticker symbols to be bought or sold based on their 'chart' patterns, the 'target' prices of analysts or the opinions of media pundits. Instead, we simply believe that if the businesses of the investees are successful (as we believe most will be) our investments will be successful as well. Sometimes the payoffs to us will be modest; occasionally the cash register will ring loudly. And sometimes I will make expensive mistakes. Overall – and over time – we should get decent results. In America, equity investors have the wind at their back."
Why investors shouldn't use borrowed money to buy stocks
"There is simply no telling how far stocks can fall in a short period. Even if your borrowings are small and your positions aren't immediately threatened by the plunging market, your mind may well become rattled by scary headlines and breathless commentary. And an unsettled mind will not make good decisions."
Rudyard Kipling poem
"When major declines occur, however, they offer extraordinary opportunities to those who are not handicapped by debt. That's the time to heed these lines from Kipling's If:
'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ...
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting...
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim...
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you...
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it.'"
On winning his 10-year bet against hedge funds:
"Let me emphasize that there was nothing aberrational about stock-market behavior over the ten-year stretch. If a poll of investment 'experts' had been asked late in 2007 for a forecast of long-term common-stock returns, their guesses would have likely averaged close to the 8.5% actually delivered by the S&P 500. Making money in that environment should have been easy. Indeed, Wall Street 'helpers' earned staggering sums. While this group prospered, however, many of their investors experienced a lost decade. Performance comes, performance goes. Fees never falter.
The bet illuminated another important investment lesson: Though markets are generally rational, they occasionally do crazy things. Seizing the opportunities then offered does not require great intelligence, a degree in economics or a familiarity with Wall Street jargon such as alpha and beta. What investors then need instead is an ability to both disregard mob fears or enthusiasms and to focus on a few simple fundamentals. A willingness to look unimaginative for a sustained period – or even to look foolish – is also essential."
Bonds can be risky too
"It is a terrible mistake for investors with long-term horizons – among them, pension funds, college endowments and savings-minded individuals – to measure their investment 'risk' by their portfolio's ratio of bonds to stocks. Often, high-grade bonds in an investment portfolio increase its risk."
On his succession plan:
"I've saved the best for last. Early in 2018, Berkshire's board elected Ajit Jain and Greg Abel as directors of Berkshire and also designated each as Vice Chairman. Ajit is now responsible for insurance operations, and Greg oversees the rest of our businesses. Charlie and I will focus on investments and capital allocation. You and I are lucky to have Ajit and Greg working for us. Each has been with Berkshire for decades, and Berkshire's blood flows through their veins. The character of each man matches his talents. And that says it all."