MAY 14, 2014

# 1980 letter

## Writing about GEICO

We have written in past reports about the disappointments that usually result from purchase and operation of “turnaround” businesses. Literally hundreds of turnaround possibilities in dozens of industries have been described to us over the years and, either as participants or as observers, we have tracked performance against expectations. Our conclusion is that, with few exceptions, when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

GEICO may appear to be an exception, having been turned around from the very edge of bankruptcy in 1976. It certainly is true that managerial brilliance was needed for its resuscitation, and that Jack Byrne, upon arrival in that year, supplied that ingredient in abundance. ` But it also is true that the fundamental business advantage that GEICO had enjoyed - an advantage that previously had produced staggering success - was still intact within the company, although submerged in a sea of financial and operating troubles.

GEICO was designed to be the low-cost operation in an enormous marketplace (auto insurance) populated largely by companies whose marketing structures restricted adaptation. Run as designed, it could offer unusual value to its customers while earning unusual returns for itself. For decades it had been run in just this manner. Its troubles in the mid-70s were not produced by any diminution or disappearance of this essential economic advantage.

GEICO’s problems at that time put it in a position analogous to that of American Express in 1964 following the salad oil scandal. Both were one-of-a-kind companies, temporarily reeling from the effects of a fiscal blow that did not destroy their exceptional underlying economics. The GEICO and American Express situations, extraordinary business franchises with a localized excisable cancer (needing, to be sure, a skilled surgeon), should be distinguished from the true “turnaround” situation in which the managers expect - and need - to pull off a corporate Pygmalion.

# 1981 letter

## Bad and Good Acquisitions

Regardless of the impact upon immediately reportable earnings, we would rather buy 10% of Wonderful Business T at X per share than 100% of T at 2X per share. Most corporate managers prefer just the reverse, and have no shortage of stated rationales for their behavior.

However, we suspect three motivations - usually unspoken -to be, singly or in combination, the important ones in most high-premium takeovers:

(1) Leaders, business or otherwise, seldom are deficient in animal spirits and often relish increased activity and challenge. At Berkshire, the corporate pulse never beats faster than when an acquisition is in prospect.

(2) Most organizations, business or otherwise, measure themselves, are measured by others, and compensate their managers far more by the yardstick of size than by any other yardstick. (Ask a Fortune 500 manager where his corporation stands on that famous list and, invariably, the number responded will be from the list ranked by size of sales; he may well not even know where his corporation places on the list Fortune just as faithfully compiles ranking the same 500 corporations by profitability.)

(3) Many managements apparently were overexposed in impressionable childhood years to the story in which the imprisoned handsome prince is released from a toad’s body by a kiss from a beautiful princess. Consequently, they are certain their managerial kiss will do wonders for the profitability of Company T(arget).

Such optimism is essential. Absent that rosy view, why else should the shareholders of Company A(cquisitor) want to own an interest in T at the 2X takeover cost rather than at the X market price they would pay if they made direct purchases on their own?

In other words, investors can always buy toads at the going price for toads. If investors instead bankroll princesses who wish to pay double for the right to kiss the toad, those kisses had better pack some real dynamite. We’ve observed many kisses but very few miracles. Nevertheless, many managerial princesses remain serenely confident about the future potency of their kisses - even after their corporate backyards are knee-deep in unresponsive toads.

In fairness, we should acknowledge that some acquisition records have been dazzling. Two major categories stand out.

The first involves companies that, through design or accident, have purchased only businesses that are particularly well adapted to an inflationary environment. Such favored business must have two characteristics: (1) an ability to increase prices rather easily (even when product demand is flat and capacity is not fully utilized) without fear of significant loss of either market share or unit volume, and (2) an ability to accommodate large dollar volume increases in business (often produced more by inflation than by real growth) with only minor additional investment of capital. Managers of ordinary ability, focusing solely on acquisition possibilities meeting these tests, have achieved excellent results in recent decades. However, very few enterprises possess both characteristics, and competition to buy those that do has now become fierce to the point of being self-defeating.

The second category involves the managerial superstars - men who can recognize that rare prince who is disguised as a toad, and who have managerial abilities that enable them to peel away the disguise. We salute such managers as Ben Heineman at Northwest Industries, Henry Singleton at Teledyne, Erwin Zaban at National Service Industries, and especially Tom Murphy at Capital Cities Communications (a real managerial “twofer”, whose acquisition efforts have been properly focused in Category 1 and whose operating talents also make him a leader of Category 2). From both direct and vicarious experience, we recognize the difficulty and rarity of these executives’ achievements. (So do they; these champs have made very few deals in recent years, and often have found repurchase of their own shares to be the most sensible employment of corporate capital.)

Your Chairman, unfortunately, does not qualify for Category 2. And, despite a reasonably good understanding of the economic factors compelling concentration in Category 1, our actual acquisition activity in that category has been sporadic and inadequate. Our preaching was better than our performance. (We neglected the Noah principle: predicting rain doesn’t count, building arks does.)

We have tried occasionally to buy toads at bargain prices with results that have been chronicled in past reports. Clearly our kisses fell flat. We have done well with a couple of princes - but they were princes when purchased. At least our kisses didn’t turn them into toads. And, finally, we have occasionally been quite successful in purchasing fractional interests in easily-identifiable princes at toad-like prices.

# 1982

## Classic fallacy equating business welfare and social welfare

If, however, costs and prices are determined by full-bore competition, there is more than ample capacity, and the buyer cares little about whose product or distribution services he uses, industry economics are almost certain to be unexciting. They may well be disastrous.

[Ed: disastrous for business owners but not society]

# 1983

Great discussion of Goodwill amortization in appendix (somewhat less relevant today as no longer happens). However, one takeaway is that a metric for good businesses are those with good return on unleveraged net tangible assets (eg 25%)

# 1984

Discussion of bond purchases as a business investment re WPPSS bond purchases. Also has a go at EMT

Nite comments re inflation made throughout the 80s (which turned out to be wrong but that does not mean they were not good predictions)

“One final observation regarding our WPPSS purchases: we dislike the purchase of most long-term bonds under most circumstances and have bought very few in recent years. That’s because bonds are as sound as a dollar - and we view the long-term outlook for dollars as dismal. We believe substantial inflation lies ahead, although we have no idea what the average rate will turn out to be. Furthermore, we think there is a small, but not insignificant, chance of runaway inflation.”

# 1988

Good discussion of their mergers arbitrage operations (largely conducted in early 80s)

To evaluate arbitrage situations you must answer four questions: (1) How likely is it that the promised event will indeed occur? (2) How long will your money be tied up? (3) What chance is there that something still better will transpire - a competing takeover bid, for example? and (4) What will happen if the event does not take place because of anti-trust action, financing glitches, etc.?

Arcata Corp., one of our more serendipitous arbitrage experiences, illustrates the twists and turns of the business. On September 28, 1981 the directors of Arcata agreed in principle to sell the company to Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. (KKR), then and now a major leveraged-buy out firm. Arcata was in the printing and forest products businesses and had one other thing going for it: In 1978 the U.S. Government had taken title to 10,700 acres of Arcata timber, primarily old-growth redwood, to expand Redwood National Park. The government had paid $97.9 million, in several installments, for this acreage, a sum Arcata was contesting as grossly inadequate. The parties also disputed the interest rate that should apply to the period between the taking of the property and final payment for it. The enabling legislation stipulated 6% simple interest; Arcata argued for a much higher and compounded rate. Buying a company with a highly-speculative, large-sized claim in litigation creates a negotiating problem, whether the claim is on behalf of or against the company. To solve this problem, KKR offered$37.00 per Arcata share plus two-thirds of any additional amounts paid by the government for the redwood lands.

Appraising this arbitrage opportunity, we had to ask ourselves whether KKR would consummate the transaction since, among other things, its offer was contingent upon its obtaining “satisfactory financing.” A clause of this kind is always dangerous for the seller: It offers an easy exit for a suitor whose ardor fades between proposal and marriage. However, we were not particularly worried about this possibility because KKR’s past record for closing had been good.

We also had to ask ourselves what would happen if the KKR deal did fall through, and here we also felt reasonably comfortable: Arcata’s management and directors had been shopping the company for some time and were clearly determined to sell. If KKR went away, Arcata would likely find another buyer, though of course, the price might be lower.

Finally, we had to ask ourselves what the redwood claim might be worth. Your Chairman, who can’t tell an elm from an oak, had no trouble with that one: He coolly evaluated the claim at somewhere between zero and a whole lot.

We started buying Arcata stock, then around $33.50, on September 30 and in eight weeks purchased about 400,000 shares, or 5% of the company. The initial announcement said that the$37.00 would be paid in January, 1982. Therefore, if everything had gone perfectly, we would have achieved an annual rate of return of about 40% - not counting the redwood claim, which would have been frosting.

# 1989

Interesting update where would love to know mote about how difficult this was for family (sounds pretty major row)

The Nebraska Furniture Mart had record sales and excellent earnings in 1989, but there was one sad note. Mrs. B - Rose Blumkin, who started the company 52 years ago with $500 - quit in May, after disagreeing with other members of the Blumkin family/management about the remodeling and operation of the carpet department. Mrs. B probably has made more smart business decisions than any living American, but in this particular case I believe the other members of the family were entirely correct: Over the past three years, while the store’s other departments increased sales by 24%, carpet sales declined by 17% (but not because of any lack of sales ability by Mrs. B, who has always personally sold far more merchandise than any other salesperson in the store). You will be pleased to know that Mrs. B continues to make Horatio Alger’s heroes look like victims of tired blood. At age 96 she has started a new business selling - what else? - carpet and furniture. And as always, she works seven days a week. ## Mistakes of the First Twenty-five Years (A Condensed Version) fidelity, perseverance, and to turn around three times before lying down.” Such are the shortcomings of experience. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to review past mistakes before committing new ones. So let’s take a quick look at the last 25 years. o Berkshire. Though I knew its business - textile manufacturing -to be unpromising, I was enticed to buy because the price looked cheap. Stock purchases of that kind had proved reasonably rewarding in my early years, though by the time Berkshire came along in 1965 I was becoming aware that the strategy was not ideal. usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the “cigar butt” approach to investing. A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the “bargain purchase” will make that puff all profit. businesses is foolish. First, the original “bargain” price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all. In a difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces - never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen. Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded by the low return that the business earns. For example, if you buy a business for$8 million that can be sold or liquidated for $10 million and promptly take either course, you can realize a high return. But the investment will disappoint if the business is sold for$10 million in ten years and in the interim has annually earned and distributed only a few percent on cost. Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.

learn it the hard way - in fact, I had to learn it several times over. Shortly after purchasing Berkshire, I acquired a Baltimore department store, Hochschild Kohn, buying through a company called Diversified Retailing that later merged with Berkshire. I bought at a substantial discount from book value, the people were first-class, and the deal included some extras - unrecorded real estate values and a significant LIFO inventory cushion. How could I miss? So-o-o - three years later I was lucky to sell the business for about what I had paid. After ending our corporate marriage to Hochschild Kohn, I had memories like those of the husband in the country song, “My Wife Ran Away With My Best Friend and I Still Miss Him a Lot.”

purchase” folly but I’m sure you get the picture: It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Charlie understood this early; I was a slow learner. But now, when buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements.

o

do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both Berkshire’s textile business and Hochschild, Kohn had able and honest people running them. The same managers employed in a business with good economic characteristics would have achieved fine records. But they were never going to make any progress while running in quicksand.

reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact. I just wish I hadn’t been so energetic in creating examples. My behavior has matched that admitted by Mae West: “I was Snow White, but I drifted.”

o

buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers.

investments it is usually far more profitable to simply stick with the easy and obvious than it is to resolve the difficult. On occasion, tough problems must be tackled as was the case when we started our Sunday paper in Buffalo. In other instances, a great investment opportunity occurs when a marvelous business encounters a one-time huge, but solvable, problem as was the case many years back at both American Express and GEICO. Overall, however, we’ve done better by avoiding dragons than by slaying them.

o

business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative.” In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn’t so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

businesses on these courses, which are too often misguided. After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem.

o

only with people whom I like, trust, and admire. As I noted before, this policy of itself will not ensure success: A second-class textile or department-store company won’t prosper simply because its managers are men that you would be pleased to see your daughter marry. However, an owner - or investor - can accomplish wonders if he manages to associate himself with such people in businesses that possess decent economic characteristics. Conversely, we do not wish to join with managers who lack admirable qualities, no matter how attractive the prospects of their business. We’ve never succeeded in making a good deal with a bad person.

o

were stock and business purchases whose virtues I understood and yet didn’t make. It’s no sin to miss a great opportunity outside one’s area of competence. But I have passed on a couple of really big purchases that were served up to me on a platter and that I was fully capable of understanding. For Berkshire’s shareholders, myself included, the cost of this thumb-sucking has been huge.

o

to have been a mistake, but in my view were not. In retrospect, it is clear that significantly higher, though still conventional, leverage ratios at Berkshire would have produced considerably better returns on equity than the 23.8% we have actually averaged. Even in 1965, perhaps we could have judged there to be a 99% probability that higher leverage would lead to nothing but good. Correspondingly, we might have seen only a 1% chance that some shock factor, external or internal, would cause a conventional debt ratio to produce a result falling somewhere between temporary anguish and default.

small chance of distress or disgrace cannot, in our view, be offset by a large chance of extra returns. If your actions are sensible, you are certain to get good results; in most such cases, leverage just moves things along faster. Charlie and I have never been in a big hurry: We enjoy the process far more than the proceeds - though we have learned to live with those also.

# 1993

In our opinion, the real risk that an investor must assess is whether his aggregate after-tax receipts from an investment (including those he receives on sale) will, over his prospective holding period, give him at least as much purchasing power as he had to begin with, plus a modest rate of interest on that initial stake. Though this risk cannot be calculated with engineering precision, it can in some cases be judged with a degree of accuracy that is useful. The primary factors bearing upon this evaluation are:

1. The certainty with which the long-term economic characteristics of the business can be evaluated;

2. The certainty with which management can be evaluated, both as to its ability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows;

3. The certainty with which management can be counted on to channel the rewards from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself;

4. The purchase price of the business;

5. The levels of taxation and inflation that will be experienced and that will determine the degree by which an investor’s purchasing-power return is reduced from his gross return.

These factors will probably strike many analysts as unbearably fuzzy, since they cannot be extracted from a data base of any kind. But the difficulty of precisely quantifying these matters does not negate their importance nor is it insuperable. Just as Justice Stewart found it impossible to formulate a test for obscenity but nevertheless asserted, “I know it when I see it,” so also can investors - in an inexact but useful way - “see” the risks inherent in certain investments without reference to complex equations or price histories.

Is it really so difficult to conclude that Coca-Cola and Gillette possess far less business risk over the long term than, say, any computer company or retailer? Worldwide, Coke sells about 44% of all soft drinks, and Gillette has more than a 60% share (in value) of the blade market. Leaving aside chewing gum, in which Wrigley is dominant, I know of no other significant businesses in which the leading company has long enjoyed such global power.

Moreover, both Coke and Gillette have actually increased their worldwide shares of market in recent years. The might of their brand names, the attributes of their products, and the strength of their distribution systems give them an enormous competitive advantage, setting up a protective moat around their economic castles. The average company, in contrast, does battle daily without any such means of protection. As Peter Lynch says, stocks of companies selling commodity-like products should come with a warning label: “Competition may prove hazardous to human wealth.”

# 1996

[Hmmm …. Not sure paying your normal taxes justifies a huge pat on the back. And size is irrelevant - is 1 $100m company more valuable than 10$10m ones?]

In 1961, President Kennedy said that we should ask not what our country can do for us, but rather ask what we can do for our country. Last year we decided to give his suggestion a try - and who says it never hurts to ask? We were told to mail $860 million in income taxes to the U.S. Treasury. Here’s a little perspective on that figure: If an equal amount had been paid by only 2,000 other taxpayers, the government would have had a balanced budget in 1996 without needing a dime of taxes - income or Social Security or what have you - from any other American. Berkshire shareholders can truly say, “I gave at the office.” Charlie and I believe that large tax payments by Berkshire are entirely fitting. The contribution we thus make to society’s well-being is at most only proportional to its contribution to ours. Berkshire prospers in America as it would nowhere else. Faux honesty i feel (buffet is so confident really that he can do the confessions but the self deprecation rings false) Early in 1996, before any accrued dividends had been paid, I tried once more to unload our holdings - this time for about$335 million. You’re lucky: I again failed in my attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

In another context, a friend once asked me: “If you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart?” After reviewing my sorry performance with USAir, you may conclude he had a point.

# 1997

Market over priced …

Though we are delighted with what we own, we are not pleased with our prospects for committing incoming funds. Prices are high for both businesses and stocks. That does not mean that the prices of either will fall – we have absolutely no view on that matter – but it does mean that we get relatively little in prospective earnings when we commit fresh money.

Under these circumstances, we try to exert a Ted Williams kind of discipline. In his book The Science of Hitting, Ted explains that he carved the strike zone into 77 cells, each the size of a baseball. Swinging only at balls in his “best” cell, he knew, would allow him to bat .400; reaching for balls in his “worst” spot, the low outside corner of the strike zone, would reduce him to .230. In other words, waiting for the fat pitch would mean a trip to the Hall of Fame; swinging indiscriminately would mean a ticket to the minors.

If they are in the strike zone at all, the business “pitches” we now see are just catching the lower outside corner. If we swing, we will be locked into low returns. But if we let all of today’s balls go by, there can be no assurance that the next ones we see will be more to our liking. Perhaps the attractive prices of the past were the aberrations, not the full prices of today. Unlike Ted, we can’t be called out if we resist three pitches that are barely in the strike zone; nevertheless, just standing there, day after day, with my bat on my shoulder is not my idea of fun.

## Some non traditional investments

We had three non-traditional positions at yearend. The first was derivative contracts for 14.0 million barrels of oil, that being what was then left of a 45.7 million barrel position we established in 1994-95. Contracts for 31.7 million barrels were settled in 1995-97, and these supplied us with a pre-tax gain of about $61.9 million. Our remaining contracts expire during 1998 and 1999. In these, we had an unrealized gain of$11.6 million at yearend. Accounting rules require that commodity positions be carried at market value. Therefore, both our annual and quarterly financial statements reflect any unrealized gain or loss in these contracts. When we established our contracts, oil for future delivery seemed modestly underpriced. Today, though, we have no opinion as to its attractiveness.

Our second non-traditional commitment is in silver. Last year, we purchased 111.2 million ounces. Marked to market, that position produced a pre-tax gain of $97.4 million for us in 1997. In a way, this is a return to the past for me: Thirty years ago, I bought silver because I anticipated its demonetization by the U.S. Government. Ever since, I have followed the metal’s fundamentals but not owned it. In recent years, bullion inventories have fallen materially, and last summer Charlie and I concluded that a higher price would be needed to establish equilibrium between supply and demand. Inflation expectations, it should be noted, play no part in our calculation of silver’s value. [ed: jesus. what market doesn’t he follow. b) he follows for 30y and makes one transaction …] Finally, our largest non-traditional position at yearend was$4.6 billion, at amortized cost, of long-term zero-coupon obligations of the U.S. Treasury. These securities pay no interest. Instead, they provide their holders a return by way of the discount at which they are purchased, a characteristic that makes their market prices move rapidly when interest rates change. If rates rise, you lose heavily with zeros, and if rates fall, you make outsized gains. Since rates fell in 1997, we ended the year with an unrealized pre-tax gain of \$598.8 million in our zeros. Because we carry the securities at market value, that gain is reflected in yearend book value.

In purchasing zeros, rather than staying with cash-equivalents, we risk looking very foolish: A macro-based commitment such as this never has anything close to a 100% probability of being successful. However, you pay Charlie and me to use our best judgment – not to avoid embarrassment – and we will occasionally make an unconventional move when we believe the odds favor it. Try to think kindly of us when we blow one. Along with President Clinton, we will be feeling your pain: The Munger family has more than 90% of its net worth in Berkshire and the Buffetts more than 99%.

## Obsession vs focus

In last year’s annual report, I discussed Coca-Cola, our largest holding. Coke continues to increase its market dominance throughout the world, but, tragically, it has lost the leader responsible for its outstanding performance. Roberto Goizueta, Coke’s CEO since 1981, died in October. After his death, I read every one of the more than 100 letters and notes he had written me during the past nine years. Those messages could well serve as a guidebook for success in both business and life.

In these communications, Roberto displayed a brilliant and clear strategic vision that was always aimed at advancing the well-being of Coke shareholders. Roberto knew where he was leading the company, how he was going to get there, and why this path made the most sense for his owners – and, equally important, he had a burning sense of urgency about reaching his goals. An excerpt from one handwritten note he sent to me illustrates his mind-set: “By the way, I have told Olguita that what she refers to as an obsession, you call focus. I like your term much better.” Like all who knew Roberto, I will miss him enormously.

## The connections …

Here’s where I got lucky. During that month of decision, I played golf at Prouts Neck, Maine with Frank Olson, CEO of Hertz. Frank is a brilliant manager, with intimate knowledge of the card business. So from the first tee on I was quizzing him about the industry. By the time we reached the second green, Frank had convinced me that Amex’s corporate card was a terrific franchise, and I had decided not to sell. On the back nine I turned buyer, and in a few months Berkshire owned 10% of the company.