Tag Archives: Warren Buffett

Berkshire Buys Lubrizol

So Berkshire has announced its latest acquisition—Lubrizol (LZ).

In its latest 10-K, Lubrizol describes its primary business—lubricant additives (primarily for engine and driveline lubricants):

“We believe we are the market leader in lubricant additives, and we intend to remain the leader by continuing to invest in this business. Our Lubrizol Additives segment’s growth strategy is to continue to optimize our product mix while closely aligning production capacity with product demand. Challenging market forces and conditions continue to influence the Lubrizol Additives segment. A key factor is the low long-term global growth rate for this market, which we believe is in the range of approximately 1% to 2% per year.”

Pre-tax operating income in 2010 was $1B, on $5.4B in revenues—both records for the company. At an estimated purchase price of $9.7B (which assumes $0.7 net long-term debt), Berkshire is paying 10x pre-tax OI. And almost 4x shareholder equity.

Lubrizol’s gross profit percentage for 2010 was 33.1%, which also appears to be an all-time high. (2008 marked the five year low, at 22.3%; 2006 saw 24.6%.)

Lubrizol has earned very good returns on shareholder capital (excluding special items) in recent years. Its average return on shareholder equity for 2010 was 34.4%, also an all-time high.

I will not extend the theme, but the drift is clear: this purchase price is not a bargain for Berkshire, given Lubrizol’s results over the last five years. Any margin of safety then must lie solely in expected (and highly likely, one would presume) future performance. At minimum, I would think, Berkshire must expect revenues and margins to remain close to their 2010 performance, for at least the majority of the next decade.

Berkshire was not willing to offer LZ shareholders the option of Berkshire stock (as in the Burlington deal), so that should indicate Buffett’s thoughts on each’s relative value.

Longer term, LZ’s future revenues and earnings may face risks—if, e.g., 1) improved engine design increases drain intervals, 2) new vehicle purchases slow and stagnant, or 3) input costs (particularly petroleum) increase faster than expected.

Clearly, I’m missing some important piece of this puzzle.

Disclosure: I hold shares of Berkshire Hathaway.

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Why Did Berkshire Stop Selling Moody’s?

[Warren Buffett recently entertained CNBC and its viewers in what now seems to have become an annual three hour session (transcript here).  Amid the inopportune interruptions and political meanderings, some interesting things emerged.  For one, the central reason why Berkshire has stopped selling Moody’s…]

“BECKY:  That’s one of many questions that have come in, but we also have questions that have come in about Moody’s. Achit in Arizona writes in, “In your FCIC interview, you spoke of the inherent advantages of a duopoly that Moody’s and S&P share. Why does Berkshire continue to reduce its interest in Moody’s? Is there too much headline risk” for you?

BUFFETT: Well, I think that duopoly is in somewhat more danger than it was simply because people are mad at the ratings agencies and the ratings agencies totally missed what was going on in the mortgage market and that was a huge, huge miss. I don’t think they were, you know–I think they were just wrong, like a lot of people were wrong about in thinking that housing prices couldn’t go down a lot, but they were rating agencies and they’ve gotten a lot of criticism for it and their business model is sensational when it’s a duopoly. I mean, I have no bargaining power. I’m going to see Moody’s in the week or I think or something about our ratings.

BECKY: Mm-hmm.

BUFFETT: And you know, I dress up and do everything I can to, you know, talk about my balance sheet. But they–they’re God in the ratings field and Standard & Poor’s, and I need their ratings. And if they tell me the bill is X, I pay that, and if they tell me the bill is X plus 10 percent, I pay that. You know, if Coca-Cola charges too much, you know, you may think about drinking Pepsi Cola, but in the rating agency business, you need those two. And if that–either people get so upset with them or whatever it may be, or Congress gets upset, that could disappear. It won’t disappear from natural reasons. I mean, it is a natural duopoly, just like–it’s a little different than Freddie and Fannie were, but they also had some specific advantage. Sometimes you find situations where you get a natural–well, you used to have that in the newspaper business. You had a natural monopoly in big cities. It wasn’t–it wasn’t illegal, it just worked out that way.

BECKY: Mm-hmm.

BUFFETT : And that’s what happened in ratings agencies. But it’s not as bullet-proof as it was. Although, I will say that…

BECKY: Does that explain why you’ve been selling?

BUFFETT: Well, we haven’t sold that aggressively.

BECKY: Mm-hmm.

BUFFETT: I mean, if you look at it during the course of 2010, we sold a very small amount of the–it looked to me that that threat was receding to some degree. But it’s different than it was five years ago…” [Emphasis added.]

[A couple years ago, I suggested that Moody’s Structured Products Group (SPG) would find it difficult to match past peak revenues ($873m in 2007).  In their latest 10-K, 2010 revenues from the Structured Finance Group appear down 5% v. 2009, to $291m.

In the meantime though, revenues from their Corporate Finance Group have held strong, and increased 38% YOY in 2010, to $564m.  Income before tax (for the whole company) was $714m in 2010, compared to $730m in 2008.  Despite a substantial revenue decline in their largest business line from 2008 to 2010, income before tax (for the company as a whole) has held relatively steady, even with a tarnished reputation.  So Berkshire will hold.]

Disclosure: none.

Seanergy Revisited

Over the last few months, many have asked for an update to our previous analysis of Seanergy Maritime. Since January, much has changed. Seanergy did follow through on its planned capital raise, which brought in $30m, but executed at a much worse price (about 1.2 per share) than we expected. A few days later, their plans to acquire a 2009 Capesize vessel were nixed. Though in May, Seanergy announced its new plans to acquire a 51% ownership interest in Maritime Capital Shipping Limited, of Bermuda (“MCS”) for a purchase price of $33m.  Last week Seanergy announced that the MCS deal had closed.  And the following day, they reported Q1 results.

In light of these changed conditions, anglers want to know—would you still “throw it back” at these prices? Frankly, I would.

On first glance, today’s $1.2 per price may appear cheap. With about 60m shares outstanding, and 1m warrants with strikes near these prices, Mr. Market values Seanergy’s equity at ~$73m.

Yet, following the close of the MCS acquisition (i.e., June 3rd), Seanergy’s total assets (including now a fleet of twenty vessels) are approximately $730 million, its total debt approximately $430.8 million, and cash reserves near $84.5 million. These numbers suggest a book value (ex-goodwill) near $4.6 per share. This discount to book has led Seanergy’s management to conclude that today’s price represents “a great entry point.” And according to management’s recent CC remarks, the Restis family (i.e., Seanergy’s majority shareholders) thinks today’s stock price is cheap as well.

Apparently, angling for this bargain need not be a lonely endeavor.

Though in principle I appreciate the support of fellow anglers, my reasons for casting back here are threefold:

1) Seanergy operates in an industry with very weak business franchises (see Buffett’s discussion here). Barriers to entry (or, at least, capacity expansion) are low, with banks today still lending a substantial portion of the cost for new ship construction. Consequently, new supply looks abundant. As of April 2010, the total world drybulk fleet could carry 475.6m Dwt. 2010 should see an additional 109.5m Dwt increase in global drybulk capacity (that’s 23%). And we’ll see 104.3m Dwt more capacity in 2011, with 74.4m Dwt more in 2012 and beyond (according to Clarkson Research Services). As Seanergy plainly acknowledges, the current dry bulk order book is 60% of the world fleet, and most of this will come online in the next 2.5 years. Though I won’t make any predictions about dry bulk rates for 2011, it’s hard for me to see the global shipping trade increasing at a rate sufficient to soak up this oncoming supply.

2) On a liquidation basis, Seanergy’s (now twenty) ships are likely worth less than their current $430m in total debt, and after accounting for minority interests. Run your own back-of-the-envelope calculations on their aging fleet, but recent amendments to their outstanding credit agreement with Marfin Bank of Greece show that their leash is tethered.

3) Even though their current market cap to EBITDA ratio may appear cheap, the metric ignores their significant debt load, and assumes that today’s corporate debt levels will be available in perpetuity. Better always, in my lights, to value businesses based on their enterprise value to EBITDA (or better yet, enterprise value to “owner earnings”).

Let’s say Seanergy earns 48m-60m EBITDA for 2010. If you bought the whole company at today’s market price of ~$1.2 per share, you’d be paying $72m for the equity (given 60m shares out), taking on the $430m in debt, and getting $85m in cash (as of 6/3/10). Call it $417m in enterprise value. For me, that’s not an attractive price to buy the business as a whole, particularly in an industry where depreciation is real and significant industry headwinds loom ahead.

Disclosure: no position

Buffett’s Berkshire Letter for 1992

buffettIn 1992, the United States watched its most successful third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt garner nearly 20 million votes, or 18.9% of those cast. Bloomington, MN became home to an American temple, with its gargantuan coffers poised to receive the tribute of her mallrats. Over in the stock market, the somnolent S&P 500 opened the year near 417, made a few attempts to rise, but ultimately closed the year near 435.

Over at Berkshire, book value per value increased 20.3%, to $7745. Since Warren and Charlie took up textiles, book value has grown from $19 to $7,745, or at a rate of 23.6% compounded annually. Look through earnings came in at $604 million. Despite all of Warren’s warnings, Berkshire’s performance has consistently been able to outpace his stated goal—to grow intrinsic value at 15% per annum.*

On Acquisitions

In this year’s letter, Buffett bears all, as he discloses his most exhiliarating activity at Berkshire—“the acquisition of a business with excellent economic characteristics and a management that we like, trust and admire.” And Buffett knows he is not alone, for “in the past, [he’s] observed that many acquisition-hungry managers were apparently mesmerized by their childhood reading of the story about the frog-kissing princess. Remembering her success, they pay dearly for the right to kiss corporate toads, expecting wondrous transfigurations. Initially, disappointing results only deepen their desire to round up new toads.”

What sets Buffett apart from other spirited suitors is his patience. And 1992 saw his patience rewarded, purchasing 82% of Central States Indemnity, “an insurer that makes monthly payments for credit-card holders who are unable themselves to pay because they have become disabled or unemployed.” A family owned business, Central States is based in Omaha and has annual premiums are about $90 million and profits about $10 million.

On Insurance

By 1992, the Berkshire shareholder is surely accustomed to hearing the Chairman warn that future returns will lag those of the past, primarily because its swelling capital base demands larger businesses to produce significant investment returns. In order to grow “look-through” earnings by 15%, or $100 million, Berkshire would likely have to lay out at least a billion. Yet, the amount of excellent businesses that could absorb such an investment is relatively small.

One viable candidate though is super-catastrophe insurance. Looking ahead, Buffett can see that Berkshire’s future earnings growth will increasingly depend on its insurance businesses, and as usual, he wants its shareholders to calibrate appropriate expectations beforehand. In short, super-cat insurance—though likely profitable over the long term—may produce abysmal results for any single year. Pricing in particular is difficult to determine, for “catastrophe insurers can’t simply extrapolate past experience. If there is truly “global warming,” for example, the odds [for potential losses] would shift, since tiny changes in atmospheric conditions can produce momentous changes in weather patterns.” Even worse, occasionally, the unthinkable happens. “Who would have guessed, for example, that a major earthquake could occur in Charleston, S.C.? (It struck in 1886, registered an estimated 6.6 on the Richter scale, and caused 60 deaths.) And who could have imagined that our country’s most serious quake would occur at New Madrid, Missouri, which suffered an estimated 8.7 shocker in 1812.”

“Furthermore, in recent years there has been a mushrooming of population and insured values in U.S. coastal areas that are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes, the number one creator of super-cats. A hurricane that caused x dollars of damage 20 years ago could easily cost 10x now.”

Pricing for the unexpected and adjusting for lifestyle changes represent two prongs of Berkshire’s strategy. The last—conservative accounting. “Rather than recording our super-cat premiums on a pro-rata basis over the life of a given policy, we defer recognition of revenue until a loss occurs or until the policy expires… because the likelihood of super-cats causing us losses is particularly great toward the end of the year. It is then that weather tends to kick up: Of the ten largest insured losses in U.S. history, nine occurred in the last half of the year. In addition, policies that are not triggered by a first event are unlikely, by their very terms, to cause us losses until late in the year.”

“The bottom-line effect of our accounting procedure for super-cats is this: Large losses may be reported in any quarter of the year, but significant profits will only be reported in the fourth quarter.”

On Buying General Dynamics

Of course, all the work in writing reinsurance could be for naught if the capital it provides were not profitably deployed. In common stocks, Berkshire acquired a large new position in General Dynamics. Initially Buffett purchased the shares to take advantage of an arbitrage opportunity (General Dynamics was repurchasing 30% of its shares via a Dutch tender), but the more he uncovered about the business and the CEO Bill Anders, the more impressed he was: “Bill had a clearly articulated and rational strategy; he had been focused and imbued with a sense of urgency in carrying it out; and the results were truly remarkable.”

So Buffett dropped the thoughts of arbitrage and “decided that Berkshire should become a long-term investor with Bill. We were helped in gaining a large position by the fact that a tender greatly swells the volume of trading in a stock. In a one-month period, we were able to purchase 14% of the General Dynamics shares that remained outstanding after the tender was completed.” [NB–In less than two years, Mr. Market re-appraised Berkshire’s stake at more than four times its 1992 price.]

On Buying Growth or Value

As always, Buffett uses his annual letter as a lectern to dispense his investing lesson for the day. And 1992 saw him distill wisdom from contemporary financial jargon. To both his fellow investment professionals who pursue “value” stocks, and those seeking “growth,” Buffett notes that John Burr Williams, some 50 years ago, set forth the proper equation of value, as “the value of any stock, bond or business today is determined by the cash inflows and outflows – discounted at an appropriate interest rate – that can be expected to occur during the remaining life of the asset.” Stated so, it is clear that investing—no matter one’s emphasis—will be most successful insofar as one can determine future cash flows and the remaining life of a given asset.

Growth “is always a component in the calculation of value, constituting a variable whose importance can range from negligible to enormous and whose impact can be negative as well as positive.” And what is investing except the seeking of value sufficient to justify the price paid? “Value investing” then is redundant.

Yet, “whether appropriate or not, the term “value investing” is widely used. Typically, it connotes the purchase of stocks having attributes such as a low ratio of price to book value, a low price-earnings ratio, or a high dividend yield. Unfortunately, such characteristics, even if they appear in combination, are far from determinative as to whether an investor is indeed buying something for what it is worth and is therefore truly operating on the principle of obtaining value in his investments. Correspondingly, opposite characteristics – a high ratio of price to book value, a high price-earnings ratio, and a low dividend yield – are in no way inconsistent with a “value” purchase.”

The investor then should not settle comfortably in this jargon, for growth projections can soar to the moon, and discounted assets can still be priced too dear. Focus on cash flows, while keeping in mind, that “the best business to own is one that over an extended period can employ large amounts of incremental capital at very high rates of return. The worst business to own is one that must, or will, do the opposite – that is, consistently employ ever-greater amounts of capital at very low rates of return. Unfortunately, the first type of business is very hard to find: Most high-return businesses need relatively little capital. Shareholders of such a business usually will benefit if it pays out most of its earnings in dividends or makes significant stock repurchases.”

On Health Care Liabilities

Even among smart and hard-working stock analysts, one can find negligent disregard for off-balance sheet liabilities—pensions, health care benefits, SIVs, etc. One only needs to look to today’s Washington to see the difficulties of reserving money for tomorrow’s health care.

Thinking as an insurer, Buffett notes that “no CEO would have dreamed of going to his board with the proposition that his company become an insurer of uncapped post-retirement health benefits that other corporations chose to install. A CEO didn’t need to be a medical expert to know that lengthening life expectancies and soaring health costs would guarantee an insurer a financial battering from such a business.” Given the rate and cost of health care innovations, population demographics, and the United States’ love for perceptions of egalitarianism, it is indubitable that health care costs relative to GDP will be much higher than they are today. To insure against this eventuality would require more chutzpah than any insurer would care to muster.

Yet, “many a manager blithely committed his own company to a self-insurance plan embodying precisely the same promises – and thereby doomed his shareholders to suffer the inevitable consequences. In health-care, open-ended promises have created open-ended liabilities that in a few cases loom so large as to threaten the global competitiveness of major American industries.”

And Buffett is not afraid to place blame, for “the reason for this reckless behavior was that accounting rules did not, for so long, require the booking of post-retirement health costs as they were incurred. Instead, the rules allowed cash-basis accounting, which vastly understated the liabilities that were building up. In effect, the attitude of both managements and their accountants toward these liabilities was “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”

“Managers thinking about accounting issues should never forget one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite riddles: “How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg?” The answer: “Four, because calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.” It behooves managers to remember that Abe’s right even if an auditor is willing to certify that the tail is a leg.”

Conclusion

All told, 1992 was a year with much to say. Beyond these lessons, Buffett highlights the advantages of purchasing securities in the secondary market (rather than initial offerings), the lack of correlation between high corporate overhead and business performance, and the true cost of stock options. And last but not least, learn from Mr. Buffett’s mistake; be not too incautious with your 89 year old employees. Some, like Mrs. B., just may rekindle the fire to compete. At 99, Buffett finally got her signature on a non-compete.

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

* Of course, growth in book value and intrinsic value often diverge significantly, and in extreme cases, show no correlation. In assessing Buffett’s performance in 1992, we feel comfortable taking him at his word: that Berkshire’s book value is a useful, albeit conservative, proxy for valuing the business.

[In more recent years, this same assessment would look increasingly foolish, as one of the largest components of Berkshire’s intrinsic value today is the value of its insurance float, which has grown significantly, relative to Berkshire’s book value, since 1992. In 1992, Berkshire had 2.3 billion in float vs. about 7.5 billion in equity; in 2008, it was 58 billion in float vs. 109 billion.]

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.]

Buffett’s Eye on Google’s Moat

Some recent fussing over Google has followed from an unlikely source—the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. During a Sunday press conference, Charlie Munger quipped that “Google has a huge new moat. In fact I’ve probably never seen such a wide moat.”

Unfortunately, Charlie’s brevity and the reporters’ lack of curiosity leave the reader to surmise what he really means. Warren Buffett kindly filled a bit of the gap when he added that Google’s search-linked advertising is “incredible.”

At a basic level, their observations are hard to dispute. Any time a brand name enters our common lexicon, one can assume that their product has attained sufficient “share of mind” to command pricing power. Even the most ardent Yahoo-er would not be so uncouth as to “yahoo” the web for an answer.

As if seeking confirmation, many leapt to conclude that Buffett and Munger now find Google a great investment. Yet a wide moat does not a great investment make. And I can think of no better criteria for an investment than those which have served Buffett and Munger so well over the years, and which are annually reproduced in Berkshire’s annual reports. An investment must have: 1) demonstrated consistent earning power, 2) earn good returns on equity while employing little or no debt, 3) have honest and able management, 4) operate in simple businesses, and 5) be available at a fair price (somewhat below its intrinsic value, to provide a margin of safety).

Given these criteria, Google couldn’t pass as a viable investment for two reasons—it is too difficult (likely impossible) to forecast what the “search” market will look like in ten years, and Google’s equity currently sells at a premium price. One only needs to look back ten years ago to see a Google with no “share of mind.” For Buffett and Munger, Google’s moat—like Microsoft’s—is extremely wide, but its durability is unknowable.

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

Buffett’s Berkshire Letter for 1990

800px-warren_buffett_ku_visit1990 let Nelson Mandela once again greet the world. Saddam decided he wanted to know his Kuwaiti neighbors better. And over in Germany, Helmut Kohl was elected Chancellor in the first free election of a single, unified Germany since 1932. Over at 11 Wall Street, the S&P 500 entered the year near 360 and departed near 330.

At Berkshire, net worth was up by $362 million, or 7.3%. Since 1964, per-share book value has grown from $19.46 to $4,612.06, or at a rate of 23.2% compounded annually. Total after-tax earnings were down to $394.1 million from $447.5 million in 1989.

Of course, Chairman Buffett encourages shareholders to concentrate on Berkshire’s growth in intrinsic value, rather than merely its annual earnings. Given Berkshire’s reinsurance operations, annual earnings figures may look terrible in the short-term.  Given Berkshire’s large investments in publicly traded companies, its annual earnings understate Berkshire’s fair share.

For those interested in Berkshire’s earnings, Buffett notes that “the best way… is in terms of “look-through” results, calculated as follows: Take $250 million, which is roughly our share of the 1990 operating earnings retained by our investees; subtract $30 million, for the incremental taxes we would have owed had that $250 million been paid to us in dividends; and add the remainder, $220 million, to our reported operating earnings of $371 million. Thus our 1990 “look-through earnings” were about $590 million.” Ultimately Berkshire aims to grow look-through earnings at about 15% annually, and will do so without leverage—with nearly all major facilities owned, not leased—and with a bevy of businesses not known for spectacular economics: furniture retailing, candy, vacuum cleaners, and even steel warehousing.

As usual, Buffett briefly surveys Berkshire’s wholly-owned businesses, and two themes consistently emerge—either they have rock-bottom operating costs or monopolistic pricing power. At Borsheim’s, operating costs run about 18% of sales (which includes occupancy and buying costs, which other public companies include in “cost of goods sold”), compared to 40% at the typical competitor. At Nebraska Furniture Mart, operating costs ran 15% in 1990 against about 40% for Levitz, the country’s largest furniture retailer, and 25% for Circuit City Stores, the leading discount retailer of electronics and appliances.

At the Buffalo Evening News, unusual pricing power has generated consistently increasing advertising rates; yet, Buffett is quick to note that in recent years, advertising dollars have grown more slowly, as retailers that do little or no media advertising have gradually taken market share in certain merchandise categories. “As a consequence, advertising dollars are more widely dispersed and the pricing power of ad vendors has diminished.” Today, seventeen years later, we see the effects of this trend in many print and television media businesses; as media channels disperse and increase, advertising venues increase, slowly eroding the pricing power that newspapers and network TV stations previously enjoyed.

In the equity markets, Berkshire spent the year acquiring a large stake in Wells Fargo, the largest permitted without the approval of the Federal Reserve Board. Yet, Buffett notes that “the banking business is no favorite of ours. When assets are twenty times equity – a common ratio in this industry – mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks. Most have resulted from… the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so. In their lending, many bankers played follow-the-leader with lemming-like zeal; now they are experiencing a lemming-like fate.”

Given the ever-present leverage dynamic of banks, Berkshire will never be interested in merely buying cheaply, for cheap banks will ever be in endless supply. Instead, “our only interest is in buying into well-managed banks at fair prices.” Here though Berkshire hit a home run, acquiring a well-managed bank at an unusually cheap price—a 10% interest for $290 million, “less than five times after-tax earnings, and less than three times pre-tax earnings.” Of course, bank stocks were unusually depressed in 1990, as “chaotic markets” followed the weekly disclosures of continuing losses in the industry; no less than 534 banks failed in 1989.

Yet the pessimism that accompanies dire conditions and exceedingly dire prospects provides pricing anomalies. The long-term investors should think of stock prices like food prices, for “knowing they are forever going to be buyers of food, they welcome falling prices and deplore price increases. (It’s the seller of food who doesn’t like declining prices.)”

At Berkshire, this attitude guides their approach to the stock market; since “we will be buying businesses – or small parts of businesses… as long as I live (and longer, if Berkshire’s directors attend the seances I have scheduled)… declining prices for businesses benefit us, and rising prices hurt us… None of this means, however, that a business or stock is an intelligent purchase simply because it is unpopular; a contrarian approach is just as foolish as a follow-the-crowd strategy… Unfortunately, Bertrand Russell’s observation about life in general applies with unusual force in the financial world: “Most men would rather die than think. Many do.””

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.]