Category Archives: Warren Buffett lessons

Does Warren Buffett or Berkshire Hathaway hold certain stocks forever?

Does Warren Buffett or Berkshire Hathaway hold certain stocks forever?

To answer this question, one needs to go back to Berkshire Hathaway’s 2016 Annual Report 2016, in which chairman Warren Buffett said:  “Sometimes the comments of shareholders or media imply that we will own certain stocks “forever.” It is true that we own some stocks that I have no intention of selling for as far as the eye can see (and we’re talking 20/20 vision). But we have made no commitment that Berkshire will hold any of its marketable securities forever.”

What could have prompted the implication by shareholders and the media that Warren Buffett holds certain stocks forever?

Warren Buffett said in Berkshire Hathaway’s 2016 Annual Report said: “Confusion about this point may have resulted from a too-casual reading of Economic Principle 11 on pages 110 – 111, which has been included in our annual reports since 1983. That principle covers controlled businesses, not marketable securities. This year I’ve added a final sentence to #11 to ensure that our owners understand that we regard any marketable security as available for sale, however unlikely such a sale now seems.”

What is Warren Buffett’s Economic Principle 11 and what is the final sentence that was added in 2016 to this principle? Let’s explore.

Background: In June 1996, Berkshire’s chairman Warren Buffett  issued a booklet entitled “An Owner’s Manual” to Berkshire’s Class A and Class B shareholders. The purpose of the manual was to explain Berkshire’s broad economic principles of operation.

There were originally 13 economic principles which Warran Buffett set up in 1983. The 2016 Annual Report provided an updated version of “An Owner’s Manual”.

Economic Principle 11 goes like this:

You should be fully aware of one attitude Charlie and I share that hurts our financial performance: Regardless of price, we have no interest at all in selling any good businesses that Berkshire owns. We are also very reluctant to sell sub-par businesses as long as we expect them to generate at least some cash and as long as we feel good about their managers and labor relations. We hope not to repeat the capital-allocation mistakes that led us into such sub-par businesses. And we react with great caution to suggestions that our poor businesses can be restored to satisfactory profitability by major capital expenditures. (The projections will be dazzling and the advocates sincere, but, in the end, major additional investment in a terrible industry usually is about as rewarding as struggling in quicksand.) Nevertheless, gin rummy managerial behavior (discard your least promising business at each turn) is not our style. We would rather have our overall results penalized a bit than engage in that kind of behavior.
“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. To clean up some confusion voiced in 2016, we emphasize that the comments here refer to businesses we control, not to marketable securities.”

The last sentence in Berkshire Hathaway Economic Principle 11 made it clear that Warren Buffett’s comments refer to businesses that Berkshire Hathaway owns and not to marketable securities.

Warren Buffett: Two things to remember during scary periods

“The years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks,” Warren Buffett said in his FY2016 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.

“No one can tell you when these traumas will occur – not me, not Charlie, not economists, not the media. Meg McConnell of the New York Fed aptly described the reality of panics: “We spend a lot of time looking for systemic risk; in truth, however, it tends to find us.”,” said Mr Buffett.

What should investors do during such scary periods?

“…you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well,” said Mr Buffett, who is chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

Mr Buffett started his thought on this subject by saying: “America’s economic achievements have led to staggering profits for stockholders. During the 20th century the Dow-Jones Industrials advanced from 66 to 11,497, a 17,320% capital gain that was materially boosted by steadily increasing dividends. The trend continues: By yearend 2016, the index had advanced a further 72%, to 19,763.

” American business – and consequently a basket of stocks – is virtually certain to be worth far more in the years ahead. Innovation, productivity gains, entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of capital will see to that.”

Taking a dig at naysayers, Mr Buffett said: “Ever-present naysayers may prosper by marketing their gloomy forecasts. But heaven help them if they act on the nonsense they peddle. ”

Then driving home a point about reality, Mr Buffett said: “Many companies, of course, will fall behind, and some will fail. Winnowing of that sort is a product of market dynamism. Moreover, the years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks. ”

Mr Buffett went on to talk about the two things that investors should not forget during such scary periods.

 

The Fourth Law of Motion that Sir Isaac Newton failed to discover

“Long ago, Sir Isaac Newton gave us three laws of motion, which were the work of genius,” Warren Buffett  said in a comment in Berkshire Hathaway’s FY2016 annual report.

” But Sir Isaac’s talents didn’t extend to investing: He lost a bundle in the South Sea Bubble, explaining later, “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.”

“If he had not been traumatized by this loss, Sir Isaac might well have gone on to discover the Fourth Law of Motion: For investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases.”

To understand better why Sir Isaac Newton said “I can calculate the movement of the starts, but not the madness of men”,  read Buffettpedia’s post “Are you an intelligent investor?”.

Warren Buffett is set to win this US$500,000 wager

Background on Warren Buffett’s US$500,000 wager: Warren Buffett said in  Berkshire’s 2005 annual report that  active investment management by professionals – in aggregate – would over a period of years underperform the returns achieved by rank amateurs who simply sat still.

Recalling his argument, he said in his FY2016 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders: “I explained that the massive fees levied by a variety of “helpers” would leave their clients – again in aggregate – worse off than if the amateurs simply invested in an unmanaged low-cost index fund. ..

“Subsequently, I publicly offered to wager $500,000 that no investment pro could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees. I suggested a ten-year bet and named a low-cost Vanguard S&P fund as my contender. I then sat back and waited expectantly for a parade of fund managers – who could include their own fund as one of the five – to come forth and defend their occupation. After all, these managers urged others to bet billions on their abilities. Why should they fear putting a little of their own money on the line?
Mr Buffett went on to say: “What followed was the sound of silence. Though there are thousands of professional investment managers who have amassed staggering fortunes by touting their stock-selecting prowess, only one man – Ted Seides – stepped up to my challenge. Ted was a co-manager of Protégé Partners, an asset manager that had raised money from limited partners to form a fund-of-funds – in other words, a fund that invests in multiple hedge funds.

“I hadn’t known Ted before our wager, but I like him and admire his willingness to put his money where his mouth was. He has been both straight-forward with me and meticulous in supplying all the data that both he and I have needed to monitor the bet.

“For Protégé Partners’ side of our ten-year bet, Ted picked five funds-of-funds whose results were to be averaged and compared against my Vanguard S&P index fund. The five he selected had invested their money in more than 100 hedge funds, which meant that the overall performance of the funds-of-funds would not be distorted by the good or poor results of a single manager.
Each fund-of-funds, of course, operated with a layer of fees that sat above the fees charged by the hedge funds in which it had invested. In this doubling-up arrangement, the larger fees were levied by the underlying hedge funds; each of the fund-of-funds imposed an additional fee for its presumed skills in selecting hedge-fund managers.
“Here are the results for the first nine years of the bet – figures leaving no doubt that Girls Inc. of Omaha, the charitable beneficiary I designated to get any bet winnings I earned, will be the organization eagerly opening the mail next January.
“The compounded annual increase to date for the index fund is 7.1%, which is a return that could easily prove typical for the stock market over time. That’s an important fact: A particularly weak nine years for the market over the lifetime of this bet would have probably helped the relative performance of the hedge funds, because many hold large “short” positions. Conversely, nine years of exceptionally high returns from stocks would have provided a tailwind for index funds.

“Instead we operated in what I would call a “neutral” environment. In it, the five funds-of-funds delivered, through 2016, an average of only 2.2%, compounded annually. That means $1 million invested in those funds would have gained $220,000. The index fund would meanwhile have gained $854,000….”

Mr Buffett summed it up this way: “So that was my argument – and now let me put it into a simple equation. If Group A (active investors) and Group B (do-nothing investors) comprise the total investing universe, and B is destined to achieve average results before costs, so, too, must A. Whichever group has the lower costs will win…”

” The problem simply is that the great majority of managers who attempt to over-perform will fail. The probability is also very high that the person soliciting your funds will not be the exception who does well. Bill Ruane – a truly wonderful human being and a man whom I identified 60 years ago as almost certain to deliver superior investment returns over the long haul – said it well: “In investment management, the progression is from the innovators to the imitators to the swarming incompetents”,” Mr Buffett said.

Mr Buffett’s bottom line: When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.

How Berkshire Hathaway selects a new director

Berkshire Hathaway’s four long-standing criteria in selecting a new board director: owner-oriented, business-savvy, interested and truly independent.

Chairman Warren Buffett said: “I say “truly” because many
directors who are now deemed independent by various authorities and observers are far from that, relying
heavily as they do on directors’ fees to maintain their standard of living. These payments, which come in
many forms, often range between $150,000 and $250,000 annually, compensation that may approach or
even exceed all other income of the “independent” director. And – surprise, surprise – director
compensation has soared in recent years, pushed up by recommendations from corporate America’s
favorite consultant, Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo. (The name may be phony, but the action it conveys is
not.).

“Charlie and I believe our four criteria are essential if directors are to do their job – which, by law,
is to faithfully represent owners. Yet these criteria are usually ignored. Instead, consultants and CEOs
seeking board candidates will often say, “We’re looking for a woman,” or “a Hispanic,” or “someone from
abroad,” or what have you. It sometimes sounds as if the mission is to stock Noah’s ark. Over the years
I’ve been queried many times about potential directors and have yet to hear anyone ask, “Does he think like
an intelligent owner?”

“The questions I instead get would sound ridiculous to someone seeking candidates for, say, a
football team, or an arbitration panel or a military command. In those cases, the selectors would look for
people who had the specific talents and attitudes that were required for a specialized job. At Berkshire, we
are in the specialized activity of running a business well, and therefore we seek business judgment.
“That’s exactly what we’ve found in Susan Decker, CFO of Yahoo!, who will join our board at the
annual meeting. We are lucky to have her: She scores very high on our four criteria and additionally, at 44,
is young – an attribute, as you may have noticed, that your Chairman has long lacked. We will seek more
young directors in the future, but never by slighting the four qualities that we insist upon.”

Source: Chairman Warren Buffett’s FY2006 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders

When it comes to stocks, Berkshire Hathaway looks for wonderful companies

“Woody Allen once explained that the advantage of being bi-sexual is that it doubles your chance of finding a date on Saturday night,” Warren Buffett said in his FY2015 letter to Berkshire Hathaway. Why did the Berkshire Hathaway chairman say this?

“In like manner – well, not exactly like manner – our appetite for either operating businesses or passive investments doubles our chances of finding sensible uses for Berkshire’s endless gusher of cash. Beyond that, having a huge portfolio of marketable securities gives us a stockpile of funds that can be tapped when an elephant-sized acquisition is offered to us,” Mr Buffett continued.

A stockpile of funds from marketable securities?

Yes a stockpile. “Berkshire increased its ownership interest last year in each of its “Big Four” investments – American Express, Coca-Cola, IBM and Wells Fargo. We purchased additional shares of IBM (increasing our ownership to 8.4% versus 7.8% at yearend 2014) and Wells Fargo (going to 9.8% from 9.4%). At the other two companies, Coca-Cola and American Express, stock repurchases raised our percentage ownership. Our equity in Coca-Cola grew from 9.2% to 9.3%, and our interest in American Express increased from 14.8% to 15.6%. In case you think these seemingly small changes aren’t important, consider this math: For the four companies in aggregate, each increase of one percentage point in our ownership raises Berkshire’s portion of their annual earnings by about $500 million.”

The legendary investor’s subsequent FY2016 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shows the stakes in these Big Four as at end-2016 were: American Express 16.8%, Coca-Cola 9.3%, IBM 8.5% and Wells Fargo 10%. Apple Inc stocks also came into Berkshire Hathaway’s radar screen, with the group owning a stake of 1.1%, which, according to a CNBC report on Feb 27, 2017, had grown in January 2017 to 2.5%. “At this point, Buffett owns US$17 billion worth of the tech giant’s stock,” said the report.

What does Berkshire Hathaway look for in marketable securities?
On the Big Four in the FY2015 letter, Mr Buffett said that the four investees possess excellent businesses and are run by managers who are both talented and shareholder-oriented. “Their returns on tangible equity range from excellent to staggering. At Berkshire, we much prefer owning a non-controlling but substantial portion of a wonderful company to owning 100% of a so-so business. It’s better to have a partial interest in the Hope Diamond than to own all of a rhinestone,” said Mr Buffett.

The Berkshire Hathaway chairman said that if Berkshire’s yearend holdings were used as the marker, its portion of the “Big Four’s” 2015 earnings amounted to US$4.7 billion. “In the earnings we report to you, however, we include only the dividends they pay us – about $1.8 billion last year. But make no mistake: The nearly $3 billion of these companies’ earnings we don’t report are every bit as valuable to us as the portion Berkshire records.”

The earnings of Berkshire’s investees retain are often used for repurchases of their own stock – a move that increases Berkshire’s share of future earnings without requiring it to lay out a dime. “The retained earnings of these companies also fund business opportunities that usually turn out to be advantageous. All that leads us to expect that the per-share earnings of these four investees, in aggregate, will grow substantially over time. If gains do indeed materialize, dividends to Berkshire will increase and so, too, will our unrealized capital gains.”

This investment philosophy gives Berkshire Hathaway a significant edge, explained by Mr Buffett this way: “Our flexibility in capital allocation – our willingness to invest large sums passively in non-controlled businesses – gives us a significant edge over companies that limit themselves to acquisitions they will operate.”