BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC.
AN OWNER'S MANUAL*
A Message from Warren E. Buffett, Chairman and CEO
*Copyright © 1996 By Warren E. Buffett
All Rights Reserved
Augmented by the General Re merger, Berkshire's shareholder count has doubled in the past year to about 250,000. Charlie Munger, Berkshire's Vice Chairman and my partner, and I welcome each of you. As a further greeting, we have prepared a second printing of this booklet to help you understand our business, goals, philosophy and limitations.
These pages are aimed at explaining our broad principles of operation, not at giving you detail about Berkshire's many businesses. For more detail and a continuing update on our progress, you should look to our annual reports. We will be happy to send a copy of our 1997 report to any shareholder requesting it. A great deal of additional information, including our 1977-1996 annual letters, is available at our Internet site: www.berkshirehathaway.com.
OWNER-RELATED BUSINESS PRINCIPLES
At the time of the Blue Chip merger in 1983, I set down 13 owner-related business principles that I thought would help new shareholders understand our managerial approach. As is appropriate for "principles," all 13 remain alive and well today, and they are stated here in italics. A few words have been changed to bring them up-to-date and to each I've added a short commentary.
Charlie and I hope that you do not think of yourself as merely owning a piece of paper whose price wiggles around daily and that is a candidate for sale when some economic or political event makes you nervous. We hope you instead visualize yourself as a part owner of a business that you expect to stay with indefinitely, much as you might if you owned a farm or apartment house in partnership with members of your family. For our part, we do not view Berkshire shareholders as faceless members of an ever-shifting crowd, but rather as co-venturers who have entrusted their funds to us for what may well turn out to be the remainder of their lives.
The evidence suggests that most Berkshire shareholders have indeed embraced this long-term partnership concept. The annual percentage turnover in Berkshire's shares is a small fraction of that occurring in the stocks of other major American corporations, even when the shares I own are excluded from the calculation.
In effect, our shareholders behave in respect to their Berkshire stock much as Berkshire itself behaves in respect to companies in which it has an investment. As owners of, say, Coca-Cola or Gillette shares, we think of Berkshire as being a non-managing partner in two extraordinary businesses, in which we measure our success by the long-term progress of the companies rather than by the month-to-month movements of their stocks. In fact, we would not care in the least if several years went by in which there was no trading, or quotation of prices, in the stocks of those companies. If we have good long-term expectations, short-term price changes are meaningless for us except to the extent they offer us an opportunity to increase our ownership at an attractive price.
Charlie's family has 90% or more of its net worth in Berkshire shares; my wife, Susie, and I have more than 99%. In addition, many of my relatives - my sisters and cousins, for example - keep a huge portion of their net worth in Berkshire stock.
Charlie and I feel totally comfortable with this eggs-in-one-basket situation because Berkshire itself owns a wide variety of truly extraordinary businesses. Indeed, we believe that Berkshire is close to being unique in the quality and diversity of the businesses in which it owns either a controlling interest or a minority interest of significance.
Charlie and I cannot promise you results. But we can guarantee that your financial fortunes will move in lockstep with ours for whatever period of time you elect to be our partner. We have no interest in large salaries or options or other means of gaining an "edge" over you. We want to make money only when our partners do and in exactly the same proportion. Moreover, when I do something dumb, I want you to be able to derive some solace from the fact that my financial suffering is proportional to yours.
Since that was written at yearend 1983, our intrinsic value (a topic I'll discuss a bit later) has increased at an annual rate of more than 25%, a pace that has definitely surprised both Charlie and me. Nevertheless the principle just stated remains valid: Operating with large amounts of capital as we do today, we cannot come close to performing as well as we once did with much smaller sums. The best rate of gain in intrinsic value we can even hope for is an average of 15% per annum, and we may well fall far short of that target. Indeed, we think very few large businesses have a chance of compounding intrinsic value at 15% per annum over an extended period of time. So it may be that we will end up meeting our stated goal - being above average - with gains that fall significantly short of 15%.
As has usually been the case, it is easier today to buy small pieces of outstanding businesses via the stock market than to buy similar businesses in their entirety on a negotiated basis. Nevertheless, we continue to prefer the 100% purchase, and in some years we get lucky: In the last three years, in fact, we made seven acquisitions. Though there will be dry years also, we expect to make a number of acquisitions in the decades to come, and our hope is that they will be large. If these purchases approach the quality of those we have made in the past, Berkshire will be well served.
The challenge for us is to generate ideas as rapidly as we generate cash. In this respect, a depressed stock market is likely to present us with significant advantages. For one thing, it tends to reduce the prices at which entire companies become available for purchase. Second, a depressed market makes it easier for our insurance companies to buy small pieces of wonderful businesses - including additional pieces of businesses we already own - at attractive prices. And third, some of those same wonderful businesses, such as Coca-Cola, are consistent buyers of their own shares, which means that they, and we, gain from the cheaper prices at which they can buy.
Overall, Berkshire and its long-term shareholders benefit from a sinking stock market much as a regular purchaser of food benefits from declining food prices. So when the market plummets - as it will from time to time - neither panic nor mourn. It's good news for Berkshire.
To state things simply, we try to give you in the annual report the numbers and other information that really matter. Charlie and I pay a great deal of attention to how well our businesses are doing, and we also work to understand the environment in which each business is operating. For example, is one of our businesses enjoying an industry tailwind or is it facing a headwind? Charlie and I need to know exactly which situation prevails and to adjust our expectations accordingly. We will also pass along our conclusions to you.
Over time, practically all of our businesses have exceeded our expectations. But occasionally we have disappointments, and we will try to be as candid in informing you about those as we are in describing the happier experiences. When we use unconventional measures to chart our progress - for instance, you will be reading in our annual reports about insurance "float" - we will try to explain these concepts and why we regard them as important. In other words, we believe in telling you how we think so that you can evaluate not only Berkshire's businesses but also assess our approach to management and capital allocation.
We attempt to offset the shortcomings of conventional accounting by regularly reporting "look-through" earnings (though, for special and nonrecurring reasons, we occasionally omit them). The look-through numbers include Berkshire's own reported operating earnings, excluding capital gains and purchase-accounting adjustments (an explanation of which occurs later in this message) plus Berkshire's share of the undistributed earnings of our major investees - amounts that are not included in Berkshire's figures under conventional accounting. From these undistributed earnings of our investees we subtract the tax we would have owed had the earnings been paid to us as dividends. We also exclude capital gains, purchase-accounting adjustments and extraordinary charges or credits from the investee numbers.
We have found over time that the undistributed earnings of our investees, in aggregate, have been fully as beneficial to Berkshire as if they had been distributed to us (and therefore had been included in the earnings we officially report). This pleasant result has occurred because most of our investees are engaged in truly outstanding businesses that can often employ incremental capital to great advantage, either by putting it to work in their businesses or by repurchasing their shares. Obviously, every capital decision that our investees have made has not benefitted us as shareholders, but overall we have garnered far more than a dollar of value for each dollar they have retained. We consequently regard look-through earnings as realistically portraying our yearly gain from operations.
In 1992, our look-through earnings were $604 million, and in that same year we set a goal of raising them by an average of 15% per annum to $1.8 billion in the year 2000. Since that time, however, we have issued additional shares - including a significant number in the 1998 merger with General Re - so that we now need look-through earnings of $2.4 billion in 2000 to match the per-share goal we originally were shooting for. This is a target we still hope to hit.
The financial calculus that Charlie and I employ would never permit our trading a good night's sleep for a shot at a few extra percentage points of return. I've never believed in risking what my family and friends have and need in order to pursue what they don't have and don't need.
Besides, Berkshire has access to two low-cost, non-perilous sources of leverage that allow us to safely own far more assets than our equity capital alone would permit: deferred taxes and "float," the funds of others that our insurance business holds because it receives premiums before needing to pay out losses. Both of these funding sources have grown rapidly and now total about $32 billion.
Better yet, this funding to date has been cost-free. Deferred tax liabilities bear no interest. And as long as we can break even in our insurance underwriting - which we have done, on the average, during our 32 years in the business - the cost of the float developed from that operation is zero. Neither item, of course, is equity; these are real liabilities. But they are liabilities without covenants or due dates attached to them. In effect, they give us the benefit of debt - an ability to have more assets working for us - but saddle us with none of its drawbacks.
Of course, there is no guarantee that we can obtain our float in the future at no cost. But we feel our chances of attaining that goal are as good as those of anyone in the insurance business. Not only have we reached the goal in the past (despite a number of important mistakes by your Chairman), our 1996 acquisition of GEICO materially improved our prospects for getting there in the future.
Charlie and I are interested only in acquisitions that we believe will raise the per-share intrinsic value of Berkshire's stock. The size of our paychecks or our offices will never be related to the size of Berkshire's balance sheet.
We continue to pass the test, but the challenges of doing so have grown more difficult. If we reach the point that we can't create extra value by retaining earnings, we will pay them out and let our shareholders deploy the funds.
When we sold the Class B shares in 1996, we stated that Berkshire stock was not undervalued - and some people found that shocking. That reaction was not well-founded. Shock should have registered instead had we issued shares when our stock was undervalued. Managements that say or imply during a public offering that their stock is undervalued are usually being economical with the truth or uneconomical with their existing shareholders' money: Owners unfairly lose if their managers deliberately sell assets for 80› that in fact are worth $1. We didn't commit that kind of crime in our offering of Class B shares and we never will. (We did not, however, say at the time of the sale that our stock was overvalued, though many media have reported that we did.)
We continue to avoid gin rummy behavior. True, we closed our textile business in the mid-1980's after 20 years of struggling with it, but only because we felt it was doomed to run never-ending operating losses. We have not, however, given thought to selling operations that would command very fancy prices nor have we dumped our laggards, though we focus hard on curing the problems that cause them to lag.
At Berkshire you will find no "big bath" accounting maneuvers or restructurings nor any "smoothing" of quarterly or annual results. We will always tell you how many strokes we have taken on each hole and never play around with the scorecard. When the numbers are a very rough "guesstimate," as they necessarily must be in insurance reserving, we will try to be both consistent and conservative in our approach.
We will be communicating with you in several ways. Through the annual report, I try to give all shareholders as much value- defining information as can be conveyed in a document kept to reasonable length. We also try to convey a liberal quantity of condensed but important information in our quarterly reports, though I don't write those (one recital a year is enough). Still another important occasion for communication is our Annual Meeting, at which Charlie and I are delighted to spend five hours or more answering questions about Berkshire. But there is one way we can't communicate: on a one-on-one basis. That isn't feasible given Berkshire's many thousands of owners.
In all of our communications, we try to make sure that no single shareholder gets an edge: We do not follow the usual practice of giving earnings "guidance" or other information of value to analysts or large shareholders. Our goal is to have all of our owners updated at the same time.
Though we continue to be unwilling to talk about specific stocks, we freely discuss our business and investment philosophy. I benefitted enormously from the intellectual generosity of Ben Graham, the greatest teacher in the history of finance, and I believe it appropriate to pass along what I learned from him, even if that creates new and able investment competitors for Berkshire just as Ben's teachings did for him.
AN ADDED PRINCIPLE
To the extent possible, we would like each Berkshire shareholder to record a gain or loss in market value during his period of ownership that is proportional to the gain or loss in per-share intrinsic value recorded by the company during that holding period. For this to come about, the relationship between the intrinsic value and the market price of a Berkshire share would need to remain constant, and by our preferences at 1-to-1. As that implies, we would rather see Berkshire's stock price at a fair level than a high level. Obviously, Charlie and I can't control Berkshire's price. But by our policies and communications, we can encourage informed, rational behavior by owners that, in turn, will tend to produce a stock price that is also rational. Our it's-as-bad-to-be- overvalued-as-to-be-undervalued approach may disappoint some shareholders. We believe, however, that it affords Berkshire the best prospect of attracting long-term investors who seek to profit from the progress of the company rather than from the investment mistakes of their partners.
Now let's focus on two terms that I mentioned earlier and that you will encounter in future annual reports.
Let's start with intrinsic value, an all-important concept that offers the only logical approach to evaluating the relative attractiveness of investments and businesses. Intrinsic value can be defined simply: It is the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life.
The calculation of intrinsic value, though, is not so simple. As our definition suggests, intrinsic value is an estimate rather than a precise figure, and it is additionally an estimate that must be changed if interest rates move or forecasts of future cash flows are revised. Two people looking at the same set of facts, moreover - and this would apply even to Charlie and me - will almost inevitably come up with at least slightly different intrinsic value figures. That is one reason we never give you our estimates of intrinsic value. What our annual reports do supply, though, are the facts that we ourselves use to calculate this value.
Meanwhile, we regularly report our per-share book value, an easily calculable number, though one of limited use. The limitations do not arise from our holdings of marketable securities, which are carried on our books at their current prices. Rather the inadequacies of book value have to do with the companies we control, whose values as stated on our books may be far different from their intrinsic values.
The disparity can go in either direction. For example, in 1964 we could state with certitude that Berkshire's per-share book value was $19.46. However, that figure considerably overstated the company's intrinsic value, since all of the company's resources were tied up in a sub-profitable textile business. Our textile assets had neither going- concern nor liquidation values equal to their carrying values. Today, however, Berkshire's situation is reversed: Now, our book value far understates Berkshire's intrinsic value, a point true because many of the businesses we control are worth much more than their carrying value.
Inadequate though they are in telling the story, we give you Berkshire's book-value figures because they today serve as a rough, albeit significantly understated, tracking measure for Berkshire's intrinsic value. In other words, the percentage change in book value in any given year is likely to be reasonably close to that year's change in intrinsic value.
You can gain some insight into the differences between book value and intrinsic value by looking at one form of investment, a college education. Think of the education's cost as its "book value." If this cost is to be accurate, it should include the earnings that were foregone by the student because he chose college rather than a job.
For this exercise, we will ignore the important non-economic benefits of an education and focus strictly on its economic value. First, we must estimate the earnings that the graduate will receive over his lifetime and subtract from that figure an estimate of what he would have earned had he lacked his education. That gives us an excess earnings figure, which must then be discounted, at an appropriate interest rate, back to graduation day. The dollar result equals the intrinsic economic value of the education.
Some graduates will find that the book value of their education exceeds its intrinsic value, which means that whoever paid for the education didn't get his money's worth. In other cases, the intrinsic value of an education will far exceed its book value, a result that proves capital was wisely deployed. In all cases, what is clear is that book value is meaningless as an indicator of intrinsic value.
Next: spinach time. I know that a discussion of accounting technicalities turns off many readers, so let me assure you that a full and happy life can still be yours if you decide to skip this section.
Our 1996 acquisition of GEICO, however, means that purchase-accounting adjustments of about $40 million are charged against our annual earnings as recorded under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Our General Re acquisition will produce an annual charge many times this number, but we don't have final figures at this time. The magnitude of these changes makes them a subject of importance to Berkshire. In our annual reports, therefore, we will sometimes talk of earnings that we will describe as "before purchase-accounting adjustments." The discussion that follows will tell you why we think earnings of that description have far more economic meaning than the earnings produced by GAAP.
When Berkshire buys a business for a premium over the GAAP net worth of the acquiree - as will usually be the case, since most companies we'd want to buy don't come at a discount - that premium has to be entered on the asset side of our balance sheet. There are loads of rules about just how a company should record the premium. But to simplify this discussion, we will focus on "Goodwill," the asset item to which almost all of Berkshire's acquisition premiums have been allocated. For example, when we acquired in 1996 the half of GEICO we didn't previously own, we recorded goodwill of about $1.6 billion.
GAAP requires goodwill to be amortized - that is, written off - over a period no longer than 40 years. Therefore, to extinguish our $1.6 billion in GEICO goodwill, we will take annual charges of about $40 million until 2036. This amount is not deductible for tax purposes, so it reduces both our pre-tax and after-tax earnings by $40 million.
In an accounting sense, consequently, our GEICO goodwill will disappear gradually in even-sized bites. But the one thing I can guarantee you is that the economic goodwill we have purchased at GEICO will not decline in the same measured way. In fact, my best guess is that the economic goodwill assignable to GEICO has dramatically increased since our purchase and will likely continue to increase - quite probably in a very substantial way.
I made a similar statement in our 1983 Annual Report about the goodwill attributed to See's Candy, when I used that company as an example in a discussion of goodwill accounting. At that time, our balance sheet carried about $36 million of See's goodwill. We have since been charging about $1 million against earnings every year in order to amortize the asset, and the See's goodwill on our balance sheet is now down to about $21 million. In other words, from an accounting standpoint, See's is now presented as having lost a good deal of goodwill since 1983.
The economic facts could not be more different. In 1983, See's earned about $27 million pre-tax on $11 million of net operating assets; in 1997 it earned $59 million on $5 million of net operating assets. Clearly See's economic goodwill has increased dramatically during the interval rather than decreased. Just as clearly, See's is worth many hundreds of millions of dollars more than its stated value on our books.
We could, of course, be wrong, but we expect that GEICO's gradual loss of accounting value will contunue to be paired with major increases in its economic value. Certainly that has been the pattern at most of our subsidiaries, not just See's. That is why we regularly present our operating earnings in a way that allows you to ignore all purchase-accounting adjustments.
Before leaving this subject, we should issue an important warning: Investors are often led astray by CEOs and Wall Street analysts who equate depreciation charges with the amortization charges we have just discussed. In no way are the two the same: With rare exceptions, depreciation is an economic cost every bit as real as wages, materials, or taxes. Certainly that is true at Berkshire and at virtually all the other businesses we have studied. Furthermore, we do not think so-called EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) is a meaningful measure of performance. Managements that dismiss the importance of depreciation - and emphasize "cash flow" or EBITDA - are apt to make faulty decisions, and you should keep that in mind as you make your own investment decisions.
THE MANAGING OF BERKSHIRE
I think it's appropriate that I conclude with a discussion of Berkshire's management, today and in the future. As our first owner- related principle tells you, Charlie and I are the managing partners of Berkshire. But we subcontract all of the heavy lifting in this business to the managers of our subsidiaries. In fact, we delegate almost to the point of abdication: Though Berkshire has about 45,000 employees, only 12 of these are at headquarters.
Charlie and I mainly attend to capital allocation and the care and feeding of our key managers. Most of these managers are happiest when they are left alone to run their businesses, and that is customarily just how we leave them. That puts them in charge of all operating decisions and of dispatching the excess cash they generate to headquarters. By sending it to us, they don't get diverted by the various enticements that would come their way were they responsible for deploying the cash their businesses throw off. Furthermore, Charlie and I are exposed to a much wider range of possibilities for investing these funds than any of our managers could find in his or her own industry.
Most of our managers are independently wealthy, and it's therefore up to us to create a climate that encourages them to choose working with Berkshire over golfing or fishing. This leaves us needing to treat them fairly and in the manner that we would wish to be treated if our positions were reversed.
As for the allocation of capital, that's an activity both Charlie and I enjoy and in which we have acquired some useful experience. In a general sense, grey hair doesn't hurt on this playing field: You don't need good hand-eye coordination or well-toned muscles to push money around (thank heavens). As long as our minds continue to function effectively, Charlie and I can keep on doing our jobs pretty much as we have in the past.
On my death, Berkshire's ownership picture will change but not in a disruptive way: First, only about 1% of my stock will have to be sold to take care of bequests and taxes; second, the balance of my stock will go to my wife, Susan, if she survives me, or to a family foundation if she doesn't. In either event, Berkshire will possess a controlling shareholder guided by the same philosophy and objectives that now set our course.
At that juncture, the Buffett family will not be involved in managing the business, only in picking and overseeing the managers who do. Just who those managers will be, of course, depends on the date of my death. But I can anticipate what the management structure will be: Essentially my job will be split into two parts, with one executive becoming responsible for investments and another for operations. If the acquisition of new businesses is in prospect, the two will cooperate in making the decisions needed. Both executives will report to a board of directors who will be responsive to the controlling shareholder, whose interests will in turn be aligned with yours.
Were we to need the management structure I have just described on an immediate basis, my family and a few key individuals know who I would pick to fill both posts. Both currently work for Berkshire and are people in whom I have total confidence.
I will continue to keep my family posted on the succession issue. Since Berkshire stock will make up virtually my entire estate and will account for a similar portion of the assets of either my wife or the foundation for a considerable period after my death, you can be sure that I have thought through the succession question carefully. You can be equally sure that the principles we have employed to date in running Berkshire will continue to guide the managers who succeed me.
Lest we end on a morbid note, I also want to assure you that I have never felt better. I love running Berkshire, and if enjoying life promotes longevity, Methuselah's record is in jeopardy.
Warren E. Buffett Chairman