10 Things To Learn From Warren Buffett’s 2017 Letter to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders

The Oracle of Omaha’s latest letter to his Berkshire Hathaway (BH) shareholders is filled with Buffett’s typical humour, humility and cutting insight.

Below are some early reflections from his 2017 letter which was issued on the 25th of February.

1.   Always Look For The Opportunities

Buffett (and Charlie Munger, BH’s Vice Chairman) will always be “prepared mentally and financially to act fact when opportunities present themselves.”

He then goes on to add, in classic Buffett-style,

“Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons.”

2.   It’s Okay To Make Mistakes (Just Make Sure You Learn From Them)

Buffett shares his anecdotes about how he’s “made some dumb purchases, paying far too much..” and gives some examples of when he overpaid for companies such as Dexter Shoes which lost all value and for which he paid for in Berkshire shares (shares now worth $6 billion – arguably the most expensive shoe company in the world!). He then made a similar mistake buying General Reinsurance, again with shares. From that point, he explained how he has ensured that most of BH’s deals came from internally-generated cash rather than through BH shares.

“Today, I would rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares,” declares Buffett. The lesson here is how it is okay for mistakes to be made, but what won’t be okay is not learning from them!

3.   The American Dream – Built By Immigrants

Buffett remains the eternal optimist. He remarks on the ‘miraculous’ achievement of the United States of America over the last 240 years through the efforts of a ‘tide of talented and ambitious immigrants’, the rule of law and human ingenuity. He explains how, since 1776, Americans have managed to amass wealth totalling $90 trillion.

He does acknowledge that the majority of the homes, cars and other assets are often borrowed but goes on to add how even if the owner defaults on the asset, it remains within American hands.

The one point he does touch on very cursorily is about how the wealth is divided but argues that it is okay as long as it belongs exclusively to Americans. The real challenge here is how less than 1% of Americans actually own the bulk of the wealth – and this inequality is arguably the biggest challenge America faces in the coming years and decades.

4.   Remaining Bullish

“Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history,” claims Buffett very boldly. He goes on to explain how American businesses are going to be without doubt ‘winning’ as President Trump may claim.

He then reminds investors that ‘widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases,’ and that ‘personal fear is your enemy.’

5.   Succession Planning and Managing Talent

Buffett speaks of Ajit Jain who manages Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group and extols his virtues including how Ajit’s operation ‘combines capacity, speed, decisiveness, and most important, brains in a manner unique in the insurance business.’

Buffett talks about how when Ajit Jain first came to BH, he had no experience in insurance and went on to build one of the most successful insurance businesses. Buffett goes on to say, “I there was ever to be another Ajit and you could swap me for him, don’t hesitate. Make the trade!” providing further hints that Ajit Jain could become the next chief of BH.

Ajit Jain is also another immigrant from India who has established his roots in the US and it will be interesting to have the views of Steve Bannon who was dismayed by the fact that there were too many CEOs from South Asia.

6.   The Power of Marketing

Buffett demonstrates how you should always be unashamedly promoting the brand you represent and goes on to tell all readers of the letter to go on to GEICO (an automobile insurance firm) by providing their contact details to save money on their auto insurance! He extols the virtues of GEICO’s superior advantages driven by low costs and how they’ve grown (from making US$8 million annually in 1951 to making that same amount now every 3 hours!).

7.   The Importance Of Having Trusted Advisors Beside You

Buffett explains how he has made errors and ‘stumbled’ either in assessing the fidelity or ability of managers and also talks about how one could count on him certainly making more errors. He then touches on how he is fortunate that Charlie Munger is always around to say ‘no’ to his worst ideas! Anyone who thinks they have no need for guides or advisors is going to be sadly mistaken.

8.   Targets Drive Behaviour And Culture – The Challenge of CEOs Who “Always Make The Numbers.”

Buffett fires a shot across the bow for CEOs who tend to omit certain items or expenses in order to ‘make the numbers’ and meet analysts’ expectations. Buffett warns how CEOs who ‘overtly look for ways to report high numbers tend to foster a culture in which subordinates strive to be “helpful” as well.”

As Buffett explains, business is too unpredictable for numbers to be always met and when a CEO’s focus is driven solely by Wall Street’s expectations, he or she will be ‘tempted to make up the numbers.’

9.   What Value (Or Fees) Do Those Hedge Fund Managers Add?

Buffett has hedge fund managers plainly in his sight. He bemoans the prevailing hedge fund standard of “2 and 20” which means a 2% annual fixed fees and 20% of profits – which means hedge fund managers end up making money (simply by piling on the assets) even if the underlying fund performs badly.

Buffett argues how merely investing in an unmanaged low-cost index would do far better than through some very expensive fund managers and highlights how only one individual, a Ted Seides, from thousands of professional investment managers offered to take him up on a $500,000 bet that a low-cost S&P fund would beat (over a 10-year period) five expensive hedge funds. He goes on to explain that 1,000 monkeys are as likely to make similar market predictions as 1,000 fund managers…

Buffett’s guidance is that all large and small investors should stick with low-cost funds as it is always going to be the hedge fund managers rather than clients who reap the benefits.

He adds how he has always recommended a low-cost S&P 500 index to his friends but how wealthier investors have always only politely thanked him for the guidance and went away to listen to the ‘siren song of a high-fee manager.’ Buffett estimates that more than US$100 billion has been wasted in the past ten decades as a result of “elite superior investment guidance,” and how most of the financial damage impacted pension funds for public employees.

10. Mind the GAAP – the Woes of Warren

One final point to note about Warren’s on-going challenges with accounting standards, or Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). He explains that amortisation is not truly an economic cost and therefore should not be reflected in the way US GAAP requires them to. He also feels that GAAP-prescribes depreciation methods also understate true economic costs which mean earnings are overstated.

Buffett highlights how the changes in BH acquisition strategy – from merely owning a portfolio of stocks to outright ownership of businesses. This meant that rather than having a balance sheet that was ‘marked to market’ (or having a balance sheet that reflected prevailing share prices for the stocks they own) they had now companies they owned or controlled and therefore had to be reflected as per current GAAP or accounting standards. This meant that they have had to write down for companies that lost value (referred to Buffett as the “losers”) but could not revalue the goodwill for the companies that performed well (or the “winners”). This is why their market-value gain was 23.4% in 2016 vs a book value gain of 10.7%.

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A Sino-Scottish Football Proposal

Readers of this blog will know of my interests (and soft spot) for all things Scotland. I previously wrote a brief ten-point approach to revitalising Scottish Football.

In the time that has elapsed since that article was written, we’ve seen a robust approach to football development in China. Now, football has always been popular in China but the attempts towards establishing China as a footballing powerhouse have been sporadic at best. However when President Xi Jinping became the President of the People’s Republic of China, it all changed.

president-xiIt has to be noted that President Xi is a huge football fan and he has publicly outlined his vision for China to one day host the World Cup and to then win it! In 2015, a 50-point plan was announced by the Central Planning Committee (of the Chinese Communist Party) to overhaul Chinese football and it was overseen by President Xi.

This desire for China to be a football giant isn’t a new one. The other Chinese leader in the past who had huge dreams for Chinese football was Deng Xiaoping, the architect for China’s economic liberalisation but his priorities had to be primarily on economic and social development.

Chinese football fans are a hugely passionate lot – I recall watching the Singapore Armed Forces FC (SAFFC) playing the Chinese Army Ba Yi team in 1998 at the old Kallang Stadium in Singapore and it was sellout turnout that was half Singaporean and half Chinese (despite the fact it was held in Singapore!) and the passion and energy was fantastic.

In fact, when Stockport County (from the Second Division) did a tour in China, their matches were attended by over 20,000 fans per game (more than five times their home average home attendance!).

The Chinese Football Association Strategy

The Chinese Football Association have clearly spelt out their desire and strategy to be a ‘world football superpower by the middle of the century.’

In an effort to match the strategy, they have embarked on a five-pronged approach towards delivering their vision.

1. Grassroots training, academies’ development and training

The Chinese investment into building the game at grassroots level is absolutely staggering. According to a memo sent out by the Ministry of Education in China on July 2015, they have identified 4,755 schools as specialist footballing academies.

Last year, the world’s largest (and arguably the most expensive) football academy – the Evergrande Football School – opened in Guangzhou, a Southern Chinese province. The school built in 10 months cost over $185 million. The school also has partnered with Real Madrid to provide the trainers and coaches to help develop about 3,000 young Chinese footballers.

Other football clubs, including Manchester City, and ex-players such as Luis Figo and Michael Owen have also established their football academies across China.

The Chinese government have also expressed a clear commitment to include football as part of the overall school curriculum.

This is part of the overall goal to ensure over 50 million children and adults play football regularly by 2020 and to develop the critical mass of high-quality players required to develop a world-class team.

2. Providing Chinese players with international experience and exposure

There have not been as many high-profile Chinese players in European leagues. The two most recognisable players were Sun Jihai and Li Tie who played for Manchester City and Everton respectively. Unlike South Korean and Japanese superstars (such as Park Ji Sung for Manchester United, Hideotoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura for Celtic, et et), Chinese players have not been able to shine at the top European leagues.

There is now concerted effort to get Chinese players playing in the top European leagues to get the international exposure. There is a reasonable expectation that this will not only allow for top players to develop their craft further but also help China in their international competitions.

It is to be noted though that Chinese players turning out for British teams saw over 350 million Chinese viewers becoming more interested in British football!

3. Ownership and partnerships with globally-renowned football clubs

The top Chinese companies are now investing, partnering or buying outright top teams across Europe. From Atletico Madrid to Inter Milan to Wolverhampton Wanderers, we see Chinese ownership. Chinese consortiums are also partners in other clubs such as Manchester City. This is part of a wider effort not only to drive economic benefits that come from effective management of football teams but to also learn and adopt best club management practices. These best practices will ultimately support better footballing management and establishment of world-class processes and procedures required to develop a football network back in China.

4. Bringing world-class managers and trainers to China

The top teams in the Chinese leagues are now bringing in expert football managers and coaches with very impressive pedigrees. The likes of Luis Felipe Scolari, Sven-Goran Erikkson and Dan Petrescu have come to Chinese leagues and have helped raise the level of the game in China.

5. Signing high-quality talent and superstars from overseas to play in Chinese leagues 

In the recent year we’ve seen the financial muscle of Chinese football clubs (supported by the richest Chinese companies and their billionaire owners, including Jack Ma of Alibaba fame and Wang Jianlin, owner of Dalian Wanda and China’s richest man) outbid top European clubs for the services of world-class footballers. From Ramires (£23 million), to Alex Teixera, to Hulk (for £47 million), to Carlos Tevez (being paid an estimated £20m per annum), we’re seeing a very deliberate policy of bringing the best players to China in an effort to drive up the overall quality of Chinese players in the Chinese League through better exposure to top talent.

What all of the above demonstrates is a clear laser-like focus on the Chinese government ambitions of winning the World Cup in the coming decades. We see the ambition being matched with money, political support and commitment from across all sectors (education, business and policy) – and this is just the start. 

One Area For Further Development

There is, however, one area which is still missing. Chinese players need to be playing against quality opposition week-in, week-out. Whilst the youth and grassroots development is a step in the right direction, it is going to take a decade or more before there is a crop of players who will provide the quality opposition. Having a few superstar players (limited to three foreign players per team in any event) again is not enough. Similarly, having a couple of world-class coaches is not going to be enough.

The Chinese league needs to have complete teams with quality players who can provide the Chinese players with the type of competition and exposure that will allow them to make step changes in their development and progress.

This is where Scottish football comes in!

What Could This Mean For Scottish Football?

The Scottish FA have provided for development loans to help build the youth football framework across Scottish football clubs. The Scottish FA have also provided financial incentives to Scottish football team for performance-based outcomes which include number of under-21 players in the first team.

Alistair Gray, in a BBC interview, also highlighted the quality of youth players from Scotland and the need for the players to have more competitive game time to further develop their capabilities.

The Proposal

My proposal is that the Chinese Football Association allow for the Celtic U23 and Rangers U23 participate in the Chinese Super League and increase the size of the league from 16 to 18 teams.

What would this mean for Chinese football and the players in the league?

  • It means that you will have the top Chinese teams playing against the cream of the crop from Scottish Football , against young players who are technically very competent.
  • It will also allow for Chinese teams to get used to the pace of football Scottish teams can provide and help build the overall footballing game intelligence for Chinese league players.
  • This will allow for a much more holistic development of Chinese players and get them acclimatised to playing against different styles and against much higher overall quality players.
  • It could also lead to a more formal exchange programme between Chinese league players and Scottish football clubs and also promote greater youth development through these exchange programmes.

There are significant benefits for Scottish football as a result of this proposal:

  • It will mean the top youth players from Scotland will have the opportunity to play against an up-and-coming group of Chinese players and further hone their skills.
  • It will also create greater interest in Scottish football by Chinese fans and will spur a greater following. It will help expose Chinese football fans to the intrigues and entertainment of Scottish football. The history of Scottish football, its lore and fables – from the Lions of Lisbon, to the history of the Old Firm derbies,   Archie Gemmill’s wonder goal against the Dutch in the 1978 World Cup. This will allow for the Scottish Professional Football League to negotiate better rates for the TV deal in China in the future. Imagine a world with a billion more interested Scottish football fans!
  • An Old Firm derby in Shanghai – the opportunity to recreate one of the world’s most historic football rivalries, creating an interest in the history and ethos of both Celtic and Rangers for an entirely new audience remains a very tantalising prospect.
  • It also provides a fabulous opportunity for Scottish youth to experience a year out in China, learning more about the culture and experiencing life from a different lens and perspective. This can only further build the bridges between cultures.

Ultimately this initiative will lead to greater awareness and relationships between both China and Scotland. It also becomes a fantastic opportunity for Scotland to showcase her natural beauty, the culture and traditions of Scotland and help increase the overall tourism and investment by Chinese.

It will also help the Chinese sports authorities get one step closer to meeting the Chinese leadership’s ambitions of one day winning the World Cup. Now, that’s an offer that will be hard to refuse.