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To the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.:
Our gain in net worth during 1987 was $464 million, or
19.5%. Over the last 23 years (that is, since present management
took over), our per-share book value has grown from $19.46 to
$2,477.47, or at a rate of 23.1% compounded annually.
What counts, of course, is the rate of gain in per-share
business value, not book value. In many cases, a corporation's
book value and business value are almost totally unrelated. For
example, just before they went bankrupt, LTV and Baldwin-United
published yearend audits showing their book values to be $652
million and $397 million, respectively. Conversely, Belridge Oil
was sold to Shell in 1979 for $3.6 billion although its book
value was only $177 million.
At Berkshire, however, the two valuations have tracked
rather closely, with the growth rate in business value over the
last decade moderately outpacing the growth rate in book value.
This good news continued in 1987.
Our premium of business value to book value has widened for
two simple reasons: We own some remarkable businesses and they
are run by even more remarkable managers.
You have a right to question that second assertion. After
all, CEOs seldom tell their shareholders that they have assembled
a bunch of turkeys to run things. Their reluctance to do so
makes for some strange annual reports. Oftentimes, in his
shareholders' letter, a CEO will go on for pages detailing
corporate performance that is woefully inadequate. He will
nonetheless end with a warm paragraph describing his managerial
comrades as "our most precious asset." Such comments sometimes
make you wonder what the other assets can possibly be.
At Berkshire, however, my appraisal of our operating
managers is, if anything, understated. To understand why, first
take a look at page 7, where we show the earnings (on an
historical-cost accounting basis) of our seven largest non-
financial units: Buffalo News, Fechheimer, Kirby, Nebraska
Furniture Mart, Scott Fetzer Manufacturing Group, See's Candies,
and World Book. In 1987, these seven business units had combined
operating earnings before interest and taxes of $180 million.
By itself, this figure says nothing about economic
performance. To evaluate that, we must know how much total
capital - debt and equity - was needed to produce these earnings.
Debt plays an insignificant role at our seven units: Their net
interest expense in 1987 was only $2 million. Thus, pre-tax
earnings on the equity capital employed by these businesses
amounted to $178 million. And this equity - again on an
historical-cost basis - was only $175 million.
If these seven business units had operated as a single
company, their 1987 after-tax earnings would have been
approximately $100 million - a return of about 57% on equity
capital. You'll seldom see such a percentage anywhere, let alone
at large, diversified companies with nominal leverage. Here's a
benchmark: In its 1988 Investor's Guide issue, Fortune reported
that among the 500 largest industrial companies and 500 largest
service companies, only six had averaged a return on equity of
over 30% during the previous decade. The best performer among
the 1000 was Commerce Clearing House at 40.2%.
Of course, the returns that Berkshire earns from these seven
units are not as high as their underlying returns because, in
aggregate, we bought the businesses at a substantial premium to
underlying equity capital. Overall, these operations are carried
on our books at about $222 million above the historical
accounting values of the underlying assets. However, the
managers of the units should be judged by the returns they
achieve on the underlying assets; what we pay for a business does
not affect the amount of capital its manager has to work with.
(If, to become a shareholder and part owner of Commerce Clearing
House, you pay, say, six times book value, that does not change
CCH's return on equity.)
Three important inferences can be drawn from the figures I
have cited. First, the current business value of these seven
units is far above their historical book value and also far above
the value at which they are carried on Berkshire's balance sheet.
Second, because so little capital is required to run these
businesses, they can grow while concurrently making almost all of
their earnings available for deployment in new opportunities.
Third, these businesses are run by truly extraordinary managers.
The Blumkins, the Heldmans, Chuck Huggins, Stan Lipsey, and Ralph
Schey all meld unusual talent, energy and character to achieve
exceptional financial results.
For good reasons, we had very high expectations when we
joined with these managers. In every case, however, our
experience has greatly exceeded those expectations. We have
received far more than we deserve, but we are willing to accept
such inequities. (We subscribe to the view Jack Benny expressed
upon receiving an acting award: "I don't deserve this, but then,
I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either.")
Beyond the Sainted Seven, we have our other major unit,
insurance, which I believe also has a business value well above
the net assets employed in it. However, appraising the business
value of a property-casualty insurance company is a decidedly
imprecise process. The industry is volatile, reported earnings
oftentimes are seriously inaccurate, and recent changes in the
Tax Code will severely hurt future profitability. Despite these
problems, we like the business and it will almost certainly
remain our largest operation. Under Mike Goldberg's management,
the insurance business should treat us well over time.
With managers like ours, my partner, Charlie Munger, and I
have little to do with operations. in fact, it is probably fair
to say that if we did more, less would be accomplished. We have
no corporate meetings, no corporate budgets, and no performance
reviews (though our managers, of course, oftentimes find such
procedures useful at their operating units). After all, what can
we tell the Blumkins about home furnishings, or the Heldmans
Our major contribution to the operations of our subsidiaries
is applause. But it is not the indiscriminate applause of a
Pollyanna. Rather it is informed applause based upon the two
long careers we have spent intensively observing business
performance and managerial behavior. Charlie and I have seen so
much of the ordinary in business that we can truly appreciate a
virtuoso performance. Only one response to the 1987 performance
of our operating managers is appropriate: sustained, deafening
Sources of Reported Earnings
The table on the following page shows the major sources of
Berkshire's reported earnings. In the table, amortization of
Goodwill and other major purchase-price accounting adjustments
are not charged against the specific businesses to which they
apply but, instead, are aggregated and shown separately. In
effect, this procedure presents the earnings of our businesses as
they would have been reported had we not purchased them. In
appendixes to my letters in the 1983 and 1986 annual reports, I
explained why this form of presentation seems to us to be more
useful to investors and managers than the standard GAAP
presentation, which makes purchase-price adjustments on a
business-by business basis. The total net earnings we show in
the table are, of course, identical to the GAAP figures in our
audited financial statements.
In the Business Segment Data on pages 36-38 and in the
Management's Discussion section on pages 40-44 you will find much
additional information about our businesses. In these sections
you will also find our segment earnings reported on a GAAP basis.
I urge you to read that material, as well as Charlie Munger's
letter to Wesco shareholders, describing the various businesses
of that subsidiary, which starts on page 45.
of Net Earnings
(after taxes and
Pre-Tax Earnings minority interests)
1987 1986 1987 1986
-------- -------- -------- --------
Underwriting ............... $(55,429) $(55,844) $(20,696) $(29,864)
Net Investment Income ...... 152,483 107,143 136,658 96,440
Buffalo News ................. 39,410 34,736 21,304 16,918
Fechheimer (Acquired 6/3/86) 13,332 8,400 6,580 3,792
Kirby ........................ 22,408 20,218 12,891 10,508
Nebraska Furniture Mart ...... 16,837 17,685 7,554 7,192
Scott Fetzer Mfg. Group ...... 30,591 25,358 17,555 13,354
See's Candies ................ 31,693 30,347 17,363 15,176
Wesco - other than Insurance 6,209 5,542 4,978 5,550
World Book ................... 25,745 21,978 15,136 11,670
Amortization of Goodwill ..... (2,862) (2,555) (2,862) (2,555)
Accounting Adjustments .... (5,546) (10,033) (6,544) (11,031)
Interest on Debt and
Pre-Payment Penalty ....... (11,474) (23,891) (5,905) (12,213)
Contributions ............. (4,938) (3,997) (2,963) (2,158)
Other ........................ 22,460 20,770 13,696 8,685
-------- -------- -------- --------
Operating Earnings ........... 280,919 195,857 214,745 131,464
Sales of Securities .......... 27,319 216,242 19,807 150,897
-------- -------- -------- --------
Total Earnings - All Entities .. $308,238 $412,099 $234,552 $282,361
======== ======== ======== ========
Gypsy Rose Lee announced on one of her later birthdays: "I
have everything I had last year; it's just that it's all two
inches lower." As the table shows, during 1987 almost all of our
businesses aged in a more upbeat way.
There's not a lot new to report about these businesses - and
that's good, not bad. Severe change and exceptional returns
usually don't mix. Most investors, of course, behave as if just
the opposite were true. That is, they usually confer the highest
price-earnings ratios on exotic-sounding businesses that hold out
the promise of feverish change. That prospect lets investors
fantasize about future profitability rather than face today's
business realities. For such investor-dreamers, any blind date
is preferable to one with the girl next door, no matter how
desirable she may be.
Experience, however, indicates that the best business
returns are usually achieved by companies that are doing
something quite similar today to what they were doing five or ten
years ago. That is no argument for managerial complacency.
Businesses always have opportunities to improve service, product
lines, manufacturing techniques, and the like, and obviously
these opportunities should be seized. But a business that
constantly encounters major change also encounters many chances
for major error. Furthermore, economic terrain that is forever
shifting violently is ground on which it is difficult to build a
fortress-like business franchise. Such a franchise is usually
the key to sustained high returns.
The Fortune study I mentioned earlier supports our view.
Only 25 of the 1,000 companies met two tests of economic
excellence - an average return on equity of over 20% in the ten
years, 1977 through 1986, and no year worse than 15%. These
business superstars were also stock market superstars: During the
decade, 24 of the 25 outperformed the S&P 500.
The Fortune champs may surprise you in two respects. First,
most use very little leverage compared to their interest-paying
capacity. Really good businesses usually don't need to borrow.
Second, except for one company that is "high-tech" and several
others that manufacture ethical drugs, the companies are in
businesses that, on balance, seem rather mundane. Most sell non-
sexy products or services in much the same manner as they did ten
years ago (though in larger quantities now, or at higher prices,
or both). The record of these 25 companies confirms that making
the most of an already strong business franchise, or
concentrating on a single winning business theme, is what usually
produces exceptional economics.
Berkshire's experience has been similar. Our managers have
produced extraordinary results by doing rather ordinary things -
but doing them exceptionally well. Our managers protect their
franchises, they control costs, they search for new products and
markets that build on their existing strengths and they don't get
diverted. They work exceptionally hard at the details of their
businesses, and it shows.
Here's an update:
o Agatha Christie, whose husband was an archaeologist, said
that was the perfect profession for one's spouse: "The older you
become, the more interested they are in you." It is students of
business management, not archaeologists, who should be interested
in Mrs. B (Rose Blumkin), the 94-year-old chairman of Nebraska
Fifty years ago Mrs. B started the business with $500, and
today NFM is far and away the largest home furnishings store in
the country. Mrs. B continues to work seven days a week at the
job from the opening of each business day until the close. She
buys, she sells, she manages - and she runs rings around the
competition. It's clear to me that she's gathering speed and may
well reach her full potential in another five or ten years.
Therefore, I've persuaded the Board to scrap our mandatory
retirement-at-100 policy. (And it's about time: With every
passing year, this policy has seemed sillier to me.)
Net sales of NFM were $142.6 million in 1987, up 8% from
1986. There's nothing like this store in the country, and
there's nothing like the family Mrs. B has produced to carry on:
Her son Louie, and his three boys, Ron, Irv and Steve, possess
the business instincts, integrity and drive of Mrs. B. They work
as a team and, strong as each is individually, the whole is far
greater than the sum of the parts.
The superb job done by the Blumkins benefits us as owners,
but even more dramatically benefits NFM's customers. They saved
about $30 million in 1987 by buying from NFM. In other words,
the goods they bought would have cost that much more if purchased
You'll enjoy an anonymous letter I received last August:
"Sorry to see Berkshire profits fall in the second quarter. One
way you may gain back part of your lost. (sic) Check the pricing
at The Furniture Mart. You will find that they are leaving 10%
to 20% on the table. This additional profit on $140 million of
sells (sic) is $28 million. Not small change in anyone's pocket!
Check out other furniture, carpet, appliance and T.V. dealers.
Your raising prices to a reasonable profit will help. Thank you.
/signed/ A Competitor."
NFM will continue to grow and prosper by following Mrs. B's
maxim: "Sell cheap and tell the truth."
o Among dominant papers of its size or larger, the Buffalo
News continues to be the national leader in two important ways:
(1) its weekday and Sunday penetration rate (the percentage of
households in the paper's primary market area that purchase it);
and (2) its "news-hole" percentage (the portion of the paper
devoted to news).
It may not be coincidence that one newspaper leads in both
categories: an exceptionally "newsrich" product makes for broad
audience appeal, which in turn leads to high penetration. Of
course, quantity must be matched by quality. This not only
means good reporting and good writing; it means freshness and
relevance. To be indispensable, a paper must promptly tell its
readers many things they want to know but won't otherwise learn
until much later, if ever.
At the News, we put out seven fresh editions every 24 hours,
each one extensively changed in content. Here's a small example
that may surprise you: We redo the obituary page in every edition
of the News, or seven times a day. Any obituary added runs
through the next six editions until the publishing cycle has been
It's vital, of course, for a newspaper to cover national and
international news well and in depth. But it is also vital for
it to do what only a local newspaper can: promptly and
extensively chronicle the personally-important, otherwise-
unreported details of community life. Doing this job well
requires a very broad range of news - and that means lots of
space, intelligently used.
Our news hole was about 50% in 1987, just as it has been
year after year. If we were to cut it to a more typical 40%, we
would save approximately $4 million annually in newsprint costs.
That interests us not at all - and it won't interest us even if,
for one reason or another, our profit margins should
Charlie and I do not believe in flexible operating budgets,
as in "Non-direct expenses can be X if revenues are Y, but must
be reduced if revenues are Y - 5%." Should we really cut our news
hole at the Buffalo News, or the quality of product and service
at See's, simply because profits are down during a given year or
quarter? Or, conversely, should we add a staff economist, a
corporate strategist, an institutional advertising campaign or
something else that does Berkshire no good simply because the
money currently is rolling in?
That makes no sense to us. We neither understand the adding
of unneeded people or activities because profits are booming, nor
the cutting of essential people or activities because
profitability is shrinking. That kind of yo-yo approach is
neither business-like nor humane. Our goal is to do what makes
sense for Berkshire's customers and employees at all times, and
never to add the unneeded. ("But what about the corporate jet?"
you rudely ask. Well, occasionally a man must rise above
Although the News' revenues have grown only moderately since
1984, superb management by Stan Lipsey, its publisher, has
produced excellent profit growth. For several years, I have
incorrectly predicted that profit margins at the News would fall.
This year I will not let vou down: Margins will, without
question, shrink in 1988 and profit may fall as well.
Skyrocketing newsprint costs will be the major cause.
o Fechheimer Bros. Company is another of our family
businesses - and, like the Blumkins, what a family. Three
generations of Heldmans have for decades consistently, built the
sales and profits of this manufacturer and distributor of
uniforms. In the year that Berkshire acquired its controlling
interest in Fechheimer - 1986 - profits were a record. The
Heldmans didn't slow down after that. Last year earnings
increased substantially and the outlook is good for 1988.
There's nothing magic about the Uniform business; the only
magic is in the Heldmans. Bob, George, Gary, Roger and Fred know
the business inside and out, and they have fun running it. We
are fortunate to be in partnership with them.
o Chuck Huggins continues to set new records at See's, just as
he has ever since we put him in charge on the day of our purchase
some 16 years ago. In 1987, volume hit a new high at slightly
Under 25 million pounds. For the second year in a row, moreover,
same-store sales, measured in pounds, were virtually unchanged.
In case you are wondering, that represents improvement: In each
of the previous six years, same-store sales had fallen.
Although we had a particularly strong 1986 Christmas season,
we racked up better store-for-store comparisons in the 1987
Christmas season than at any other time of the year. Thus, the
seasonal factor at See's becomes even more extreme. In 1987,
about 85% of our profit was earned during December.
Candy stores are fun to visit, but most have not been fun
for their owners. From what we can learn, practically no one
besides See's has made significant profits in recent years from
the operation of candy shops. Clearly, Chuck's record at See's
is not due to a rising industry tide. Rather, it is a one-of-a-
His achievement requires an excellent product - which we
have - but it also requires genuine affection for the customer.
Chuck is 100% customer-oriented, and his attitude sets the tone
for the rest of the See's organization.
Here's an example of Chuck in action: At See's we regularly
add new pieces of candy to our mix and also cull a few to keep
our product line at about 100 varieties. Last spring we selected
14 items for elimination. Two, it turned out, were badly missed
by our customers, who wasted no time in letting us know what they
thought of our judgment: "A pox on all in See's who participated
in the abominable decision...;" "May your new truffles melt in
transit, may they sour in people's mouths, may your costs go up
and your profits go down...;" "We are investigating the
possibility of obtaining a mandatory injunction requiring you to
supply...;" You get the picture. In all, we received many hundreds of
Chuck not only reintroduced the pieces, he turned this
miscue into an opportunity. Each person who had written got a
complete and honest explanation in return. Said Chuck's letter:
"Fortunately, when I make poor decisions, good things often
happen as a result...;" And with the letter went a special gift
See's increased prices only slightly in the last two years.
In 1988 we have raised prices somewhat more, though still
moderately. To date, sales have been weak and it may be
difficult for See's to improve its earnings this year.
o World Book, Kirby, and the Scott Fetzer Manufacturing Group
are all under the management of Ralph Schey. And what a lucky
thing for us that they are. I told you last year that Scott
Fetzer performance in 1986 had far exceeded the expectations that
Charlie and I had at the time of our purchase. Results in 1987
were even better. Pre-tax earnings rose 10% while average
capital employed declined significantly.
Ralph's mastery of the 19 businesses for which he is
responsible is truly amazing, and he has also attracted some
outstanding managers to run them. We would love to find a few
additional units that could be put under Ralph's wing.
The businesses of Scott Fetzer are too numerous to describe
in detail. Let's just update you on one of our favorites: At the
end of 1987, World Book introduced its most dramatically-revised
edition since 1962. The number of color photos was increased
from 14,000 to 24,000; over 6,000 articles were revised; 840 new
contributors were added. Charlie and I recommend this product to
you and your family, as we do World Book's products for younger
children, Childcraft and Early World of Learning.
In 1987, World Book unit sales in the United States
increased for the fifth consecutive year. International sales
and profits also grew substantially. The outlook is good for
Scott Fetzer operations in aggregate, and for World Book in
Shown below is an updated version of our usual table
presenting key figures for the insurance industry:
Yearly Change Combined Ratio Yearly Change Inflation Rate
in Premiums After Policyholder in Incurred Measured by
Written (%) Dividends Losses (%) GNP Deflator (%)
------------- ------------------ ------------- ----------------
1981 ..... 3.8 106.0 6.5 9.6
1982 ..... 4.4 109.8 8.4 6.4
1983 ..... 4.6 112.0 6.8 3.8
1984 ..... 9.2 117.9 16.9 3.7
1985 ..... 22.1 116.3 16.1 3.2
1986 (Rev.) 22.2 108.0 13.5 2.6
1987 (Est.) 8.7 104.7 6.8 3.0
Source: Best's Insurance Management Reports
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 a loss. When the investment income that an insurer
earns from holding on to policyholders' funds ("the float") is
taken into account, a combined ratio in the 107-111 range
typically produces an overall break-even result, exclusive of
earnings on the funds provided by shareholders.
The math of the insurance business, encapsulated by the
table, is not very complicated. In years when the industry's
annual gain in revenues (premiums) pokes along at 4% or 5%,
underwriting losses are sure to mount. That is not because auto
accidents, fires, windstorms and the like are occurring more
frequently, nor has it lately been the fault of general
inflation. Today, social and judicial inflation are the major
culprits; the cost of entering a courtroom has simply ballooned.
Part of the jump in cost arises from skyrocketing verdicts, and
part from the tendency of judges and juries to expand the
coverage of insurance policies beyond that contemplated by the
insurer when the policies were written. Seeing no let-up in
either trend, we continue to believe that the industry's revenues
must grow at about 10% annually for it to just hold its own in
terms of profitability, even though general inflation may be
running at a considerably lower rate.
The strong revenue gains of 1985-87 almost guaranteed the
industry an excellent underwriting performance in 1987 and,
indeed, it was a banner year. But the news soured as the
quarters rolled by: Best's estimates that year-over-year volume
increases were 12.9%, 11.1%, 5.7%, and 5.6%. In 1988, the
revenue gain is certain to be far below our 10% "equilibrium"
figure. Clearly, the party is over.
However, earnings will not immediately sink. A lag factor
exists in this industry: Because most policies are written for a
one-year term, higher or lower insurance prices do not have their
full impact on earnings until many months after they go into
effect. Thus, to resume our metaphor, when the party ends and
the bar is closed, you are allowed to finish your drink. If
results are not hurt by a major natural catastrophe, we predict a
small climb for the industry's combined ratio in 1988, followed
by several years of larger increases.
The insurance industry is cursed with a set of dismal
economic characteristics that make for a poor long-term outlook:
hundreds of competitors, ease of entry, and a product that cannot
be differentiated in any meaningful way. In such a commodity-
like business, only a very low-cost operator or someone operating
in a protected, and usually small, niche can sustain high
When shortages exist, however, even commodity businesses
flourish. The insurance industry enjoyed that kind of climate
for a while but it is now gone. One of the ironies of capitalism
is that most managers in commodity industries abhor shortage
conditions - even though those are the only circumstances
permitting them good returns. Whenever shortages appear, the
typical manager simply can't wait to expand capacity and thereby
plug the hole through which money is showering upon him. This is
precisely what insurance managers did in 1985-87, confirming
again Disraeli's observation: "What we learn from history is that
we do not learn from history."
At Berkshire, we work to escape the industry's commodity
economics in two ways. First, we differentiate our product by our
financial strength, which exceeds that of all others in the
industry. This strength, however, is limited in its usefulness.
It means nothing in the personal insurance field: The buyer of
an auto or homeowners policy is going to get his claim paid even
if his insurer fails (as many have). It often means nothing in
the commercial insurance arena: When times are good, many major
corporate purchasers of insurance and their brokers pay scant
attention to the insurer's ability to perform under the more
adverse conditions that may exist, say, five years later when a
complicated claim is finally resolved. (Out of sight, out of mind
- and, later on, maybe out-of-pocket.)
Periodically, however, buyers remember Ben Franklin's
observation that it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright
and recognize their need to buy promises only from insurers that
have enduring financial strength. It is then that we have a
major competitive advantage. When a buyer really focuses on
whether a $10 million claim can be easily paid by his insurer
five or ten years down the road, and when he takes into account
the possibility that poor underwriting conditions may then
coincide with depressed financial markets and defaults by
reinsurer, he will find only a few companies he can trust.
Among those, Berkshire will lead the pack.
Our second method of differentiating ourselves is the total
indifference to volume that we maintain. In 1989, we will be
perfectly willing to write five times as much business as we
write in 1988 - or only one-fifth as much. We hope, of course,
that conditions will allow us large volume. But we cannot
control market prices. If they are unsatisfactory, we will
simply do very little business. No other major insurer acts with
Three conditions that prevail in insurance, but not in most
businesses, allow us our flexibility. First, market share is not
an important determinant of profitability: In this business, in
contrast to the newspaper or grocery businesses, the economic
rule is not survival of the fattest. Second, in many sectors of
insurance, including most of those in which we operate,
distribution channels are not proprietary and can be easily
entered: Small volume this year does not preclude huge volume
next year. Third, idle capacity - which in this industry largely
means people - does not result in intolerable costs. In a way
that industries such as printing or steel cannot, we can operate
at quarter-speed much of the time and still enjoy long-term
We follow a price-based-on-exposure, not-on-competition
policy because it makes sense for our shareholders. But we're
happy to report that it is also pro-social. This policy means
that we are always available, given prices that we believe are
adequate, to write huge volumes of almost any type of property-
casualty insurance. Many other insurers follow an in-and-out
approach. When they are "out" - because of mounting losses,
capital inadequacy, or whatever - we are available. Of course,
when others are panting to do business we are also available -
but at such times we often find ourselves priced above the
market. In effect, we supply insurance buyers and brokers with a
large reservoir of standby capacity.
One story from mid-1987 illustrates some consequences of our
pricing policy: One of the largest family-owned insurance
brokers in the country is headed by a fellow who has long been a
shareholder of Berkshire. This man handles a number of large
risks that are candidates for placement with our New York office.
Naturally, he does the best he can for his clients. And, just as
naturally, when the insurance market softened dramatically in
1987 he found prices at other insurers lower than we were willing
to offer. His reaction was, first, to place all of his business
elsewhere and, second, to buy more stock in Berkshire. Had we
been really competitive, he said, we would have gotten his
insurance business but he would not have bought our stock.
Berkshire's underwriting experience was excellent in 1987,
in part because of the lag factor discussed earlier. Our
combined ratio (on a statutory basis and excluding structured
settlements and financial reinsurance) was 105. Although the
ratio was somewhat less favorable than in 1986, when it was 103,
our profitability improved materially in 1987 because we had the
use of far more float. This trend will continue to run in our
favor: Our ratio of float to premium volume will increase very
significantly during the next few years. Thus, Berkshire's
insurance profits are quite likely to improve during 1988 and
1989, even though we expect our combined ratio to rise.
Our insurance business has also made some important non-
financial gains during the last few years. Mike Goldberg, its
manager, has assembled a group of talented professionals to write
larger risks and unusual coverages. His operation is now well
equipped to handle the lines of business that will occasionally
offer us major opportunities.
Our loss reserve development, detailed on pages 41-42, looks
better this year than it has previously. But we write lots of
"long-tail" business - that is, policies generating claims that
often take many years to resolve. Examples would be product
liability, or directors and officers liability coverages. With a
business mix like this, one year of reserve development tells you
You should be very suspicious of any earnings figures
reported by insurers (including our own, as we have unfortunately
proved to you in the past). The record of the last decade shows
that a great many of our best-known insurers have reported
earnings to shareholders that later proved to be wildly
erroneous. In most cases, these errors were totally innocent:
The unpredictability of our legal system makes it impossible for
even the most conscientious insurer to come close to judging the
eventual cost of long-tail claims.
Nevertheless, auditors annually certify the numbers given
them by management and in their opinions unqualifiedly state that
these figures "present fairly" the financial position of their
clients. The auditors use this reassuring language even though
they know from long and painful experience that the numbers so
certified are likely to differ dramatically from the true
earnings of the period. Despite this history of error, investors
understandably rely upon auditors' opinions. After all, a
declaration saying that "the statements present fairly" hardly
sounds equivocal to the non-accountant.
The wording in the auditor's standard opinion letter is
scheduled to change next year. The new language represents
improvement, but falls far short of describing the limitations of
a casualty-insurer audit. If it is to depict the true state of
affairs, we believe the standard opinion letter to shareholders
of a property-casualty company should read something like: "We
have relied upon representations of management in respect to the
liabilities shown for losses and loss adjustment expenses, the
estimate of which, in turn, very materially affects the earnings
and financial condition herein reported. We can express no
opinion about the accuracy of these figures. Subject to that
important reservation, in our opinion, etc."
If lawsuits develop in respect to wildly inaccurate
financial statements (which they do), auditors will definitely
say something of that sort in court anyway. Why should they not
be forthright about their role and its limitations from the
We want to emphasize that we are not faulting auditors for
their inability to accurately assess loss reserves (and therefore
earnings). We fault them only for failing to publicly
acknowledge that they can't do this job.
From all appearances, the innocent mistakes that are
constantly made in reserving are accompanied by others that are
deliberate. Various charlatans have enriched themselves at the
expense of the investing public by exploiting, first, the
inability of auditors to evaluate reserve figures and, second,
the auditors' willingness to confidently certify those figures as
if they had the expertise to do so. We will continue to see such
chicanery in the future. Where "earnings" can be created by the
stroke of a pen, the dishonest will gather. For them, long-tail
insurance is heaven. The audit wording we suggest would at least
serve to put investors on guard against these predators.
The taxes that insurance companies pay - which increased
materially, though on a delayed basis, upon enactment of the Tax
Reform Act of 1986 - took a further turn for the worse at the end
of 1987. We detailed the 1986 changes in last year's report. We
also commented on the irony of a statute that substantially
increased 1987 reported earnings for insurers even as it
materially reduced both their long-term earnings potential and
their business value. At Berkshire, the temporarily-helpful
"fresh start" adjustment inflated 1987 earnings by $8.2 million.
In our opinion, the 1986 Act was the most important economic
event affecting the insurance industry over the past decade. The
1987 Bill further reduced the intercorporate dividends-received
credit from 80% to 70%, effective January 1, 1988, except for
cases in which the taxpayer owns at least 20% of an investee.
Investors who have owned stocks or bonds through corporate
intermediaries other than qualified investment companies have
always been disadvantaged in comparison to those owning the same
securities directly. The penalty applying to indirect ownership
was greatly increased by the 1986 Tax Bill and, to a lesser
extent, by the 1987 Bill, particularly in instances where the
intermediary is an insurance company. We have no way of
offsetting this increased level of taxation. It simply means
that a given set of pre-tax investment returns will now translate
into much poorer after-tax results for our shareholders.
All in all, we expect to do well in the insurance business,
though our record is sure to be uneven. The immediate outlook is
for substantially lower volume but reasonable earnings
improvement. The decline in premium volume will accelerate after
our quota-share agreement with Fireman's Fund expires in 1989.
At some point, likely to be at least a few years away, we may see
some major opportunities, for which we are now much better
prepared than we were in 1985.
Marketable Securities - Permanent Holdings
Whenever Charlie and I buy common stocks for Berkshire's
insurance companies (leaving aside arbitrage purchases, discussed
later) we approach the transaction as if we were buying into a
private business. We look at the economic prospects of the
business, the people in charge of running it, and the price we
must pay. We do not have in mind any time or price for sale.
Indeed, we are willing to hold a stock indefinitely so long as we
expect the business to increase in intrinsic value at a
satisfactory rate. When investing, we view ourselves as business
analysts - not as market analysts, not as macroeconomic analysts,
and not even as security analysts.
Our approach makes an active trading market useful, since it
periodically presents us with mouth-watering opportunities. But
by no means is it essential: a prolonged suspension of trading in
the securities we hold would not bother us any more than does the
lack of daily quotations on World Book or Fechheimer.
Eventually, our economic fate will be determined by the economic
fate of the business we own, whether our ownership is partial or
Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the
mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be
most conducive to investment success. He said that you should
imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably
accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a
private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and
names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell
Even though the business that the two of you own may have
economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market's quotations
will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has
incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can
see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in
that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears
that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains.
At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble
ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he
will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will
unload your interest on him.
Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn't
mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you
today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are
strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-
depressive his behavior, the better for you.
But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning
or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is
there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not
his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day
in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him
or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you
fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren't certain that you
understand and can value your business far better than Mr.
Market, you don't belong in the game. As they say in poker, "If
you've been in the game 30 minutes and you don't know who the
patsy is, you're the patsy."
Ben's Mr. Market allegory may seem out-of-date in today's
investment world, in which most professionals and academicians
talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas. Their
interest in such matters is understandable, since techniques
shrouded in mystery clearly have value to the purveyor of
investment advice. After all, what witch doctor has ever
achieved fame and fortune by simply advising "Take two aspirins"?
The value of market esoterica to the consumer of investment
advice is a different story. In my opinion, investment success
will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or
signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets.
Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business
judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior
from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the
marketplace. In my own efforts to stay insulated, I have found
it highly useful to keep Ben's Mr. Market concept firmly in mind.
Following Ben's teachings, Charlie and I let our marketable
equities tell us by their operating results - not by their daily,
or even yearly, price quotations - whether our investments are
successful. The market may ignore business success for a while,
but eventually will confirm it. As Ben said: "In the short run,
the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a
weighing machine." The speed at which a business's success is
recognized, furthermore, is not that important as long as the
company's intrinsic value is increasing at a satisfactory rate.
In fact, delayed recognition can be an advantage: It may give us
the chance to buy more of a good thing at a bargain price.
Sometimes, of course, the market may judge a business to be
more valuable than the underlying facts would indicate it is. In
such a case, we will sell our holdings. Sometimes, also, we will
sell a security that is fairly valued or even undervalued because
we require funds for a still more undervalued investment or one
we believe we understand better.
We need to emphasize, however, that we do not sell holdings
just because they have appreciated or because we have held them
for a long time. (Of Wall Street maxims the most foolish may be
"You can't go broke taking a profit.") We are quite content to
hold any security indefinitely, so long as the prospective return
on equity capital of the underlying business is satisfactory,
management is competent and honest, and the market does not
overvalue the business.
However, our insurance companies own three marketable common
stocks that we would not sell even though they became far
overpriced in the market. In effect, we view these investments
exactly like our successful controlled businesses - a permanent
part of Berkshire rather than merchandise to be disposed of once
Mr. Market offers us a sufficiently high price. To that, I will
add one qualifier: These stocks are held by our insurance
companies and we would, if absolutely necessary, sell portions of
our holdings to pay extraordinary insurance losses. We intend,
however, to manage our affairs so that sales are never required.
A determination to have and to hold, which Charlie and I
share, obviously involves a mixture of personal and financial
considerations. To some, our stand may seem highly eccentric.
(Charlie and I have long followed David Oglivy's advice: "Develop
your eccentricities while you are young. That way, when you get
old, people won't think you're going ga-ga.") Certainly, in the
transaction-fixated Wall Street of recent years, our posture must
seem odd: To many in that arena, both companies and stocks are
seen only as raw material for trades.
Our attitude, however, fits our personalities and the way we
want to live our lives. Churchill once said, "You shape your
houses and then they shape you." We know the manner in which we
wish to be shaped. For that reason, we would rather achieve a
return of X while associating with people whom we strongly like
and admire than realize 110% of X by exchanging these
relationships for uninteresting or unpleasant ones. And we will
never find people we like and admire more than some of the main
participants at the three companies - our permanent holdings -
No. of Shares Cost Market
------------- ---------- ----------
3,000,000 Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. ........... $517,500 $1,035,000
6,850,000 GEICO Corporation .................. 45,713 756,925
1,727,765 The Washington Post Company ........ 9,731 323,092
We really don't see many fundamental differences between the
purchase of a controlled business and the purchase of marketable
holdings such as these. In each case we try to buy into
businesses with favorable long-term economics. Our goal is to
find an outstanding business at a sensible price, not a mediocre
business at a bargain price. Charlie and I have found that
making silk purses out of silk is the best that we can do; with
sow's ears, we fail.
(It must be noted that your Chairman, always a quick study,
required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy
good businesses. In the interim, I searched for "bargains" - and
had the misfortune to find some. My punishment was an education
in the economics of short-line farm implement manufacturers,
third-place department stores, and New England textile
Of course, Charlie and I may misread the fundamental
economics of a business. When that happens, we will encounter
problems whether that business is a wholly-owned subsidiary or a
marketable security, although it is usually far easier to exit
from the latter. (Indeed, businesses can be misread: Witness the
European reporter who, after being sent to this country to
profile Andrew Carnegie, cabled his editor, "My God, you'll never
believe the sort of money there is in running libraries.")
In making both control purchases and stock purchases, we try
to buy not only good businesses, but ones run by high-grade,
talented and likeable managers. If we make a mistake about the
managers we link up with, the controlled company offers a certain
advantage because we have the power to effect change. In
practice, however, this advantage is somewhat illusory:
Management changes, like marital changes, are painful, time-
consuming and chancy. In any event, at our three marketable-but
permanent holdings, this point is moot: With Tom Murphy and Dan
Burke at Cap Cities, Bill Snyder and Lou Simpson at GEICO, and
Kay Graham and Dick Simmons at The Washington Post, we simply
couldn't be in better hands.
I would say that the controlled company offers two main
advantages. First, when we control a company we get to allocate
capital, whereas we are likely to have little or nothing to say
about this process with marketable holdings. This point can be
important because the heads of many companies are not skilled in
capital allocation. Their inadequacy is not surprising. Most
bosses rise to the top because they have excelled in an area such
as marketing, production, engineering, administration or,
sometimes, institutional politics.
Once they become CEOs, they face new responsibilities. They
now must make capital allocation decisions, a critical job that
they may have never tackled and that is not easily mastered. To
stretch the point, it's as if the final step for a highly-
talented musician was not to perform at Carnegie Hall but,
instead, to be named Chairman of the Federal Reserve.
The lack of skill that many CEOs have at capital allocation
is no small matter: After ten years on the job, a CEO whose
company annually retains earnings equal to 10% of net worth will
have been responsible for the deployment of more than 60% of all
the capital at work in the business.
CEOs who recognize their lack of capital-allocation skills
(which not all do) will often try to compensate by turning to
their staffs, management consultants, or investment bankers.
Charlie and I have frequently observed the consequences of such
"help." On balance, we feel it is more likely to accentuate the
capital-allocation problem than to solve it.
In the end, plenty of unintelligent capital allocation takes
place in corporate America. (That's why you hear so much about
"restructuring.") Berkshire, however, has been fortunate. At the
companies that are our major non-controlled holdings, capital has
generally been well-deployed and, in some cases, brilliantly so.
The second advantage of a controlled company over a
marketable security has to do with taxes. Berkshire, as a
corporate holder, absorbs some significant tax costs through the
ownership of partial positions that we do not when our ownership
is 80%, or greater. Such tax disadvantages have long been with
us, but changes in the tax code caused them to increase
significantly during the past year. As a consequence, a given
business result can now deliver Berkshire financial results that
are as much as 50% better if they come from an 80%-or-greater
holding rather than from a lesser holding.
The disadvantages of owning marketable securities are
sometimes offset by a huge advantage: Occasionally the stock
market offers us the chance to buy non-controlling pieces of
extraordinary businesses at truly ridiculous prices -
dramatically below those commanded in negotiated transactions
that transfer control. For example, we purchased our Washington
Post stock in 1973 at $5.63 per share, and per-share operating
earnings in 1987 after taxes were $10.30. Similarly, Our GEICO
stock was purchased in 1976, 1979 and 1980 at an average of $6.67
per share, and after-tax operating earnings per share last year
were $9.01. In cases such as these, Mr. Market has proven to be a
mighty good friend.
An interesting accounting irony overlays a comparison of the
reported financial results of our controlled companies with those
of the permanent minority holdings listed above. As you can see,
those three stocks have a market value of over $2 billion. Yet
they produced only $11 million in reported after-tax earnings for
Berkshire in 1987.
Accounting rules dictate that we take into income only the
dividends these companies pay us - which are little more than
nominal - rather than our share of their earnings, which in 1987
amounted to well over $100 million. On the other hand,
accounting rules provide that the carrying value of these three
holdings - owned, as they are, by insurance companies - must be
recorded on our balance sheet at current market prices. The
result: GAAP accounting lets us reflect in our net worth the up-
to-date underlying values of the businesses we partially own, but
does not let us reflect their underlying earnings in our income
In the case of our controlled companies, just the opposite
is true. Here, we show full earnings in our income account but
never change asset values on our balance sheet, no matter how
much the value of a business might have increased since we
Our mental approach to this accounting schizophrenia is to
ignore GAAP figures and to focus solely on the future earning
power of both our controlled and non-controlled businesses.
Using this approach, we establish our own ideas of business
value, keeping these independent from both the accounting values
shown on our books for controlled companies and the values placed
by a sometimes foolish market on our partially-owned companies.
It is this business value that we hope to increase at a
reasonable (or, preferably, unreasonable) rate in the years
Marketable Securities - Other
In addition to our three permanent common stock holdings, we
hold large quantities of marketable securities in our insurance
companies. In selecting these, we can choose among five major
categories: (1) long-term common stock investments, (2) medium-
term fixed-income securities, (3) long-term fixed income
securities, (4) short-term cash equivalents, and (5) short-term
We have no particular bias when it comes to choosing from
these categories. We just continuously search among them for the
highest after-tax returns as measured by "mathematical
expectation," limiting ourselves always to investment
alternatives we think we understand. Our criteria have nothing
to do with maximizing immediately reportable earnings; our goal,
rather, is to maximize eventual net worth.
o Let's look first at common stocks. During 1987 the stock
market was an area of much excitement but little net movement:
The Dow advanced 2.3% for the year. You are aware, of course, of
the roller coaster ride that produced this minor change. Mr.
Market was on a manic rampage until October and then experienced
a sudden, massive seizure.
We have "professional" investors, those who manage many
billions, to thank for most of this turmoil. Instead of focusing
on what businesses will do in the years ahead, many prestigious
money managers now focus on what they expect other money managers
to do in the days ahead. For them, stocks are merely tokens in a
game, like the thimble and flatiron in Monopoly.
An extreme example of what their attitude leads to is
"portfolio insurance," a money-management strategy that many
leading investment advisors embraced in 1986-1987. This strategy
- which is simply an exotically-labeled version of the small
speculator's stop-loss order dictates that ever increasing
portions of a stock portfolio, or their index-future equivalents,
be sold as prices decline. The strategy says nothing else
matters: A downtick of a given magnitude automatically produces a
huge sell order. According to the Brady Report, $60 billion to
$90 billion of equities were poised on this hair trigger in mid-
October of 1987.
If you've thought that investment advisors were hired to
invest, you may be bewildered by this technique. After buying a
farm, would a rational owner next order his real estate agent to
start selling off pieces of it whenever a neighboring property
was sold at a lower price? Or would you sell your house to
whatever bidder was available at 9:31 on some morning merely
because at 9:30 a similar house sold for less than it would have
brought on the previous day?
Moves like that, however, are what portfolio insurance tells
a pension fund or university to make when it owns a portion of
enterprises such as Ford or General Electric. The less these
companies are being valued at, says this approach, the more
vigorously they should be sold. As a "logical" corollary, the
approach commands the institutions to repurchase these companies
- I'm not making this up - once their prices have rebounded
significantly. Considering that huge sums are controlled by
managers following such Alice-in-Wonderland practices, is it any
surprise that markets sometimes behave in aberrational fashion?
Many commentators, however, have drawn an incorrect
conclusion upon observing recent events: They are fond of saying
that the small investor has no chance in a market now dominated
by the erratic behavior of the big boys. This conclusion is dead
wrong: Such markets are ideal for any investor - small or large -
so long as he sticks to his investment knitting. Volatility
caused by money managers who speculate irrationally with huge
sums will offer the true investor more chances to make
intelligent investment moves. He can be hurt by such volatility
only if he is forced, by either financial or psychological
pressures, to sell at untoward times.
At Berkshire, we have found little to do in stocks during
the past few years. During the break in October, a few stocks
fell to prices that interested us, but we were unable to make
meaningful purchases before they rebounded. At yearend 1987 we
had no major common stock investments (that is, over $50 million)
other than those we consider permanent or arbitrage holdings.
However, Mr. Market will offer us opportunities - you can be sure
of that - and, when he does, we will be willing and able to
o In the meantime, our major parking place for money is
medium-term tax-exempt bonds, whose limited virtues I explained
in last year's annual report. Though we both bought and sold
some of these bonds in 1987, our position changed little overall,
holding around $900 million. A large portion of our bonds are
"grandfathered" under the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which means
they are fully tax-exempt. Bonds currently purchased by
insurance companies are not.
As an alternative to short-term cash equivalents, our
medium-term tax-exempts have - so far served us well. They have
produced substantial extra income for us and are currently worth
a bit above our cost. Regardless of their market price, we are
ready to dispose of our bonds whenever something better comes
o We continue to have an aversion to long-term bonds (and may
be making a serious mistake by not disliking medium-term bonds as
well). Bonds are no better than the currency in which they are
denominated, and nothing we have seen in the past year - or past
decade - makes us enthusiastic about the long-term future of U.S.
Our enormous trade deficit is causing various forms of
"claim checks" - U.S. government and corporate bonds, bank
deposits, etc. - to pile up in the hands of foreigners at a
distressing rate. By default, our government has adopted an
approach to its finances patterned on that of Blanche DuBois, of
A Streetcar Named Desire, who said, "I have always depended on
the kindness of strangers." In this case, of course, the
"strangers" are relying on the integrity of our claim checks
although the plunging dollar has already made that proposition
expensive for them.
The faith that foreigners are placing in us may be
misfounded. When the claim checks outstanding grow sufficiently
numerous and when the issuing party can unilaterally determine
their purchasing power, the pressure on the issuer to dilute
their value by inflating the currency becomes almost
irresistible. For the debtor government, the weapon of inflation
is the economic equivalent of the "H" bomb, and that is why very
few countries have been allowed to swamp the world with debt
denominated in their own currency. Our past, relatively good
record for fiscal integrity has let us break this rule, but the
generosity accorded us is likely to intensify, rather than
relieve, the eventual pressure on us to inflate. If we do
succumb to that pressure, it won't be just the foreign holders of
our claim checks who will suffer. It will be all of us as well.
Of course, the U.S. may take steps to stem our trade deficit
well before our position as a net debtor gets out of hand. (In
that respect, the falling dollar will help, though unfortunately
it will hurt in other ways.) Nevertheless, our government's
behavior in this test of its mettle is apt to be consistent with
its Scarlett O'Hara approach generally: "I'll think about it
tomorrow." And, almost inevitably, procrastination in facing up
to fiscal problems will have inflationary consequences.
Both the timing and the sweep of those consequences are
unpredictable. But our inability to quantify or time the risk
does not mean we should ignore it. While recognizing the
possibility that we may be wrong and that present interest rates
may adequately compensate for the inflationary risk, we retain a
general fear of long-term bonds.
We are, however, willing to invest a moderate portion of our
funds in this category if we think we have a significant edge in
a specific security. That willingness explains our holdings of
the Washington Public Power Supply Systems #1, #2 and #3 issues,
discussed in our 1984 report. We added to our WPPSS position
during 1987. At yearend, we had holdings with an amortized cost
of $240 million and a market value of $316 million, paying us
tax-exempt income of $34 million annually.
o We continued to do well in arbitrage last year, though - or
perhaps because - we operated on a very limited scale. We enter
into only a few arbitrage commitments each year and restrict
ourselves to large transactions that have been publicly
announced. We do not participate in situations in which green-
mailers are attempting to put a target company "in play."
We have practiced arbitrage on an opportunistic basis for
decades and, to date, our results have been quite good. Though
we've never made an exact calculation, I believe that overall we
have averaged annual pre-tax returns of at least 25% from
arbitrage. I'm quite sure we did better than that in 1987. But
it should be emphasized that a really bad experience or two -
such as many arbitrage operations suffered in late 1987 - could
change the figures dramatically.
Our only $50 million-plus arbitrage position at yearend 1987
was 1,096,200 shares of Allegis, with a cost of $76 million and a
market value of $78 million.
o We had two other large holdings at yearend that do not fit
precisely into any of our five categories. One was various
Texaco, Inc. bonds with short maturities, all purchased after
Texaco went into bankruptcy. Were it not for the extraordinarily
strong capital position of our insurance companies, it would be
inappropriate for us to buy defaulted bonds. At prices
prevailing after Texaco's bankruptcy filing, however, we regarded
these issues as by far the most attractive bond investment
available to us.
On a worst-case basis with respect to the Pennzoil
litigation, we felt the bonds were likely to be worth about what
we paid for them. Given a sensible settlement, which seemed
likely, we expected the bonds to be worth considerably more. At
yearend our Texaco bonds were carried on our books at $104
million and had a market value of $119 million.
By far our largest - and most publicized - investment in
1987 was a $700 million purchase of Salomon Inc 9% preferred
stock. This preferred is convertible after three years into
Salomon common stock at $38 per share and, if not converted, will
be redeemed ratably over five years beginning October 31, 1995.
From most standpoints, this commitment fits into the medium-term
fixed-income securities category. In addition, we have an
interesting conversion possibility.
We, of course, have no special insights regarding the
direction or future profitability of investment banking. By
their nature, the economics of this industry are far less
predictable than those of most other industries in which we have
major Commitments. This unpredictability is one of the reasons
why our participation is in the form of a convertible preferred.
What we do have a strong feeling about is the ability and
integrity of John Gutfreund, CEO of Salomon Inc. Charlie and I
like, admire and trust John. We first got to know him in 1976
when he played a key role in GEICO's escape from near-bankruptcy.
Several times since, we have seen John steer clients away from
transactions that would have been unwise, but that the client
clearly wanted to make - even though his advice provided no fee
to Salomon and acquiescence would have delivered a large fee.
Such service-above-self behavior is far from automatic in Wall
For the reasons Charlie outlines on page 50, at yearend we
valued our Salomon investment at 98% of par, $14 million less
than our cost. However, we believe there is a reasonable
likelihood that a leading, high-quality capital-raising and
market-making operation can average good returns on equity. If
so, our conversion right will eventually prove to be valuable.
Two further comments about our investments in marketable
securities are appropriate. First, we give you our usual
warning: Our holdings have changed since yearend and will
continue to do so without notice.
The second comment is related: During 1987, as in some
earlier years, there was speculation in the press from time to
time about our purchase or sale of various securities. These
stories were sometimes true, sometimes partially true, and other
times completely untrue. Interestingly, there has been no
correlation between the size and prestige of the publication and
the accuracy of the report. One dead-wrong rumor was given
considerable prominence by a major national magazine, and another
leading publication misled its readers by writing about an
arbitrage position as if it were a long-term investment
commitment. (In not naming names, I am observing the old warning
that it's not wise to pick fights with people who buy ink by the
You should understand that we simply don't comment in any
way on rumors, whether they are true or false. If we were to
deny the incorrect reports and refuse comment on the correct
ones, we would in effect be commenting on all.
In a world in which big investment ideas are both limited
and valuable, we have no interest in telling potential
competitors what we are doing except to the extent required by
law. We certainly don't expect others to tell us of their
investment ideas. Nor would we expect a media company to
disclose news of acquisitions it was privately pursuing or a
journalist to tell his competitors about stories on which he is
working or sources he is using.
I find it uncomfortable when friends or acquaintances
mention that they are buying X because it has been reported -
incorrectly - that Berkshire is a buyer. However, I do not set
them straight. If they want to participate in whatever Berkshire
actually is buying, they can always purchase Berkshire stock.
But perhaps that is too simple. Usually, I suspect, they find it
more exciting to buy what is being talked about. Whether that
strategy is more profitable is another question.
Shortly after yearend, Berkshire sold two issues of
debentures, totaling $250 million. Both issues mature in 2018
and will be retired at an even pace through sinking fund
operations that begin in 1999. Our overall interest cost, after
allowing for expenses of issuance, is slightly over 10%. Salomon
was our investment banker, and its service was excellent.
Despite our pessimistic views about inflation, our taste for
debt is quite limited. To be sure, it is likely that Berkshire
could improve its return on equity by moving to a much higher,
though still conventional, debt-to-business-value ratio. It's
even more likely that we could handle such a ratio, without
problems, under economic conditions far worse than any that have
prevailed since the early 1930s.
But we do not wish it to be only likely that we can meet our
obligations; we wish that to be certain. Thus we adhere to
policies - both in regard to debt and all other matters - that
will allow us to achieve acceptable long-term results under
extraordinarily adverse conditions, rather than optimal results
under a normal range of conditions.
Good business or investment decisions will eventually
produce quite satisfactory economic results, with no aid from
leverage. Therefore, it seems to us to be both foolish and
improper to risk what is important (including, necessarily, the
welfare of innocent bystanders such as policyholders and
employees) for some extra returns that are relatively
unimportant. This view is not the product of either our
advancing age or prosperity: Our opinions about debt have
However, we are not phobic about borrowing. (We're far from
believing that there is no fate worse than debt.) We are willing
to borrow an amount that we believe - on a worst-case basis -
will pose no threat to Berkshire's well-being. Analyzing what
that amount might be, we can look to some important strengths
that would serve us well if major problems should engulf our
economy: Berkshire's earnings come from many diverse and well-
entrenched businesses; these businesses seldom require much
capital investment; what debt we have is structured well; and we
maintain major holdings of liquid assets. Clearly, we could be
comfortable with a higher debt-to-business-value ratio than we
One further aspect of our debt policy deserves comment:
Unlike many in the business world, we prefer to finance in
anticipation of need rather than in reaction to it. A business
obtains the best financial results possible by managing both
sides of its balance sheet well. This means obtaining the
highest-possible return on assets and the lowest-possible cost on
liabilities. It would be convenient if opportunities for
intelligent action on both fronts coincided. However, reason
tells us that just the opposite is likely to be the case: Tight
money conditions, which translate into high costs for
liabilities, will create the best opportunities for acquisitions,
and cheap money will cause assets to be bid to the sky. Our
conclusion: Action on the liability side should sometimes be
taken independent of any action on the asset side.
Alas, what is "tight" and "cheap" money is far from clear at
any particular time. We have no ability to forecast interest
rates and - maintaining our usual open-minded spirit - believe
that no one else can. Therefore, we simply borrow when
conditions seem non-oppressive and hope that we will later find
intelligent expansion or acquisition opportunities, which - as we
have said - are most likely to pop up when conditions in the debt
market are clearly oppressive. Our basic principle is that if
you want to shoot rare, fast-moving elephants, you should always
carry a loaded gun.
Our fund-first, buy-or-expand-later policy almost always
penalizes near-term earnings. For example, we are now earning
about 6 1/2% on the $250 million we recently raised at 10%, a
disparity that is currently costing us about $160,000 per week.
This negative spread is unimportant to us and will not cause us
to stretch for either acquisitions or higher-yielding short-term
instruments. If we find the right sort of business elephant
within the next five years or so, the wait will have been
We hope to buy more businesses that are similar to the ones
we have, and we can use some help. If you have a business that
fits the following criteria, call me or, preferably, write.
Here's what we're looking for:
(1) large purchases (at least $10 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 issuing 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.
On the other hand, we frequently get approached about
acquisitions that don't come close to meeting our tests: new
ventures, turnarounds, auction-like sales, and the ever-popular
(among brokers) "I'm-sure-something-will-work-out-if-you-people-
get-to-know-each-other." None of these attracts us in the least.
Besides being interested in the purchases of entire
businesses as described above, we are also interested in the
negotiated purchase of large, but not controlling, blocks of
stock comparable to those we hold in Cap Cities and Salomon. We
have a special interest in purchasing convertible preferreds as a
long-term investment, as we did at Salomon.
* * *
And now a bit of deja vu. Most of Berkshire's major
stockholders received their shares at yearend 1969 in a
liquidating distribution from Buffett Partnership, Ltd. Some of
these former partners will remember that in 1962 I encountered
severe managerial problems at Dempster Mill Manufacturing Co., a
pump and farm implement manufacturing company that BPL
At that time, like now, I went to Charlie with problems that
were too tough for me to solve. Charlie suggested the solution
might lie in a California friend of his, Harry Bottle, whose
special knack was never forgetting the fundamental. I met Harry
in Los Angeles on April 17, 1962, and on April 23 he was in
Beatrice, Nebraska, running Dempster. Our problems disappeared
almost immediately. In my 1962 annual letter to partners, I
named Harry "Man of the Year."
Fade to 24 years later: The scene is K & W Products, a small
Berkshire subsidiary that produces automotive compounds. For
years K & W did well, but in 1985-86 it stumbled badly, as it
pursued the unattainable to the neglect of the achievable.
Charlie, who oversees K & W, knew there was no need to consult
me. Instead, he called Harry, now 68 years old, made him CEO,
and sat back to await the inevitable. He didn't wait long. In
1987 K & W's profits set a record, up more than 300% from 1986.
And, as profits went up, capital employed went down: K & W's
investment in accounts receivable and inventories has decreased
If we run into another managerial problem ten or twenty
years down the road, you know whose phone will ring.
* * *
About 97.2% of all eligible shares participated in
Berkshire's 1987 shareholder-designated contributions program.
Contributions made through the program were $4.9 million, and
2,050 charities were recipients.
A recent survey reported that about 50% of major American
companies match charitable contributions made by directors
(sometimes by a factor of three to one). In effect, these
representatives of the owners direct funds to their favorite
charities, and never consult the owners as to their charitable
preferences. (I wonder how they would feel if the process were
reversed and shareholders could invade the directors' pockets for
charities favored by the shareholders.) When A takes money from B
to give to C and A is a legislator, the process is called
taxation. But when A is an officer or director of a corporation,
it is called philanthropy. We continue to believe that
contributions, aside from those with quite clear direct benefits
to the company, should reflect the charitable preferences of
owners rather than those of officers and directors.
We urge new shareholders to read the description of our
shareholder-designated contributions program that appears on
pages 54 and 55. If you wish to participate in future programs,
we strongly urge that you immediately make sure your shares are
registered in the name of the actual owner, not in "street" name
or nominee name. Shares not so registered on September 30, l988
will be ineligible for the 1988 program.
* * *
Last year we again had about 450 shareholders at our annual
meeting. The 60 or so questions they asked were, as always,
excellent. At many companies, the annual meeting is a waste of
time because exhibitionists turn it into a sideshow. Ours,
however, is different. It is informative for shareholders and
fun for us. (At Berkshire's meetings, the exhibitionists are on
This year our meeting will be on May 23, 1988 in Omaha, and
we hope that you come. The meeting provides the forum for you to
ask any owner-related questions you may have, and we will keep
answering until all (except those dealing with portfolio
activities or other proprietary information) have been dealt
Last year we rented two buses - for $100 - to take
shareholders interested in the trip to the Furniture Mart. Your
actions demonstrated your good judgment: You snapped up about
$40,000 of bargains. Mrs. B regards this expense/sales ratio as
on the high side and attributes it to my chronic inattention to
costs and generally sloppy managerial practices. But, gracious
as always, she has offered me another chance and we will again
have buses available following the meeting. Mrs. B says you must
beat last year's sales figures, and I have told her she won't be
Warren E. Buffett
February 29, 1988 Chairman of the Board
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