Buffett talks investing, takeovers and ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in letter — here are highlights

Buffett talks investing, takeovers and ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in letter — here are highlights

Warren Buffett

David A. Grogan | CNBC

Warren Buffett released the most widely anticipated shareholder letter of the year on Saturday and discussed how Berkshire Hathaway’s business fared throughout 2019.

In the letter, consistently published each year for decades, Buffett urged investors to focus on their companies’ operating earnings instead of obsessing over quarterly or yearly losses or gains. He also discussed the speculative nature of equity trading, the recent difficulty in finding a big acquisition target, his faith in Berkshire’s success in the decades to come and the changing world of corporate governance.

The “Oracle of Omaha” also drew a funny comparison between large-scale acquisitions and marriage and how each, however exciting at first, can lead to disappointment as “reality tends to diverge from pre-nuptial expectations.”

“Applying those images to corporate acquisitions, I’d have to say it is usually the buyer who encounters unpleasant surprises,” he wrote.

Here are the highlights from the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway:

On the Berkshire portfolio: We don’t make ‘wagers’

“Charlie and I do not view the $248 billion detailed above as a collection of stock market wagers – dalliances to be terminated because of downgrades by “the Street,” an earnings “miss,” 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 more than 20% on the net tangible equity capital required to run their businesses. These companies, also, earn their profits without employing excessive levels of debt. Returns of that order by large, established and understandable businesses are remarkable under any circumstances. They are truly mind-blowing when compared to the returns that many investors have accepted on bonds over the last decade – 2½% or even less on 30-year U.S. Treasury bonds, for example.”

$5 billion in buybacks in 2019

“Over time, we want Berkshire’s share count to go down. If the price-to-value discount (as we estimate it)

widens, we will likely become more aggressive in purchasing shares. We will not, however, prop the stock at any level.”

“In 2019, the Berkshire price/value equation was modestly favorable at times, and we spent $5 billion in repurchasing about 1% of the company.”

Buffett still can’t find his ‘elephant’

“We constantly seek to buy new businesses that meet three criteria. First, they must earn good returns on the net tangible capital required in their operation. Second, they must be run by able and honest managers. Finally, they must be available at a sensible price. When we spot such businesses, our preference would be to buy 100% of them. But the opportunities to make major acquisitions possessing our required attributes are rare. Far more often, a fickle stock market serves up opportunities for us to buy large, but non-controlling, positions in publicly-traded companies that meet our standards.”

Buffett said this time last year that he was on the hunt for an “elephant-sized” acquisition but that steep prices were preventing him from making a big purchase.

Berkshire paid 1.5% of all corporate tax in 2019

“In 2019, Berkshire sent $3.6 billion to the U.S. Treasury to pay its current income tax. The U.S. government collected $243 billion from corporate income tax payments during the same period. From these statistics, you can take pride that your company delivered 1½% of the federal income taxes paid by all of corporate America.”

If marriage is to acquisitions…

“In reviewing my uneven record, I’ve concluded that acquisitions are similar to marriage: They start, of course, with a joyful wedding – but then reality tends to diverge from pre-nuptial expectations. Sometimes, wonderfully, the new union delivers bliss beyond either party’s hopes. In other cases, disillusionment is swift. Applying those images to corporate acquisitions, I’d have to say it is usually the buyer who encounters unpleasant surprises. It’s easy to get dreamy-eyed during corporate courtships. Pursuing that analogy, I would say that our marital record remains largely acceptable, with all parties happy with the decisions they made long ago. Some of our tie-ups have been positively idyllic. A meaningful number, however, have caused me all too quickly to wonder what I was thinking when I proposed. Fortunately, the fallout from many of my errors has been reduced by a characteristic shared by most businesses that disappoint: As the years pass, the “poor” business tends to stagnate, thereupon entering a state in which its operations require an ever-smaller percentage of Berkshire’s capital. Meanwhile, our “good” businesses often tend to grow and find opportunities for investing additional capital at attractive rates.”

Stocks have always been speculative: ‘Gentlemen preferred bonds’

“When business ownership was sliced into small pieces – ‘stocks’ – buyers in the pre-Smith years usually thought of their shares as a short-term gamble on market movements. Even at their best, stocks were considered speculations. Gentlemen preferred bonds.”

Net income for non-insurance businesses up slightly

“Our total net income in 2019 from the non-insurance businesses we control amounted to $17.7 billion, an increase of 3% from the $17.2 billion this group earned in 2018. Acquisitions and dispositions had almost no net effect on these results.”

Berkshire is a fortress in the insurance industry

“Mistakes in assessing insurance risks can be huge and can take many years – even decades – to surface and ripen. (Think asbestos.) A major catastrophe that will dwarf hurricanes Katrina and Michael will occur – perhaps tomorrow, perhaps many decades from now. ‘The Big One’ may come from a traditional source, such as wind or earthquake, or it may be a total surprise involving, say, a cyber attack having disastrous consequences beyond anything insurers now contemplate. When such a mega-catastrophe strikes, Berkshire will get its share of the losses and they will be big – very big. Unlike many other insurers, however, handling the loss will not come close to straining our resources, and we will be eager to add to our business the next day.”

Shout out to insurance manager Jain

“Late in 2012, Ajit Jain, the invaluable manager of our insurance operations, called to tell me that he was buying a tiny company – GUARD Insurance Group – in that small Pennsylvania city for $221 million (roughly its net worth at the time). He added that Sy Foguel, GUARD’s CEO, was going to be a star at Berkshire. Both GUARD and Sy were new names to me. Bingo and bingo: In 2019, GUARD had premium volume of $1.9 billion, up 379% since 2012, and also delivered a satisfactory underwriting profit. Since joining Berkshire, Sy has led the company into both new products and new regions of the country and has increased GUARD’s float by 265%.”

Jokes about ‘Dancing With the Stars’

“I’d like you to know that almost all of the directors I have met over the years have been decent, likable and intelligent. They dressed well, made good neighbors and were fine citizens. I’ve enjoyed their company. Among the group are some men and women that I would not have met except for our mutual board service and who have become close friends. Nevertheless, many of these good souls are people whom I would never have chosen to handle money or business matters. It simply was not their game. They, in turn, would never have asked me for help in removing a tooth, decorating their home or improving their golf swing. Moreover, if I were ever scheduled to appear on Dancing With the Stars, I would immediately seek refuge in the Witness Protection Program. We are all duds at one thing or another. For most of us, the list is long. The important point to recognize is that if you are Bobby Fischer, you must play only chess for money.”

Long-term stock forecast

“Forecasting interest rates has never been our game, and Charlie and I have no idea what rates will average over the next year, or ten or thirty years. Our perhaps jaundiced view is that the pundits who opine on these subjects reveal, by that very behavior, far more about themselves than they reveal about the future. What we can say is that if something close to current rates should prevail over the coming decades and if corporate tax rates also remain near the low level businesses now enjoy, it is almost certain that equities will over time perform far better than long-term, fixed-rate debt instruments. That rosy prediction comes with a warning: Anything can happen to stock prices tomorrow. Occasionally, there will be major drops in the market, perhaps of 50% magnitude or even greater. But the combination of The American Tailwind, about which I wrote last year, and the compounding wonders described by Mr. Smith, will make equities the much better long-term choice for the individual who does not use borrowed money and who can control his or her emotions. Others? Beware!”

Pay attention to company earnings, not quarter-by-quarter stock gains

“Charlie and I urge you to focus on operating earnings – which were little changed in 2019 – and to ignore both quarterly and annual gains or losses from investments, whether these are realized or unrealized.”

Wind power business growth

“The extraordinary differential between our rates and theirs is largely the result of our huge accomplishments in converting wind into electricity. In 2021, we expect BHE’s operation to generate about 25.2 million megawatt-hours of electricity (MWh) in Iowa from wind turbines that it both owns and operates. That output will totally cover the annual needs of its Iowa customers, which run to about 24.6 million MWh. In other words, our utility will have attained wind self-sufficiency in the state of Iowa. In still another contrast, that other Iowa utility generates less than 10% of its power from wind. Furthermore, we know of no other investor-owned utility, wherever located, that by 2021 will have achieved a position of wind self-sufficiency. In 2000, BHE was serving an agricultural-based economy; today, three of its five largest customers are high-tech giants.”

Click here to review past letters. To review video of Berkshire’s past annual meetings and other Buffett interviews go to CNBC’s Warren Buffett Archive.

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