June 30, 2010

BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY letter to shareholders 2000

To get back to our examination of GEICO: There are at least four factors that could account for the increased costs we experienced in obtaining new business last year, and all probably contributed in some manner.
First, in our advertising we have pushed “frequency” very hard, and we probably overstepped in certain media. We’ve always known that increasing the number of messages through any medium would eventually produce diminishing returns. The third ad in an hour on a given cable channel is simply not going to be as effective
as the first.
Second, we may have already picked much of the low-hanging fruit. Clearly, the willingness to do business with a direct marketer of insurance varies widely among individuals: Indeed, some percentage of Americans ¾ particularly older ones ¾ are reluctant to make direct purchases of any kind. Over the years,however, this reluctance will ebb. A new generation with new habits will find the savings from direct purchase of their auto insurance too compelling to ignore.
Another factor that surely decreased the conversion of inquiries into sales was stricter underwriting by GEICO. Both the frequency and severity of losses increased during the year, and rates in certain areas became inadequate, in some cases substantially so. In these instances, we necessarily tightened our underwriting standards.
This tightening, as well as the many rate increases we put in during the year, made our offerings less attractive to some prospects.A high percentage of callers, it should be emphasized, can still save money by insuring with us. Understandably, however, some prospects will switch to save $200 per year but will not switch to save $50. Therefore, rate increases that bring our prices closer to those of our competitors will hurt our acceptance rate, even when we continue to offer the best deal. Finally, the competitive picture changed in at least one important respect: State Farm ¾ by far the largest personal auto insurer, with about 19% of the market — has been very slow to raise prices. Its costs, however, are clearly increasing right along with those of the rest of the industry.

And, when a company is selling a product with commodity-like economic
characteristics, being the low-cost producer is all-important.

In 2000, we sold nearly all of our Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae shares, established 15% positions in several mid-sized companies, bought the high-yield bonds of a few issuers (very few — the category is not labeled junk without reason) and added to our holdings of high-grade, mortgage-backed securities. There are no “bargains”
among our current holdings: We’re content with what we own but far from excited by it.
Many people assume that marketable securities are Berkshire’s first choice when allocating capital, but that’s not true: Ever since we first published our economic principles in 1983, we have consistently stated that we would rather purchase businesses than stocks. (See number 4 on page 60.) One reason for that preference is
personal, in that I love working with our managers. They are high-grade, talented and loyal. And, frankly, I find their business behavior to be more rational and owner-oriented than that prevailing at many public companies.

Leaving aside tax factors, the formula we use for evaluating stocks and businesses is identical. Indeed, the formula for valuing all assets that are purchased for financial gain has been unchanged since it was first laid out by a very smart man in about 600 B.C. (though he wasn’t smart enough to know it was 600 B.C.).
The oracle was Aesop and his enduring, though somewhat incomplete, investment insight was “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” To flesh out this principle, you must answer only three questions. How certain are you that there are indeed birds in the bush? When will they emerge and how many will there be? What is the risk-free interest rate (which we consider to be the yield on long-term U.S. bonds)? If you can answer these three questions, you will know the maximum value of the bush ¾ and the maximum number of the birds you now possess that should be offered for it. And, of course, don’t literally think birds. Think dollars.

Common yardsticks such as dividend yield, the ratio of price to earnings or to book value, and even growth rates have nothing to do with valuation except to the extent they provide clues to the amount and timing of cash flows into and from the business. Indeed, growth can destroy value if it requires cash inputs in the early years of a project or enterprise that exceed the discounted value of the cash that those assets will generate in later years.
Market commentators and investment managers who glibly refer to “growth” and “value” styles as contrasting approaches to investment are displaying their ignorance, not their sophistication. Growth is simply a component ¾ usually a plus, sometimes a minus ¾ in the value equation.
Alas, though Aesop’s proposition and the third variable ¾ that is, interest rates ¾ are simple, plugging in numbers for the other two variables is a difficult task. Using precise numbers is, in fact, foolish; working with a range of possibilities is the better approach. Usually, the range must be so wide that no useful conclusion can be reached. Occasionally, though, even very conservative estimates about the future emergence of birds reveal that the price quoted is startlingly low in
relation to value. (Let’s call this phenomenon the IBT ¾ Inefficient Bush Theory.) To be sure, an investor needs some general understanding of business economics as well as the ability to think independently to reach a wellfounded positive conclusion. But the investor does not need brilliance nor blinding insights.

Now, speculation — in which the focus is not on what an asset will produce but rather on what the next fellow will pay for it — is neither illegal, immoral nor un-American. But it is not a game in which Charlie and I wish to play. We bring nothing to the party, so why should we expect to take anything home?
The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs.

At Berkshire, we make no attempt to pick the few winners that will emerge from an ocean of unproven enterprises. We’re not smart enough to do that, and we know it. Instead, we try to apply Aesop’s 2,600-year-old equation to opportunities in which we have reasonable confidence as to how many birds are in the bush and when they will emerge (a formulation that my grandsons would probably update to “A girl in a convertible is worth five in the phonebook.”). Obviously, we can never precisely predict the timing of cash flows in and out of a business or their exact amount. We try, therefore, to keep our estimates conservative and to focus on industries where business surprises are unlikely to wreak havoc on owners. Even so, we make many mistakes: I’m the fellow, remember, who thought he understood the future economics of trading stamps, textiles, shoes and second-tier department stores.
Lately, the most promising “bushes” have been negotiated transactions for entire businesses, and that pleases us. You should clearly understand, however, that these acquisitions will at best provide us only reasonable returns. Really juicy results from negotiated deals can be anticipated only when capital markets are severely
constrained and the whole business world is pessimistic. We are 180 degrees from that point.

At Berkshire, full reporting means giving you the information that we would wish you to give to us if our positions were reversed. What Charlie and I would want under that circumstance would be all the important facts about current operations as well as the CEO’s frank view of the long-term economic characteristics of the business.
We would expect both a lot of financial details and a discussion of any significant data we would need to interpret what was presented.
When Charlie and I read reports, we have no interest in pictures of personnel, plants or products. References to EBITDA make us shudder ¾ does management think the tooth fairy pays for capital expenditures? We’re very suspicious of accounting methodology that is vague or unclear, since too often that means management
wishes to hide something.

June 3, 2010

Stocks That Buffett Is Unloading

Stocks That Buffett Is Unloading
Posted: June 2, 2010 9:59AM by Mark Riddix

The investing decisions of Warren Buffett are mimicked by investors worldwide. Many value investors and market experts often look to Buffett for help in navigating the murky waters of investing. Buffett has built a fortune by taking advantage of opportunities when others have been fearful and a lot can be learned by paying attention to his moves. So what exactly has the Oracle of Omaha been up to? Shockingly enough, the famed buy-and-hold investor has been dumping shares of some long-term holdings over the past few quarters.

Buffett's Stock Sales
Buffett has eliminated his 2.3 million share stake in the banking firm Sun Trust Bank (NYSE: STI). He completely sold off investment positions in insurance companies Travelers Insurance (NYSE: TRV), UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) and Wellpoint Inc. (NYSE: WLP) Buffett also reduced his holdings in defensive stocks Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) by 9% and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) by 26% earlier in the year. He also trimmed his stake in ratings agency Moody's (NYSE: MCO) and banking giant M&T Bank (NYSE: MTB). Buffett sold off shares of auto retailer Carmax (NYSE: KMX), oil and gas conglomerate ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) and struggling newspaper firm Gannett (NYSE: GCI).

The big sale, however, was Buffett's disposal of Kraft's (NYSE: KFT) shares. He sold over 31 million shares of Kraft Food, which had a market value of approximately $1 billion dollars. He still owns a 6.3% stake in Kraft with over 106 million shares. Many of these sales came as a shock to investors. Market spectators began to wonder if Buffett was turning negative on U.S. equities. Why is the man, who was once quoted as saying his favorite long-term holding period for stocks is forever, selling stocks? (Learn more about how Buffett operates in What Is Warren Buffett's Investing Style?)

Why Buffett Is Selling
Investors shouldn't read too much into Buffett's recent sales. The answer is pretty simple: Buffett is reducing his stake in many stocks to increase the capital position at Buffett's holding company, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A) (NYSE: BRK.B). Berkshire Hathaway has put a lot of its cash to work over the past two years. Buffett deployed substantial amounts of cash buying stock and warrants in Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) and General Electric (NYSE: GE). Recently, Berkshire spent a lot of cash financing its $27 billion dollar acquisition of railroad company Burlington Northern Santa Fe (NYSE: BNI). All of these purchases have caused Buffett to dispose of many stocks to replenish the coffers at Berkshire Hathaway.

The sale of Kraft, however, is a completely different animal. This move was anticipated as Buffett has continuously voiced his displeasure with Kraft management, including voicing disapproval of Kraft's $19.6 billion dollar acquisition of rival Cadbury. Buffett voted against the proposed merger, which eventually gained shareholder approval. After the merger, Buffett showed his disapproval by trimming his $4 billion dollar stake substantially. (Find out how Buffett got to where he is today. Read Warren Buffett: The Road to Riches.)

Buffett's Rationale
It should also not be overlooked that Buffett may be selling shares because he has found a better opportunity elsewhere. Buffett may be turning his attention to other sectors or looking to invest in international markets. He is famous for selling off one cheap investment in order to buy a cheaper investment.

The Bottom Line
Investors should know that if Warren Buffett is building up his cash stockpile that the legendary investor must see a better opportunity on the horizon.

Buffett's making news this week as well. Read more in this week's financial news highlights: Water Cooler Finance: Crying Over Spilled Oil, And Buffett Goes To Court.

June 1, 2010

BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY letter to shareholders 2001

I have skip 2002 as nothing much in 2002

In 2001, pg3
Berkshire's loss in net worth during 2001 was $3.77 billion, which decreased the per-share book value of both our Class A and Class B stock by 6.2%. Over the last 37 years (that is, since present management took over) per-share book value has grown from $19 to $37,920, a rate of 22.6% compounded annually.
Per-share intrinsic grew somewhat faster than book value during these 37 years, and in 2001 it probably decreased a bit less. We explain intrinsic value in our Owner’s Manual, which begins on page 62. I urge new shareholders to read this manual to become familiar with Berkshire’s key economic principles.

I added that “relative results are what concern us,” a viewpoint I’ve had since forming my first investment partnership on May 5, 1956. Meeting with my seven founding limited partners that evening, I gave them a short paper titled “The Ground Rules” that included this sentence: “Whether we do a good job or a
poor job is to be measured against the general experience in securities.” We initially used the Dow Jones Industrials as our benchmark, but shifted to the S&P 500 when that index became widely used. Our comparative record since 1965 is chronicled on the facing page; last year Berkshire’s advantage was 5.7 percentage points.

Though our corporate performance last year was satisfactory, my performance was anything but. I manage most of Berkshire’s equity portfolio, and my results were poor, just as they have been for several years. Of even more importance, I allowed General Re to take on business without a safeguard I knew was important, and on September 11th, this error caught up with us. I’ll tell you more about my mistake later and what we are doing to correct it.

One final thought about Berkshire: In the future we won’t come close to replicating our past record. To be sure, Charlie and I will strive for above-average performance and will not be satisfied with less. But two conditions at Berkshire are far different from what they once were: Then, we could often buy businesses and securities at much lower valuations than now prevail; and more important, we were then working with far less money than we now have. Some years back, a good $10 million idea could do wonders for us (witness our investment in Washington
Post in 1973 or GEICO in 1976). Today, the combination of ten such ideas and a triple in the value of each would increase the net worth of Berkshire by only ¼ of 1%. We need “elephants” to make significant gains now – and they are hard to find.

In the frontispiece to Security Analysis, Ben Graham and Dave Dodd quoted Horace: “Many shall be restored that now are fallen and many shall fall that are now in honor.” Fifty-two years after I first read those lines,my appreciation for what they say about business and investments continues to grow.

Our main business — though we have others of great importance — is insurance. To understand Berkshire, therefore, it is necessary that you understand how to evaluate an insurance company. The key determinants are: (1) the amount of float that the business generates; (2) its cost; and (3) most critical of all, the long-term outlook for both of these factors.

Last year I told you that, barring a mega-catastrophe, our cost of float would probably drop from its 2000 level of 6%. I had in mind natural catastrophes when I said that, but instead we were hit by a man-made catastrophe on September 11th – an event that delivered the insurance industry its largest loss in history. Our float cost therefore came in at a staggering 12.8%. It was our worst year in float cost since 1984, and a result that to a significant degree, as I will explain in the next section, we brought upon ourselves.

Some years back, float costing, say, 4% was tolerable because government bonds yielded twice as much, and stocks prospectively offered still loftier returns. Today, fat returns are nowhere to be found (at least we can’t find them) and short-term funds earn less than 2%.

Principles of Insurance Underwriting
When property/casualty companies are judged by their cost of float, very few stack up as satisfactory businesses. And interestingly – unlike the situation prevailing in many other industries – neither size nor brand name determines an insurer’s profitability. Indeed, many of the biggest and best-known companies regularly
deliver mediocre results. What counts in this business is underwriting discipline. The winners are those that unfailingly stick to three key principles:
1. They accept only those risks that they are able to properly evaluate (staying within their circle of competence) and that, after they have evaluated all relevant factors including remote loss scenarios, carry the expectancy of profit. These insurers ignore market-share considerations and are sanguine about losing business to competitors that are offering foolish prices or policy conditions.
2. They limit the business they accept in a manner that guarantees they will suffer no aggregation of losses from a single event or from related events that will threaten their solvency. They ceaselessly search for possible correlation among seemingly-unrelated risks.
3. They avoid business involving moral risk: No matter what the rate, trying to write good contracts with bad people doesn’t work. While most policyholders and clients are honorable and ethical,doing business with the few exceptions is usually expensive, sometimes extraordinarily so.

Why, you might ask, didn’t I recognize the above facts before September 11th? The answer, sadly, is that I did – but I didn’t convert thought into action. I violated the Noah rule: Predicting rain doesn’t count; building arks does. I consequently let Berkshire operate with a dangerous level of risk – at General Re in particular. I’m sorry to say that much risk for which we haven’t been compensated remains on our books, but it is running off by the day.

In the past I have assured you that General Re was underwriting with discipline – and I have been proven wrong. Though its managers’ intentions were good, the company broke each of the three underwriting rules I set forth in the last section and has paid a huge price for doing so. One obvious cause for its failure is that it did not reserve correctly – more about this in the next section – and therefore severely miscalculated the cost of the product it was selling. Not knowing your costs will cause problems in any business. In long-tail reinsurance, where years
of unawareness will promote and prolong severe underpricing, ignorance of true costs is dynamite.

Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking. When companies or investment professionals use terms such as “EBITDA” and “pro forma,” they want you to unthinkingly accept concepts that are dangerously flawed.(In golf, my score is frequently below par on a pro forma basis: I have firm plans to “restructure” my putting stroke and therefore only count the swings I take before reaching the green.)

In insurance reporting, “loss development” is a widely used term – and one that is seriously misleading. First, a definition: Loss reserves at an insurer are not funds tucked away for a rainy day, but rather a liability account. If properly calculated, the liability states the amount that an insurer will have to pay for all losses
(including associated costs) that have occurred prior to the reporting date but have not yet been paid. When calculating the reserve, the insurer will have been notified of many of the losses it is destined to pay, but others will not yet have been reported to it. These losses are called IBNR, for incurred but not reported. Indeed, in some cases (involving, say, product liability or embezzlement) the insured itself will not yet be aware that a loss has occurred.

One more point about our investments: The media often report that “Buffett is buying” this or that security, having picked up the “fact” from reports that Berkshire files. These accounts are sometimes correct, but at other times the transactions Berkshire reports are actually being made by Lou Simpson, who runs a $2 billion portfolio for GEICO that is quite independent of me

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