More passages I’ve selected, and my lackluster titles for them:
Chairman’s Letter -1983
Efficient Markets & The Invisible Foot
For example, consider a typical company earning, say, 12% on equity. Assume a very high turnover rate in its shares of 100% per year. If a purchase and sale of the stock each extract commissions of 1% (the rate may be much higher on low-priced stocks) and if the stock trades at book value, the owners of our hypothetical company will pay, in aggregate, 2% of the company’s net worth annually for the privilege of transferring ownership. This activity does nothing for the earnings of the business, and means that 1/6 of them are lost to the owners through the “frictional” cost of transfer. (And this calculation does not count option trading, which would increase frictional costs still further.) All that makes for a rather expensive game of musical chairs. Can you imagine the agonized cry that would arise if a governmental unit were to impose a new 16 2/3% tax on earnings of corporations or investors? By market activity, investors can impose upon themselves the equivalent of such a tax. Days when the market trades 100 million shares (and that kind of volume, when over-the-counter trading is included, is today abnormally low) are a curse for owners, not a blessing – for they mean that owners are paying twice as much to change chairs as they are on a 50-million-share day. If 100 million- share days persist for a year and the average cost on each purchase and sale is 15 cents a share, the chair-changing tax for investors in aggregate would total about $7.5 billion – an amount roughly equal to the combined 1982 profits of Exxon, General Motors, Mobil and Texaco, the four largest companies in the Fortune 500. These companies had a combined net worth of $75 billion at yearend 1982 and accounted for over 12% of both net worth and net income of the entire Fortune 500 list. Under our assumption investors, in aggregate, every year forfeit all earnings from this staggering sum of capital merely to satisfy their penchant for “financial flip-flopping”. In addition, investment management fees of over $2 billion annually – sums paid for chair-changing advice – require the forfeiture by investors of all earnings of the five largest banking organizations (Citicorp, Bank America, Chase Manhattan, Manufacturers Hanover and J. P. Morgan). These expensive activities may decide who eats the pie, but they don’t enlarge it.
(We are aware of the pie-expanding argument that says that such activities improve the rationality of the capital allocation process. We think that this argument is specious and that, on balance, hyperactive equity markets subvert rational capital allocation and act as pie shrinkers. Adam Smith felt that all noncollusive acts in a free market were guided by an invisible hand that led an economy to maximum progress; our view is that casino-type markets and hair-trigger investment management act as an invisible foot that trips up and slows down a forward-moving economy.)
Chairman’s Letter – 1983
When Ideas Fail
During 1983 our book value increased from $737.43 per share to $975.83 per share, or by 32%. We never take the one-year figure very seriously. After all, why should the time required for a planet to circle the sun synchronize precisely with the time required for business actions to pay off? Instead, we recommend not less than a five-year test as a rough yardstick of economic performance. Red lights should start flashing if the five-year average annual gain falls much below the return on equity earned over the period by American industry in aggregate. (Watch out for our explanation if that occurs as Goethe observed, “When ideas fail, words come in very handy.”)
Chairman’s Letter 1982
Economics & Insurance – Fighting The Last War
That day is gone. Although parts of the old structure remain, far more than enough new capacity exists outside of that structure to force all parties, old and new, to respond. The new capacity uses various methods of distribution and is not reluctant to use price as a prime competitive weapon. Indeed, it relishes that use. In the process, customers have learned that insurance is no longer a one-price business. They won’t forget. Future profitability of the industry will be determined by current competitive characteristics, not past ones. Many managers have been slow to recognize this. It’s not only generals that prefer to fight the last war. Most business and investment analysis also comes from the rear-view mirror. It seems clear to us, however, that only one condition will allow the insurance industry to achieve significantly improved underwriting results. That is the same condition that will allow better results for the aluminum, copper, or corn producer – a major narrowing of the gap between demand and supply.
Chiarman’s Letter – 1982
Accounting Versus Economic Earnings
We prefer a concept of “economic” earnings that includes all undistributed earnings, regardless of ownership percentage. In our view, the value to all owners of the retained earnings of a business enterprise is determined by the effectiveness with which those earnings are used – and not by the size of one’s ownership percentage. If you have owned .01 of 1% of Berkshire during the past decade, you have benefited economically in full measure from your share of our retained earnings, no matter what your accounting system. Proportionately, you have done just as well as if you had owned the magic 20%. But if you have owned 100% of a great many capital-intensive businesses during the decade, retained earnings that were credited fully and with painstaking precision to you under standard accounting methods have resulted in minor or zero economic value. This is not a criticism of accounting procedures. We would not like to have the job of designing a better system. It’s simply to say that managers and investors alike must understand that accounting numbers are the beginning, not the end, of business valuation.