1987 was the year the stock market jumped off the cliff. We use the cliché rather flippantly, but perhaps no metaphor better captures a 20.4% single day drop in the S&P 500. Despite the theatrics, the S&P 500 essentially closed the year where it had started, at 247.
Over at Berkshire, net worth gained $464 million in 1987, or 19.5%. Since taking over, Buffett and Munger’s creation has grown book value per share from $19.46 to $2,477.47, or at a rate of 23.1% compounded annually. Unlike past letters, Buffett doesn’t manage down expectations of future returns; perhaps now he’s proven to himself his consistency.
One of the first items on this year’s agenda are the margins and return on equity (ROE) of Berkshire’s seven non-financial subsidiaries–Buffalo News, Fechheimer, Kirby, Nebraska Furniture Mart, Scott Fetzer Manufacturing Group, See’s Candies, and World Book. In 1987, these seven combined to produce $180 million in EBIT while only employing $178 million in equity capital and virtually no debt. Thinking about it another way “if these seven business units had operated as a single company, their 1987 after-tax earnings would have been approximately $100 million – a return of about 57% on equity capital.” Indeed, quite impressive numbers, even for someone with Buffett’s standards.
How is it that Berkshire’s businesses require such meager portions of capital? As Buffett observes, “the best business returns are usually achieved by companies that are doing something quite similar today to what they were doing five or ten years ago. That is no argument for managerial complacency. Businesses always have opportunities to improve service, product lines, manufacturing techniques, and the like, and obviously these opportunities should be seized. But a business that constantly encounters major change also encounters many chances for major error. Furthermore, economic terrain that is forever shifting violently is ground on which it is difficult to build a fortress-like business franchise. Such a franchise is usually the key to sustained high returns.” Stated simply, almost every business change requires capital. In a business or industry always in metamorphosis, substantial portions will be consistently consumed. Think here of the ravenous adolescent.
Since the mid-1970s, Buffett has clearly preferred businesses with small appetites, but is his preference generalizable? A Fortune study from 1987 thinks so, for they found “only 25 of the 1,000 companies met two tests of economic excellence – an average return on equity of over 20% in the ten years, 1977 through 1986, and no year worse than 15%. These business superstars were also stock market superstars: during the decade, 24 of the 25 outperformed the S&P 500.” Where the pace of business and industry change is slow, capital can accumulate and moats develop.
After giving his annual briefing of Berkshire’s non-financial operations, Buffett gives his mind to analyzing their insurance businesses. Insurance, by and large, offers a commodity product, and the industry offers few barriers to entry. By penning a promise, virtually anyone can collect premiums. Like other commodity businesses, price will often be the primary determinant in the purchase decision.
Yet Buffett reminds his owners that “at Berkshire, we work to escape the industry’s commodity economics in two ways. First, we differentiate our product by our financial strength, which exceeds that of all others in the
industry. This strength, however, is limited in its usefulness. It means nothing in the personal insurance field: The buyer of an auto or homeowners policy is going to get his claim paid even if his insurer fails (as many have)… Periodically, however, buyers remember Ben Franklin’s observation that it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright and recognize their need to buy promises only from insurers that have enduring financial strength. It is then that we have a major competitive advantage.”
The second competitive advantage for Berkshire’s insurance business is their “total indifference to volume that we maintain. In 1989, we will be perfectly willing to write five times as much business as we write in 1988 – or only one-fifth as much. We hope, of course, that conditions will allow us large volume. But we cannot control market prices. If they are unsatisfactory, we will simply do very little business. No other major insurer acts with equal restraint.”
Lastly, Buffett’s 1987 assessment of CEOs’ capital allocation was particularly interesting, especially in light of our recent posts on assessing management [see here]. His basic observation is that “the heads of many companies are not skilled in capital allocation.” Yet, shareholders shouldn’t be surprised, for “most bosses rise to the top because they have excelled in an area such as marketing, production, engineering, administration or, sometimes, institutional politics.” The required new skill set “is not easily mastered,” but absolutely and overridingly critical for business success, for “after ten years on the job, a CEO whose company annually retains earnings equal to 10% of net worth will have been responsible for the deployment of more than 60% of all the capital at work in the business.”
Of course, today’s technocratic mindset would encourage the CEO who lacks capital-allocation skills to run and hire some pristinely-dressed and well-connected management consultants or investment bankers. Unfortunately, “Charlie and I have frequently observed the consequences of such “help.” On balance, we feel it is more likely to accentuate the capital-allocation problem than to solve it.”
There is much more of interest here—comments on Mr. Market’s mania and depression, Buffett’s buy and hold philosophy, and inflation. But for the aspiring capitalist, the above themes are most important—buy simple businesses, in industries with little change, those with economic moats—if possible, and managed by skilled capital allocators. Oh, and be sure to pay the right price.
Disclosure: I, or persons whose accounts I manage, own shares of Berkshire Hathaway at the time of this writing.