1983 saw Israel, Lebanon, and the United States sign an agreement that called for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. In Japan, the Nintendo Entertainment System hit the market for the first time. Bjorn Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon title and announced his retirement. And in the world of crime, 6800 gold bars, worth 26 million British Pounds, were heisted from the Brinks Mat vault at Heathrow Airport. In the equity markets, the S&P 500 entered the year near 140, made a steady march higher until June, and then plateaued, to finish the year near 165.
Over at Berkshire, their book value increased from $737.43 per share to $975.83 per share, or by 32%. As Buffett observed last year, his favored metric for business assessment—return on shareholder equity—has become less useful for evaluating Berkshire now that the undistributed earnings of its common stock holdings have grown so large.
However, Buffett is quick to caution that Berkshire’s book value far understates its intrinsic business value, and it is the latter measurement that really counts. Whereas book value “is an accounting concept, recording the accumulated financial input from both contributed capital and retained earnings,” intrinsic business value “is an economic concept, estimating future cash output discounted to present value. Book value tells you what has been put in; intrinsic business value estimates what can be taken out.” Though book value can serve as a shorthand proxy for economic value, better for the aspiring analyst to dig more deeply and discern Berkshire’s intrinsic value.
More than his past letters, Buffett reflects at length on the business moats that Berkshire’s subsidiaries currently enjoy. Over at the newly-acquired Nebraska Furniture Mart, their moat derives primarily from being the lowest cost provider—by far—and then passing on those savings to its customers. To keep costs lean is no small feat, and Buffett highlights, in particular, the purchasing acumen of Mrs. B and her son, Louie Blumkin, who is “widely regarded as the shrewdest buyer of furniture and appliances in the country.” As Buffett quips, “I’d rather wrestle grizzlies than compete with Mrs. B and her progeny. They buy brilliantly, they operate at expense ratios competitors don’t even dream about, and they then pass on to their customers much of the savings. It’s the ideal business – one built upon exceptional value to the customer that in turn translates into exceptional economics for its owners.”
Over at Buffalo Evening News, business has finally blossomed. With its primary competitor gone, Buffalo is now a one-paper town, and fully enjoying the pricing power that such dominance commands. Even better, Buffalo Evening News commands more readers than most one-paper towns, and Buffett takes note, for “a paper’s penetration ratio [we believe] to be the best measure of the strength of its franchise. Papers with unusually high penetration in the geographical area that is of prime interest to major local retailers, and with relatively little circulation elsewhere, are exceptionally efficient buys for those retailers.” Lastly, Buffalo Evening News’ protective moat draws width from its superior news product. In 1983, the News’ “news hole” (i.e., its editorial material, not ads) “amounted to 50% of the newspaper’s content… Among papers that dominate their markets and that are of comparable or larger size, we know of only one whose news hole percentage exceeds that of the News.”
Berkshire’s third featured wide moat business is See’s Candies. Despite stagnant volume growth over the last five years (1979-1983), See’s has grown its sales over 50%, and more than doubled its operating profits, largely by pushing through consistent annual price increases. Though some of the volume stagnation may derive from See’s relatively high prices, See’s commands ample pricing power because its candy “is preferred by an enormous margin to that of any competitor. In fact, [Berkshire] believe[s] most lovers of chocolate prefer it to candy costing two or three times as much.” An excellent product, made with the highest quality ingredients, and delivered by cheerful, helpful personnel, is about as close to a successful retail formula that one will ever find coming from Buffett.
All told, Buffett’s descriptions of his best businesses’ economic moats may seem rather elementary. However, there is good reason to believe that simplicity here is the key to their sustained success. For many businesses, daily operations prolifically produce new and unforeseen problems, and managers’ minds must be constantly vigilant and rational to dispense solutions and move to the next. Without relatively simple competitive advantages, the plethora of daily problems may overwhelm attentions and distract focus. What the successful business needs is a singular principle to refocus their energies. For Nebraska Furniture Mart, that principle is to always buy merchandise more smartly than competitors. For Buffalo Evening News, their principle is maximizing the size of the news hole with competitive costs. At See’s, it is providing a premium product with pleasant service. In each case, the advantage seems so simple that it should be easily stolen. But when attacking a business with a wide moat, merely having the key is not enough to breech the castle.
Disclosure: I, or persons whose accounts I manage, own shares of Berkshire Hathaway at the time of this writing.