VR Logo

Warren Buffett's latest annual letter

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

Warren Buffett's latest annual letter

Warren Buffett, the all time star investor, whom numerous investors around the world follow has never written a book. What we know about him and about his investment approach comes down to us through this annual letter to Bekshire Hathaway's shareholders. The 2017 letter of Berkshire also is full of investment wisdom. Here are the most insightful excerpts.

The folly of corporate acquisitions
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. Indeed, price seemed almost irrelevant to an army of optimistic purchasers.

Why the purchasing frenzy? In part, it's because the CEO job self-selects for "can-do" types. If Wall Street analysts or board members urge that brand of CEO to consider possible acquisitions, it's a bit like telling your ripening teenager to be sure to have a normal sex life.

Once a CEO hungers for a deal, he or she will never lack for forecasts that justify the purchase. Subordinates will be cheering, envisioning enlarged domains and the compensation levels that typically increase with corporate size. Investment bankers, smelling huge fees, will be applauding as well. (Don't ask the barber whether you need a haircut.) If the historical performance of the target falls short of validating its acquisition, large "synergies" will be forecast. Spreadsheets never disappoint.

The ample availability of extraordinarily cheap debt in 2017 further fueled purchase activity. After all, even a high priced deal will usually boost pershare earnings if it is debt-financed. At Berkshire, in contrast, we evaluate acquisitions on an all-equity basis, knowing that our taste for overall debt is very low and that to assign a large portion of our debt to any individual business would generally be fallacious... We also never factor in, nor do we often find, synergies.

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.

...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.

Investments
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.

Berkshire shares have suffered four truly major dips. Here are the gory details:

Warren Buffett's latest annual letter

This table offers the strongest argument I can muster against ever using borrowed money to own stocks.

There is simply no telling how far stocks can fall in a short period. Even if your borrowings are small and your positions aren't immediately threatened by the plunging market, your mind may well become rattled by scary headlines and breathless commentary. And an unsettled mind will not make good decisions.

When major declines occur, however, they offer extraordinary opportunities to those who are not handicapped by debt. That's the time to heed these lines from Kipling's If:
"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . .
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting . . .
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim . . .
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you . . .
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it."

The bet
[Note: This excerpt is about Buffett's $1 million dollar with Protege Partners. Buffett bet that over a decade, the stock index would outperform a basket of hedge funds. At the end of the 10-year period in 2016, the S&P 500 had returned 7.1 per cent annually. The basket of hedge funds had returned just 2.2 per cent annualised. Initially, both Buffett and Protege put $320,000 each in Treasury bonds. They estimated that the amount would be $1 million by 2018. Later, however, they moved the money to Berkshire's Class B shares.]

I made the bet for two reasons: (1) to leverage my outlay of $318,250 into a disproportionately larger sum that - if things turned out as I expected - would be distributed in early 2018 to Girls Inc. of Omaha; and (2) to publicize my conviction that my pick - a virtually cost-free investment in an unmanaged S&P 500 index fund - would, over time, deliver better results than those achieved by most investment professionals, however well-regarded and incentivized those "helpers" may be.

Addressing this question is of enormous importance. American investors pay staggering sums annually to advisors, often incurring several layers of consequential costs. In the aggregate, do these investors get their money's worth? Indeed, again in the aggregate, do investors get anything for their outlays?
Protege Partners, my counterparty to the bet, picked five "funds-of-funds" that it expected to overperform the S&P 500. That was not a small sample. Those five funds-of-funds in turn owned interests in more than 200 hedge funds.

Essentially, Protege, an advisory firm that knew its way around Wall Street, selected five investment experts who, in turn, employed several hundred other investment experts, each managing his or her own hedge fund. This assemblage was an elite crew, loaded with brains, adrenaline and confidence.

The managers of the five funds-of-funds possessed a further advantage: They could - and did - rearrange their portfolios of hedge funds during the ten years, investing with new "stars" while exiting their positions in hedge funds whose managers had lost their touch.

Every actor on Protege's side was highly incentivized: Both the fund-of-funds managers and the hedge-fund managers they selected significantly shared in gains, even those achieved simply because the market generally moves upwards. (In 100% of the 43 ten-year periods since we took control of Berkshire, years with gains by the S&P 500 exceeded loss years.)

Those performance incentives, it should be emphasized, were frosting on a huge and tasty cake: Even if the funds lost money for their investors during the decade, their managers could grow very rich. That would occur because fixed fees averaging a staggering 2½% of assets or so were paid every year by the fund-of-funds' investors, with part of these fees going to the managers at the five funds-of-funds and the balance going to the 200-plus managers of the underlying hedge funds.

The five funds-of-funds got off to a fast start, each beating the index fund in 2008. Then the roof fell in. In every one of the nine years that followed, the funds-of-funds as a whole trailed the index fund.

Let me emphasize that there was nothing aberrational about stock-market behavior over the ten-year stretch. If a poll of investment "experts" had been asked late in 2007 for a forecast of long-term common-stock returns, their guesses would have likely averaged close to the 8.5% actually delivered by the S&P 500. Making money in that environment should have been easy. Indeed, Wall Street "helpers" earned staggering sums. While this group prospered, however, many of their investors experienced a lost decade.

Performance comes, performance goes. Fees never falter.

The bet illuminated another important investment lesson: 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.

Stocks over bonds
Originally, Protege and I each funded our portion of the ultimate $1 million prize by purchasing $500,000 face amount of zero-coupon U.S. Treasury bonds (sometimes called "strips"). These bonds cost each of us $318,250 - a bit less than 64¢ on the dollar - with the $500,000 payable in ten years.

As the name implies, the bonds we acquired paid no interest, but (because of the discount at which they were purchased) delivered a 4.56% annual return if held to maturity. Protege and I originally intended to do no more than tally the annual returns and distribute $1 million to the winning charity when the bonds matured late in 2017.

After our purchase, however, some very strange things took place in the bond market. By November 2012, our bonds - now with about five years to go before they matured - were selling for 95.7% of their face value. At that price, their annual yield to maturity was less than 1%. Or, to be precise, .88%.

Given that pathetic return, our bonds had become a dumb - a really dumb - investment compared to American equities. Over time, the S&P 500 - which mirrors a huge cross-section of American business, appropriately weighted by market value - has earned far more than 10% annually on shareholders' equity (net worth).

In November 2012, as we were considering all this, the cash return from dividends on the S&P 500 was 2½% annually, about triple the yield on our U.S. Treasury bond. These dividend payments were almost certain to grow. Beyond that, huge sums were being retained by the companies comprising the 500. These businesses would use their retained earnings to expand their operations and, frequently, to repurchase their shares as well. Either course would, over time, substantially increase earnings-per-share. And - as has been the case since 1776 - whatever its problems of the minute, the American economy was going to move forward.

Presented late in 2012 with the extraordinary valuation mismatch between bonds and equities, Protege and I agreed to sell the bonds we had bought five years earlier and use the proceeds to buy 11,200 Berkshire "B" shares. The result: Girls Inc. of Omaha found itself receiving $2,222,279 last month rather than the $1 million it had originally hoped for.

Berkshire, it should be emphasized, has not performed brilliantly since the 2012 substitution. But brilliance wasn't needed: After all, Berkshire's gain only had to beat that annual .88% bond bogey - hardly a Herculean achievement.

Investing is an activity in which consumption today is foregone in an attempt to allow greater consumption at a later date. "Risk" is the possibility that this objective won't be attained.

By that standard, purportedly "risk-free" long-term bonds in 2012 were a far riskier investment than a longterm investment in common stocks. At that time, even a 1% annual rate of inflation between 2012 and 2017 would have decreased the purchasing-power of the government bond that Protege and I sold.

I want to quickly acknowledge that in any upcoming day, week or even year, stocks will be riskier - far riskier - than short-term U.S. bonds. As an investor's investment horizon lengthens, however, a diversified portfolio of U.S. equities becomes progressively less risky than bonds, assuming that the stocks are purchased at a sensible multiple of earnings relative to then-prevailing interest rates.

It is a terrible mistake for investors with long-term horizons - among them, pension funds, college endowments and savings-minded individuals - to measure their investment "risk" by their portfolio's ratio of bonds to stocks. Often, high-grade bonds in an investment portfolio increase its risk.

The need to be patient
A final lesson from our bet: Stick with big, "easy" decisions and eschew activity. During the ten-year bet, the 200-plus hedge-fund managers that were involved almost certainly made tens of thousands of buy and sell decisions. Most of those managers undoubtedly thought hard about their decisions, each of which they believed would prove advantageous. In the process of investing, they studied 10-Ks, interviewed managements, read trade journals and conferred with Wall Street analysts.

Protege and I, meanwhile, leaning neither on research, insights nor brilliance, made only one investment decision during the ten years. We simply decided to sell our bond investment at a price of more than 100 times earnings (95.7 sale price/.88 yield), those being "earnings" that could not increase during the ensuing five years.

We made the sale in order to move our money into a single security - Berkshire - that, in turn, owned a diversified group of solid businesses. Fueled by retained earnings, Berkshire's growth in value was unlikely to be less than 8% annually, even if we were to experience a so-so economy.

After that kindergarten-like analysis, Protege and I made the switch and relaxed, confident that, over time, 8% was certain to beat .88%. By a lot.