1986 saw seven million people join hands in Hands Across America–a well-publicized, but unsuccessful attempt to raise $50 million to alleviate famine in Africa. Later in the year, the Iran-Contra Affair features on the public page, revealing that the United States had sold weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of 7 American hostages held in Lebanon. And the stock market had drawn its share of helium, with S&P soaring from its open near 165 to close the year near 210.
Over at Berkshire, net worth increased by $492.5 million, or 26.1%, and for those keeping score (be assured the Chairman is), that signifies an increase of 10,600% over 22 years, from $19.46 to $2,073.06 per share.
The good news for Berkshire’s owners is that they own a grove of money trees; the bad news is the fruit of their grove has not found fertile ground to grow tomorrow’s trees. In the stock market, where Buffett and Munger had previously found abundant fertile ground, the terrain now looks sterile and barren. The best available alternative in 1986 then was to pay off debt and stockpile cash. Though “neither is a fate worse than death, they do not inspire us to do handsprings either. If we were to draw blanks for a few years in our capital-allocation endeavors, Berkshire’s rate of growth would slow significantly.”
After some obligatory back-slapping and “atta-boys” for Berkshire’s managers, Buffett talks the business. At Buffalo Evening News, they have attained both the highest weekday and Sunday penetration rates (near 83% on Sunday) of the top 50 papers in the country. At Nebraska Furniture Mart, net sales increased 10.2% to $132 million, and the only logical explanation for their success is “that the marketing territory of NFM’s one-and-only store continues to widen because of its ever-growing reputation for rock-bottom everyday prices and the broadest of selections.” At See’s Candies, their “one-of-a-kind product ‘personality’” derives from “a combination of [their] candy’s delicious taste and moderate price, the company’s total control of the distribution process, and the exceptional service provided by store employees.” More than any other metric, See’s manager Chuck Huggins “measures his success by the satisfaction of our customers, and his attitude permeates the organization.”
The big news of the year are Berkshire’s acquisitions of Scott Fetzer (which includes World Book and Kirby) and Fechheimer, a uniform manufacturing and distribution business. In the case of Fechheimer, its Chairman Bob Heldman had concluded that their company fit Buffett’s criteria for desired acquisitions: “1) large purchases (at least $10 million of after-tax earnings), 2) demonstrated consistent earning power, 3) businesses earning good returns on equity while employing little or no debt, 4) management in place, 5) simple businesses, and 6) an offering price.”
And Heldman was right. As Buffett recounts, “Fechheimer is exactly the sort of business we like to buy. Its economic record is superb; its managers are talented, high-grade, and love what they do; and the Heldman family wanted to continue its financial interest in partnership with us… the circumstances of this acquisition were similar to those prevailing in our purchase of Nebraska Furniture Mart: most of the shares were held by people who wished to employ funds elsewhere; family members who enjoyed running their business wanted to continue both as owners and managers; several generations of the family were active in the business, providing management for as far as the eye can see; and the managing family wanted a purchaser who would not re-sell, regardless of price, and who would let the business be run in the future as it had been in the past.” For those curious, Fechheimer earned $8.4 million pre-tax in 1986, and the purchase price valued the entire business at 6.5x pre-tax earnings.
Lastly, over at the insurance businesses, prices have firmed and premiums boomed, likely making Berkshire “the fastest growing company among the country’s top 100 insurers.” Not only that, but the cost of their insurance float fell, with Berkshire’s combined ratio falling from 111 in 1985 to 103 in 1986.
Despite Berkshire’s performance, they were no match for their partially-owned competitor GEICO. Under the leadership of GEICO’s Chairman Bill Snyder and with the investing acumen of Lou Simpson, GEICO’s moat grew considerably. As Buffett observes, “the difference between GEICO’s costs and those of its competitors is a kind of moat that protects a valuable and much-sought-after business castle. No one understands this moat-around-the-castle concept better than Bill Snyder, Chairman of GEICO. He continually widens the moat by driving down costs still more, thereby defending and strengthening the economic franchise. Between 1985 and 1986, GEICO’s total expense ratio dropped from 24.1% to the 23.5% mentioned earlier and, under Bill’s leadership, the ratio is almost certain to drop further.”
All told, the businesses performed well in ’86, but the stock markets offered few bargains. As a temporary home for Berkshire’s growing piles of cash, Buffett begrudgingly took some positions in merger arbitrage, for “common stocks, of course, are the most fun. When conditions are right that is, when companies with good economics and good management sell well below intrinsic business value – stocks sometimes provide grand-slam home runs. But we currently find no equities that come close to meeting our tests.”
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.]