1982 saw guns ablaze at the Falkland Islands. Walt Disney World grew its empire by opening its second largest theme park—Epcot. Wayne Gretzky set the reigning record for the most goals scored during an NHL season, netting 92. And the S&P 500 started the year near 120, fell below 105 by mid-August, and rebounded to close the year near 140.
Over at Berkshire, “operating earnings of $31.5 million in 1982 amounted to only 9.8% of beginning equity capital (valuing securities at cost), down from 15.2% in 1981 and far below our recent high of 19.4% in 1978.” Buffett found three causes for the decline—first, “a significant deterioration in insurance underwriting results,” second, “a considerable expansion of equity capital without a corresponding growth in the businesses we operate directly,” and third, “a continually-enlarging commitment of our resources to investment in partially-owned, nonoperated businesses.”
As Buffett has mentioned in preceding years, return on equity capital should be the most significant metric for evaluating management performance. However, in Berkshire’s case, this metric has become less and less useful, as standard accounting practices fail to fully reflect Berkshire’s share of its equity holdings’ earnings. For example, Berkshire owned a significant stake of GEICO in 1982; however, rather than including Berkshire’s share of GEICO’ earnings ($23 million) with its earnings, accounting standards dictate that only distributed earnings (i.e., cash dividends) be noted (which were $3.5 million after tax). So long as GEICO retains some of its annual earnings for reinvestment, those earnings will not immediately show up on Berkshire’s annual report, even though their share of them is just as real as the assets on GEICO’s balance sheet. Over time, Buffett is confident that these retained earnings will become more fully reflected in the stock prices of their portfolio.
Despite low returns on equity capital, book value at Berkshire grew $208 million, thanks to an increasingly cheerful consensus in the stock market. Starting the year with a book value of $519 million, the levity lifted Berkshire’s net worth nearly 40%.
Looking forward, Buffett foresees insurance underwriting results for 1983 to be no sight for the squeamish. For the industry, 1982 would seem bad enough, with Best estimating a combined industry ratio of 109.5; in short, that means that every dollar of insurance float cost $1.095, or a 9.5% annual rate. However, Buffett cautions that this relatively lousy results are a best case estimate, for in any given year, “it is possible for an insurer to show almost any profit number it wishes, particularly if it (1) writes “long-tail” business (coverage where current costs can be only estimated, because claim payments are long delayed), (2) has been adequately reserved in the past, or (3) is growing very rapidly.”
Looking over his competitors’ results, Buffett’s nose has caught some unpleasant whiffs, noting that “several large insurers opted in 1982 for obscure accounting and reserving maneuvers that masked significant deterioration in their underlying businesses.” Herein lies the wisdom—“In insurance, as elsewhere, the reaction of weak managements to weak operations is often weak accounting. (It’s difficult for an empty sack to stand upright.)”
The root of this temptation lies in the fact that insurance is a commodity business; its service amounts to a promise, and most purchasers take every insurer’s word to be that of the saint. Even worse, in insurance, barriers to entry are few; anyone with sufficient regulatory capital and a John Hancock can make a promise. Insurance then, unlike other commodity businesses, almost always operates “under the competitive sword of substantial overcapacity.” Only in those rare cases where there is a natural or financial megadisaster does capacity retreat; and until such an event, Buffett forecasts that the insurance industry will not be profitable.
Lastly, Buffett concludes with some reflections on issuing equity for acquisitions. Their golden rule is that they will not issue shares unless they receive as much intrinsic business value as they give. Of course, stated so simply, no rational business manager should reject it; but in practice, very many do, using a variety of odd rationalizations and linguistic high jinks.
To help the manager apply the golden rule, Buffett recommends thinking about one’s own stock as a currency. Every time that a business issues shares for an acquisition, it has to honestly ask whether it would be willing to sell its whole business for its implied worth. In other words, if I value my business at X, I should not use its shares as currency for any purchase that values those shares at less than X. As Buffett notes, “A cumulation of small managerial stupidities will produce a major stupidity – not a major triumph. (Las Vegas has been built upon the wealth transfers that occur when people engage in seemingly-small disadvantageous capital transactions.)”
Disclosure: I, or persons whose accounts I manage, own shares of Berkshire Hathaway at the time of this writing.