After 50 years: Excerpts from Buffett’s Letter to Shareholders

This year marks 50 years of Buffett and Munger running Berkshire Hathaway. Since 1977, Buffett has been writing an annual letter to his shareholders. A compilation of these letters was also published as a book.

This year the letter has its details on business performance, plus the now regular interesting insights and wisdom as usual, but is a bit different because it has a section by Buffett on the journey of 50 years and what the future might potentially hold, and section by Munger on what were the reasons for such stupendous success, both of which makes really good reading.

A lot of mainstream media (specially Western) has already covered highlights and salient points or key takeaways from this letter of 2014. You can read them from various sources if you simply google for it.

Also the letter itself is available here

All the letters from 1977 are available for free download here

Nevertheless, for those who are too lazy to do all of the above, at the risk of repetition, here are some excerpts, if you will, that might still be useful to a lay individual investor – just in case. I am not putting any of my own interpretations, as they are not required – it is simple, wonderful wisdom that doesn’t need any translation – only attentive reading and implementation.

1. On the limitations of his ‘cigar-butt’ investing strategy (buying businesses below book value or net working capital, and selling when they reach intrinsic value) in the early years – till the 1960’s

My cigar-butt strategy worked very well while I was managing small sums. Indeed, the many dozens of free puffs I obtained in the 1950s made that decade by far the best of my life for both relative and absolute investment performance.

But a major weakness in this approach gradually became apparent: Cigar-butt investing was scalable only to a point. With large sums, it would never work well. In addition, though marginal businesses purchased at cheap prices may be attractive as short-term investments, they are the wrong foundation on which to build a large and enduring enterprise. Selecting a marriage partner clearly requires more demanding criteria than does dating.

2. On Charlie Munger’s biggest contribution to Berkshire:

From my perspective, though, Charlie’s most important architectural feat was the design of today’s Berkshire. The blueprint he gave me was simple: Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.

3. On learning the value of buying and holding great businesses for the long-term from the See’s Candies experience:

The family controlling See’s wanted $30 million for the business, and Charlie rightly said it was worth that much. But I didn’t want to pay more than $25 million and wasn’t all that enthusiastic even at that figure. (A price that was three times net tangible assets made me gulp.) My misguided caution could have scuttled a terrific purchase. But, luckily, the sellers decided to take our $25 million bid.

To date, See’s has earned $1.9 billion pre-tax, with its growth having required added investment of only $40 million. See’s has thus been able to distribute huge sums that have helped Berkshire buy other businesses that, in turn, have themselves produced large distributable profits. (Envision rabbits breeding.) Additionally, through watching See’s in action, I gained a business education about the value of powerful brands that opened my eyes to many other profitable investments.

4. On the chances of permanent capital loss by investing in Berkshire Hathaway shares: (which could probably equally apply to someone investing in an equity index fund too – useful if one reads this replacing Berkshire with an Index fund!)

I believe that the chance of permanent capital loss for patient Berkshire shareholders is as low as can be found among single-company investments. That’s because our per-share intrinsic business value is almost certain to advance over time.

This cheery prediction comes, however, with an important caution: If an investor’s entry point into Berkshire stock is unusually high – at a price, say, approaching double book value, which Berkshire shares have occasionally reached – it may well be many years before the investor can realize a profit. In other words, a sound investment can morph into a rash speculation if it is bought at an elevated price. Berkshire is not exempt from this truth.

Purchases of Berkshire that investors make at a price modestly above the level at which the company would repurchase its shares, however, should produce gains within a reasonable period of time. Berkshire’s directors will only authorize repurchases at a price they believe to be well below intrinsic value. (In our view, that is an essential criterion for repurchases that is often ignored by other managements.)

For those investors who plan to sell within a year or two after their purchase, I can offer no assurances, whatever the entry price. Movements of the general stock market during such abbreviated periods will likely be far more important in determining your results than the concomitant change in the intrinsic value of your Berkshire shares. As Ben Graham said many decades ago: “In the short-term the market is a voting machine; in the long-run it acts as a weighing machine.” Occasionally, the voting decisions of investors – amateurs and professionals alike – border on lunacy.

Since I know of no way to reliably predict market movements, I recommend that you purchase Berkshire shares only if you expect to hold them for at least five years. Those who seek short-term profits should look elsewhere.

Another warning: Berkshire shares should not be purchased with borrowed money. There have been three times since 1965 when our stock has fallen about 50% from its high point. Someday, something close to this kind of drop will happen again, and no one knows when. Berkshire will almost certainly be a satisfactory holding for investors. But it could well be a disastrous choice for speculators employing leverage.

5. On stock and bond investing and long term effects of inflation:

During the 1964-2014 period, the S&P 500 rose from 84 to 2,059, which, with reinvested dividends, generated the overall return of 11,196%. Concurrently, the purchasing power of the dollar declined a staggering 87%. That decrease means that it now takes $1 to buy what could be bought for 13¢ in 1965 (as measured by the Consumer Price Index).

There is an important message for investors in that disparate performance between stocks and dollars. Think back to our 2011 annual report, in which we defined investing as “the transfer to others of purchasing power now with the reasoned expectation of receiving more purchasing power – after taxes have been paid on nominal gains – in the future.”

The unconventional, but inescapable, conclusion to be drawn from the past fifty years is that it has been far safer to invest in a diversified collection of American businesses than to invest in securities – Treasuries, for example – whose values have been tied to American currency. That was also true in the preceding half-century, a period including the Great Depression and two world wars. Investors should heed this history. To one degree or another it is almost certain to be repeated during the next century.

6. On Stocks and Bonds, and Risk and Volatility:

Stock prices will always be far more volatile than cash-equivalent holdings. Over the long term, however, currency-denominated instruments are riskier investments – far riskier investments – than widely-diversified stock portfolios that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions. That lesson has not customarily been taught in business schools, where volatility is almost universally used as a proxy for risk. Though this pedagogic assumption makes for easy teaching, it is dead wrong: 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. For the great majority of investors, however, who can – and should – invest with a multi-decade horizon, quotational declines are unimportant. Their focus should remain fixed on attaining significant gains in purchasing power over their investing lifetime. For them, a diversified equity portfolio, bought over time, will prove far less risky than dollar-based securities.

7. On Investor Behaviour, Timing and Risk:

Investors, of course, can, by their own behavior, make stock ownership highly risky. And many do. Active trading, attempts to “time” market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees to managers and advisors, and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy. Indeed, borrowed money has no place in the investor’s tool kit: Anything can happen anytime in markets. And no advisor, economist, or TV commentator – and definitely not Charlie nor I – can tell you when chaos will occur. Market forecasters will fill your ear but will never fill your wallet.

8. On Investment Managers and Advisers:

The commission of the investment sins listed above is not limited to “the little guy.” 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.

There are a few investment managers, of course, who are very good – though in the short run, it’s difficult to determine whether a great record is due to luck or talent. Most advisors, however, are far better at generating high fees than they are at generating high returns. In truth, their core competence is salesmanship. Rather than listen to their siren songs, investors – large and small – should instead read Jack Bogle’s The Little Book of Common Sense Investing.

Decades ago, Ben Graham pinpointed the blame for investment failure, using a quote from Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: