BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC.
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To the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.:
This past year our registered shareholders increased from
about 1900 to about 2900. Most of this growth resulted from our
merger with Blue Chip Stamps, but there also was an acceleration
in the pace of �natural� increase that has raised us from the
1000 level a few years ago.
With so many new shareholders, it�s appropriate to summarize
the major business principles we follow that pertain to the
o Although our form is corporate, our attitude is
partnership. Charlie Munger and I think of our shareholders as
owner-partners, and of ourselves as managing partners. (Because
of the size of our shareholdings we also are, for better or
worse, controlling partners.) We do not view the company itself
as the ultimate owner of our business assets but, instead, view
the company as a conduit through which our shareholders own the
o In line with this owner-orientation, our directors are all
major shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. In the case of at
least four of the five, over 50% of family net worth is
represented by holdings of Berkshire. We eat our own cooking.
o Our long-term economic goal (subject to some qualifications
mentioned later) is to maximize the average annual rate of gain
in intrinsic business value on a per-share basis. We do not
measure the economic significance or performance of Berkshire by
its size; we measure by per-share progress. We are certain that
the rate of per-share progress will diminish in the future - a
greatly enlarged capital base will see to that. But we will be
disappointed if our rate does not exceed that of the average
large American corporation.
o Our preference would be to reach this goal by directly
owning a diversified group of businesses that generate cash and
consistently earn above-average returns on capital. Our second
choice is to own parts of similar businesses, attained primarily
through purchases of marketable common stocks by our insurance
subsidiaries. The price and availability of businesses and the
need for insurance capital determine any given year�s capital
o Because of this two-pronged approach to business ownership
and because of the limitations of conventional accounting,
consolidated reported earnings may reveal relatively little about
our true economic performance. Charlie and I, both as owners and
managers, virtually ignore such consolidated numbers. However,
we will also report to you the earnings of each major business we
control, numbers we consider of great importance. These figures,
along with other information we will supply about the individual
businesses, should generally aid you in making judgments about
o Accounting consequences do not influence our operating or
capital-allocation decisions. When acquisition costs are
similar, we much prefer to purchase $2 of earnings that is not
reportable by us under standard accounting principles than to
purchase $1 of earnings that is reportable. This is precisely
the choice that often faces us since entire businesses (whose
earnings will be fully reportable) frequently sell for double the
pro-rata price of small portions (whose earnings will be largely
unreportable). In aggregate and over time, we expect the
unreported earnings to be fully reflected in our intrinsic
business value through capital gains.
o We rarely use much debt and, when we do, we attempt to
structure it on a long-term fixed rate basis. We will reject
interesting opportunities rather than over-leverage our balance
sheet. This conservatism has penalized our results but it is the
only behavior that leaves us comfortable, considering our
fiduciary obligations to policyholders, depositors, lenders and
the many equity holders who have committed unusually large
portions of their net worth to our care.
o A managerial �wish list� will not be filled at shareholder
expense. We will not diversify by purchasing entire businesses
at control prices that ignore long-term economic consequences to
our shareholders. We will only do with your money what we would
do with our own, weighing fully the values you can obtain by
diversifying your own portfolios through direct purchases in the
o We feel noble intentions should be checked periodically
against results. We test the wisdom of retaining earnings by
assessing whether retention, over time, delivers shareholders at
least $1 of market value for each $1 retained. To date, this
test has been met. We will continue to apply it on a five-year
rolling basis. As our net worth grows, it is more difficult to
use retained earnings wisely.
o We will issue common stock only when we receive as much in
business value as we give. This rule applies to all forms of
issuance - not only mergers or public stock offerings, but stock
for-debt swaps, stock options, and convertible securities as
well. We will not sell small portions of your company - and that
is what the issuance of shares amounts to - on a basis
inconsistent with the value of the entire enterprise.
o You should be fully aware of one attitude Charlie and I
share that hurts our financial performance: regardless of price,
we have no interest at all in selling any good businesses that
Berkshire owns, and are very reluctant to sell sub-par businesses
as long as we expect them to generate at least some cash and as
long as we feel good about their managers and labor relations.
We hope not to repeat the capital-allocation mistakes that led us
into such sub-par businesses. And we react with great caution to
suggestions that our poor businesses can be restored to
satisfactory profitability by major capital expenditures. (The
projections will be dazzling - the advocates will be sincere -
but, in the end, major additional investment in a terrible
industry usually is about as rewarding as struggling in
quicksand.) Nevertheless, gin rummy managerial behavior (discard
your least promising business at each turn) is not our style. We
would rather have our overall results penalized a bit than engage
o We will be candid in our reporting to you, emphasizing the
pluses and minuses important in appraising business value. Our
guideline is to tell you the business facts that we would want to
know if our positions were reversed. We owe you no less.
Moreover, as a company with a major communications business, it
would be inexcusable for us to apply lesser standards of
accuracy, balance and incisiveness when reporting on ourselves
than we would expect our news people to apply when reporting on
others. We also believe candor benefits us as managers: the CEO
who misleads others in public may eventually mislead himself in
o Despite our policy of candor, we will discuss our
activities in marketable securities only to the extent legally
required. Good investment ideas are rare, valuable and subject
to competitive appropriation just as good product or business
acquisition ideas are. Therefore, we normally will not talk
about our investment ideas. This ban extends even to securities
we have sold (because we may purchase them again) and to stocks
we are incorrectly rumored to be buying. If we deny those
reports but say �no comment� on other occasions, the no-comments
That completes the catechism, and we can now move on to the
high point of 1983 - the acquisition of a majority interest in
Nebraska Furniture Mart and our association with Rose Blumkin and
Nebraska Furniture Mart
Last year, in discussing how managers with bright, but
adrenalin-soaked minds scramble after foolish acquisitions, I
quoted Pascal: �It has struck me that all the misfortunes of men
spring from the single cause that they are unable to stay quietly
in one room.�
Even Pascal would have left the room for Mrs. Blumkin.
About 67 years ago Mrs. Blumkin, then 23, talked her way
past a border guard to leave Russia for America. She had no
formal education, not even at the grammar school level, and knew
no English. After some years in this country, she learned the
language when her older daughter taught her, every evening, the
words she had learned in school during the day.
In 1937, after many years of selling used clothing, Mrs.
Blumkin had saved $500 with which to realize her dream of opening
a furniture store. Upon seeing the American Furniture Mart in
Chicago - then the center of the nation�s wholesale furniture
activity - she decided to christen her dream Nebraska Furniture
She met every obstacle you would expect (and a few you
wouldn�t) when a business endowed with only $500 and no
locational or product advantage goes up against rich, long-
entrenched competition. At one early point, when her tiny
resources ran out, �Mrs. B� (a personal trademark now as well
recognized in Greater Omaha as Coca-Cola or Sanka) coped in a way
not taught at business schools: she simply sold the furniture and
appliances from her home in order to pay creditors precisely as
Omaha retailers began to recognize that Mrs. B would offer
customers far better deals than they had been giving, and they
pressured furniture and carpet manufacturers not to sell to her.
But by various strategies she obtained merchandise and cut prices
sharply. Mrs. B was then hauled into court for violation of Fair
Trade laws. She not only won all the cases, but received
invaluable publicity. At the end of one case, after
demonstrating to the court that she could profitably sell carpet
at a huge discount from the prevailing price, she sold the judge
$1400 worth of carpet.
Today Nebraska Furniture Mart generates over $100 million of
sales annually out of one 200,000 square-foot store. No other
home furnishings store in the country comes close to that volume.
That single store also sells more furniture, carpets, and
appliances than do all Omaha competitors combined.
One question I always ask myself in appraising a business is
how I would like, assuming I had ample capital and skilled
personnel, to compete with it. I�d rather wrestle grizzlies than
compete with Mrs. B and her progeny. They buy brilliantly, they
operate at expense ratios competitors don�t even dream about, and
they then pass on to their customers much of the savings. It�s
the ideal business - one built upon exceptional value to the
customer that in turn translates into exceptional economics for
Mrs. B is wise as well as smart and, for far-sighted family
reasons, was willing to sell the business last year. I had
admired both the family and the business for decades, and a deal
was quickly made. But Mrs. B, now 90, is not one to go home and
risk, as she puts it, �losing her marbles�. She remains Chairman
and is on the sales floor seven days a week. Carpet sales are
her specialty. She personally sells quantities that would be a
good departmental total for other carpet retailers.
We purchased 90% of the business - leaving 10% with members
of the family who are involved in management - and have optioned
10% to certain key young family managers.
And what managers they are. Geneticists should do
handsprings over the Blumkin family. Louie Blumkin, Mrs. B�s
son, has been President of Nebraska Furniture Mart for many years
and is widely regarded as the shrewdest buyer of furniture and
appliances in the country. Louie says he had the best teacher,
and Mrs. B says she had the best student. They�re both right.
Louie and his three sons all have the Blumkin business ability,
work ethic, and, most important, character. On top of that, they
are really nice people. We are delighted to be in partnership
During 1983 our book value increased from $737.43 per share
to $975.83 per share, or by 32%. We never take the one-year
figure very seriously. After all, why should the time required
for a planet to circle the sun synchronize precisely with the
time required for business actions to pay off? Instead, we
recommend not less than a five-year test as a rough yardstick of
economic performance. Red lights should start flashing if the
five-year average annual gain falls much below the return on
equity earned over the period by American industry in aggregate.
(Watch out for our explanation if that occurs as Goethe observed,
�When ideas fail, words come in very handy.�)
During the 19-year tenure of present management, book value
has grown from $19.46 per share to $975.83, or 22.6% compounded
annually. Considering our present size, nothing close to this
rate of return can be sustained. Those who believe otherwise
should pursue a career in sales, but avoid one in mathematics.
We report our progress in terms of book value because in our
case (though not, by any means, in all cases) it is a
conservative but reasonably adequate proxy for growth in
intrinsic business value - the measurement that really counts.
Book value�s virtue as a score-keeping measure is that it is easy
to calculate and doesn�t involve the subjective (but important)
judgments employed in calculation of intrinsic business value.
It is important to understand, however, that the two terms - book
value and intrinsic business value - have very different
Book value is an accounting concept, recording the
accumulated financial input from both contributed capital and
retained earnings. Intrinsic business value is an economic
concept, estimating future cash output discounted to present
value. Book value tells you what has been put in; intrinsic
business value estimates what can be taken out.
An analogy will suggest the difference. Assume you spend
identical amounts putting each of two children through college.
The book value (measured by financial input) of each child�s
education would be the same. But the present value of the future
payoff (the intrinsic business value) might vary enormously -
from zero to many times the cost of the education. So, also, do
businesses having equal financial input end up with wide
variations in value.
At Berkshire, at the beginning of fiscal 1965 when the
present management took over, the $19.46 per share book value
considerably overstated intrinsic business value. All of that
book value consisted of textile assets that could not earn, on
average, anything close to an appropriate rate of return. In the
terms of our analogy, the investment in textile assets resembled
investment in a largely-wasted education.
Now, however, our intrinsic business value considerably
exceeds book value. There are two major reasons:
(1) Standard accounting principles require that common
stocks held by our insurance subsidiaries be stated on
our books at market value, but that other stocks we own
be carried at the lower of aggregate cost or market.
At the end of 1983, the market value of this latter
group exceeded carrying value by $70 million pre-tax,
or about $50 million after tax. This excess belongs in
our intrinsic business value, but is not included in
the calculation of book value;
(2) More important, we own several businesses that possess
economic Goodwill (which is properly includable in
intrinsic business value) far larger than the
accounting Goodwill that is carried on our balance
sheet and reflected in book value.
Goodwill, both economic and accounting, is an arcane subject
and requires more explanation than is appropriate here. The
appendix that follows this letter - �Goodwill and its
Amortization: The Rules and The Realities� - explains why
economic and accounting Goodwill can, and usually do, differ
You can live a full and rewarding life without ever thinking
about Goodwill and its amortization. But students of investment
and management should understand the nuances of the subject. My
own thinking has changed drastically from 35 years ago when I was
taught to favor tangible assets and to shun businesses whose
value depended largely upon economic Goodwill. This bias caused
me to make many important business mistakes of omission, although
relatively few of commission.
Keynes identified my problem: �The difficulty lies not in
the new ideas but in escaping from the old ones.� My escape was
long delayed, in part because most of what I had been taught by
the same teacher had been (and continues to be) so
extraordinarily valuable. Ultimately, business experience,
direct and vicarious, produced my present strong preference for
businesses that possess large amounts of enduring Goodwill and
that utilize a minimum of tangible assets.
I recommend the Appendix to those who are comfortable with
accounting terminology and who have an interest in understanding
the business aspects of Goodwill. Whether or not you wish to
tackle the Appendix, you should be aware that Charlie and I
believe that Berkshire possesses very significant economic
Goodwill value above that reflected in our book value.
Sources of Reported Earnings
The table below shows the sources of Berkshire�s reported
earnings. In 1982, Berkshire owned about 60% of Blue Chip Stamps
whereas, in 1983, our ownership was 60% throughout the first six
months and 100% thereafter. In turn, Berkshire�s net interest in
Wesco was 48% during 1982 and the first six months of 1983, and
80% for the balance of 1983. Because of these changed ownership
percentages, the first two columns of the table provide the best
measure of underlying business performance.
All of the significant gains and losses attributable to
unusual sales of assets by any of the business entities are
aggregated with securities transactions on the line near the
bottom of the table, and are not included in operating earnings.
(We regard any annual figure for realized capital gains or losses
as meaningless, but we regard the aggregate realized and
unrealized capital gains over a period of years as very
important.) Furthermore, amortization of Goodwill is not charged
against the specific businesses but, for reasons outlined in the
Appendix, is set forth as a separate item.
Earnings Before Income Taxes After Tax
Total Berkshire Share Berkshire Share
------------------ ------------------ ------------------
1983 1982 1983 1982 1983 1982
-------- -------- -------- -------- -------- --------
Underwriting ............ $(33,872) $(21,558) $(33,872) $(21,558) $(18,400) $(11,345)
Net Investment Income ... 43,810 41,620 43,810 41,620 39,114 35,270
Berkshire-Waumbec Textiles (100) (1,545) (100) (1,545) (63) (862)
Associated Retail Stores .. 697 914 697 914 355 446
Nebraska Furniture Mart(1) 3,812 -- 3,049 -- 1,521 --
See�s Candies ............. 27,411 23,884 24,526 14,235 12,212 6,914
Buffalo Evening News ...... 19,352 (1,215) 16,547 (724) 8,832 (226)
Blue Chip Stamps(2) ....... (1,422) 4,182 (1,876) 2,492 (353) 2,472
Wesco Financial - Parent .. 7,493 6,156 4,844 2,937 3,448 2,210
Mutual Savings and Loan ... (798) (6) (467) (2) 1,917 1,524
Precision Steel ........... 3,241 1,035 2,102 493 1,136 265
Interest on Debt .......... (15,104) (14,996) (13,844) (12,977) (7,346) (6,951)
Special GEICO Distribution 21,000 -- 21,000 -- 19,551 --
Contributions .......... (3,066) (891) (3,066) (891) (1,656) (481)
Amortization of Goodwill .. (532) 151 (563) 90 (563) 90
Other ..................... 10,121 3,371 9,623 2,658 8,490 2,171
-------- -------- -------- -------- -------- --------
Operating Earnings .......... 82,043 41,102 72,410 27,742 68,195 31,497
Sales of securities and
unusual sales of assets .. 67,260 36,651 65,089 21,875 45,298 14,877
-------- -------- -------- -------- -------- --------
Total Earnings .............. $149,303 $ 77,753 $137,499 $ 49,617 $113,493 $ 46,374
======== ======== ======== ======== ======== ========
(1) October through December
(2) 1982 and 1983 are not comparable; major assets were
transferred in the merger.
For a discussion of the businesses owned by Wesco, please
read Charlie Munger�s report on pages 46-51. Charlie replaced
Louie Vincenti as Chairman of Wesco late in 1983 when health
forced Louie�s retirement at age 77. In some instances, �health�
is a euphemism, but in Louie�s case nothing but health would
cause us to consider his retirement. Louie is a marvelous man
and has been a marvelous manager.
The special GEICO distribution reported in the table arose
when that company made a tender offer for a portion of its stock,
buying both from us and other shareholders. At GEICO�s request,
we tendered a quantity of shares that kept our ownership
percentage the same after the transaction as before. The
proportional nature of our sale permitted us to treat the
proceeds as a dividend. Unlike individuals, corporations net
considerably more when earnings are derived from dividends rather
than from capital gains, since the effective Federal income tax
rate on dividends is 6.9% versus 28% on capital gains.
Even with this special item added in, our total dividends
from GEICO in 1983 were considerably less than our share of
GEICO�s earnings. Thus it is perfectly appropriate, from both an
accounting and economic standpoint, to include the redemption
proceeds in our reported earnings. It is because the item is
large and unusual that we call your attention to it.
The table showing you our sources of earnings includes
dividends from those non-controlled companies whose marketable
equity securities we own. But the table does not include
earnings those companies have retained that are applicable to our
ownership. In aggregate and over time we expect those
undistributed earnings to be reflected in market prices and to
increase our intrinsic business value on a dollar-for-dollar
basis, just as if those earnings had been under our control and
reported as part of our profits. That does not mean we expect
all of our holdings to behave uniformly; some will disappoint us,
others will deliver pleasant surprises. To date our experience
has been better than we originally anticipated, In aggregate, we
have received far more than a dollar of market value gain for
every dollar of earnings retained.
The following table shows our 1983 yearend net holdings in
marketable equities. All numbers represent 100% of Berkshire�s
holdings, and 80% of Wesco�s holdings. The portion attributable
to minority shareholders of Wesco has been excluded.
No. of Shares Cost Market
------------- ---------- ----------
690,975 Affiliated Publications, Inc. .... $ 3,516 $ 26,603
4,451,544 General Foods Corporation(a) ..... 163,786 228,698
6,850,000 GEICO Corporation ................ 47,138 398,156
2,379,200 Handy & Harman ................... 27,318 42,231
636,310 Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc. 4,056 33,088
197,200 Media General .................... 3,191 11,191
250,400 Ogilvy & Mather International .... 2,580 12,833
5,618,661 R. J. Reynolds Industries, Inc.(a) 268,918 314,334
901,788 Time, Inc. ....................... 27,732 56,860
1,868,600 The Washington Post Company ...... 10,628 136,875
All Other Common Stockholdings ... 7,485 18,044
Total Common Stocks .............. $566,348 $1,305,913
(a) WESCO owns shares in these companies.
Based upon present holdings and present dividend rates -
excluding any special items such as the GEICO proportional
redemption last year - we would expect reported dividends from
this group to be approximately $39 million in 1984. We can also
make a very rough guess about the earnings this group will retain
that will be attributable to our ownership: these may total about
$65 million for the year. These retained earnings could well
have no immediate effect on market prices of the securities.
Over time, however, we feel they will have real meaning.
In addition to the figures already supplied, information
regarding the businesses we control appears in Management�s
Discussion on pages 40-44. The most significant of these are
Buffalo Evening News, See�s, and the Insurance Group, to which we
will give some special attention here.
Buffalo Evening News
First, a clarification: our corporate name is Buffalo
Evening News, Inc. but the name of the newspaper, since we began
a morning edition a little over a year ago, is Buffalo News.
In 1983 the News somewhat exceeded its targeted profit
margin of 10% after tax. Two factors were responsible: (1) a
state income tax cost that was subnormal because of a large loss
carry-forward, now fully utilized, and (2) a large drop in the
per-ton cost of newsprint (an unanticipated fluke that will be
reversed in 1984).
Although our profit margins in 1983 were about average for
newspapers such as the News, the paper�s performance,
nevertheless, was a significant achievement considering the
economic and retailing environment in Buffalo.
Buffalo has a concentration of heavy industry, a segment of
the economy that was hit particularly hard by the recent
recession and that has lagged the recovery. As Buffalo consumers
have suffered, so also have the paper�s retailing customers.
Their numbers have shrunk over the past few years and many of
those surviving have cut their linage.
Within this environment the News has one exceptional
strength: its acceptance by the public, a matter measured by the
paper�s �penetration ratio� - the percentage of households within
the community purchasing the paper each day. Our ratio is
superb: for the six months ended September 30, 1983 the News
stood number one in weekday penetration among the 100 largest
papers in the United States (the ranking is based on �city zone�
numbers compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations).
In interpreting the standings, it is important to note that
many large cities have two papers, and that in such cases the
penetration of either paper is necessarily lower than if there
were a single paper, as in Buffalo. Nevertheless, the list of
the 100 largest papers includes many that have a city to
themselves. Among these, the News is at the top nationally, far
ahead of many of the country�s best-known dailies.
Among Sunday editions of these same large dailies, the News
ranks number three in penetration - ten to twenty percentage
points ahead of many well-known papers. It was not always this
way in Buffalo. Below we show Sunday circulation in Buffalo in
the years prior to 1977 compared with the present period. In
that earlier period the Sunday paper was the Courier-Express (the
News was not then publishing a Sunday paper). Now, of course, it
is the News.
Average Sunday Circulation
1984 (Current) 376,000
We believe a paper�s penetration ratio to be the best
measure of the strength of its franchise. Papers with unusually
high penetration in the geographical area that is of prime
interest to major local retailers, and with relatively little
circulation elsewhere, are exceptionally efficient buys for those
retailers. Low-penetration papers have a far less compelling
message to present to advertisers.
In our opinion, three factors largely account for the
unusual acceptance of the News in the community. Among these,
points 2 and 3 also may explain the popularity of the Sunday News
compared to that of the Sunday Courier-Express when it was the
sole Sunday paper:
(1) The first point has nothing to do with merits of the
News. Both emigration and immigration are relatively
low in Buffalo. A stable population is more interested
and involved in the activities of its community than is
a shifting population - and, as a result, is more
interested in the content of the local daily paper.
Increase the movement in and out of a city and
penetration ratios will fall.
(2) The News has a reputation for editorial quality and
integrity that was honed by our longtime editor, the
legendary Alfred Kirchhofer, and that has been preserved
and extended by Murray Light. This reputation was
enormously important to our success in establishing a
Sunday paper against entrenched competition. And without
a Sunday edition, the News would not have survived in the
(3) The News lives up to its name - it delivers a very
unusual amount of news. During 1983, our �news hole�
(editorial material - not ads) amounted to 50% of the
newspaper�s content (excluding preprinted inserts).
Among papers that dominate their markets and that are of
comparable or larger size, we know of only one whose news
hole percentage exceeds that of the News. Comprehensive
figures are not available, but a sampling indicates an
average percentage in the high 30s. In other words, page
for page, our mix gives readers over 25% more news than
the typical paper. This news-rich mixture is by intent.
Some publishers, pushing for higher profit margins, have
cut their news holes during the past decade. We have
maintained ours and will continue to do so. Properly
written and edited, a full serving of news makes our
paper more valuable to the reader and contributes to our
unusual penetration ratio.
Despite the strength of the News� franchise, gains in ROP
linage (advertising printed within the newspaper pages as
contrasted to preprinted inserts) are going to be very difficult
to achieve. We had an enormous gain in preprints during 1983:
lines rose from 9.3 million to 16.4 million, revenues from $3.6
million to $8.1 million. These gains are consistent with
national trends, but exaggerated in our case by business we
picked up when the Courier-Express closed.
On balance, the shift from ROP to preprints has negative
economic implications for us. Profitability on preprints is less
and the business is more subject to competition from alternative
means of delivery. Furthermore, a reduction in ROP linage means
less absolute space devoted to news (since the news hole
percentage remains constant), thereby reducing the utility of the
paper to the reader.
Stan Lipsey became Publisher of the Buffalo News at midyear
upon the retirement of Henry Urban. Henry never flinched during
the dark days of litigation and losses following our introduction
of the Sunday paper - an introduction whose wisdom was questioned
by many in the newspaper business, including some within our own
building. Henry is admired by the Buffalo business community,
he�s admired by all who worked for him, and he is admired by
Charlie and me. Stan worked with Henry for several years, and
has worked for Berkshire Hathaway since 1969. He has been
personally involved in all nuts-and-bolts aspects of the
newspaper business from editorial to circulation. We couldn�t do
See�s Candy Shops
The financial results at See�s continue to be exceptional.
The business possesses a valuable and solid consumer franchise
and a manager equally valuable and solid.
In recent years See�s has encountered two important
problems, at least one of which is well on its way toward
solution. That problem concerns costs, except those for raw
materials. We have enjoyed a break on raw material costs in
recent years though so, of course, have our competitors. One of
these days we will get a nasty surprise in the opposite
direction. In effect, raw material costs are largely beyond our
control since we will, as a matter of course, buy the finest
ingredients that we can, regardless of changes in their price
levels. We regard product quality as sacred.
But other kinds of costs are more controllable, and it is in
this area that we have had problems. On a per-pound basis, our
costs (not including those for raw materials) have increased in
the last few years at a rate significantly greater than the
increase in the general price level. It is vital to our
competitive position and profit potential that we reverse this
In recent months much better control over costs has been
attained and we feel certain that our rate of growth in these
costs in 1984 will be below the rate of inflation. This
confidence arises out of our long experience with the managerial
talents of Chuck Huggins. We put Chuck in charge the day we took
over, and his record has been simply extraordinary, as shown by
the following table:
52-53 Week Year Operating Number of Number of
Ended About Sales Profits Pounds of Stores Open
December 31 Revenues After Taxes Candy Sold at Year End
------------------- ------------ ----------- ---------- -----------
1983 (53 weeks) ... $133,531,000 $13,699,000 24,651,000 207
1982 .............. 123,662,000 11,875,000 24,216,000 202
1981 .............. 112,578,000 10,779,000 24,052,000 199
1980 .............. 97,715,000 7,547,000 24,065,000 191
1979 .............. 87,314,000 6,330,000 23,985,000 188
1978 .............. 73,653,000 6,178,000 22,407,000 182
1977 .............. 62,886,000 6,154,000 20,921,000 179
1976 (53 weeks) ... 56,333,000 5,569,000 20,553,000 173
1975 .............. 50,492,000 5,132,000 19,134,000 172
1974 .............. 41,248,000 3,021,000 17,883,000 170
1973 .............. 35,050,000 1,940,000 17,813,000 169
1972 .............. 31,337,000 2,083,000 16,954,000 167
The other problem we face, as the table suggests, is our
recent inability to achieve meaningful gains in pounds sold. The
industry has the same problem. But for many years we
outperformed the industry in this respect and now we are not.
The poundage volume in our retail stores has been virtually
unchanged each year for the past four, despite small increases
every year in the number of shops (and in distribution expense as
well). Of course, dollar volume has increased because we have
raised prices significantly. But we regard the most important
measure of retail trends to be units sold per store rather than
dollar volume. On a same-store basis (counting only shops open
throughout both years) with all figures adjusted to a 52-week
year, poundage was down .8 of 1% during 1983. This small decline
was our best same-store performance since 1979; the cumulative
decline since then has been about 8%. Quantity-order volume,
about 25% of our total, has plateaued in recent years following
very large poundage gains throughout the 1970s.
We are not sure to what extent this flat volume - both in
the retail shop area and the quantity order area - is due to our
pricing policies and to what extent it is due to static industry
volume, the recession, and the extraordinary share of market we
already enjoy in our primary marketing area. Our price increase
for 1984 is much more modest than has been the case in the past
few years, and we hope that next year we can report better volume
figures to you. But we have no basis to forecast these.
Despite the volume problem, See�s strengths are many and
important. In our primary marketing area, the West, our candy is
preferred by an enormous margin to that of any competitor. In
fact, we believe most lovers of chocolate prefer it to candy
costing two or three times as much. (In candy, as in stocks,
price and value can differ; price is what you give, value is what
you get.) The quality of customer service in our shops - operated
throughout the country by us and not by franchisees is every bit
as good as the product. Cheerful, helpful personnel are as much
a trademark of See�s as is the logo on the box. That�s no small
achievement in a business that requires us to hire about 2000
seasonal workers. We know of no comparably-sized organization
that betters the quality of customer service delivered by Chuck
Huggins and his associates.
Because we have raised prices so modestly in 1984, we expect
See�s profits this year to be about the same as in 1983.
Insurance - Controlled Operations
We both operate insurance companies and have a large
economic interest in an insurance business we don�t operate,
GEICO. The results for all can be summed up easily: in
aggregate, the companies we operate and whose underwriting
results reflect the consequences of decisions that were my
responsibility a few years ago, had absolutely terrible results.
Fortunately, GEICO, whose policies I do not influence, simply
shot the lights out. The inference you draw from this summary is
the correct one. I made some serious mistakes a few years ago
that came home to roost.
The industry had its worst underwriting year in a long time,
as indicated by the table below:
Yearly Change Combined Ratio
in Premiums after Policy-
Written (%) holder Dividends
1972 .................... 10.2 96.2
1973 .................... 8.0 99.2
1974 .................... 6.2 105.4
1975 .................... 11.0 107.9
1976 .................... 21.9 102.4
1977 .................... 19.8 97.2
1978 .................... 12.8 97.5
1979 .................... 10.3 100.6
1980 .................... 6.0 103.1
1981 .................... 3.9 106.0
1982 (Revised) .......... 4.4 109.7
1983 (Estimated) ........ 4.6 111.0
Source: Best�s Aggregates and Averages.
Best�s data reflect the experience of practically the entire
industry, including stock, mutual, and reciprocal companies. The
combined ratio represents total insurance costs (losses incurred
plus expenses) compared to revenue from premiums; a ratio below
100 indicates an underwriting profit and one above 100 indicates
For the reasons outlined in last year�s report, we expect
the poor industry experience of 1983 to be more or less typical
for a good many years to come. (As Yogi Berra put it: �It will be
deja vu all over again.�) That doesn�t mean we think the figures
won�t bounce around a bit; they are certain to. But we believe
it highly unlikely that the combined ratio during the balance of
the decade will average significantly below the 1981-1983 level.
Based on our expectations regarding inflation - and we are as
pessimistic as ever on that front - industry premium volume must
grow about 10% annually merely to stabilize loss ratios at
Our own combined ratio in 1983 was 121. Since Mike Goldberg
recently took over most of the responsibility for the insurance
operation, it would be nice for me if our shortcomings could be
placed at his doorstep rather than mine. But unfortunately, as
we have often pointed out, the insurance business has a long
lead-time. Though business policies may be changed and personnel
improved, a significant period must pass before the effects are
seen. (This characteristic of the business enabled us to make a
great deal of money in GEICO; we could picture what was likely to
happen well before it actually occurred.) So the roots of the
1983 results are operating and personnel decisions made two or
more years back when I had direct managerial responsibility for
the insurance group.
Despite our poor results overall, several of our managers
did truly outstanding jobs. Roland Miller guided the auto and
general liability business of National Indemnity Company and
National Fire and Marine Insurance Company to improved results,
while those of competitors deteriorated. In addition, Tom Rowley
at Continental Divide Insurance - our fledgling Colorado
homestate company - seems certain to be a winner. Mike found him
a little over a year ago, and he was an important acquisition.
We have become active recently - and hope to become much
more active - in reinsurance transactions where the buyer�s
overriding concern should be the seller�s long-term
creditworthiness. In such transactions our premier financial
strength should make us the number one choice of both claimants
and insurers who must rely on the reinsurer�s promises for a
great many years to come.
A major source of such business is structured settlements -
a procedure for settling losses under which claimants receive
periodic payments (almost always monthly, for life) rather than a
single lump sum settlement. This form of settlement has
important tax advantages for the claimant and also prevents his
squandering a large lump-sum payment. Frequently, some inflation
protection is built into the settlement. Usually the claimant
has been seriously injured, and thus the periodic payments must
be unquestionably secure for decades to come. We believe we
offer unparalleled security. No other insurer we know of - even
those with much larger gross assets - has our financial strength.
We also think our financial strength should recommend us to
companies wishing to transfer loss reserves. In such
transactions, other insurance companies pay us lump sums to
assume all (or a specified portion of) future loss payments
applicable to large blocks of expired business. Here also, the
company transferring such claims needs to be certain of the
transferee�s financial strength for many years to come. Again,
most of our competitors soliciting such business appear to us to
have a financial condition that is materially inferior to ours.
Potentially, structured settlements and the assumption of
loss reserves could become very significant to us. Because of
their potential size and because these operations generate large
amounts of investment income compared to premium volume, we will
show underwriting results from those businesses on a separate
line in our insurance segment data. We also will exclude their
effect in reporting our combined ratio to you. We �front end� no
profit on structured settlement or loss reserve transactions, and
all attributable overhead is expensed currently. Both businesses
are run by Don Wurster at National Indemnity Company.
Insurance - GEICO
Geico�s performance during 1983 was as good as our own
insurance performance was poor. Compared to the industry�s
combined ratio of 111, GEICO wrote at 96 after a large voluntary
accrual for policyholder dividends. A few years ago I would not
have thought GEICO could so greatly outperform the industry. Its
superiority reflects the combination of a truly exceptional
business idea and an exceptional management.
Jack Byrne and Bill Snyder have maintained extraordinary
discipline in the underwriting area (including, crucially,
provision for full and proper loss reserves), and their efforts
are now being further rewarded by significant gains in new
business. Equally important, Lou Simpson is the class of the
field among insurance investment managers. The three of them are
We have approximately a one-third interest in GEICO. That
gives us a $270 million share in the company�s premium volume, an
amount some 80% larger than our own volume. Thus, the major
portion of our total insurance business comes from the best
insurance book in the country. This fact does not moderate by an
iota the need for us to improve our own operation.
Stock Splits and Stock Activity
We often are asked why Berkshire does not split its stock.
The assumption behind this question usually appears to be that a
split would be a pro-shareholder action. We disagree. Let me
tell you why.
One of our goals is to have Berkshire Hathaway stock sell at
a price rationally related to its intrinsic business value. (But
note �rationally related�, not �identical�: if well-regarded
companies are generally selling in the market at large discounts
from value, Berkshire might well be priced similarly.) The key to
a rational stock price is rational shareholders, both current and
If the holders of a company�s stock and/or the prospective
buyers attracted to it are prone to make irrational or emotion-
based decisions, some pretty silly stock prices are going to
appear periodically. Manic-depressive personalities produce
manic-depressive valuations. Such aberrations may help us in
buying and selling the stocks of other companies. But we think
it is in both your interest and ours to minimize their occurrence
in the market for Berkshire.
To obtain only high quality shareholders is no cinch. Mrs.
Astor could select her 400, but anyone can buy any stock.
Entering members of a shareholder �club� cannot be screened for
intellectual capacity, emotional stability, moral sensitivity or
acceptable dress. Shareholder eugenics, therefore, might appear
to be a hopeless undertaking.
In large part, however, we feel that high quality ownership
can be attracted and maintained if we consistently communicate
our business and ownership philosophy - along with no other
conflicting messages - and then let self selection follow its
course. For example, self selection will draw a far different
crowd to a musical event advertised as an opera than one
advertised as a rock concert even though anyone can buy a ticket
Through our policies and communications - our
�advertisements� - we try to attract investors who will
understand our operations, attitudes and expectations. (And,
fully as important, we try to dissuade those who won�t.) We want
those who think of themselves as business owners and invest in
companies with the intention of staying a long time. And, we
want those who keep their eyes focused on business results, not
Investors possessing those characteristics are in a small
minority, but we have an exceptional collection of them. I
believe well over 90% - probably over 95% - of our shares are
held by those who were shareholders of Berkshire or Blue Chip
five years ago. And I would guess that over 95% of our shares
are held by investors for whom the holding is at least double the
size of their next largest. Among companies with at least
several thousand public shareholders and more than $1 billion of
market value, we are almost certainly the leader in the degree to
which our shareholders think and act like owners. Upgrading a
shareholder group that possesses these characteristics is not
Were we to split the stock or take other actions focusing on
stock price rather than business value, we would attract an
entering class of buyers inferior to the exiting class of
sellers. At $1300, there are very few investors who can�t afford
a Berkshire share. Would a potential one-share purchaser be
better off if we split 100 for 1 so he could buy 100 shares?
Those who think so and who would buy the stock because of the
split or in anticipation of one would definitely downgrade the
quality of our present shareholder group. (Could we really
improve our shareholder group by trading some of our present
clear-thinking members for impressionable new ones who,
preferring paper to value, feel wealthier with nine $10 bills
than with one $100 bill?) People who buy for non-value reasons
are likely to sell for non-value reasons. Their presence in the
picture will accentuate erratic price swings unrelated to
underlying business developments.
We will try to avoid policies that attract buyers with a
short-term focus on our stock price and try to follow policies
that attract informed long-term investors focusing on business
values. just as you purchased your Berkshire shares in a market
populated by rational informed investors, you deserve a chance to
sell - should you ever want to - in the same kind of market. We
will work to keep it in existence.
One of the ironies of the stock market is the emphasis on
activity. Brokers, using terms such as �marketability� and
�liquidity�, sing the praises of companies with high share
turnover (those who cannot fill your pocket will confidently fill
your ear). But investors should understand that what is good for
the croupier is not good for the customer. A hyperactive stock
market is the pickpocket of enterprise.
For example, consider a typical company earning, say, 12% on
equity. Assume a very high turnover rate in its shares of 100%
per year. If a purchase and sale of the stock each extract
commissions of 1% (the rate may be much higher on low-priced
stocks) and if the stock trades at book value, the owners of our
hypothetical company will pay, in aggregate, 2% of the company�s
net worth annually for the privilege of transferring ownership.
This activity does nothing for the earnings of the business, and
means that 1/6 of them are lost to the owners through the
�frictional� cost of transfer. (And this calculation does not
count option trading, which would increase frictional costs still
All that makes for a rather expensive game of musical
chairs. Can you imagine the agonized cry that would arise if a
governmental unit were to impose a new 16 2/3% tax on earnings of
corporations or investors? By market activity, investors can
impose upon themselves the equivalent of such a tax.
Days when the market trades 100 million shares (and that
kind of volume, when over-the-counter trading is included, is
today abnormally low) are a curse for owners, not a blessing -
for they mean that owners are paying twice as much to change
chairs as they are on a 50-million-share day. If 100 million-
share days persist for a year and the average cost on each
purchase and sale is 15 cents a share, the chair-changing tax for
investors in aggregate would total about $7.5 billion - an amount
roughly equal to the combined 1982 profits of Exxon, General
Motors, Mobil and Texaco, the four largest companies in the
These companies had a combined net worth of $75 billion at
yearend 1982 and accounted for over 12% of both net worth and net
income of the entire Fortune 500 list. Under our assumption
investors, in aggregate, every year forfeit all earnings from
this staggering sum of capital merely to satisfy their penchant
for �financial flip-flopping�. In addition, investment
management fees of over $2 billion annually - sums paid for
chair-changing advice - require the forfeiture by investors of
all earnings of the five largest banking organizations (Citicorp,
Bank America, Chase Manhattan, Manufacturers Hanover and J. P.
Morgan). These expensive activities may decide who eats the pie,
but they don�t enlarge it.
(We are aware of the pie-expanding argument that says that
such activities improve the rationality of the capital allocation
process. We think that this argument is specious and that, on
balance, hyperactive equity markets subvert rational capital
allocation and act as pie shrinkers. Adam Smith felt that all
noncollusive acts in a free market were guided by an invisible
hand that led an economy to maximum progress; our view is that
casino-type markets and hair-trigger investment management act as
an invisible foot that trips up and slows down a forward-moving
Contrast the hyperactive stock with Berkshire. The bid-and-
ask spread in our stock currently is about 30 points, or a little
over 2%. Depending on the size of the transaction, the
difference between proceeds received by the seller of Berkshire
and cost to the buyer may range downward from 4% (in trading
involving only a few shares) to perhaps 1 1/2% (in large trades
where negotiation can reduce both the market-maker�s spread and
the broker�s commission). Because most Berkshire shares are
traded in fairly large transactions, the spread on all trading
probably does not average more than 2%.
Meanwhile, true turnover in Berkshire stock (excluding
inter-dealer transactions, gifts and bequests) probably runs 3%
per year. Thus our owners, in aggregate, are paying perhaps
6/100 of 1% of Berkshire�s market value annually for transfer
privileges. By this very rough estimate, that�s $900,000 - not a
small cost, but far less than average. Splitting the stock would
increase that cost, downgrade the quality of our shareholder
population, and encourage a market price less consistently
related to intrinsic business value. We see no offsetting
Last year in this section I ran a small ad to encourage
acquisition candidates. In our communications businesses we tell
our advertisers that repetition is a key to results (which it
is), so we will again repeat our acquisition criteria.
(1) large purchases (at least $5 million of after-tax
(2) demonstrated consistent earning power (future
projections are of little interest to us, nor are
(3) businesses earning good returns on equity while
employing little or no debt,
(4) management in place (we can�t supply it),
(5) simple businesses (if there�s lots of technology, we
won�t understand it),
(6) an offering price (we don�t want to waste our time or
that of the seller by talking, even preliminarily,
about a transaction when price is unknown).
We will not engage in unfriendly takeovers. We can promise
complete confidentiality and a very fast answer - customarily
within five minutes - as to whether we�re interested. We prefer
to buy for cash, but will consider issuance of stock when we
receive as much in intrinsic business value as we give. We
invite potential sellers to check us out by contacting people
with whom we have done business in the past. For the right
business - and the right people - we can provide a good home.
* * * * *
About 96.4% of all eligible shares participated in our 1983
shareholder-designated contributions program. The total
contributions made pursuant to this program - disbursed in the
early days of 1984 but fully expensed in 1983 - were $3,066,501,
and 1353 charities were recipients. Although the response
measured by the percentage of shares participating was
extraordinarily good, the response measured by the percentage of
holders participating was not as good. The reason may well be
the large number of new shareholders acquired through the merger
and their lack of familiarity with the program. We urge new
shareholders to read the description of the program on pages 52-
If you wish to participate in future programs, we strongly
urge that you immediately make sure that your shares are
registered in the actual owner�s name, not in �street� or nominee
name. Shares not so registered on September 28, 1984 will not be
eligible for any 1984 program.
* * * * *
The Blue Chip/Berkshire merger went off without a hitch.
Less than one-tenth of 1% of the shares of each company voted
against the merger, and no requests for appraisal were made. In
1983, we gained some tax efficiency from the merger and we expect
to gain more in the future.
One interesting sidelight to the merger: Berkshire now has
1,146,909 shares outstanding compared to 1,137,778 shares at the
beginning of fiscal 1965, the year present management assumed
responsibility. For every 1% of the company you owned at that
time, you now would own .99%. Thus, all of today�s assets - the
News, See�s, Nebraska Furniture Mart, the Insurance Group, $1.3
billion in marketable stocks, etc. - have been added to the
original textile assets with virtually no net dilution to the
We are delighted to have the former Blue Chip shareholders
join us. To aid in your understanding of Berkshire Hathaway, we
will be glad to send you the Compendium of Letters from the
Annual Reports of 1977-1981, and/or the 1982 Annual report.
Direct your request to the Company at 1440 Kiewit Plaza, Omaha,
Warren E. Buffett
March 14, 1984 Chairman of the Board
Visit Share Investor Blog
BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC.
Goodwill and its Amortization: The Rules and The Realities
This appendix deals only with economic and accounting Goodwill � not the goodwill of everyday usage. For example, a business may be well liked, even loved, by most of its customers but possess no economic goodwill. (AT&T, before the breakup, was generally well thought of, but possessed not a dime of economic Goodwill.) And, regrettably, a business may be disliked by its customers but possess substantial, and growing, economic Goodwill. So, just for the moment, forget emotions and focus only on economics and accounting.
When a business is purchased, accounting principles require that the purchase price first be assigned to the fair value of the identifiable assets that are acquired. Frequently the sum of the fair values put on the assets (after the deduction of liabilities) is less than the total purchase price of the business. In that case, the difference is assigned to an asset account entitled "excess of cost over equity in net assets acquired". To avoid constant repetition of this mouthful, we will substitute "Goodwill".
Accounting Goodwill arising from businesses purchased before November 1970 has a special standing. Except under rare circumstances, it can remain an asset on the balance sheet as long as the business bought is retained. That means no amortization charges to gradually extinguish that asset need be made against earnings.
The case is different, however, with purchases made from November 1970 on. When these create Goodwill, it must be amortized over not more than 40 years through charges � of equal amount in every year � to the earnings account. Since 40 years is the maximum period allowed, 40 years is what managements (including us) usually elect. This annual charge to earnings is not allowed as a tax deduction and, thus, has an effect on after-tax income that is roughly double that of most other expenses.
That�s how accounting Goodwill works. To see how it differs from economic reality, let�s look at an example close at hand. We�ll round some figures, and greatly oversimplify, to make the example easier to follow. We�ll also mention some implications for investors and managers.
Blue Chip Stamps bought See�s early in 1972 for $25 million, at which time See�s had about $8 million of net tangible assets. (Throughout this discussion, accounts receivable will be classified as tangible assets, a definition proper for business analysis.) This level of tangible assets was adequate to conduct the business without use of debt, except for short periods seasonally. See�s was earning about $2 million after tax at the time, and such earnings seemed conservatively representative of future earning power in constant 1972 dollars.
Thus our first lesson: businesses logically are worth far more than net tangible assets when they can be expected to produce earnings on such assets considerably in excess of market rates of return. The capitalized value of this excess return is economic Goodwill.
In 1972 (and now) relatively few businesses could be expected to consistently earn the 25% after tax on net tangible assets that was earned by See�s � doing it, furthermore, with conservative accounting and no financial leverage. It was not the fair market value of the inventories, receivables or fixed assets that produced the premium rates of return. Rather it was a combination of intangible assets, particularly a pervasive favorable reputation with consumers based upon countless pleasant experiences they have had with both product and personnel.
Such a reputation creates a consumer franchise that allows the value of the product to the purchaser, rather than its production cost, to be the major determinant of selling price. Consumer franchises are a prime source of economic Goodwill. Other sources include governmental franchises not subject to profit regulation, such as television stations, and an enduring position as the low cost producer in an industry.
Let�s return to the accounting in the See�s example. Blue Chip�s purchase of See�s at $17 million over net tangible assets required that a Goodwill account of this amount be established as an asset on Blue Chip�s books and that $425,000 be charged to income annually for 40 years to amortize that asset. By 1983, after 11 years of such charges, the $17 million had been reduced to about $12.5 million. Berkshire, meanwhile, owned 60% of Blue Chip and, therefore, also 60% of See�s. This ownership meant that Berkshire�s balance sheet reflected 60% of See�s Goodwill, or about $7.5 million.
In 1983 Berkshire acquired the rest of Blue Chip in a merger that required purchase accounting as contrasted to the "pooling" treatment allowed for some mergers. Under purchase accounting, the "fair value" of the shares we gave to (or "paid") Blue Chip holders had to be spread over the net assets acquired from Blue Chip. This "fair value" was measured, as it almost always is when public companies use their shares to make acquisitions, by the market value of the shares given up.
The assets "purchased" consisted of 40% of everything owned by Blue Chip (as noted, Berkshire already owned the other 60%). What Berkshire "paid" was more than the net identifiable assets we received by $51.7 million, and was assigned to two pieces of Goodwill: $28.4 million to See�s and $23.3 million to Buffalo Evening News.
After the merger, therefore, Berkshire was left with a Goodwill asset for See�s that had two components: the $7.5 million remaining from the 1971 purchase, and $28.4 million newly created by the 40% "purchased" in 1983. Our amortization charge now will be about $1.0 million for the next 28 years, and $.7 million for the following 12 years, 2002 through 2013.
In other words, different purchase dates and prices have given us vastly different asset values and amortization charges for two pieces of the same asset. (We repeat our usual disclaimer: we have no better accounting system to suggest. The problems to be dealt with are mind boggling and require arbitrary rules.)
But what are the economic realities? One reality is that the amortization charges that have been deducted as costs in the earnings statement each year since acquisition of See�s were not true economic costs. We know that because See�s last year earned $13 million after taxes on about $20 million of net tangible assets � a performance indicating the existence of economic Goodwill far larger than the total original cost of our accounting Goodwill. In other words, while accounting Goodwill regularly decreased from the moment of purchase, economic Goodwill increased in irregular but very substantial fashion.
Another reality is that annual amortization charges in the future will not correspond to economic costs. It is possible, of course, that See�s economic Goodwill will disappear. But it won�t shrink in even decrements or anything remotely resembling them. What is more likely is that the Goodwill will increase � in current, if not in constant, dollars � because of inflation.
That probability exists because true economic Goodwill tends to rise in nominal value proportionally with inflation. To illustrate how this works, let�s contrast a See�s kind of business with a more mundane business. When we purchased See�s in 1972, it will be recalled, it was earning about $2 million on $8 million of net tangible assets. Let us assume that our hypothetical mundane business then had $2 million of earnings also, but needed $18 million in net tangible assets for normal operations. Earning only 11% on required tangible assets, that mundane business would possess little or no economic Goodwill.
A business like that, therefore, might well have sold for the value of its net tangible assets, or for $18 million. In contrast, we paid $25 million for See�s, even though it had no more in earnings and less than half as much in "honest-to-God" assets. Could less really have been more, as our purchase price implied? The answer is "yes" � even if both businesses were expected to have flat unit volume � as long as you anticipated, as we did in 1972, a world of continuous inflation.
To understand why, imagine the effect that a doubling of the price level would subsequently have on the two businesses. Both would need to double their nominal earnings to $4 million to keep themselves even with inflation. This would seem to be no great trick: just sell the same number of units at double earlier prices and, assuming profit margins remain unchanged, profits also must double.
But, crucially, to bring that about, both businesses probably would have to double their nominal investment in net tangible assets, since that is the kind of economic requirement that inflation usually imposes on businesses, both good and bad. A doubling of dollar sales means correspondingly more dollars must be employed immediately in receivables and inventories. Dollars employed in fixed assets will respond more slowly to inflation, but probably just as surely. And all of this inflation-required investment will produce no improvement in rate of return. The motivation for this investment is the survival of the business, not the prosperity of the owner.
Remember, however, that See�s had net tangible assets of only $8 million. So it would only have had to commit an additional $8 million to finance the capital needs imposed by inflation. The mundane business, meanwhile, had a burden over twice as large � a need for $18 million of additional capital.
After the dust had settled, the mundane business, now earning $4 million annually, might still be worth the value of its tangible assets, or $36 million. That means its owners would have gained only a dollar of nominal value for every new dollar invested. (This is the same dollar-for-dollar result they would have achieved if they had added money to a savings account.)
See�s, however, also earning $4 million, might be worth $50 million if valued (as it logically would be) on the same basis as it was at the time of our purchase. So it would have gained $25 million in nominal value while the owners were putting up only $8 million in additional capital � over $3 of nominal value gained for each $1 invested.
Remember, even so, that the owners of the See�s kind of business were forced by inflation to ante up $8 million in additional capital just to stay even in real profits. Any unleveraged business that requires some net tangible assets to operate (and almost all do) is hurt by inflation. Businesses needing little in the way of tangible assets simply are hurt the least.
And that fact, of course, has been hard for many people to grasp. For years the traditional wisdom � long on tradition, short on wisdom � held that inflation protection was best provided by businesses laden with natural resources, plants and machinery, or other tangible assets ("In Goods We Trust"). It doesn�t work that way. Asset-heavy businesses generally earn low rates of return � rates that often barely provide enough capital to fund the inflationary needs of the existing business, with nothing left over for real growth, for distribution to owners, or for acquisition of new businesses.
In contrast, a disproportionate number of the great business fortunes built up during the inflationary years arose from ownership of operations that combined intangibles of lasting value with relatively minor requirements for tangible assets. In such cases earnings have bounded upward in nominal dollars, and these dollars have been largely available for the acquisition of additional businesses. This phenomenon has been particularly evident in the communications business. That business has required little in the way of tangible investment � yet its franchises have endured. During inflation, Goodwill is the gift that keeps giving.
But that statement applies, naturally, only to true economic Goodwill. Spurious accounting Goodwill � and there is plenty of it around � is another matter. When an overexcited management purchases a business at a silly price, the same accounting niceties described earlier are observed. Because it can�t go anywhere else, the silliness ends up in the Goodwill account. Considering the lack of managerial discipline that created the account, under such circumstances it might better be labeled "No-Will". Whatever the term, the 40-year ritual typically is observed and the adrenalin so capitalized remains on the books as an "asset" just as if the acquisition had been a sensible one.
* * * * *
If you cling to any belief that accounting treatment of Goodwill is the best measure of economic reality, I suggest one final item to ponder.
Assume a company with $20 per share of net worth, all tangible assets. Further assume the company has internally developed some magnificent consumer franchise, or that it was fortunate enough to obtain some important television stations by original FCC grant. Therefore, it earns a great deal on tangible assets, say $5 per share, or 25%.
With such economics, it might sell for $100 per share or more, and it might well also bring that price in a negotiated sale of the entire business.
Assume an investor buys the stock at $100 per share, paying in effect $80 per share for Goodwill (just as would a corporate purchaser buying the whole company). Should the investor impute a $2 per share amortization charge annually ($80 divided by 40 years) to calculate "true" earnings per share? And, if so, should the new "true" earnings of $3 per share cause him to rethink his purchase price?
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We believe managers and investors alike should view intangible assets from two perspectives:
- In analysis of operating results � that is, in evaluating the underlying economics of a business unit � amortization charges should be ignored. What a business can be expected to earn on unleveraged net tangible assets, excluding any charges against earnings for amortization of Goodwill, is the best guide to the economic attractiveness of the operation. It is also the best guide to the current value of the operation�s economic Goodwill.
- In evaluating the wisdom of business acquisitions, amortization charges should be ignored also. They should be deducted neither from earnings nor from the cost of the business. This means forever viewing purchased Goodwill at its full cost, before any amortization. Furthermore, cost should be defined as including the full intrinsic business value � not just the recorded accounting value � of all consideration given, irrespective of market prices of the securities involved at the time of merger and irrespective of whether pooling treatment was allowed. For example, what we truly paid in the Blue Chip merger for 40% of the Goodwill of See�s and the News was considerably more than the $51.7 million entered on our books. This disparity exists because the market value of the Berkshire shares given up in the merger was less than their intrinsic business value, which is the value that defines the true cost to us.
Operations that appear to be winners based upon perspective (1) may pale when viewed from perspective (2). A good business is not always a good purchase � although it�s a good place to look for one.
We will try to acquire businesses that have excellent operating economics measured by (1) and that provide reasonable returns measured by (2). Accounting consequences will be totally ignored.
At yearend 1983, net Goodwill on our accounting books totaled $62 million, consisting of the $79 million you see stated on the asset side of our balance sheet, and $17 million of negative Goodwill that is offset against the carrying value of our interest in Mutual Savings and Loan.
We believe net economic Goodwill far exceeds the $62 million accounting number.