Buffett’s Berkshire Letter for 1991

1991 saw Scuds and Patriots battle over desert skies. Cracks became fissures, and the brittle Union of Soviet Socialist Republics finally dissolved. In the stock market, the S&P 500 launched from the gate—rising from 325 to 380 in the first quarter—only to chortle along for the remainder, and close with a two week sprint to 417. Including dividends, the 500 gained 30.5% for the year.

Over at Berkshire, net worth rose to $2.1 billion, or 39.6% YOY. In its most recent 27 years (i.e., since present management took over), per-share book value has grown from $19 to $6,437, or at a rate of 23.7% compounded annually. “Look-through earnings” declined from $602 million in 1990 to $516 million.

For Buffett, the goal of each investor should be to create a portfolio that will deliver the highest possible look-through earnings a decade from now. Successful investing requires the investor to think about long-term business prospects rather than short-term stock market prospects. It is crucial then that an investor competently distinguish companies with long-term “economic franchises” from mere businesses, those companies with wide moats from those with none.

An economic franchise “arises from a product or service that: 1) is needed or desired; 2) is thought by its customers to have no close substitute and; 3) is not subject to price regulation.” These conditions enable a company to “regularly price its product or service aggressively and thereby to earn high rates of return on capital. Moreover, franchises can tolerate mis-management. Inept managers may diminish a franchise’s profitability, but they cannot inflict mortal damage.”

A mere “business” earns exceptional profits “only if it is the low-cost operator or if supply of its product or service is tight. Tightness in supply usually does not last long. With superior management, a company may maintain its status as a low-cost operator for a much longer time, but even then unceasingly faces the possibility of competitive attack. And a business, unlike a franchise, can be killed by poor management.”

In Berkshire’s stock portfolio in 1991, Coca Cola, Gillette, and Guinness PLC meet Buffett’s definition of an economic franchise. Only a few years prior, The Washington Post Company and Capital Cities/ABC would have also sat in this class. However, in recent years, “the economic strength of once-mighty media enterprises continues to erode as retailing patterns change and advertising and entertainment choices proliferate.” By 1991, newspaper, television, and magazine properties now resemble businesses more than franchises in their economic behavior. GEICO and Wells Fargo represent mere businesses, albeit ones which are some of lowest cost providers in their industry. Each has superior management—as Buffett often notes—but were mismanagement to arrive, costs could quickly escalate, and their moats erode.

Given Buffett’s lecture, one may be surprised to find that Berkshire acquired another “business” in 1991—H.H. Brown Company, a shoe manufacturer. Candor reigns, for “shoes are a tough business… and most manufacturers in the industry do poorly. The wide range of styles and sizes that producers offer causes inventories to be heavy; substantial capital is also tied up in receivables. In this kind of environment, only outstanding managers like Frank Rooney and the group developed by Mr. Heffernan can prosper.”

What distinguishes H.H. Brown’s management? For one, their compensation system is one of the most unusual Buffett has encountered: “key managers are paid an annual salary of $7,800, to which is added a designated percentage of the profits of the company after these are reduced by a charge for capital employed. These managers therefore truly stand in the shoes of owners.” Unlike most compensation schemes which are “long on carrots but short on sticks,” the system at Brown has served both the company and managers exceptionally well, for “managers eager to bet heavily on their abilities usually have plenty of ability to bet on.”

Ultimately, the best investments are those with favorable long-term economic characteristics, honest and able management, and a fair price. With H.H. Brown, Buffett shows that two out of three is sufficient to pass his tests.

In light of our contemporary economic environment—with new government equity stakes in highly competitive industries with questionable economics—Buffett offers a final and interesting coda. Recall that a few years back, Berkshire bought convertible preferred stock in a notoriously bad “business”—US Air. On Berkshire’s balance sheets, Buffett and Munger valued this stock at a significant discount to its par value, to reflect the risk that “the industry will remain unprofitable for virtually all participants in it, a risk that is far from negligible.”

1991 was a “decimating period” for airlines, as Midway, Pan Am and America West all entered bankruptcy. Continental and TWA followed some months later. And the risk to the entire industry was further heightened by the fact that “the courts have been encouraging bankrupt carriers to continue operating. These carriers can temporarily charge fares that are below the industry’s costs because the bankrupts don’t incur the capital costs faced by their solvent brethren and because they can fund their losses—and thereby stave off shutdown—by selling off assets. This burn-the-furniture-to-provide-firewood approach to fare-setting by bankrupt carriers contributes to the toppling of previously-marginal carriers, creating a domino effect that is perfectly designed to bring the industry to its knees.”

[If history serves as precedent, keep an eye out for GM and Chrysler promotions in the months and years ahead. And you really thought Ford could survive?]

Disclosure: I, or persons whose accounts I manage, own shares of Berkshire Hathaway at the time of this writing.

[Also, check out our other posts in our Berkshire Hathaway Letters Series.]

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