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%.