Why did Berkshire under Buffett do so well?
Last week, Berkshire Hathaway released its 2014 shareholder letter. Warren Buffett’s letter, always closely followed, was particularly anticipated this year. Indeed, as this year will mark a half-century of Berkshire Hathaway under “current management,” Buffett had promised two “looking back/looking forward” analyses, one from his pen and one from that of his partner, Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger.
Here are some of the key quotes from this year’s letter. (I’ve identified those that come from Munger.)
Buffett’s successor: one of two men?
With Buffett now 84, Berkshire’s succession plan is a matter of intense speculation. His latest comments on the matter (my emphasis):
Our directors believe that our future CEOs should come from internal candidates whom the Berkshire board has grown to know well. Our directors also believe that an incoming CEO should be relatively young, so that he or she can have a long run in the job. Berkshire will operate best if its CEOs average well over 10 years at the helm. (It’s hard to teach a new dog old tricks.) And they are not likely to retire at 65 either (or have you noticed?). … Both the board and I believe we now have the right person to succeed me as CEO — a successor ready to assume the job the day after I die or step down. In certain important respects, this person will do a better job than I am doing.
Who might the successor be? Munger offers a clue that appears to narrow it down to two individuals (my emphasis):
But under this Buffett-soon-leaves assumption, his successors would not be “of only moderate ability.” For instance, Ajit Jain and Greg Abel are proven performers who would probably be under-described as “world-class.” “World-leading” would be the description I would choose. In some important ways, each is a better business executive than Buffett.
The timing of the elusive Berkshire dividend
Another recurring debate in the financial media is the value and timing of a potential Berkshire dividend — although, as we shall see, it’s not much of a debate among shareholders. Buffett provides his first time-bound guidelines:
Eventually — probably between 10 and 20 years from now — Berkshire’s earnings and capital resources will reach a level that will not allow management to intelligently reinvest all of the company’s earnings. At that time our directors will need to determine whether the best method to distribute the excess earnings is through dividends, share repurchases, or both. If Berkshire shares are selling below intrinsic business value, massive repurchases will almost certainly be the best choice. You can be comfortable that your directors will make the right decision.
That doesn’t appear to be a problem for current shareholders:
Nevertheless [in response to last year’s proxy motion requesting a dividend], 98% of the shares voting said, in effect, “Don’t send us a dividend but instead reinvest all of the earnings.” To have our fellow owners — large and small — be so in sync with our managerial philosophy is both remarkable and rewarding. I am a lucky fellow to have you as partners.
Munger’s contribution to Berkshire
Although he has remained in Buffett’s shadow over the past 50 years, it’s almost impossible to overstate Munger’s contribution to Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett pays tribute to it:
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. … Charlie never tired of repeating his maxims about business and investing to me, and his logic was irrefutable. Consequently, Berkshire has been built to Charlie’s blueprint. My role has been that of general contractor, with the CEOs of Berkshire’s subsidiaries doing the real work as sub-contractors.
The 4 keys to Berkshire’s success
Munger returns Buffett’s compliment:
Why did Berkshire under Buffett do so well?
Only four large factors occur to me: (1) the constructive peculiarities of Buffett, (2) the constructive peculiarities of the Berkshire system, (3) good luck, and (4) the weirdly intense, contagious devotion of some shareholders and other admirers, including some in the press.
I believe all four factors were present and helpful. But the heavy freight was carried by the constructive peculiarities, the weird devotion, and their interactions. In particular, Buffett’s decision to limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years, was a lollapalooza. Buffett succeeded for the same reason Roger Federer became good at tennis.
Buffett was, in effect, using the winning method of the famous basketball coach John Wooden, who won most regularly after he had learned to assign virtually all playing time to his seven best players. That way, opponents always faced his best players, instead of his second best. And, with the extra playing time, the best players improved more than was normal.
And Buffett much out-Woodened Wooden, because in his case the exercise of skill was concentrated in one person, not seven, and his skill improved and improved as he got older and older during 50 years, instead of deteriorating like the skill of a basketball player does.
The Berkshire system: 15 rules for building a world-leading conglomerate
What is this “Berkshire system” Munger refers to, which has been at the core of Berkshire’s unparalleled success? He codifies it in 15 points:
The management system and policies of Berkshire under Buffett (herein together called “the Berkshire system”) were fixed early and are described below:
(1) Berkshire would be a diffuse conglomerate, averse only to activities about which it could not make useful predictions.
(2) Its top company would do almost all business through separately incorporated subsidiaries whose CEOs would operate with very extreme autonomy.
(3) There would be almost nothing at conglomerate headquarters except a tiny office suite containing a chairman, a CFO, and a few assistants who mostly helped the CFO with auditing, internal control, etc.
(4) Berkshire subsidiaries would always prominently include casualty insurers. Those insurers as a group would be expected to produce, in due course, dependable underwriting gains while also producing substantial “float” (from unpaid insurance liabilities) for investment.
(5) There would be no significant systemwide personnel system, stock option system, other incentive system, retirement system, or the like, because the subsidiaries would have their own systems, often different.
(6) Berkshire’s chairman would reserve only a few activities for himself. […]
(7) New subsidiaries would usually be bought with cash, not newly issued stock.
(8) Berkshire would not pay dividends so long as more than one dollar of market value for shareholders was being created by each dollar of retained earnings.
(9) In buying a new subsidiary, Berkshire would seek to pay a fair price for a good business that the chairman could pretty well understand. Berkshire would also want a good CEO in place, one expected to remain for a long time and to manage well without need for help from headquarters.
(10) In choosing CEOs of subsidiaries, Berkshire would try to secure trustworthiness, skill, energy, and love for the business and circumstances the CEO was in.
(11) As an important matter of preferred conduct, Berkshire would almost never sell a subsidiary.
(12) Berkshire would almost never transfer a subsidiary’s CEO to another unrelated subsidiary.
(13) Berkshire would never force the CEO of a subsidiary to retire on account of mere age.
(14) Berkshire would have little debt outstanding as it tried to maintain (i) virtually perfect creditworthiness under all conditions and (ii) easy availability of cash and credit for deployment in times presenting unusual opportunities.
(15) Berkshire would always be user-friendly to a prospective seller of a large business. An offer of such a business would get prompt attention. No one but the chairman and one or two others at Berkshire would ever know about the offer if it did not lead to a transaction. And they would never tell outsiders about it.
Both the elements of the Berkshire system and their collected size are quite unusual. No other large corporation I know of has half of such elements in place.
The continued success of Berkshire after Buffett
Will the “Berkshire system” ensure continued success, despite its size, and after Buffett? Buffett says yes:
Despite our conservatism, I think we will be able every year to build the underlying per-share earning power of Berkshire. That does not mean operating earnings will increase each year — far from it. The U.S. economy will ebb and flow — though mostly flow — and when it weakens, so will our current earnings. But we will continue to achieve organic gains, make bolt-on acquisitions, and enter new fields. I believe, therefore, that Berkshire will annually add to its underlying earning power.
The next to last task on my list was: Predict whether abnormally good results would continue at Berkshire if Buffett were soon to depart. The answer is yes. Berkshire has in place in its subsidiaries much business momentum grounded in much durable competitive advantage. Moreover, its railroad and utility subsidiaries now provide much desirable opportunity to invest large sums in new fixed assets. And many subsidiaries are now engaged in making wise “bolt-on” acquisitions.
Provided that most of the Berkshire system remains in place, the combined momentum and opportunity now present is so great that Berkshire would almost surely remain a better-than-normal company for a very long time even if (1) Buffett left tomorrow, (2) his successors were persons of only moderate ability, and (3) Berkshire never again purchased a large business.
These quotes provide some of the important lessons from this year’s letter, but the document is extraordinarily rich in business and investing lessons and will be analyzed and debated for years to come — including here on Fool.com. Be sure to check back in the next few days for more coverage of the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter.