This Year's Buffettisms
From Berkshire's 2022 Shareholder Letter
The return of Buffett’s investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, has compounded annually at a rate of 19.8% since 1965; besting the S&P 500’s compounded annual performance of 9.9% over the same period. After putting up a 4% return in 2022, while the S&P lost 18.1%, both Buffett and Munger added a further notch to their bedpost of market-beating returns. Once every year, typically on a Saturday, Berkshire will release its greatly anticipated annual shareholder letter. They usually contain an array of Buffettisms, as well as a lot of quotable dialogue, and sage advice from an investor who has been in the business of investing in American companies for just over one-third of the lifespan of the United States.
Here are fourteen of my highlights from this year’s annual letter.
1. Business pickers > Stock pickers
“Our goal in both forms of ownership is to make meaningful investments in businesses with both long-lasting favorable economic characteristics and trustworthy managers. Please note particularly that we own publicly-traded stocks based on our expectations about their long-term business performance, not because we view them as vehicles for adroit purchases and sales. That point is crucial: Charlie and I are not stock-pickers; we are business-pickers”.
2. Market inefficiency
“One advantage of our publicly-traded segment is that – episodically – it becomes easy to buy pieces of wonderful businesses at wonderful prices. It’s crucial to understand that stocks often trade at truly foolish prices, both high and low. “Efficient” markets exist only in textbooks. In truth, marketable stocks and bonds are baffling, their behavior usually understandable only in retrospect. Controlled businesses are a different breed. They sometimes command ridiculously higher prices than justified but are almost never available at bargain valuations. Unless under duress, the owner of a controlled business gives no thought to selling at a panic-type valuation”.
3. Berkshire’s success has been the outcome of a few good decisions
“At this point, a report card from me is appropriate: In 58 years of Berkshire management, most of my capital-allocation decisions have been no better than so-so. In some cases, also, bad moves by me have been rescued by very large doses of luck. (Remember our escapes from near-disasters at USAir and Salomon? I certainly do.) Our satisfactory results have been the product of about a dozen truly good decisions – that would be about one every five years – and a sometimes-forgotten advantage that favors long-term investors such as Berkshire”.
4. The secret sauce of long-term investing
“In August 1994 – yes, 1994 – Berkshire completed its seven-year purchase of the 400 million shares of Coca-Cola we now own. The total cost was $1.3 billion – then a very meaningful sum at Berkshire. The cash dividend we received from Coke in 1994 was $75 million. By 2022, the dividend had increased to $704 million. Growth occurred every year, just as certain as birthdays. All Charlie and I were required to do was cash Coke’s quarterly dividend checks. We expect that those checks are highly likely to grow.
American Express is much the same story. Berkshire’s purchases of Amex were essentially completed in 1995 and, coincidentally, also cost $1.3 billion. Annual dividends received from this investment have grown from $41 million to $302 million. Those checks, too, seem highly likely to increase. These dividend gains, though pleasing, are far from spectacular. But they bring with them important gains in stock prices.
At yearend, our Coke investment was valued at $25 billion while Amex was recorded at $22 billion. Each holding now accounts for roughly 5% of Berkshire’s net worth, akin to its weighting long ago. “.
5. Water the flowers, ignore the weeds
“Assume, for a moment, I had made a similarly-sized investment mistake in the 1990s, one that flat-lined and simply retained its $1.3 billion value in 2022. (An example would be a high-grade 30-year bond). That disappointing investment would now represent an insignificant 0.3% of Berkshire’s net worth and would be delivering to us an unchanged $80 million or so of annual income. The lesson for investors: The weeds wither away in significance as the flowers bloom. Over time, it takes just a few winners to work wonders. And, yes, it helps to start early and live into your 90s as well”.
6. Creative destruction
“Over the years, I have made many mistakes. Consequently, our extensive collection of businesses currently consists of a few enterprises that have truly extraordinary economics, many that enjoy very good economic characteristics, and a large group that are marginal. Along the way, other businesses in which I have invested have died, their products unwanted by the public. Capitalism has two sides: The system creates an ever-growing pile of losers while concurrently delivering a gusher of improved goods and services. Schumpeter called this phenomenon “creative destruction”.
7. Share repurchases doing wonders
“A very minor gain in per-share intrinsic value took place in 2022 through Berkshire share repurchases as well as similar moves at Apple and American Express, both significant investees of ours. At Berkshire, we directly increased your interest in our unique collection of businesses by repurchasing 1.2% of the company’s outstanding shares. At Apple and Amex, repurchases increased Berkshire’s ownership a bit without any cost to us”.
8. Not all share repurchases are created equal
“The math isn’t complicated: When the share count goes down, your interest in our many businesses goes up. Every small bit helps if repurchases are made at value-accretive prices. Just as surely, when a company overpays for repurchases, the continuing shareholders lose. At such times, gains flow only to the selling shareholders and to the friendly, but expensive, investment banker who recommended the foolish purchases.
Gains from value-accretive repurchases, it should be emphasized, benefit all owners – in every respect. Imagine, if you will, three fully-informed shareholders of a local auto dealership, one of whom manages the business. Imagine, further, that one of the passive owners wishes to sell his interest back to the company at a price attractive to the two continuing shareholders. When completed, has this transaction harmed anyone? Is the manager somehow favored over the continuing passive owners? Has the public been hurt?
When you are told that all repurchases are harmful to shareholders or to the country, or particularly beneficial to CEOs, you are listening to either an economic illiterate or a silver-tongued demagogue (characters that are not mutually exclusive)”.
9. The rise of imaginative accounting
“Finally, an important warning: Even the operating earnings figure that we favor can easily be manipulated by managers who wish to do so. Such tampering is often thought of as sophisticated by CEOs, directors and their advisors. Reporters and analysts embrace its existence as well. Beating “expectations” is heralded as a managerial triumph. That activity is disgusting. It requires no talent to manipulate numbers: Only a deep desire to deceive is required. “Bold imaginative accounting,” as a CEO once described his deception to me, has become one of the shames of capitalism”.
10. Buffett doesn’t know how the US Government’s deficit will cause problems, just that it will eventually
“Though economists, politicians and many of the public have opinions about the consequences of that huge imbalance, Charlie and I plead ignorance and firmly believe that near-term economic and market forecasts are worse than useless. Our job is to manage Berkshire’s operations and finances in a manner that will achieve an acceptable result over time and that will preserve the company’s unmatched staying power when financial panics or severe worldwide recessions occur. Berkshire also offers some modest protection from runaway inflation, but this attribute is far from perfect. Huge and entrenched fiscal deficits have consequences”.
11. Berkshire pays…. a lot of tax
“During the decade ending in 2021, the United States Treasury received about $32.3 trillion in taxes while it spent $43.9 trillion. The $32 trillion of revenue was garnered by the Treasury through individual income taxes (48%), social security and related receipts (341⁄2%), corporate income tax payments (81⁄2%) and a wide variety of lesser levies. Berkshire’s contribution via the corporate income tax was $32 billion during the decade, almost exactly a tenth of 1% of all money that the Treasury collected.
Millions, billions, trillions – we all know the words, but the sums involved are almost impossible to comprehend. Let’s put physical dimensions to the numbers: If you convert $1 million into newly-printed $100 bills, you will have a stack that reaches your chest. Perform the same exercise with $1 billion – this is getting exciting! – and the stack reaches about 3⁄4 of a mile into the sky. Finally, imagine piling up $32 billion, the total of Berkshire’s 2012-21 federal income tax payments. Now the stack grows to more than 21 miles in height, about three times the level at which commercial airplanes usually cruise”.
12. Advice on finding a great (investment) partner
“Charlie and I think pretty much alike. But what it takes me a page to explain, he sums up in a sentence. His version, moreover, is always more clearly reasoned and also more artfully – some might add bluntly – stated. Find a very smart high-grade partner – preferably slightly older than you – and then listen very carefully to what he says”.
13. The future of Berkshire has no finish line
“As for the future, Berkshire will always hold a boatload of cash and U.S. Treasury bills along with a wide array of businesses. We will also avoid behavior that could result in any uncomfortable cash needs at inconvenient times, including financial panics and unprecedented insurance losses. Our CEO will always be the Chief Risk Officer – a task it is irresponsible to delegate. Additionally, our future CEOs will have a significant part of their net worth in Berkshire shares, bought with their own money. And yes, our shareholders will continue to save and prosper by retaining earnings. At Berkshire, there will be no finish line”.
14. Sound advice from Charlie Munger
“• The world is full of foolish gamblers, and they will not do as well as the patient investor.
• If you don’t see the world the way it is, it’s like judging something through a distorted lens.
• All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there. And a related thought: Early on, write your desired obituary – and then behave accordingly.
• If you don’t care whether you are rational or not, you won’t work on it. Then you will stay irrational and get lousy results.
• Patience can be learned. Having a long attention span and the ability to concentrate on one thing for a long time is a huge advantage.
• You can learn a lot from dead people. Read of the deceased you admire and detest.
• Don’t bail away in a sinking boat if you can swim to one that is seaworthy.
• A great company keeps working after you are not; a mediocre company won’t do that.
• Warren and I don’t focus on the froth of the market. We seek out good long-term investments and stubbornly hold them for a long time.
• Ben Graham said, “Day to day, the stock market is a voting machine; in the long term it’s a weighing machine.” If you keep making something more valuable, then some wise person is going to notice it and start buying.
• There is no such thing as a 100% sure thing when investing. Thus, the use of leverage is dangerous. A string of wonderful numbers times zero will always equal zero. Don’t count on getting rich twice.
• You don’t, however, need to own a lot of things in order to get rich.
• You have to keep learning if you want to become a great investor. When the world changes, you must change”.
Thanks for reading.
I hope you are having a great weekend,
Many people went through me, but one thing always remained the same, if say in a game I controlled my employees - the efficiency of everyone increased by 50%, as soon as I’d relax my grip - everyone relaxed accordingly. I came to the solution of introducing daily reports from each employee to the company. Good day, Conor!
Great read. Thank you for sharing your insights!