Berkshire Hathaway included the yearly stock performance in the annual report this year. After slower growth in book value in the 1973-1974 recession, book value growth picked up in 1975. Berkshire's stock price, which was down a bit in 1973, took a beating along with the whole market in 1974. Then, after only a slight gain in 1975, the stock went on to average gains of over 55% per year in the 10 years from 1976 to 1985, and over 44% per year in the 20 years from 1976 to 1995.
Below are some of the beginning excerpts to the letters from those earlier years. Note: The actual gains in book value here are different than Berkshire reports in its recent letter because mark-to-market accounting rules changed, and Berkshire made previous years conform for comparison purposes.
Operating results for 1974 overall were unsatisfactory due to the poor performance of our insurance business. In last year's annual report some decline in profitability was predicted but the extent of this decline, which accelerated during the year, was a surprise. Operating earnings for 1974 were $8,383,576, or $8.56 per share, for a return on beginning shareholders' equity of 10.3%. This is the lowest return on equity realized since 1970. Our textile division and our bank both performed very well, turning in improved results against the already good figures of 1973. However, insurance underwriting, which has been mentioned in the last several annual reports as running at levels of unsustainable profitability, turned dramatically worse as the year progressed.
The outlook for 1975 is not encouraging. We undoubtedly will have sharply negative comparisons in our textile operation and probably a moderate decline in banking earnings. Insurance underwriting is a large question mark at this time—it certainly won't be a satisfactory year in this area, and could be an extremely poor one. Prospects are reasonably good for an improvement in both insurance investment income and our equity in earnings of Blue Chip Stamps. During this period we plan to continue to build financial strength and liquidity, preparing for the time when insurance rates become adequate and we can once again aggressively pursue opportunities for growth in this area.
Last year, when discussing the prospects for 1975, we stated “the outlook for 1975 is not encouraging.” This forecast proved to be distressingly accurate. Our operating earnings for 1975 were $6,713,592, or $6.85 per share, producing a return on beginning shareholders’ equity of 7.6%. This is the lowest return on equity experienced since 1967. Furthermore, as explained later in this letter, a large segment of these earnings resulted from Federal income tax refunds which will not be available to assist performance in 1976.
On balance, however, current trends indicate a somewhat brighter 1976. Operations and prospects will be discussed in greater detail below, under specific industry titles. Our expectation is that significantly better results in textiles, earnings added from recent acquisitions, an increase in equity in earnings of Blue Chip Stamps resulting from an enlarged ownership interest, and at least a moderate improvement in insurance underwriting results will more than offset other possible negatives to produce greater earnings in 1976. The major variable—and by far the most difficult to predict with any feeling of confidence—is the insurance underwriting result. Present very tentative indications are that underwriting improvement is in prospect. If such improvement is moderate, our overall gain in earnings in 1976 likewise will prove moderate. More significant underwriting improvement could give us a major gain in earnings.
After two dismal years, operating results in 1976 improved significantly. Last year we said the degree of progress in insurance underwriting would determine whether our gain in earnings would be “moderate” or “major.” As it turned out, earnings exceeded even the high end of our expectations. In large part, this was due to the outstanding efforts of Phil Liesche’s managerial group at National Indemnity Company.
In dollar terms, operating earnings came to $16,073,000, or $16.47 per share. While this is a record figure, we consider return on shareholders’ equity to be a much more significant yardstick of economic performance. Here our result was 17.3%, moderately above our long-term average and even further above the average of American industry, but well below our record level of 19.8% achieved in 1972.
Our present estimate, subject to all the caveats implicit in forecasting, is that dollar operating earnings are likely to improve somewhat in 1977, but that return on equity may decline a bit from the 1976 figure.