While mostly a regurgitation of old, very trite, and quite meandering thoughts, there are some tidbits of information in the latest just released 2011 Berkshire Letter to shareholders such as that Buffett has chosen a successor to the 81 year old increasingly more confused head (unclear who), that Buffett is on the prowl for large acquisitions, that he hopes IBM shares languish for the next five years (frankly we can't wait until Buffett opens a stake in Apple so he can control the two stocks that between them account for about half of the moves in the DJIA and the NASDAPPLE - after all "economies of scale" is all about how Nominal Buffett exudes 'success'), that he once again sees a housing bottom (he adds: "Last year, I told you that “a housing recovery will probably begin within a year or so.” I was dead wrong" - this admission is far more than we will ever hear from James Cramer who has been calling a housing bottom since 2009), and "Housing will come back – you can be sure of that" - sure, just not in your lifetime, and probably not in ours either, but most importantly, is the discovery not that BRK's profit declined by 30% (to $3.08 billion from $4.38 billion) on a smaller gain on derivatives, but that since he actually will have to post collateral on new derivatives, "we will not be initiating any major derivatives positions." The reason: "We shun contracts of any type that could require the instant posting of collateral. The possibility of some sudden and huge posting requirement – arising from an out-of-the-blue event such as a worldwide financial panic or massive terrorist attack – is inconsistent with our primary objectives of redundant liquidity and unquestioned financial strength." So his warning that derivatives are WMDs years ago was only appropriate if there was money to be lost, such as is the case for 99.9999% of other investors? Ah, there goes the good old hypocritical, crony Warren we have all grown to known and love. And finally what would be a recent Buffett missive without the obligatory gold bashing section: after all, how will the Ponzi scheme inflate if people have realized it is a ... well, Ponzi, championed by none other than the person everyone once thought was actually an investing genius. Fast forward to Buffett's 2020 Letter (when Greek debt/GDP is precisely 120.5%) his main message will be: "I told you to run away from gold. I was dead wrong."
On gold bashing:
The second major category of investments involves assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else – who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive – will pay more for them in the future. Tulips, of all things, briefly became a favorite of such buyers in the 17th century.
This type of investment requires an expanding pool of buyers, who, in turn, are enticed because they believe the buying pool will expand still further. Owners are not inspired by what the asset itself can produce – it will remain lifeless forever – but rather by the belief that others will desire it even more avidly in the future.
The major asset in this category is gold, currently a huge favorite of investors who fear almost all other assets, especially paper money (of whose value, as noted, they are right to be fearful). Gold, however, has two significant shortcomings, being neither of much use nor procreative. True, gold has some industrial and decorative utility, but the demand for these purposes is both limited and incapable of soaking up new production. Meanwhile, if you own one ounce of gold for an eternity, you will still own one ounce at its end.
What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis.
As “bandwagon” investors join any party, they create their own truth – for a while. Over the past 15 years, both Internet stocks and houses have demonstrated the extraordinary excesses that can be created by combining an initially sensible thesis with well-publicized rising prices. In these bubbles, an army of originally skeptical investors succumbed to the “proof” delivered by the market, and the pool of buyers – for a time – expanded sufficiently to keep the bandwagon rolling. But bubbles blown large enough inevitably pop. And then the old proverb is confirmed once again: “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.”
Today the world’s gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons. If all of this gold were melded together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.) At $1,750 per ounce – gold’s price as I write this – its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A. Let’s now create a pile B costing an equal amount. For that, we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge).
Can you imagine an investor with $9.6 trillion selecting pile A over pile B? Beyond the staggering valuation given the existing stock of gold, current prices make today’s annual production of gold command about $160 billion. Buyers – whether jewelry and industrial users, frightened individuals, or speculators – must continually absorb this additional supply to merely maintain an equilibrium at present prices.
A century from now the 400 million acres of farmland will have produced staggering amounts of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops – and will continue to produce that valuable bounty, whatever the currency may be. Exxon Mobil will probably have delivered trillions of dollars in dividends to its owners and will also hold assets worth many more trillions (and, remember, you get 16 Exxons). The 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.
Admittedly, when people a century from now are fearful, it’s likely many will still rush to gold. I’m confident, however, that the $9.6 trillion current valuation of pile A will compound over the century at a rate far inferior to that achieved by pile B.
And so on. For a much more objective discussion on inflation protection, we strongly urge readers to read Jeremy Grantham's quarterly letter released yesterday. That and the previous 3 years of posts on ZH.
Perhaps while he is being Monday Morning quarterbacking on the mistakes of his career, it would also be wise for Buffett to admit that not he, but his farther was spot on on the topic of gold. That and leaving this world with some dignity, instead of being known as a shining crony beacon for a system that is implding more and more every day, and needs $14 trillion in central bank support (and rising exponentially) to prevent an all out implosion.
Full letter (pdf)