Warren Buffett, published his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders on Saturday. The billionaire has been updating his shareholders in the same format for more than six decades.
The 90-year-old began on a slightly dour - clearly political - tone:
"We retain our constitutional aspiration of becoming 'a more perfect union.' Progress on that front has been slow, uneven and often discouraging. We have, however, moved forward and will continue to do so,"
But then the "Oracle of Omaha" rotated wisely back to 'f**k yeah Murica' mode:
"Today, many people forge similar miracles throughout the world, creating a spread of prosperity that benefits all of humanity. In its brief 232 years of existence, however, there has been no incubator for unleashing human potential like America," Buffett wrote.
"Despite some severe interruptions, our country's economic progress has been breathtaking."
"Our unwavering conclusion: Never bet against America," he said.
Here are some of the key points outlined in the letter to shareholders:
On "middle America":
Today, with much of finance, media, government and tech located in coastal areas, it’s easy to overlook the many miracles occurring in middle America. Let’s focus on two communities that provide stunning illustrations of the talent and ambition existing throughout our country. You will not be surprised that I begin with Omaha.
On the bond market:
Bonds are not the place to be these days. Can you believe that the income recently available from a 10-year U.S. Treasury bond – the yield was 0.93% at year-end – had fallen 94% from the 15.8% yield available in September 1981? In certain large and important countries, such as Germany and Japan, investors earn a negative return on trillions of dollars of sovereign debt. Fixed-income investors worldwide – whether pension funds, insurance companies or retirees – face a bleak future.
On crap bonds:
Some insurers, as well as other bond investors, may try to juice the pathetic returns now available by shifting their purchases to obligations backed by shaky borrowers. Risky loans, however, are not the answer to inadequate interest rates. Three decades ago, the once-mighty savings and loan industry destroyed itself, partly by ignoring that maxim.
On the economy:
"Despite some severe interruptions, our country’s economic progress has been breathtaking."
On overpriced mistakes:
Buffett conceded that the $11 billion writedown Berkshire took last year was due to what was a “mistake” in 2016, when he paid too much for Precision Castparts. Precision is a fine company, Buffett said, but he admitted he made a big error.
The final component in our GAAP figure – that ugly $11 billion write-down – is almost entirely the quantification of a mistake I made in 2016. That year, Berkshire purchased Precision Castparts (“PCC”), and I paid too much for the company.
No one misled me in any way – I was simply too optimistic about PCC’s normalized profit potential. Last year, my miscalculation was laid bare by adverse developments throughout the aerospace industry, PCC’s most important source of customers.
In purchasing PCC, Berkshire bought a fine company – the best in its business. Mark Donegan, PCC’s CEO, is a passionate manager who consistently pours the same energy into the business that he did before we purchased it. We are lucky to have him running things.
I believe I was right in concluding that PCC would, over time, earn good returns on the net tangible assets deployed in its operations. I was wrong, however, in judging the average amount of future earnings and, consequently, wrong in my calculation of the proper price to pay for the business.
On the energy markets:
"[O]ur country’s electric utilities need a massive makeover in which the ultimate costs will be staggering."
On the five types of investors in Berkshire:
Ownership of Berkshire now resides in five large “buckets,” one occupied by me as a “founder” of sorts. That bucket is certain to empty as the shares I own are annually distributed to various philanthropies. Two of the remaining four buckets are filled by institutional investors, each handling other people’s money. That, however, is where the similarity between those buckets ends: Their investing procedures could not be more different.
In one institutional bucket are index funds, a large and mushrooming segment of the investment world. These funds simply mimic the index that they track. The favorite of index investors is the S&P 500, of which Berkshire is a component. Index funds, it should be emphasized, own Berkshire shares simply because they are required to do so. They are on automatic pilot, buying and selling only for “weighting” purposes.
In the other institutional bucket are professionals who manage their clients’ money, whether those funds belong to wealthy individuals, universities, pensioners or whomever. These professional managers have a mandate to move funds from one investment to another based on their judgment as to valuation and prospects. That is an honorable, though difficult, occupation.
We are happy to work for this “active” group, while they meanwhile search for a better place to deploy the funds of their clientele. Some managers, to be sure, have a long-term focus and trade very infrequently. Others use computers employing algorithms that may direct the purchase or sale of shares in a nano-second. Some professional investors will come and go based upon their macro-economic judgments.
Our fourth bucket consists of individual shareholders who operate in a manner similar to the active institutional managers I’ve just described. These owners, understandably, think of their Berkshire shares as a possible source of funds when they see another investment that excites them. We have no quarrel with that attitude, which is similar to the way we look at some of the equities we own at Berkshire.
All of that said, Charlie and I would be less than human if we did not feel a special kinship with our fifth bucket: the million-plus individual investors who simply trust us to represent their interests, whatever the future may bring. They have joined us with no intent to leave, adopting a mindset similar to that held by our original partners. Indeed, many investors from our partnership years, and/or their descendants, remain substantial owners of Berkshire.
On why Berkshire provides "hamburgers and coke" to investors, not French cuisine and exotic wines:
In 1958, Phil Fisher wrote a superb book on investing. In it, he analogized running a public company to managing a restaurant. If you are seeking diners, he said, you can attract a clientele and prosper featuring either hamburgers served with a Coke or a French cuisine accompanied by exotic wines. But you must not, Fisher warned, capriciously switch from one to the other: Your message to potential customers must be consistent with what they will find upon entering your premises.
At Berkshire, we have been serving hamburgers and Coke for 56 years. We cherish the clientele this fare has attracted.
The tens of millions of other investors and speculators in the United States and elsewhere have a wide variety of equity choices to fit their tastes. They will find CEOs and market gurus with enticing ideas. If they want price targets, managed earnings and “stories,” they will not lack suitors. “Technicians” will confidently instruct them as to what some wiggles on a chart portend for a stock’s next move. The calls for action will never stop.
Many of those investors, I should add, will do quite well. After all, ownership of stocks is very much a “positive-sum” game. Indeed, a patient and level-headed monkey, who constructs a portfolio by throwing 50 darts at a board listing all of the S&P 500, will – over time – enjoy dividends and capital gains, just as long as it never gets tempted to make changes in its original “selections.”
On buying (and recently selling) Apple stock:
Berkshire’s investment in Apple vividly illustrates the power of repurchases. We began buying Apple stock late in 2016 and by early July 2018, owned slightly more than one billion Apple shares (split-adjusted). Saying that, I’m referencing the investment held in Berkshire’s general account and am excluding a very small and separately-managed holding of Apple shares that was subsequently sold. When we finished our purchases in mid-2018, Berkshire’s general account owned 5.2% of Apple. Our cost for that stake was $36 billion. Since then, we have both enjoyed regular dividends, averaging about $775 million annually, and have also – in 2020 – pocketed an additional $11 billion by selling a small portion of our position.
Despite that sale – voila! – Berkshire now owns 5.4% of Apple. That increase was costless to us, coming about because Apple has continuously repurchased its shares, thereby substantially shrinking the number it now has outstanding. But that’s far from all of the good news. Because we also repurchased Berkshire shares during the 2 1⁄2 years, you now indirectly own a full 10% more of Apple’s assets and future earnings than you did in July 2018.
On buying (back) Buffett stock:
After buying back a record $9 billion of its own shares in Q3, Berkshire was unable to find attractively priced investments, and continued the buyback spree repurchasing a similar amount in Q4, bringing its annual buyback for 2020 to a record $24.7 billion. "Berkshire made no sizable acquisitions and operating earnings fell 9% We did, though, increase Berkshire’s per-share intrinsic value by both retaining earnings and repurchasing about 5% of our shares.... The math of repurchases grinds away slowly, but can be powerful over time. The process offers a simple way for investors to own an ever-expanding portion of exceptional businesses. And as a sultry Mae West assured us: “Too much of a good thing can be . . . wonderful.”
And unable to find better investments, Buffett has continued to repurchase its own stock, :
“Berkshire has repurchased more shares since year-end, and is likely to further reduce its share count in the future. That action increased your ownership in all of Berkshire’s businesses by 5.2% without requiring you to so much as touch your wallet.”
Perhaps to be expected, the company's cash - which in Q2 hit a record $146.6 billion, declined by $7.4BN, to a still remarkable $138.9 billion, as Buffett continues to struggle to find investments and as Berkshire throws off cash faster than he can find higher-returning assets to snap up.
And speaking of his inability to find suitable acquisitions, Buffett went on a lengthy tangent about the downfall of conglomerates, and why he doesn't view Berkshire as one of them:
Berkshire is often labeled a conglomerate, a negative term applied to holding companies that own a hodge-podge of unrelated businesses. And, yes, that describes Berkshire – but only in part. To understand how and why we differ from the prototype conglomerate, let’s review a little history.
Over time, conglomerates have generally limited themselves to buying businesses in their entirety. That strategy, however, came with two major problems. One was unsolvable: Most of the truly great businesses had no interest in having anyone take them over.
Consequently, deal-hungry conglomerateurs had to focus on so-so companies that lacked important and durable competitive strengths. That was not a great pond in which to fish.
Beyond that, as conglomerateurs dipped into this universe of mediocre businesses, they often found themselves required to pay staggering “control” premiums to snare their quarry. Aspiring conglomerateurs knew the answer to this “overpayment” problem: They simply needed to manufacture a vastly overvalued stock of their own that could be used as a “currency” for pricey acquisitions. (“I’ll pay you $10,000 for your dog by giving you two of my $5,000 cats.”)
Often, the tools for fostering the overvaluation of a conglomerate’s stock involved promotional techniques and “imaginative” accounting maneuvers that were, at best, deceptive and that sometimes crossed the line into fraud. When these tricks were “successful,” the conglomerate pushed its own stock to, say, 3x its business value in order to offer the target 2x its value.
Investing illusions can continue for a surprisingly long time. Wall Street loves the fees that deal-making generates, and the press loves the stories that colorful promoters provide. At a point, also, the soaring price of a promoted stock can itself become the “proof” that an illusion is reality.
Eventually, of course, the party ends, and many business “emperors” are found to have no clothes. Financial history is replete with the names of famous conglomerateurs who were initially lionized as business geniuses by journalists, analysts and investment bankers, but whose creations ended up as business junkyards.
Conglomerates earned their terrible reputation
After his recent dismal performance, one wonders how soon until one other such crony capitalist "emperor" will be found to have been naked all along.
Finally, in terms of actual results, the company reported Q4 operating income of $5.02 billion, up 14% from $4.42 billion Y/Y, with insurance underwriting resulting in an operating loss of $299 million, down -65% Y/Y. As Bloomberg notes, swings in Berkshire’s massive $281.2 billion stock portfolio (which showed a 5.1% stake in Japanese trading conglomerate Itochu Corp)...
... feed into the company’s net income because of an accounting technicality. That drove net income up 23% to $35.8 billion in the fourth quarter from a year earlier. After another disappointing year, Berkshire’s Class A shares gained roughly 2.4% last year, falling short of the 16% increase in the S&P 500, and less than 1/100th the 306% return of bitcoin in 2020.
As Bloomberg notes, Buffett only briefly touched on one of the largest questions looming over Berkshire - how long he might stay at the helm. He once again referenced a favorite CEO, Mrs. Blumkin, who founded Nebraska Furniture Mart. She worked until she was 103 - “a ridiculously premature retirement age as judged by Charlie and me,” Buffett wrote, referring to Charlie Munger.
And speaking of Munger, Buffett's letter comes days after the Berkshire Vice Chairman sounded off about the "wild speculation" in markets.
"I hate this luring of people into engaging in speculative orgies. [Robinhood] may call it investing, but that's all bullshit," Munger said on Thursday.
"It's really just wild speculation, like casino gambling or racetrack betting. There's a long history of destructive capitalism, these trading orgies whooped up by the people who profit from them."
Munger will be on stage with Buffett at the annual meeting to answer questions in May - we're assuming he will continue his spat with Robinhood.
Read the entire letter below: