Mar 2nd 2009 10:00AM by Timothy Sykes
Filed under: Forecasts, Good news, General Electric (GE), Wal-Mart (WMT), Coca-Cola (KO), Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), Newsletters, Citigroup Inc. (C), Johnson and Johnson (JNJ), American Express (AXP), Bank of America (BAC), Federal Natl Mtge (FNM), ConocoPhillips (COP), Goldman Sachs Group (GS), Procter and Gamble (PG), Blackstone Group L.P (BX), Financial Crisis
You can read this year's entire 97-page annual report (pdf), or the shorter 23-page letter to shareholders (html), or just learn from what I think are some of this year's most important points:
1. While, as has been widely reported, this was Berkshire's worst year, we're only talking a 9.6% drop in book value, which hugely outperformed not only the S&P 500, but just about everyone else with multi-billion dollar businesses, let alone any insurance or investment businesses. Compare to Marsh & McLennan Companies (NYSE: MMC), Blackstone Group (NYSE: BX), Aon Corp (NYSE: AOC) and Willis Group (NYSE: WSH), all of which were hit far worse.
2. Forget about industry outperformance -- considering half the companies I mentioned in last year's Buffett lessons article aren't even operating, like Merrill Lynch (now owned by Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC), or operating independently anymore, like Ambac Financial (NYSE: ABK), Citigroup (NYSE: C) and Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) -- it's a victory to still be financially secure given the market climate. But Buffett doesn't congratulate himself one bit, saying "these performances are unsatisfactory."
3. Not only does he not congratulate himself, Buffett takes it to the next level by fessing up to doing "some dumb things in investments," like buying ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) near its highs, saying "so far I have been dead wrong."
4. Buffett says, "I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down," which no doubt refers to his recent purchases of General Electric Company (NYSE: GE) and Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. (NYSE: GS) stock, both positions on which he's severely underwater. Lesson: Buffett is not a market or stock timer, he has simple investment concepts that he sticks to. He is already rich, powerful and influential so he gets nice 10% annual dividends on his preferred stocks. You -- no matter who you are -- are not that lucky. Timing does matter in the real world and you can NEVER risk being down 50%+.
5. ABS: Always be selling. Buffett talks about how his GEICO subsidiary is the best insurance for motorists and he's so proud he even lists its phone number and website to "see if we can save you money as well."
6. On page 16 of his shareholder letter, Buffett breaks down Berkshire's ownership in several well known companies like American Express (NYSE: AXP), Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) , Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), listing the cost and market value. EVERYONE should be required to do this -- then we would finally see who is worth listening to and who is not. My guess is the people who claim to be experts would be proven to be otherwise.
7. Buffett takes great pride in his businesses and believes that brutal honesty is the best path to success. All of Wall Street should take this lesson of the times; adapt or perish.
Timothy Sykes writes the blog timothysykes.com, is a former hedge fund manager and author of the book, An American Hedge Fund: How I Made $2 Million as a Stock Operator & Created a Hedge Fund.
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