The Keys To Geico’s Success - There’s nothing esoteric about GEICO’s success: The company’s competitive strength flows directly from its position as a low-cost operator. Low costs permit low prices, and low prices attract and retain good policyholders. The final segment of a virtuous circle is drawn when policyholders recommend us to their friends. GEICO gets more than one million referrals annually and these produce more than half of our new business, an advantage that gives us enormous savings in acquisition expenses - and that makes our costs still lower.
Stock Pricing – You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.
Corporate Greed - CEOs who use variations of these scoring schemes in real life tend to become addicted to the games they’re playing — after all, it’s easier to fiddle with the scorecard than to spend hours on the practice tee — and never muster the will to give them up. Their behavior brings to mind Voltaire’s comment on sexual experimentation: “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.”
Reason - Berkshire will someday have opportunities to deploy major amounts of cash in equity markets — we are confident of that. But, as the song goes, “Who knows where or when?” Meanwhile, if anyone starts explaining to you what is going on in the truly-manic portions of this “enchanted” market, you might remember still another line of song: “Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.”
Analysing Mistakes - agonizing over errors is a mistake. But acknowledging and analyzing them can be useful, though that practice is rare in corporate boardrooms. There, Charlie and I have almost never witnessed a candid post-mortem of a failed decision, particularly one involving an acquisition. A notable exception to this never-look-back approach is that of The Washington Post Company, which unfailingly and objectively reviews its acquisitions three years after they are made. Elsewhere, triumphs are trumpeted, but dumb decisions either get no follow-up or are rationalized.
Incredible Management - Geneís managerial crew is exceptionally enthusiastic about the company and wanted to participate in the purchase. Therefore, we arranged for 55 members of the MiTek team to buy 10% of the company, with each putting up a minimum of $100,000 in cash. Many borrowed money so they could participate. As they would not be if they had options, all of these managers are true owners. They face the downside of decisions as well as the upside. They incur a cost of capital. And they canít ìrepriceî their stakes: What they paid is what they live with.
Longevity - In December, Frank Rooney called to tell me H.H. Brown was buying the inventory and trademarks of Acme Boot for $700,000. That sounds like small potatoes. But ñ would you believe it? ñ Acme was the second purchase of P&R, an acquisition that took place just before I left Graham-Newman in the spring of 1956. The price was $3.2 million, part of it again paid with non-interest bearing notes, for a business with sales of $7 million. After P&R merged with Northwest, Acme grew to be the worldís largest bootmaker, delivering annual profits many multiples of what the company had cost P&R. But the business eventually hit the skids and never recovered, and that resulted in our purchasing Acmeís remnants. In the frontispiece to Security Analysis, Ben Graham and Dave Dodd quoted Horace: ìMany shall be restored that now are fallen and many shall fall that are now in honor.î Fifty-two years after I first read those lines, my appreciation for what they say about business and investments continues to grow.
Cost Conciousness - We cherish cost-consciousness at Berkshire. Our model is the widow who went to the local newspaper to place an obituary notice. Told there was a 25-cents-a-word charge, she requested “Fred Brown died.” She was then informed there was a seven-word minimum. “Okay” the bereaved woman replied, “make it ‘Fred Brown died, golf clubs for sale’.”
Derivitives Business - But closing down a derivatives business is easier said than done. It will be a great many years before we are totally out of this operation (though we reduce our exposure daily). In fact, the reinsurance and derivatives businesses are similar: Like Hell, both are easy to enter and almost impossible to exit.
Index Funds - Over the 35 years, American business has delivered terrific results. It should therefore have been easy for investors to earn juicy returns: All they had to do was piggyback Corporate America in a diversified, low-expense way. An index fund that they never touched would have done the job. Instead many investors have had experiences ranging from mediocre to disastrous. There have been three primary causes: first, high costs, usually because investors traded excessively or spent far too much on investment management; second, portfolio decisions based on tips and fads rather than on thoughtful, quantified evaluation of businesses; and third, a start-and-stop approach to the market marked by untimely entries (after an advance has been long underway) and exits (after periods of stagnation or decline). Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.
Long-Term Expenses - Naturally, a business that follows a no-layoff policy must be especially careful to avoid overstaffing when times are good. Thirty years ago Tom Murphy, then CEO of Cap Cities, drove this point home to me with a hypothetical tale about an employee who asked his boss for permission to hire an assistant. The employee assumed that adding $20,000 to the annual payroll would be inconsequential. But his boss told him the proposal should be evaluated as a $3 million decision, given that an additional person would probably cost at least that amount over his lifetime, factoring in raises, benefits and other expenses (more people, more toilet paper). And unless the company fell on very hard times, the employee added would be unlikely to be dismissed, however marginal his contribution to the business.
Low-Coat Strategy - Another way to prosper in a commodity-type business is to be the low-cost operator. Among auto insurers operating on a broad scale, GEICO holds that cherished title. For NICO, as we have seen, an ebb and-flow business model makes sense. But a company holding a low-cost advantage must pursue an unrelenting foot-to-the-floor strategy. And that’s just what we do at GEICO.
Derivitives Business - Long ago, Mark Twain said: “A man who tries to carry a cat home by its tail will learn a lesson that can be learned in no other way.” If Twain were around now, he might try winding up a derivatives business. After a few days, he would opt for cats.
Damage To Brand - If a management makes bad decisions in order to hit short-term earnings targets, and consequently gets behind the eight-ball in terms of costs, customer satisfaction or brand strength, no amount of subsequent brilliance will overcome the damage that has been inflicted.
The Importance Of A CEO - It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of who is CEO of a company. Before Jim Kilts arrived at Gillette in 2001, the company was struggling, having particularly suffered from capital-allocation blunders. In the major example, Gillette’s acquisition of Duracell cost Gillette shareholders billions of dollars, a loss never made visible by conventional accounting. Quite simply, what Gillette received in business value in this acquisition was not equivalent to what it gave up. (Amazingly, this most fundamental of yardsticks is almost always ignored by both managements and their investment bankers when acquisitions are under discussion.)
CEO Pay - Getting fired can produce a particularly bountiful payday for a CEO. Indeed, he can “earn” more in that single day, while cleaning out his desk, than an American worker earns in a lifetime of cleaning toilets. Forget the old maxim about nothing succeeding like success: Today, in the executive suite, the alltoo-prevalent rule is that nothing succeeds like failure.
Managerial Brilliance And Bad Businesses - When an industry’s underlying economics are crumbling, talented management may slow the rate of decline. Eventually, though, eroding fundamentals will overwhelm managerial brilliance. (As a wise friend told me long ago, “If you want to get a reputation as a good businessman, be sure to get into a good business.”) And fundamentals are definitely eroding in the newspaper industry, a trend that has caused the profits of our Buffalo News to decline. The skid will almost certainly continue.
The Ideal Investor - Over time, markets will do extraordinary, even bizarre, things. A single, big mistake could wipe out a long string of successes. We therefore need someone genetically programmed to recognize and avoid serious risks, including those never before encountered. Certain perils that lurk in investment strategies cannot be spotted by use of the models commonly employed today by financial institutions. Temperament is also important. Independent thinking, emotional stability, and a keen understanding of both human and institutional behavior is vital to long-term investment success. I’ve seen a lot of very smart people who have lacked these virtues. Finally, we have a special problem to consider: our ability to keep the person we hire. Being able to list Berkshire on a resume would materially enhance the marketability of an investment manager. We will need, therefore, to be sure we can retain our choice, even though he or she could leave and make much more money elsewhere. 17 There are surely people who fit what we need, but they may be hard to identify. In 1979, Jack Byrne and I felt we had found such a person in Lou Simpson. We then made an arrangement with him whereby he would be paid well for sustained overperformance. Under this deal, he has earned large amounts. Lou, however, could have left us long ago to manage far greater sums on more advantageous terms. If money alone had been the object, that’s exactly what he would have done. But Lou never considered such a move. We need to find a younger person or two made of the same stuff.
Rip Off Hedge Funds - In 2006, promises and fees hit new highs. A flood of money went from institutional investors to the 2-and-20 crowd. For those innocent of this arrangement, let me explain: It’s a lopsided system whereby 2% of your principal is paid each year to the manager even if he accomplishes nothing – or, for that matter, loses you a bundle – and, additionally, 20% of your profit is paid to him if he succeeds, even if his success is due simply to a rising tide. For example, a manager who achieves a gross return of 10% in a year will keep 3.6 percentage points – two points off the top plus 20% of the residual 8 points – leaving only 6.4 percentage points for his investors. On a $3 billion fund, this 6.4% net “performance” will deliver the manager a cool $108 million. He will receive this bonanza even though an index fund might have returned 15% to investors in the same period and charged them only a token fee. 21 The inexorable math of this grotesque arrangement is certain to make the Gotrocks family poorer over time than it would have been had it never heard of these “hyper-helpers.” Even so, the 2-and-20 action spreads. Its effects bring to mind the old adage: When someone with experience proposes a deal to someone with money, too often the fellow with money ends up with the experience, and the fellow with experience ends up with the money.
Sustainable Competitive Advantage - But if a business requires a superstar to produce great results, the business itself cannot be deemed great. A medical partnership led by your area’s premier brain surgeon may enjoy outsized and growing earnings, but that tells little about its future. The partnership’s moat will go when the surgeon goes. You can count, though, on the moat of the Mayo Clinic to endure, even though you can’t name its CEO.
Capex - A company that needs large increases in capital to engender its growth may well prove to be a satisfactory investment. There is, to follow through on our example, nothing shabby about earning $82 million pre-tax on $400 million of net tangible assets. But that equation for the owner is vastly different from the See’s situation. It’s far better to have an ever-increasing stream of earnings with virtually no major capital requirements. Ask Microsoft or Google.
Buying Stocks - Whether we’re talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down.
Buyer Of Family Business - Our long-avowed goal is to be the “buyer of choice” for businesses – particularly those built and owned by families. The way to achieve this goal is to deserve it. That means we must keep our promises; avoid leveraging up acquired businesses; grant unusual autonomy to our managers; and hold the purchased companies through thick and thin (though we prefer thick and thicker.
Our record matches our rhetoric. Most buyers competing against us, however, follow a different path. For them, acquisitions are “merchandise.” Before the ink dries on their purchase contracts, these operators are contemplating “exit strategies.” We have a decided advantage, therefore, when we encounter sellers who truly care about the future of their businesses.
Cash In Crisis - Clinging to cash equivalents or long-term government bonds at present yields is almost certainly a terrible policy if continued for long. Holders of these instruments, of course, have felt increasingly comfortable – in fact, almost smug – in following this policy as financial turmoil has mounted. They regard their judgment confirmed when they hear commentators proclaim “cash is king,” even though that wonderful cash is earning close to nothing and will surely find its purchasing power eroded over time.
Derivitives - Derivatives are dangerous. They have dramatically increased the leverage and risks in our financial system. They have made it almost impossible for investors to understand and analyze our largest commercial banks and investment banks. They allowed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to engage in massive misstatements of earnings for years. So indecipherable were Freddie and Fannie that their federal regulator, OFHEO, whose more than 100 employees had no job except the oversight of these two institutions, totally missed their cooking of the books
Improved “transparency” – a favorite remedy of politicians, commentators and financial regulators for averting future train wrecks – won’t cure the problems that derivatives pose. I know of no reporting mechanism that would come close to describing and measuring the risks in a huge and complex portfolio of derivatives. Auditors can’t audit these contracts, and regulators can’t regulate them. When I read the pages of “disclosure” in 10-Ks of companies that are entangled with these instruments, all I end up knowing is that I don’t know what is going on in their portfolios (and then I reach for some aspirin).
Black-Scholes Model - The Black-Scholes formula has approached the status of holy writ in finance, and we use it when valuing our equity put options for financial statement purposes. Key inputs to the calculation include a contract’s maturity and strike price, as well as the analyst’s expectations for volatility, interest rates and dividends. If the formula is applied to extended time periods, however, it can produce absurd results. In fairness, Black and Scholes almost certainly understood this point well. But their devoted followers may be ignoring whatever caveats the two men attached when they first unveiled the formula.
Climate Of Fear - A climate of fear is their best friend. Those who invest only when commentators are upbeat end up paying a heavy price for meaningless reassurance. In the end, what counts in investing is what you pay for a business – through the purchase of a small piece of it in the stockmarket – and what that business earns in the succeeding decade or two.
Black Scholes - Both Charlie and I believe that Black-Scholes produces wildly inappropriate values when applied to long-dated options. We set out one absurd example in these pages two years ago. More tangibly, we put our money where our mouth was by entering into our equity put contracts. By doing so, we implicitly asserted that the Black-Scholes calculations used by our counterparties or their customers were faulty. We continue, nevertheless, to use that formula in presenting our financial statements. Black-Scholes is the accepted standard for option valuation – almost all leading business schools teach it – and we would be accused of shoddy accounting if we deviated from it. Moreover, we would present our auditors with an insurmountable problem were we to do that: They have clients who are our counterparties and who use BlackScholes values for the same contracts we hold. It would be impossible for our auditors to attest to the accuracy of both their values and ours were the two far apart.
Buybacks - Charlie and I favor repurchases when two conditions are met: first, a company has ample funds to take care of the operational and liquidity needs of its business; second, its stock is selling at a material discount to the company’s intrinsic business value, conservatively calculated. We have witnessed many bouts of repurchasing that failed our second test. Sometimes, of course, infractions – even serious ones – are innocent; many CEOs never stop believing their stock is cheap. In other instances, a less benign conclusion seems warranted. It doesn’t suffice to say that repurchases are being made to offset the dilution from stock issuances or simply because a company has excess cash. Continuing shareholders are hurt unless shares are purchased below intrinsic value. The first law of capital allocation – whether the money is slated for acquisitions or share repurchases – is that what is smart at one price is dumb at another. (One CEO who always stresses the price/value factor in repurchase decisions is Jamie Dimon at J.P. Morgan; I recommend that you read his annual letter.)
Future Of American Business - It’s just that sometimes people focus on the myriad of uncertainties that always exist while at other times they ignore them (usually because the recent past has been uneventful). 5 American business will do fine over time. And stocks will do well just as certainly, since their fate is tied to business performance. Periodic setbacks will occur, yes, but investors and managers are in a game that is heavily stacked in their favor. (The Dow Jones Industrials advanced from 66 to 11,497 in the 20th Century, a staggering 17,320% increase that materialized despite four costly wars, a Great Depression and many recessions. And don’t forget that shareholders received substantial dividends throughout the century as well.) Since the basic game is so favorable, Charlie and I believe it’s a terrible mistake to try to dance in and out of it based upon the turn of tarot cards, the predictions of “experts,” or the ebb and flow of business activity. The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it. My own history provides a dramatic example: I made my first stock purchase in the spring of 1942 when the U.S. was suffering major losses throughout the Pacific war zone. Each day’s headlines told of more setbacks. Even so, there was no talk about uncertainty; every American I knew believed we would prevail. The country’s success since that perilous time boggles the mind: On an inflation-adjusted basis, GDP per capita more than quadrupled between 1941 and 2012. Throughout that period, every tomorrow has been uncertain. America’s destiny, however, has always been clear: ever-increasing abundance.
Investing - Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike — The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham
You don’t need to be an expert in order to achieve satisfactory investment returns. But if you aren’t, you must recognize your limitations and follow a course certain to work reasonably well. Keep things simple and don’t swing for the fences. When promised quick profits, respond with a quick “no.”
Focus on the future productivity of the asset you are considering. If you don’t feel comfortable making a rough estimate of the asset’s future earnings, just forget it and move on. No one has the ability to evaluate every investment possibility. But omniscience isn’t necessary; you only need to understand the actions you undertake.
If you instead focus on the prospective price change of a contemplated purchase, you are speculating. There is nothing improper about that. I know, however, that I am unable to speculate successfully, and I am skeptical of those who claim sustained success at doing so. Half of all coin-flippers will win their first toss; none of those winners has an expectation of profit if he continues to play the game. And the fact that a given asset has appreciated in the recent past is never a reason to buy it.
With my two small investments, I thought only of what the properties would produce and cared not at all about their daily valuations. Games are won by players who focus on the playing field – not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. If you can enjoy Saturdays and Sundays without looking at stock prices, give it a try on weekdays.
Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time. Indeed, it is dangerous because it may blur your vision of the facts that are truly important. (When I hear TV commentators glibly opine on what the market will do next, I am reminded of Mickey Mantle’s scathing comment: “You don’t know how easy this game is until you get into that broadcasting booth.”)
It should be an enormous advantage for investors in stocks to have those wildly fluctuating valuations placed on their holdings – and for some investors, it is. After all, if a moody fellow with a farm bordering my property yelled out a price every day to me at which he would either buy my farm or sell me his – and those prices varied widely over short periods of time depending on his mental state – how in the world could I be other than benefited by his erratic behavior? If his daily shout-out was ridiculously low, and I had some spare cash, I would buy his farm. If the number he yelled was absurdly high, I could either sell to him or just go on farming. Owners of stocks, however, too often let the capricious and often irrational behavior of their fellow owners cause them to behave irrationally as well. Because there is so much chatter about markets, the economy, interest rates, price behavior of stocks, etc., some investors believe it is important to listen to pundits – and, worse yet, important to consider acting upon their comment…
During the extraordinary financial panic that occurred late in 2008, I never gave a thought to selling my farm or New York real estate, even though a severe recession was clearly brewing. And, if I had owned 100% of a solid business with good long-term prospects, it would have been foolish for me to even consider dumping it. So why would I have sold my stocks that were small participations in wonderful businesses? True, any one of them might eventually disappoint, but as a group they were certain to do well. Could anyone really believe the earth was going to swallow up the incredible productive assets and unlimited human ingenuity existing in America?
Volatility - Volatility is far from synonymous with risk. Popular formulas that equate the two terms lead students, investors and CEOs astray. It is true, of course, that owning equities for a day or a week or a year is far riskier (in both nominal and purchasing-power terms) than leaving funds in cash-equivalents. That is relevant to certain investors – say, investment banks – whose viability can be threatened by declines in asset prices and which might be forced to sell securities during depressed markets. Additionally, any party that might have meaningful near-term needs for funds should keep appropriate sums in Treasuries or insured bank deposits.
Huge Institutional Investors -Huge institutional investors, viewed as a group, have long underperformed the unsophisticated index-fund investor who simply sits tight for decades. A major reason has been fees: Many institutions pay substantial sums to consultants who, in turn, recommend high-fee managers. And that is a fool’s game.
Automation - In 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, the American workforce totaled 44 million. About 1.35 million workers were employed in the railroad industry. The revenue ton-miles of freight moved by Class I railroads that year totaled 655 billion. By 2014, Class I railroads carried 1.85 trillion ton-miles, an increase of 182%, while employing only 187,000 workers, a reduction of 86% since 1947. (Some of this change involved passenger-related employees, but most of the workforce reduction came on the freight side.) As a result of this staggering improvement in productivity, the inflation-adjusted price for moving a ton-mile of freight has fallen by 55% since 1947, a drop saving shippers about $90 billion annually in current dollars. Another startling statistic: If it took as many people now to move freight as it did in 1947, we would need well over three million railroad workers to handle present volumes. (Of course, that level of employment would raise freight charges by a lot; consequently, nothing close to today’s volume would actually move.)
Sound Investment - Though markets are generally rational, they occasionally do crazy things. Seizing the opportunities then offered does not require great intelligence, a degree in economics or a familiarity with Wall Street jargon such as alpha and beta. What investors then need instead is an ability to both disregard mob fears or enthusiasms and to focus on a few simple fundamentals. A willingness to look unimaginative for a sustained period – or even to look foolish – is also essential