BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC.
To the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: First, a few words about accounting. The merger with Diversified Retailing Company, Inc. at yearend adds two new complications in the presentation of our financial results. After the merger, our ownership of Blue Chip Stamps increased to approximately 58% and, therefore, the accounts of that company must be fully consolidated in the Balance Sheet and Statement of Earnings presentation of Berkshire. In previous reports, our share of the net earnings only of Blue Chip had been included as a single item on Berkshire’s Statement of Earnings, and there had been a similar one-line inclusion on our Balance Sheet of our share of their net assets. This full consolidation of sales, expenses, receivables, inventories, debt, etc. produces an aggregation of figures from many diverse businesses - textiles, insurance, candy, newspapers, trading stamps - with dramatically different economic characteristics. In some of these your ownership is 100% but, in those businesses which are owned by Blue Chip but fully consolidated, your ownership as a Berkshire shareholder is only 58%. (Ownership by others of the balance of these businesses is accounted for by the large minority interest item on the liability side of the Balance Sheet.) Such a grouping of Balance Sheet and Earnings items - some wholly owned, some partly owned - tends to obscure economic reality more than illuminate it. In fact, it represents a form of presentation that we never prepare for internal use during the year and which is of no value to us in any management activities. For that reason, throughout the report we provide much separate financial information and commentary on the various segments of the business to help you evaluate Berkshire’s performance and prospects. Much of this segmented information is mandated by SEC disclosure rules and covered in “Management’s Discussion” on pages 29 to 34. And in this letter we try to present to you a view of our various operating entities from the same perspective that we view them managerially. A second complication arising from the merger is that the 1977 figures shown in this report are different from the 1977 figures shown in the report we mailed to you last year. Accounting convention requires that when two entities such as Diversified and Berkshire are merged, all financial data subsequently must be presented as if the companies had been merged at the time they were formed rather than just recently. So the enclosed financial statements, in effect, pretend that in 1977 (and earlier years) the Diversified-Berkshire merger already had taken place, even though the actual merger date was December 30, 1978. This shifting base makes comparative commentary confusing and, from time to time in our narrative report, we will talk of figures and performance for Berkshire shareholders as historically reported to you rather than as restated after the Diversified merger. With that preamble it can be stated that, with or without restated figures, 1978 was a good year. Operating earnings, exclusive of capital gains, at 19.4% of beginning shareholders’ investment were within a fraction of our 1972 record. While we believe it is improper to include capital gains or losses in evaluating the performance of a single year, they are an important component of the longer term record. Because of such gains, Berkshire’s long-term growth in equity per share has been greater than would be indicated by compounding the returns from operating earnings that we have reported annually. For example, over the last three years - generally a bonanza period for the insurance industry, our largest profit producer - Berkshire’s per share net worth virtually has doubled, thereby compounding at about 25% annually through a combination of good operating earnings and fairly substantial capital gains. Neither this 25% equity gain from all sources nor the 19.4% equity gain from operating earnings in 1978 is sustainable. The insurance cycle has turned downward in 1979, and it is almost certain that operating earnings measured by return on equity will fall this year. However, operating earnings measured in dollars are likely to increase on the much larger shareholders’ equity now employed in the business. In contrast to this cautious view about near term return from operations, we are optimistic about prospects for long term return from major equity investments held by our insurance companies. We make no attempt to predict how security markets will behave; successfully forecasting short term stock price movements is something we think neither we nor anyone else can do. In the longer run, however, we feel that many of our major equity holdings are going to be worth considerably more money than we paid, and that investment gains will add significantly to the operating returns of the insurance group. Sources of Earnings To give you a better picture of just where Berkshire’s earnings are produced, we show below a table which requires a little explanation. Berkshire owns close to 58% of Blue Chip which, in addition to 100% ownership of several businesses, owns 80% of Wesco Financial Corporation. Thus, Berkshire’s equity in Wesco’s earnings is about 46%. In aggregate, businesses that we control have about 7,000 full-time employees and generate revenues of over $500 million. The table shows the overall earnings of each major operating category on a pre-tax basis (several of the businesses have low tax rates because of significant amounts of tax-exempt interest and dividend income), as well as the share of those earnings belonging to Berkshire both on a pre-tax and after-tax basis. Significant capital gains or losses attributable to any of the businesses are not shown in the operating earnings figure, but are aggregated on the “Realized Securities Gain” line at the bottom of the table. Because of various accounting and tax intricacies, the figures in the table should not be treated as holy writ, but rather viewed as close approximations of the 1977 and 1978 earnings contributions of our constituent businesses. Net Earnings Earnings Before Income Taxes After Tax -------------------------------------- ------------------ Total Berkshire Share Berkshire Share ------------------ ------------------ ------------------ (in thousands of dollars) 1978 1977 1978 1977 1978 1977 -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- Total - all entities ......... $66,180 $57,089 $54,350 $42,234 $39,242 $30,393 ======== ======== ======== ======== ======== ======== Earnings from operations: Insurance Group: Underwriting ............. $ 3,001 $ 5,802 $ 3,000 $ 5,802 $ 1,560 $ 3,017 Net investment income .... 19,705 12,804 19,691 12,804 16,400 11,360 Berkshire-Waumbec textiles 2,916 (620) 2,916 (620) 1,342 (322) Associated Retail Stores, Inc. ............ 2,757 2,775 2,757 2,775 1,176 1,429 See’s Candies .............. 12,482 12,840 7,013 6,598 3,049 2,974 Buffalo Evening News ....... (2,913) 751 (1,637) 389 (738) 158 Blue Chip Stamps - Parent .. 2,133 1,091 1,198 566 1,382 892 Illinois National Bank and Trust Company ....... 4,822 3,800 4,710 3,706 4,262 3,288 Wesco Financial Corporation - Parent .... 1,771 2,006 777 813 665 419 Mutual Savings and Loan Association ........ 10,556 6,779 4,638 2,747 3,042 1,946 Interest on Debt ........... (5,566) (5,302) (4,546) (4,255) (2,349) (2,129) Other ...................... 720 165 438 102 261 48 -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- Total Earnings from Operations ............ $52,384 $42,891 $40,955 $31,427 $30,052 $23,080 Realized Securities Gain ..... 13,796 14,198 13,395 10,807 9,190 7,313 -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- Total Earnings ........... $66,180 $57,089 $54,350 $42,234 $39,242 $30,393 ======== ======== ======== ======== ======== ======== Blue Chip and Wesco are public companies with reporting requirements of their own. Later in this report we are reproducing the narrative reports of the principal executives of both companies, describing their 1978 operations. Some of the figures they utilize will not match to the penny the ones we use in this report, again because of accounting and tax complexities. But their comments should be helpful to you in understanding the underlying economic characteristics of these important partly- owned businesses. A copy of the full annual report of either company will be mailed to any shareholder of Berkshire upon request to Mr. Robert H. Bird for Blue Chips Stamps, 5801 South Eastern Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90040, or to Mrs. Bette Deckard for Wesco Financial Corporation, 315 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, California 91109. Textiles Earnings of $1.3 million in 1978, while much improved from 1977, still represent a low return on the $17 million of capital employed in this business. Textile plant and equipment are on the books for a very small fraction of what it would cost to replace such equipment today. And, despite the age of the equipment, much of it is functionally similar to new equipment being installed by the industry. But despite this “bargain cost” of fixed assets, capital turnover is relatively low reflecting required high investment levels in receivables and inventory compared to sales. Slow capital turnover, coupled with low profit margins on sales, inevitably produces inadequate returns on capital. Obvious approaches to improved profit margins involve differentiation of product, lowered manufacturing costs through more efficient equipment or better utilization of people, redirection toward fabrics enjoying stronger market trends, etc. Our management is diligent in pursuing such objectives. The problem, of course, is that our competitors are just as diligently doing the same thing. The textile industry illustrates in textbook style how producers of relatively undifferentiated goods in capital intensive businesses must earn inadequate returns except under conditions of tight supply or real shortage. As long as excess productive capacity exists, prices tend to reflect direct operating costs rather than capital employed. Such a supply- excess condition appears likely to prevail most of the time in the textile industry, and our expectations are for profits of relatively modest amounts in relation to capital. We hope we don’t get into too many more businesses with such tough economic characteristics. But, as we have stated before: (1) our textile businesses are very important employers in their communities, (2) management has been straightforward in reporting on problems and energetic in attacking them, (3) labor has been cooperative and understanding in facing our common problems, and (4) the business should average modest cash returns relative to investment. As long as these conditions prevail - and we expect that they will - we intend to continue to support our textile business despite more attractive alternative uses for capital. Insurance Underwriting The number one contributor to Berkshire’s overall excellent results in 1978 was the segment of National Indemnity Company’s insurance operation run by Phil Liesche. On about $90 million of earned premiums, an underwriting profit of approximately $11 million was realized, a truly extraordinary achievement even against the background of excellent industry conditions. Under Phil’s leadership, with outstanding assistance by Roland Miller in Underwriting and Bill Lyons in Claims, this segment of National Indemnity (including National Fire and Marine Insurance Company, which operates as a running mate) had one of its best years in a long history of performances which, in aggregate, far outshine those of the industry. Present successes reflect credit not only upon present managers, but equally upon the business talents of Jack Ringwalt, founder of National Indemnity, whose operating philosophy remains etched upon the company. Home and Automobile Insurance Company had its best year since John Seward stepped in and straightened things out in 1975. Its results are combined in this report with those of Phil Liesche’s operation under the insurance category entitled “Specialized Auto and General Liability”. Worker’s Compensation was a mixed bag in 1978. In its first year as a subsidiary, Cypress Insurance Company, managed by Milt Thornton, turned in outstanding results. The worker’s compensation line can cause large underwriting losses when rapid inflation interacts with changing social concepts, but Milt has a cautious and highly professional staff to cope with these problems. His performance in 1978 has reinforced our very good feelings about this purchase. Frank DeNardo came with us in the spring of 1978 to straighten out National Indemnity’s California Worker’s Compensation business which, up to that point, had been a disaster. Frank has the experience and intellect needed to correct the major problems of the Los Angeles office. Our volume in this department now is running only about 25% of what it was eighteen months ago, and early indications are that Frank is making good progress. George Young’s reinsurance department continues to produce very large sums for investment relative to premium volume, and thus gives us reasonably satisfactory overall results. However, underwriting results still are not what they should be and can be. It is very easy to fool yourself regarding underwriting results in reinsurance (particularly in casualty lines involving long delays in settlement), and we believe this situation prevails with many of our competitors. Unfortunately, self- delusion in company reserving almost always leads to inadequate industry rate levels. If major factors in the market don’t know their true costs, the competitive “fall-out” hits all - even those with adequate cost knowledge. George is quite willing to reduce volume significantly, if needed, to achieve satisfactory underwriting, and we have a great deal of confidence in the long term soundness of this business under his direction. The homestate operation was disappointing in 1978. Our unsatisfactory underwriting, even though partially explained by an unusual incidence of Midwestern storms, is particularly worrisome against the backdrop of very favorable industry results in the conventional lines written by our homestate group. We have confidence in John Ringwalt’s ability to correct this situation. The bright spot in the group was the performance of Kansas Fire and Casualty in its first full year of business. Under Floyd Taylor, this subsidiary got off to a truly remarkable start. Of course, it takes at least several years to evaluate underwriting results, but the early signs are encouraging and Floyd’s operation achieved the best loss ratio among the homestate companies in 1978. Although some segments were disappointing, overall our insurance operation had an excellent year. But of course we should expect a good year when the industry is flying high, as in 1978. It is a virtual certainty that in 1979 the combined ratio (see definition on page 31) for the industry will move up at least a few points, perhaps enough to throw the industry as a whole into an underwriting loss position. For example, in the auto lines - by far the most important area for the industry and for us - CPI figures indicate rates overall were only 3% higher in January 1979 than a year ago. But the items that make up loss costs - auto repair and medical care costs - were up over 9%. How different than yearend 1976 when rates had advanced over 22% in the preceding twelve months, but costs were up 8%. Margins will remain steady only if rates rise as fast as costs. This assuredly will not be the case in 1979, and conditions probably will worsen in 1980. Our present thinking is that our underwriting performance relative to the industry will improve somewhat in 1979, but every other insurance management probably views its relative prospects with similar optimism - someone is going to be disappointed. Even if we do improve relative to others, we may well have a higher combined ratio and lower underwriting profits in 1979 than we achieved last year. We continue to look for ways to expand our insurance operation. But your reaction to this intent should not be unrestrained joy. Some of our expansion efforts - largely initiated by your Chairman have been lackluster, others have been expensive failures. We entered the business in 1967 through purchase of the segment which Phil Liesche now manages, and it still remains, by a large margin, the best portion of our insurance business. It is not easy to buy a good insurance business, but our experience has been that it is easier to buy one than create one. However, we will continue to try both approaches, since the rewards for success in this field can be exceptional. Insurance Investments We confess considerable optimism regarding our insurance equity investments. Of course, our enthusiasm for stocks is not unconditional. Under some circumstances, common stock investments by insurers make very little sense. We get excited enough to commit a big percentage of insurance company net worth to equities only when we find (1) businesses we can understand, (2) with favorable long-term prospects, (3) operated by honest and competent people, and (4) priced very attractively. We usually can identify a small number of potential investments meeting requirements (1), (2) and (3), but (4) often prevents action. For example, in 1971 our total common stock position at Berkshire’s insurance subsidiaries amounted to only $10.7 million at cost, and $11.7 million at market. There were equities of identifiably excellent companies available - but very few at interesting prices. (An irresistible footnote: in 1971, pension fund managers invested a record 122% of net funds available in equities - at full prices they couldn’t buy enough of them. In 1974, after the bottom had fallen out, they committed a then record low of 21% to stocks.) The past few years have been a different story for us. At the end of 1975 our insurance subsidiaries held common equities with a market value exactly equal to cost of $39.3 million. At the end of 1978 this position had been increased to equities (including a convertible preferred) with a cost of $129.1 million and a market value of $216.5 million. During the intervening three years we also had realized pre-tax gains from common equities of approximately $24.7 million. Therefore, our overall unrealized and realized pre-tax gains in equities for the three year period came to approximately $112 million. During this same interval the Dow-Jones Industrial Average declined from 852 to 805. It was a marvelous period for the value-oriented equity buyer. We continue to find for our insurance portfolios small portions of really outstanding businesses that are available, through the auction pricing mechanism of security markets, at prices dramatically cheaper than the valuations inferior businesses command on negotiated sales. This program of acquisition of small fractions of businesses (common stocks) at bargain prices, for which little enthusiasm exists, contrasts sharply with general corporate acquisition activity, for which much enthusiasm exists. It seems quite clear to us that either corporations are making very significant mistakes in purchasing entire businesses at prices prevailing in negotiated transactions and takeover bids, or that we eventually are going to make considerable sums of money buying small portions of such businesses at the greatly discounted valuations prevailing in the stock market. (A second footnote: in 1978 pension managers, a group that logically should maintain the longest of investment perspectives, put only 9% of net available funds into equities - breaking the record low figure set in 1974 and tied in 1977.) We are not concerned with whether the market quickly revalues upward securities that we believe are selling at bargain prices. In fact, we prefer just the opposite since, in most years, we expect to have funds available to be a net buyer of securities. And consistent attractive purchasing is likely to prove to be of more eventual benefit to us than any selling opportunities provided by a short-term run up in stock prices to levels at which we are unwilling to continue buying. Our policy is to concentrate holdings. We try to avoid buying a little of this or that when we are only lukewarm about the business or its price. When we are convinced as to attractiveness, we believe in buying worthwhile amounts. Equity holdings of our insurance companies with a market value of over $8 million on December 31, 1978 were as follows: No. of Shares Company Cost Market ---------- ------- ---------- ---------- (000s omitted) 246,450 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. ... $ 6,082 $ 8,626 1,294,308 Government Employees Insurance Company Common Stock ......................... 4,116 9,060 1,986,953 Government Employees Insurance Company Convertible Preferred ................ 19,417 28,314 592,650 Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc. .... 4,531 19,039 1,066,934 Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation 18,085 18,671 453,800 Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc. .......... 7,534 10,267 953,750 SAFECO Corporation ...................... 23,867 26,467 934,300 The Washington Post Company ............. 10,628 43,445 ---------- ---------- Total ................................... $ 94,260 $163,889 All Other Holdings ...................... 39,506 57,040 ---------- ---------- Total Equities .......................... $133,766 $220,929 ========== ========== In some cases our indirect interest in earning power is becoming quite substantial. For example, note our holdings of 953,750 shares of SAFECO Corp. SAFECO probably is the best run large property and casualty insurance company in the United States. Their underwriting abilities are simply superb, their loss reserving is conservative, and their investment policies make great sense. SAFECO is a much better insurance operation than our own (although we believe certain segments of ours are much better than average), is better than one we could develop and, similarly, is far better than any in which we might negotiate purchase of a controlling interest. Yet our purchase of SAFECO was made at substantially under book value. We paid less than 100 cents on the dollar for the best company in the business, when far more than 100 cents on the dollar is being paid for mediocre companies in corporate transactions. And there is no way to start a new operation - with necessarily uncertain prospects - at less than 100 cents on the dollar. Of course, with a minor interest we do not have the right to direct or even influence management policies of SAFECO. But why should we wish to do this? The record would indicate that they do a better job of managing their operations than we could do ourselves. While there may be less excitement and prestige in sitting back and letting others do the work, we think that is all one loses by accepting a passive participation in excellent management. Because, quite clearly, if one controlled a company run as well as SAFECO, the proper policy also would be to sit back and let management do its job. Earnings attributable to the shares of SAFECO owned by Berkshire at yearend amounted to $6.1 million during 1978, but only the dividends received (about 18% of earnings) are reflected in our operating earnings. We believe the balance, although not reportable, to be just as real in terms of eventual benefit to us as the amount distributed. In fact, SAFECO’s retained earnings (or those of other well-run companies if they have opportunities to employ additional capital advantageously) may well eventually have a value to shareholders greater than 100 cents on the dollar. We are not at all unhappy when our wholly-owned businesses retain all of their earnings if they can utilize internally those funds at attractive rates. Why should we feel differently about retention of earnings by companies in which we hold small equity interests, but where the record indicates even better prospects for profitable employment of capital? (This proposition cuts the other way, of course, in industries with low capital requirements, or if management has a record of plowing capital into projects of low profitability; then earnings should be paid out or used to repurchase shares - often by far the most attractive option for capital utilization.) The aggregate level of such retained earnings attributable to our equity interests in fine companies is becoming quite substantial. It does not enter into our reported operating earnings, but we feel it well may have equal long-term significance to our shareholders. Our hope is that conditions continue to prevail in securities markets which allow our insurance companies to buy large amounts of underlying earning power for relatively modest outlays. At some point market conditions undoubtedly will again preclude such bargain buying but, in the meantime, we will try to make the most of opportunities. Banking Under Gene Abegg and Pete Jeffrey, the Illinois National Bank and Trust Company in Rockford continues to establish new records. Last year’s earnings amounted to approximately 2.1% of average assets, about three times the level averaged by major banks. In our opinion, this extraordinary level of earnings is being achieved while maintaining significantly less asset risk than prevails at most of the larger banks. We purchased the Illinois National Bank in March 1969. It was a first-class operation then, just as it had been ever since Gene Abegg opened the doors in 1931. Since 1968, consumer time deposits have quadrupled, net income has tripled and trust department income has more than doubled, while costs have been closely controlled. Our experience has been that the manager of an already high- cost operation frequently is uncommonly resourceful in finding new ways to add to overhead, while the manager of a tightly-run operation usually continues to find additional methods to curtail costs, even when his costs are already well below those of his competitors. No one has demonstrated this latter ability better than Gene Abegg. We are required to divest our bank by December 31, 1980. The most likely approach is to spin it off to Berkshire shareholders some time in the second half of 1980. Retailing Upon merging with Diversified, we acquired 100% ownership of Associated Retail Stores, Inc., a chain of about 75 popular priced women’s apparel stores. Associated was launched in Chicago on March 7, 1931 with one store, $3200, and two extraordinary partners, Ben Rosner and Leo Simon. After Mr. Simon’s death, the business was offered to Diversified for cash in 1967. Ben was to continue running the business - and run it, he has. Associated’s business has not grown, and it consistently has faced adverse demographic and retailing trends. But Ben’s combination of merchandising, real estate and cost-containment skills has produced an outstanding record of profitability, with returns on capital necessarily employed in the business often in the 20% after-tax area. Ben is now 75 and, like Gene Abegg, 81, at Illinois National and Louie Vincenti, 73, at Wesco, continues daily to bring an almost passionately proprietary attitude to the business. This group of top managers must appear to an outsider to be an overreaction on our part to an OEO bulletin on age discrimination. While unorthodox, these relationships have been exceptionally rewarding, both financially and personally. It is a real pleasure to work with managers who enjoy coming to work each morning and, once there, instinctively and unerringly think like owners. We are associated with some of the very best. Warren E. Buffett, Chairman March 26, 1979