The highlight of 2010 was our acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, a purchase that’s working out even better than I expected. It now appears that owning this railroad will increase Berkshire’s “normal” earning power by nearly 40% pre-tax and by well over 30% after-tax. Making this purchase increased our share count by 6% and used $22 billion of cash. Since we’ve quickly replenished the cash, the economics of this transaction have turned out very well.
A “normal year,” of course, is not something that either Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire and my partner, or I can define with anything like precision. But for the purpose of estimating our current earning power, we are envisioning a year free of a mega-catastrophe in insurance and possessing a general business climate somewhat better than that of 2010 but weaker than that of 2005 or 2006. Using these assumptions, and several others that I will explain in the “Investment” section, I can estimate that the normal earning power of the assets we currently own is about $17 billion pre-tax and $12 billion after-tax, excluding any capital gains or losses. Every day Charlie and I think about how we can build on this base.
There is a third, more subjective, element to an intrinsic value calculation that can be either positive or negative: the efficacy with which retained earnings will be deployed in the future. We, as well as many other businesses, are likely to retain earnings over the next decade that will equal, or even exceed, the capital we presently employ. Some companies will turn these retained dollars into fifty-cent pieces, others into two-dollar bills.
This “what-will-they-do-with-the-money” factor must always be evaluated along with the “what-do-we-have-now” calculation in order for us, or anybody, to arrive at a sensible estimate of a company’s intrinsic value. That’s because an outside investor stands by helplessly as management reinvests his share of the company’s earnings. If a CEO can be expected to do this job well, the reinvestment prospects add to the company’s current value; if the CEO’s talents or motives are suspect, today’s value must be discounted. The difference in outcome can be huge. A dollar of then-value in the hands of Sears Roebuck’s or Montgomery Ward’s CEOs in the late 1960s had a far different destiny than did a dollar entrusted to Sam Walton.
Our second advantage relates to the allocation of the money our businesses earn. After meeting the needs of those businesses, we have very substantial sums left over. Most companies limit themselves to reinvesting funds within the industry in which they have been operating. That often restricts them, however, to a “universe” for capital allocation that is both tiny and quite inferior to what is available in the wider world. Competition for the few opportunities that are available tends to become fierce. The seller has the upper hand, as a girl might if she were the only female at a party attended by many boys. That lopsided situation would be great for the girl, but terrible for the boys.
At Berkshire we face no institutional restraints when we deploy capital. Charlie and I are limited only by our ability to understand the likely future of a possible acquisition. If we clear that hurdle – and frequently we can’t – we are then able to compare any one opportunity against a host of others.
When I took control of Berkshire in 1965, I didn’t exploit this advantage. Berkshire was then only in textiles, where it had in the previous decade lost significant money. The dumbest thing I could have done was to pursue “opportunities” to improve and expand the existing textile operation – so for years that’s exactly what I did. And then, in a final burst of brilliance, I went out and bought another textile company. Aaaaaaargh! Eventually I came to my senses, heading first into insurance and then into other industries.
There is even a supplement to this world-is-our-oyster advantage: In addition to evaluating the attractions of one business against a host of others, we also measure businesses against opportunities available in marketable securities, a comparison most managements don’t make. Often, businesses are priced ridiculously high against what can likely be earned from investments in stocks or bonds. At such moments, we buy securities and bide our time.
Our flexibility in respect to capital allocation has accounted for much of our progress to date. We have been able to take money we earn from, say, See’s Candies or Business Wire (two of our best-run businesses, but also two offering limited reinvestment opportunities) and use it as part of the stake we needed to buy BNSF.
Our final advantage is the hard-to-duplicate culture that permeates Berkshire. And in businesses, culture counts.
To start with, the directors who represent you think and act like owners. They receive token compensation: no options, no restricted stock and, for that matter, virtually no cash. We do not provide them directors and officers liability insurance, a given at almost every other large public company. If they mess up with your money, they will lose their money as well. Leaving my holdings aside, directors and their families own Berkshire shares worth more than $3 billion. Our directors, therefore, monitor Berkshire’s actions and results with keen interest and an owner’s eye. You and I are lucky to have them as stewards.
This same owner-orientation prevails among our managers. In many cases, these are people who have sought out Berkshire as an acquirer for a business that they and their families have long owned. They came to us with an owner’s mindset, and we provide an environment that encourages them to retain it. Having managers who love their businesses is no small advantage.
A lot has happened at GEICO during the last 60 years, but its core goal – saving Americans substantial money on their purchase of auto insurance – remains unchanged. (Try us at 1-800-847-7536 or www.GEICO.com.) In other words, get the policyholder’s business by deserving his business. Focusing on this objective, the company has grown to be America’s third-largest auto insurer, with a market share of 8.8%.
When Tony Nicely, GEICO’s CEO, took over in 1993, that share was 2.0%, a level at which it had been stuck for more than a decade. GEICO became a different company under Tony, finding a path to consistent growth while simultaneously maintaining underwriting discipline and keeping its costs low.
Let me quantify Tony’s achievement. When, in 1996, we bought the 50% of GEICO we didn’t already own, it cost us about $2.3 billion. That price implied a value of $4.6 billion for 100%. GEICO then had tangible net worth of $1.9 billion.
The excess over tangible net worth of the implied value – $2.7 billion – was what we estimated GEICO’s “goodwill” to be worth at that time. That goodwill represented the economic value of the policyholders who were then doing business with GEICO. In 1995, those customers had paid the company $2.8 billion in premiums. Consequently, we were valuing GEICO’s customers at about 97% (2.7/2.8) of what they were annually paying the company. By industry standards, that was a very high price. But GEICO was no ordinary insurer: Because of the company’s low costs, its policyholders were consistently profitable and unusually loyal.
Today, premium volume is $14.3 billion and growing. Yet we carry the goodwill of GEICO on our books at only $1.4 billion, an amount that will remain unchanged no matter how much the value of GEICO increases. (Under accounting rules, you write down the carrying value of goodwill if its economic value decreases, but leave it unchanged if economic value increases.) Using the 97%-of-premium-volume yardstick we applied to our 1996 purchase, the real value today of GEICO’s economic goodwill is about $14 billion. And this value is likely to be much higher ten and twenty years from now. GEICO – off to a strong start in 2011 – is the gift that keeps giving.
One not-so-small footnote: Under Tony, GEICO has developed one of the country’s largest personal-lines insurance agencies, which primarily sells homeowners policies to our GEICO auto insurance customers. In this business, we represent a number of insurers that are not affiliated with us. They take the risk; we simply sign up the customers. Last year we sold 769,898 new policies at this agency operation, up 34% from the year before. The obvious way this activity aids us is that it produces commission revenue; equally important is the fact that it further strengthens our relationship with our policyholders, helping us retain them.
I owe an enormous debt to Tony and Davy (and, come to think of it, to that janitor as well).
Let me emphasize again that cost-free float is not an outcome to be expected for the P/C industry as a whole: In most years, industry premiums have been inadequate to cover claims plus expenses. Consequently, the industry’s overall return on tangible equity has for many decades fallen far short of the average return realized by American industry, a sorry performance almost certain to continue. Berkshire’s outstanding economics exist only because we have some terrific managers running some unusual businesses.
At bottom, a sound insurance operation requires four disciplines: (1) An understanding of all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses; (2) A conservative evaluation of the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does; (3) The setting of a premium that will deliver a profit, on average, after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and (4) The willingness to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained.
Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. The urgings of Wall Street, pressures from the agency force and brokers, or simply a refusal by a testosterone-driven CEO to accept shrinking volumes has led too many insurers to write business at inadequate prices. “The other guy is doing it so we must as well” spells trouble in any business, but none more so than insurance.
Manufacturing, Service and Retailing Operations
This group of companies sells products ranging from lollipops to jet airplanes. Some of the businesses enjoy terrific economics, measured by earnings on unleveraged net tangible assets that run from 25% after-tax to more than 100%. Others produce good returns in the area of 12-20%. Unfortunately, a few have very poor returns, a result of some serious mistakes I have made in my job of capital allocation. These errors came about because I misjudged either the competitive strength of the business I was purchasing or the future economics of the industry in which it operated. I try to look out ten or twenty years when making an acquisition, but sometimes my eyesight has been poor.
Home ownership makes sense for most Americans, particularly at today’s lower prices and bargain interest rates. All things considered, the third best investment I ever made was the purchase of my home, though I would have made far more money had I instead rented and used the purchase money to buy stocks. (The two best investments were wedding rings.) For the $31,500 I paid for our house, my family and I gained 52 years of terrific memories with more to come.
But a house can be a nightmare if the buyer’s eyes are bigger than his wallet and if a lender – often protected by a government guarantee – facilitates his fantasy. Our country’s social goal should not be to put families into the house of their dreams, but rather to put them into a house they can afford.
In our reported earnings we reflect only the dividends our portfolio companies pay us. Our share of the undistributed earnings of these investees, however, was more than $2 billion last year. These retained earnings are important. In our experience – and, for that matter, in the experience of investors over the past century – undistributed earnings have been either matched or exceeded by market gains, albeit in a highly irregular manner. (Indeed, sometimes the correlation goes in reverse. As one investor said in 2009: “This is worse than divorce. I’ve lost half my net worth – and I still have my wife.”) In the future, we expect our market gains to eventually at least equal the earnings our investees retain.
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In our earlier estimate of Berkshire’s normal earning power, we made three adjustments that relate to future investment income (but did not include anything for the undistributed earnings factor I have just described).
The first adjustment was decidedly negative. Last year, we discussed five large fixed-income investments that have been contributing substantial sums to our reported earnings. One of these – our Swiss Re note – was redeemed in the early days of 2011, and two others – our Goldman Sachs and General Electric preferred stocks – are likely to be gone by yearend. General Electric is entitled to call our preferred in October and has stated its intention to do so. Goldman Sachs has the right to call our preferred on 30 days notice, but has been held back by the Federal Reserve (bless it!), which unfortunately will likely give Goldman the green light before long.
All three of the companies redeeming must pay us a premium to do so – in aggregate about $1.4 billion – but all of the redemptions are nevertheless unwelcome. After they occur, our earning power will be significantly reduced. That’s the bad news.
There are two probable offsets. At yearend we held $38 billion of cash equivalents that have been earning a pittance throughout 2010. At some point, however, better rates will return. They will add at least $500 million – and perhaps much more – to our investment income. That sort of increase in money-market yields is unlikely to come soon. It is appropriate, nevertheless, for us to include improved rates in an estimate of “normal” earning power. Even before higher rates come about, furthermore, we could get lucky and find an opportunity to use some of our cash hoard at decent returns. That day can’t come too soon for me: To update Aesop, a girl in a convertible is worth five in the phone book.
In addition, dividends on our current common stock holdings will almost certainly increase. The largest gain is likely to come at Wells Fargo. The Federal Reserve, our friend in respect to Goldman Sachs, has frozen dividend levels at major banks, whether strong or weak, during the last two years. Wells Fargo, though consistently prospering throughout the worst of the recession and currently enjoying enormous financial strength and earning power, has therefore been forced to maintain an artificially low payout. (We don’t fault the Fed: For various reasons, an across-the-board freeze made sense during the crisis and its immediate aftermath.)
At some point, probably soon, the Fed’s restrictions will cease. Wells Fargo can then reinstate the rational dividend policy that its owners deserve. At that time, we would expect our annual dividends from just this one security to increase by several hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Other companies we hold are likely to increase their dividends as well. Coca-Cola paid us $88 million in 1995, the year after we finished purchasing the stock. Every year since, Coke has increased its dividend. In 2011, we will almost certainly receive $376 million from Coke, up $24 million from last year. Within ten years, I would expect that $376 million to double. By the end of that period, I wouldn’t be surprised to see our share of Coke’s annual earnings exceed 100% of what we paid for the investment. Time is the friend of the wonderful business.
Overall, I believe our “normal” investment income will at least equal what we realized in 2010, though the redemptions I described will cut our take in 2011 and perhaps 2012 as well.
John Kenneth Galbraith once slyly observed that economists were most economical with ideas: They made the ones learned in graduate school last a lifetime. University finance departments often behave similarly. Witness the tenacity with which almost all clung to the theory of efficient markets throughout the 1970s and 1980s, dismissively calling powerful facts that refuted it “anomalies.” (I always love explanations of that kind: The Flat Earth Society probably views a ship’s circling of the globe as an annoying, but inconsequential, anomaly.)
Academics’ current practice of teaching Black-Scholes as revealed truth needs re-examination. For that matter, so does the academic’s inclination to dwell on the valuation of options. You can be highly successful as an investor without having the slightest ability to value an option. What students should be learning is how to value a business. That’s what investing is all about.
Life and Debt
The fundamental principle of auto racing is that to finish first, you must first finish. That dictum is equally applicable to business and guides our every action at Berkshire.
Unquestionably, some people have become very rich through the use of borrowed money. However, that’s also been a way to get very poor. When leverage works, it magnifies your gains. Your spouse thinks you’re clever, and your neighbors get envious. But leverage is addictive. Once having profited from its wonders, very few people retreat to more conservative practices. And as we all learned in third grade – and some relearned in 2008 – any series of positive numbers, however impressive the numbers may be, evaporates when multiplied by a single zero. History tells us that leverage all too often produces zeroes, even when it is employed by very smart people.
Leverage, of course, can be lethal to businesses as well. Companies with large debts often assume that these obligations can be refinanced as they mature. That assumption is usually valid. Occasionally, though, either because of company-specific problems or a worldwide shortage of credit, maturities must actually be met by payment. For that, only cash will do the job.
Borrowers then learn that credit is like oxygen. When either is abundant, its presence goes unnoticed. When either is missing, that’s all that is noticed. Even a short absence of credit can bring a company to its knees. In September 2008, in fact, its overnight disappearance in many sectors of the economy came dangerously close to bringing our entire country to its knees.
Charlie and I have no interest in any activity that could pose the slightest threat to Berkshire’s wellbeing. (With our having a combined age of 167, starting over is not on our bucket list.) We are forever conscious of the fact that you, our partners, have entrusted us with what in many cases is a major portion of your savings. In addition, important philanthropy is dependent on our prudence. Finally, many disabled victims of accidents caused by our insureds are counting on us to deliver sums payable decades from now. It would be irresponsible for us to risk what all these constituencies need just to pursue a few points of extra return.
We keep our cash largely in U.S. Treasury bills and avoid other short-term securities yielding a few more basis points, a policy we adhered to long before the frailties of commercial paper and money market funds became apparent in September 2008. We agree with investment writer Ray DeVoe’s observation, “More money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun.” At Berkshire, we don’t rely on bank lines, and we don’t enter into contracts that could require postings of collateral except for amounts that are tiny in relation to our liquid assets.
Furthermore, not a dime of cash has left Berkshire for dividends or share repurchases during the past 40 years. Instead, we have retained all of our earnings to strengthen our business, a reinforcement now running about $1 billion per month. Our net worth has thus increased from $48 million to $157 billion during those four decades and our intrinsic value has grown far more. No other American corporation has come close to building up its financial strength in this unrelenting way.
By being so cautious in respect to leverage, we penalize our returns by a minor amount. Having loads of liquidity, though, lets us sleep well. Moreover, during the episodes of financial chaos that occasionally erupt in our economy, we will be equipped both financially and emotionally to play offense while others scramble for survival. That’s what allowed us to invest $15.6 billion in 25 days of panic following the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008.