Buffett’s Annual Letter 2017

At Berkshire what counts most are increases in our normalized per-share earning power. That metric is what Charlie Munger, my long-time partner, and I focus on – and we hope that you do, too.

Acquisitions:
There are four building blocks that add value to Berkshire: (1) sizable stand-alone acquisitions; (2) bolt-on acquisitions that fit with businesses we already own; (3) internal sales growth and margin improvement at our many and varied businesses; and (4) investment earnings from our huge portfolio of stocks and bonds.

Why he didn’t make a big deal in 2017:
In our search for new stand-alone businesses, the key qualities we seek are durable competitive strengths; able and high-grade management; good returns on the net tangible assets required to operate the business; opportunities for internal growth at attractive returns; and, finally, a sensible purchase price.

That last requirement proved a barrier to virtually all deals we reviewed in 2017, as prices for decent, but far from spectacular, businesses hit an all-time high.

Insane to risk what you have….to obtain what you don’t need:
Our aversion to leverage has dampened our returns over the years. But Charlie and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don’t need. We held this view 50 years ago when we each ran an investment partnership, funded by a few friends and relatives who trusted us. We also hold it today after a million or so “partners” have joined us at Berkshire.

Despite our recent drought of acquisitions, Charlie and I believe that from time to time Berkshire will have opportunities to make very large purchases. In the meantime, we will stick with our simple guideline: The less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own.

Bolt-on acquisitions:
I don’t understand manufacturing operations as well as I do the activities of real estate brokers, home builders or truck stops.

Fortunately, I don’t need in this instance to bring knowledge to the table: Mark Donegan, CEO of Precision, is an extraordinary manufacturing executive, and any business in his domain is slated to do well. Betting on people can sometimes be more certain than betting on physical assets.

Insurance:
Property-casualty insurance, a business I do understand and the engine that for 51 years has powered Berkshire’s growth.

Ever since, float has been of great importance to Berkshire. When we invest these funds, all dividends, interest and gains from their deployment belong to Berkshire. (If we experience investment losses, those, of course, are on our tab as well.)

Berkshire’s insurance managers are conservative and careful underwriters, who operate in a culture that has long prioritized those qualities. That disciplined behavior has produced underwriting profits in most years, and in such instances, our cost of float was less than zero. In effect, we got paid then for holding the huge sums tallied in the earlier table.

Prior to 2017, Berkshire had recorded 14 consecutive years of underwriting profits, which totaled $28.3 billion pre-tax. I have regularly told you that I expect Berkshire to attain an underwriting profit in a majority of years, but also to experience losses from time to time. My warning became fact in 2017, as we lost $3.2 billion pre-tax from underwriting.

This is a business in which there are no trade secrets, patents, or locational advantages. What counts are brains and capital. The managers of our various insurance companies supply the brains and Berkshire provides the capital.

Need to make one or more ‘huge acquisitions’:
Berkshire’s goal is to substantially increase the earnings of its non-insurance group. For that to happen, we will need to make one or more huge acquisitions. We certainly have the resources to do so. At yearend Berkshire held $116.0 billion in cash and U.S. Treasury Bills. This extraordinary liquidity earns only a pittance and is far beyond the level Charlie and I wish Berkshire to have. Our smiles will broaden when we have redeployed Berkshire’s excess funds into more productive assets.

Stock investments are not just ‘ticker symbols’:
Charlie and I view the marketable common stocks that Berkshire owns as interests in businesses, not as ticker symbols to be bought or sold based on their “chart” patterns, the “target” prices of analysts or the opinions of media pundits. Instead, we simply believe that if the businesses of the investees are successful (as we believe most will be) our investments will be successful as well. Sometimes the payoffs to us will be modest; occasionally the cash register will ring loudly. And sometimes I will make expensive mistakes. Overall – and over time – we should get decent results. In America, equity investors have the wind at their back.

“In the short run, the market is a voting machine; in the long run, however, it becomes a weighing machine.”

Market declines:
“There is simply no telling how far stocks can fall in a short period. No one can tell you when these will happen. The light can at any time go from green to red without pausing at yellow. When major declines occur, however, they offer extraordinary opportunities.”

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