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Highlights from Warren Buffett's latest annual letter

Like always, Buffett's 2018 annual letter is full of wisdom. Here are the most insightful excerpts from it

Highlights from Warren Buffett's latest annual letter

Magic of floats
Beyond using debt and equity, Berkshire has benefited in a major way from two less-common sources of corporate funding. The larger is the float I have described. So far, those funds, though they are recorded as a huge net liability on our balance sheet, have been of more utility to us than an equivalent amount of equity. That's because they have usually been accompanied by underwriting earnings. In effect, we have been paid in most years for holding and using other people's money.

Adjusted numbers are deceiving
...That brand of earnings is a far cry from that frequently touted by Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs. Too often, their presentations feature "adjusted EBITDA," a measure that redefines "earnings" to exclude a variety of all-too-real costs.

For example, managements sometimes assert that their company's stock-based compensation shouldn't be counted as an expense. (What else could it be - a gift from shareholders?) And restructuring expenses? Well, maybe last year's exact rearrangement won't recur. But restructurings of one sort or another are common in business - Berkshire has gone down that road dozens of times, and our shareholders have always borne the costs of doing so.

Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: "If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does it have?" and then answered his own query: "Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one." Abe would have felt lonely on Wall Street.

Retained earnings are important
GAAP - which dictates the earnings we report - does not allow us to include the retained earnings of investees in our financial accounts. But those earnings are of enormous value to us: Over the years, earnings retained by our investees (viewed as a group) have eventually delivered capital gains to Berkshire that totaled more than one dollar for each dollar these companies reinvested for us.

All of our major holdings enjoy excellent economics, and most use a portion of their retained earnings to repurchase their shares. We very much like that: If Charlie and I think an investee's stock is underpriced, we rejoice when management employs some of its earnings to increase Berkshire's ownership percentage.

Disregard for short termism
For 54 years our managerial decisions at Berkshire have been made from the viewpoint of the shareholders who are staying, not those who are leaving. Consequently, Charlie and I have never focused on current-quarter results.

Berkshire, in fact, may be the only company in the Fortune 500 that does not prepare monthly earnings reports or balance sheets. I, of course, regularly view the monthly financial reports of most subsidiaries. But Charlie and I learn of Berkshire's overall earnings and financial position only on a quarterly basis.

Furthermore, Berkshire has no company-wide budget (though many of our subsidiaries find one useful). Our lack of such an instrument means that the parent company has never had a quarterly "number" to hit. Shunning the use of this bogey sends an important message to our many managers, reinforcing the culture we prize.

Fund-management costs can make a difference
Let's put numbers to that claim: If my $114.75 [this is the amount that Buffett saved and invested in his first stock 77 years ago] had been invested in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, my stake would have grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019 (the latest data available before the printing of this letter). That is a gain of 5,288 for 1. Meanwhile, a $1 million investment by a tax-free institution of that time - say, a pension fund or college endowment - would have grown to about $5.3 billion.

Let me add one additional calculation that I believe will shock you: If that hypothetical institution had paid only 1% of assets annually to various "helpers," such as investment managers and consultants, its gain would have been cut in half, to $2.65 billion. That's what happens over 77 years when the 11.8% annual return actually achieved by the S&P 500 is recalculated at a 10.8% rate.

Focus on the business
Charlie and I do not view the $172.8 billion [of its equity investments] as a collection of ticker symbols - a financial dalliance to be terminated because of downgrades by "the Street," expected Federal Reserve actions, possible political developments, forecasts by economists or whatever else might be the subject du jour.

What we see in our holdings, rather, is an assembly of companies that we partly own and that, on a weighted basis, are earning about 20% on the net tangible equity capital required to run their businesses. These companies, also, earn their profits without employing excessive levels of debt.

Ignore market noise
Our country's almost unbelievable prosperity has been gained in a bipartisan manner. Since 1942, we have had seven Republican presidents and seven Democrats. In the years they served, the country contended at various times with a long period of viral inflation, a 21% prime rate, several controversial and costly wars, the resignation of a president, a pervasive collapse in home values, a paralysing financial panic and a host of other problems. All engendered scary headlines; all are now history.

Gold investing: A bad idea
Those who regularly preach doom because of government budget deficits (as I regularly did myself for many years) might note that our country's national debt has increased roughly 400-fold during the last of my 77-year periods. That's 40,000%! Suppose you had foreseen this increase and panicked at the prospect of runaway deficits and a worthless currency. To "protect" yourself, you might have eschewed stocks and opted instead to buy 31⁄4 ounces of gold with your $114.75.

And what would that supposed protection have delivered? You would now have an asset worth about $4,200, less than 1% of what would have been realized from a simple unmanaged investment in American business. The magical metal was no match for the American mettle.

The need to save
Remember, earlier in this letter, how I described retained earnings as having been the key to Berkshire's prosperity? So it has been with America. In the nation's accounting, the comparable item is labelled "savings." And save we have. If our forefathers had instead consumed all they produced, there would have been no investment, no productivity gains and no leap in living standards.