Originally posted March 1, 2021.
It’s nice to have some traditions you can count on. One of those is Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, released over the weekend. With all the chaos in the world, it’s nice to have stability when you can find it.
I read the report Sunday morning before Becky and I met my parents for lunch at a favorite spot in Tiverton, RI. My Mom and I ordered the fresh cod with littlenecks and linguica. My Dad commented that he had the same dish Friday with his friend at another restaurant in New Bedford.
If you’ve ever read the history of how Berkshire Hathaway got its name, then you learned about a textile company in New Bedford that was bought by some investor from Omaha, Nebraska. It turned out the investment was a dog. But it taught the investor, Warren Buffett, the importance of not just buying cheap companies—but owning great companies.
Some interesting points from the letter:
- As I’ve emphasized many times, Charlie and I view Berkshire’s holdings of marketable stocks – at year end worth $281 billion – as a collection of businesses. We don’t control the operations of those companies, but we do share proportionately in their long-term prosperity. From an accounting standpoint, however, our portion of their earnings is not included in Berkshire’s income. Instead, only what these investees pay us in dividends is recorded on our books. Under GAAP, the huge sums that investees retain on our behalf become invisible.
- It took me a while to wise up. But Charlie – and also my 20-year struggle with the textile operation I inherited at Berkshire – finally convinced me that owning a non-controlling portion of a wonderful business is more profitable, more enjoyable and far less work than struggling with 100% of a marginal enterprise.
- Most of Berkshire’s value, however, resides in four businesses, three controlled and one in which we have only a 5.4% interest. All four are jewels. The largest in value is our property/casualty insurance operation, which for 53 years has been the core of Berkshire. Our family of insurers is unique in the insurance field. So, too, is its manager, Ajit Jain, who joined Berkshire in 1986.
- Our second and third most valuable assets – it’s pretty much a toss-up at this point – are Berkshire’s 100%ownership of BNSF, America’s largest railroad measured by freight volume, and our 5.4% ownership of Apple. And in the fourth spot is our 91% ownership of Berkshire Hathaway Energy (“BHE”). What we have here is a very unusual utility business, whose annual earnings have grown from $122 million to $3.4billionduring our 21 years of ownership.
Buffett went on to explain the value of owning companies with actual assets (My emphasis added in bold):
Recently, I learned a fact about our company that I had never suspected: Berkshire owns American-based property, plant and equipment – the sort of assets that make up the “business infrastructure” of our country – with a GAAP valuation exceeding the amount owned by any other U.S. company. Berkshire’s depreciated cost of these domestic “fixed assets” is $154 billion. Next in line on this list is AT&T, with property, plant and equipment of $127billion.
Our leadership in fixed-asset ownership, I should add, does not, in itself, signal an investment triumph. The best results occur at companies that require minimal assets to conduct high-margin businesses –and offer goods or services that will expand their sales volume with only minor needs for additional capital. We, in fact, own a few of these exceptional businesses, but they are relatively small and, at best, grow slowly.
Asset-heavy companies, however, can be good investments. Indeed, we are delighted with our two giants – BNSF and BHE: In 2011, Berkshire’s first full year of BNSF ownership, the two companies had combined earnings of $4.2 billion. In 2020, a tough year for many businesses, the pair earned $8.3 billion.
BNSF and BHE will require major capital expenditures for decades to come. The good news is that both are likely to deliver appropriate returns on the incremental investment.
Let’s look first at BNSF. Your railroad carries about 15% of all non-local ton-miles (a ton of freight moved one mile) of goods that move in the United States, whether by rail, truck, pipeline, barge or aircraft. By a significant margin, BNSF’s loads top those of any other carrier.
The history of American railroads is fascinating. After 150 years or so of frenzied construction, skullduggery, overbuilding, bankruptcies, reorganizations and mergers, the railroad industry finally emerged a few decades ago as mature and rationalized.
BNSF began operations in 1850 with a 12-mile line in northeastern Illinois. Today, it has 390 antecedents whose railroads have been purchased or merged. The company’s extensive lineage is laid out athttp://www.bnsf.com/bnsf-resources/pdf/about-bnsf/History_and_Legacy.pdf.
Berkshire acquired BNSF early in 2010. Since our purchase, the railroad has invested $41 billion in fixed assets, an outlay $20 billion in excess of its depreciation charges. Railroading is an outdoor sport, featuring mile-long trains obliged to reliably operate in both extreme cold and heat, as they all the while encounter every form of terrain from deserts to mountains. Massive flooding periodically occurs. BNSF owns 23,000 miles of track, spread throughout28 states, and must spend whatever it takes to maximize safety and service throughout its vast system.
Nevertheless, BNSF has paid substantial dividends to Berkshire – $41.8 billion in total. The railroad pays us, however, only what remains after it both fulfills the needs of its business and maintains a cash balance of about$2 billion. This conservative policy allows BNSF to borrow at low rates, independent of any guarantee of its debt by Berkshire.
One further word about BNSF: Last year, Carl Ice, its CEO, and his number two, Katie Farmer, did an extraordinary job in controlling expenses while navigating a significant downturn in business. Despite a 7% decline in the volume of goods carried, the two actually increased BNSF’s profit margin by 2.9 percentage points. Carl, as long planned, retired at yearend and Katie took over as CEO. Your railroad is in good hands.
Some other interesting points from Buffett in his letter:
- In no way do we think that Berkshire shares should be repurchased at simply any price. I emphasize that point because American CEOs have an embarrassing record of devoting more company funds to repurchases when prices have risen than when they have tanked. Our approach is exactly the reverse.
- In 1937, its first full year of operation, GEICO did$238,288 of business. Last year the figure was $35 billion.
- Today National Indemnity is the only company in the world prepared to insure certain giant risks. And, yes, it remains based in Omaha, a few miles from Berkshire’s home office.
- NFM now owns the three largest home-furnishings stores in the U.S. Each set a sales record in 2020, a feat achieved despite the closing of NFM’s stores for more than six weeks because of COVID-19.
- the 1983 annual report – up front – laid out Berkshire’s “major business principles.” The first principle began: “Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership.” That defined our relationship in 1983; it defines it today. Charlie and I – and our directors as well – believe this dictum will serve Berkshire well for many decades to come.
- In 1958, Phil Fisher wrote a superb book on investing. In it, he analogized running a public company to managing a restaurant. If you are seeking diners, he said, you can attract a clientele and prosper featuring either hamburgers served with a Coke or a French cuisine accompanied by exotic wines. But you must not, Fisher warned, capriciously switch from one to the other: Your message to potential customers must be consistent with what they will find upon entering your premises.
- The tens of millions of other investors and speculators in the United States and elsewhere have a wide variety of equity choices to fit their tastes. They will find CEOs and market gurus with enticing ideas. If they want price targets, managed earnings and “stories,” they will not lack suitors. “Technicians” will confidently instruct them as to what some wiggles on a chart portend for a stock’s next move. The calls for action will never stop.
- Productive assets such as farms, real estate and, yes, business ownership produce wealth – lots of it. Most owners of such properties will be rewarded. All that’s required is the passage of time, an inner calm, ample diversification and a minimization of transactions and fees. Still, investors must never forget that their expenses are Wall Street’s income. And, unlike my monkey, Wall Streeters do not work for peanuts.
- Investing illusions can continue for a surprisingly long time. Wall Street loves the fees that deal-making generates, and the press loves the stories that colorful promoters provide. At a point, also, the soaring price of a promoted stock can itself become the “proof” that an illusion is reality.
- If that strategy requires little or no effort on our part, so much the better. In contrast to the scoring system utilized in diving competitions, you are awarded no points in business endeavors for “degree of difficulty. ”Furthermore, as Ronald Reagan cautioned: “It’s said that hard work never killed anyone, but I say why take the chance?”
Action Line: Teach someone you love how to invest and you’ll be remembered forever. Sharing Buffett’s thinking on investments is a great way to start. Why not take the chance?