The Essays of Warren Buffett: Quotes From the Best Investor of All Time
Warren Buffett is unquestionably one of the best investors to have ever lived.
Moreover, he has been very willing to share his writing with the world through his annual shareholder letters.
I have personally learned a great deal from reading Buffett’s writing over time. In this article, I will share a collection of Warren Buffett’s most insightful writings about the art and science of business and investing.
Table of Contents
You can skip to a specific section of this compilation of Warren Buffett quotes using the table of contents below:
“Executive performance should be measured by profitability, after profits are reduced by a charge for the capital employed in the relevant business or earnings retained by it.”
On Stock Splits
“Stock splits are another common action in corporate America that Buffett points out disserve owner interests. Stock splits have three consequences: they increase transaction costs by promoting high share turnover; they attract shareholders with short-term, market-oriented views who unduly focus on stock market prices; and, as a result of both of those effects, they lead to prices that depart materially from intrinsic business value. With no offsetting benefits, splitting Berkshire’s stock would be foolish. Not only that, Buffett adds, it would threaten to reverse five decades of hard work that has attracted to Berkshire a shareholder group comprised of more focused and long-term investors than probably any other major public corporation.”
On Stock-Funded Acquisitions
“Moreover, acquisitions paid for in stock are too often (almost always) described as“buyer buys seller” or “buyer acquires seller.” Buffett suggests clearer thinking would follow from saying “buyer sells part of itself to acquire seller,” or something of the sort. After all, that is what is happening; and it would enable one to evaluate what the buyer is giving up to make the acquisition.”
On Results-Based Compensation
“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. I should have written the “five-year rolling basis” sentence differently, an error I didn’t realize until I received a question about this subject at the2009 annual meeting. When the stock market has declined sharply over a five-year stretch, our market-price premium to book value has sometimes shrunk.And when that happens, we fail the test as I improperly formulated it. In fact, we fell far short as early as 1971-75, well before I wrote this principle in 1983. The five-year test should be: (1) during the period did our book-value gain exceed the performance of the S&P; and (2) did our stock consistently sell at a premium to book, meaning that every $1 of retained earnings was always worth more than $1? If these tests are met, retaining earnings has made sense.”
On the Accounting of Stock-Based Compensation
“First, beware of companies displaying weak accounting. If a company still does not expense options, or if its pension assumptions are fanciful, watch out. When managements take the low road in aspects that are visible, it is likely they are following a similar path behind the scenes. There is seldom just one cockroach in the kitchen.”
On Board Independence
“Several institutional shareholders and their advisors decided I lacked “independence”in my role as a director of Coca-Cola. One group wanted me removed from the board and another simply wanted me booted from the audit committee. My first impulse was to secretly fund the group behind the second idea. Why anyone would wish to be on an audit committee is beyond me. But since directors must be assigned to one committee or another, and since no CEO wants me on his compensation committee, it’s often been my lot to get an audit committee assignment. As it turned out, the institutions that opposed me failed and I was re-elected to the audit job. (I fought off the urge to ask for a recount.)”
On Hiring Independently Wealthy Managers
“Some of our key managers are independently wealthy (we hope they all become so), but that poses no threat to their continued interest: they work because they love what they do and relish the thrill of outstanding performance. They unfailingly think like owners (the highest compliment we can pay a manager) and find all aspects of their business absorbing. (Our prototype for occupational fervor is the Catholic tailor who used his small savings of many years to finance a pilgrimage to the Vatican. When he returned, his parish held a special meeting to get his first-hand account of the Pope. “Tell us,” said the eager faithful,“just what sort of fellow is he?” Our hero wasted no words: “He’s a forty-four medium.”) Charlie and I know that the right players will make almost any team manager look good. We subscribe to the philosophy of Ogilvy & Mather’s founding genius, David Ogilvy: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But, if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” A by-product of our managerial style is the ability it gives us to easily expand Berkshire’s activities. We’ve read management treatises that specify exactly how many people should report to any one executive, but they make little sense to us.When you have able managers of high character running businesses about which they are passionate, you can have a dozen or more reporting to you and still have time for an afternoon nap. Conversely, if you have even one person reporting to you who is deceitful, inept or uninterested, you will find yourself with more than you can handle. Charlie and I could work with double the number of managers we now have, so long as they had the rare qualities of the present ones.”
On the Benefits of Being a Berkshire Subsidiary
“Nevertheless,Berkshire’s ownership may make even the best of managers more effective. First, we eliminate all of the ritualistic and nonproductive activities that normally go with the job of CEO. Our managers are totally in charge of their personal schedules. Second, we give each a simple mission: Just run your business as if:(1) you own 100% of it; (2) it is the only asset in the world that you and your family have or will ever have; and (3) you can’t sell or merge it for at least a century. As a corollary, we tell them they should not let any of their decisions be affected even slightly by accounting consideration. We want our managers to think about what counts, not how it will be counted.”
Why Buffett Supported His Textile Businesses For So Long
““(1) our textile businesses are very important employers in their communities, (2) management has been straightforward in reporting on problems and energetic in attacking them, (3) labor has been cooperative and understanding in facing our common problems, and (4) the business should average modest cash returns relative to investment.” I further said, “As long as these conditions prevail—and we expect that they will—we intend to continue to support our textile business despite more attractive alternative uses for capital.”
On Options Pricing and Executive Compensation
“Take, for instance, ten year, fixed-price options (and who wouldn’t?). If Fred Futile,CEO of Stagnant, Inc., receives a bundle of these—let’s say enough to give him an option on 1% of the company—his self-interest is clear: He should skip dividends entirely and instead use all of the company’s earnings to repurchase stock. Let’s assume that under Fred’s leadership Stagnant lives up to its name.In each of the ten years after the option grant, it earns $1 billion on $10billion of net worth, which initially comes to $10 per share on the 100 million shares then outstanding. Fred eschews dividends and regularly uses all earnings to repurchase shares. If the stock constantly sells at ten times earnings per share, it will have appreciated 158% by the end of the option period. That’s because repurchases would reduce the number of shares to 38.7 million by that time, and earnings per share would thereby increase to $25.80. Simply by withholding earnings from owners, Fred gets very rich, making a cool $158million, despite the business itself improving not at all. Astonishingly, Fred could have made more than $100 million if Stagnant’s earnings had declined by20% during the ten-year period. Fred can also get a splendid result for himself by paying no dividends and deploying the earnings he withholds from shareholders into a variety of disappointing projects and acquisitions. Even if these initiatives deliver a paltry 5% return, Fred will still make a bundle.Specifically—with Stagnant’s p/e ratio remaining unchanged at ten—Fred’s option will deliver him $63 million. Meanwhile, his shareholders will wonder what happened to the “alignment of interests” that was supposed to occur when Fred was issued options.”
On Risk Management
“Charlie and I believe that a CEO must not delegate risk control. It’s simply too important.At Berkshire, [for example], I both initiate and monitor every derivatives contract on our books, with the exception of operations-related contracts at a few of our subsidiaries, such as MidAmerican, and the minor runoff contracts atGeneral Re. If Berkshire ever gets in trouble, it will be my fault. It will not be because of misjudgments made by a Risk Committee or Chief Risk Officer. In my view a board of directors of a huge financial institution is derelict if it does not insist that its CEO bear full responsibility for risk control. If he’s incapable of handling that job, he should look for other employment. And if he fails at it—with the government thereupon required to step in with funds or guarantees—the financial consequences for him and his board should be severe.”
On Stock Market Volatility
“It should be an enormous advantage for investors in stocks to have those wildly fluctuating valuations placed on their holdings—and for some investors, it is. After all, if a moody fellow with a farm bordering my property yelled out a price every day to me at which he would either buy my farm or sell me his—and those prices varied widely over short periods of time depending on his mental state—how in the world could I be other than benefited by his erratic behavior? If his daily shout-out was ridiculously low, and I had some spare cash, I would buy his farm. If the number he yelled was absurdly high, I could either sell to him or just go on farming.”
On the Efficient Market Theory
“Amazingly, EMT was embraced not only by academics, but by many investment professionals and corporate managers as well. Observing correctly that the market was frequently efficient, they went on to conclude incorrectly that it was always efficient. The difference between these propositions is night and day.”
“The strategy we’ve adopted precludes our following standard diversification dogma. Many pundits would therefore say the strategy must be riskier than that employed by more conventional investors. We disagree. We believe that a policy of portfolio concentration may well decrease risk if it raises, as it should, both the intensity with which an investor thinks about a business and the comfort-level he must feel with its economic characteristics before buying into it. In stating this opinion, we define risk, using dictionary terms, as “the possibility of loss or injury.”
On Inflation and Investment
“In our opinion, the real risk an investor must assess is whether his aggregate after-tax receipts from an investment (including those he receives on sale) will, over his prospective holding period, give him at least as much purchasing power as he had to begin with, plus a modest rate of interest on that initial stake.Though this risk cannot be calculated with engineering precision, it can in some cases be judged with a degree of accuracy that is useful. The primary factors bearing upon this evaluation are: (1) The certainty with which the long-term economic characteristics of the business can be evaluated; (2) The certainty with which management can be evaluated, both as to its ability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows;(3) The certainty with which management can be counted on to channel the reward from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself; (4) The purchase price of the business; (5) The levels of taxation and inflation that will be experienced and that will determine the degree by which an investor’s purchasing-power return is reduced from his gross return.”
On Prudent Diversification
“Another situation requiring wide diversification occurs when an investor who does not understand the economics of specific businesses nevertheless believes it in his interest to be a long-term owner of American industry. That investor should both own a large number of equities and space out his purchases. By periodically investing in an index fund, for example, the know-nothing investor can actually out-perform most investment professionals. Paradoxically, when“dumb” money acknowledges its limitations, it ceases to be dumb. On the other hand, if you are a know-something investor, able to understand business economics and to find five to ten sensibly-priced companies that possess important long-term competitive advantages, conventional diversification makes no sense for you. It is apt simply to hurt your results and increase your risk.I cannot understand why an investor of that sort elects to put money into a business that is his 20th favorite rather than simply adding that money to his top choices—the businesses he understands best and that present the least risk, along with the greatest profit potential. In the words of the prophet Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
On Portfolio Insurance
“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?”
On Operating a Full-Controlled Company
“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 . 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 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.”
On Inactivity in the Stock Market
“Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behavior. Neither we nor most business managers would dream of feverishly trading highly-profitable subsidiaries because a small move in the FederalReserve’s discount rate was predicted or because some Wall Street pundit had reversed his views on the market. Why, then, should we behave differently with our minority positions in wonderful businesses? The art of investing in public companies successfully is little different from the art of successfully acquiring subsidiaries. In each case you simply want to acquire, at a sensible price, a business with excellent economics and able, honest management. Thereafter, you need only monitor whether these qualities are being preserved. When carried out capably, an investment strategy of that type will often result in its practitioner owning a few securities that will come to represent a very large portion of his portfolio. This investor would get a similar result if he followed a policy of purchasing an interest in, say, 20% of the future earnings of a number of outstanding college basketball stars. A handful of these would go on to achieve NBA stardom, and the investor’s take from them would soon dominate his royalty stream. To suggest that this investor should sell off portions of his most successful investments simply because they have come to dominate his portfolio is akin to suggesting that the Bulls trade Michael Jordan because he has become so important to the team.”
On the Importance of Long-Term Look-Through Earnings
“Our look-through earnings have grown at a good clip over the years, and our stock price has risen correspondingly. Had those gains in earnings not materialized, there would have been little increase in Berkshire’s value.”
On Avoiding Difficult Problems
“After 25 years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers.
Why Berkshire Seldom Uses Debt
“Except for token amounts, we shun debt, turning to it for only three purposes: (1) We occasionally use repos as a part of certain short-term investing strategies that incorporate ownership of U.S.government (or agency) securities. Purchases of this kind are highly opportunistic and involve only the most liquid of securities. (2) We borrow money against portfolios of interest-bearing receivables whose risk characteristics we understand. (3) [Subsidiaries, such as Berkshire Hathaway Energy, may incur debt that appears on Berkshire’s consolidated balance sheet, but Berkshire does not guarantee the obligation.]
On the Categories of Berkshire’s Marketable Securities
“In addition to our permanent common stockholdings, 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 arbitrage commitments”
Comparing Gold to Equities
“Today the world’s gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons. If all of this gold were melded together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball in-field.) At $1,750 per ounce—gold’s price as I write this—its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A.Let’s now create a pile B costing an equal amount. For that, we could buy allU.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge). Can you imagine an investor with $9.6 trillion selecting pile A over pile B?
On the Banking Industry
“Lethargy bordering on sloth remains the cornerstone of our investment style: This year we neither bought nor sold a share of five of our six major holdings. The exception was Wells Fargo, a superbly-managed, high-return banking operation in which we increased our ownership to just under10%, the most we can own without the approval of the Federal Reserve Board.About one-sixth of our position was bought in 1989, the rest in 1990.
“The banking business is no favorite of ours. When assets are twenty times equity—a common ratio in this industry—mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks. Most have resulted from a managerial failing that we [call] the “institutional imperative:”31 the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so. In their lending, many bankers played follow-the-leader with lemming-like zeal; now they are experiencing a lemming-like fate.”
“The most common cause of low prices is pessimism—sometimes pervasive, sometimes specific to a company or industry. We want to do business in such an environment, not because we like pessimism but because we like the prices it produces. It’s optimism that is the enemy of the rational buyer.”
“Using this sawed-off yardstick, the borrower ignored depreciation as an expense on the theory that it did not require a current cash outlay. Such an attitude is clearly delusional. At 95% ofAmerican businesses, capital expenditures that over time roughly approximate depreciation are a necessity and are every bit as real an expense as labor or utility costs. Even a high school dropout knows that to finance a car he must have income that covers not only interest and operating expenses, but also realistically-calculated depreciation. He would be laughed out of the bank if he started talking about EBDIT. Capital outlays at a business can be skipped, of course, in any given month, just as a human can skip a day or even a week of eating. But if the skipping becomes routine and is not made up, the body weakens and eventually dies. Furthermore, a start and-stop feeding policy will over time produce a less healthy organism, human or corporate, than that produced by a steady diet. As businessmen, Charlie and I relish having competitors who are unable to fund capital expenditures.”
On Derivatives as ‘Time Bombs’
“Charlie and I are of one mind in how we feel about derivatives and the trading activities that go with them: We view them as time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system.”
“Unless derivatives contracts are collateralized or guaranteed, their ultimate value also depends on the creditworthiness of the counterparties to them. In the meantime, though, before a contract is settled, the counterparties record profits and losses—often huge in amount—in their current earnings statements without so much as a penny changing hands.”
On Creating Synthetic Dividends
“We’ll start by assuming that you and I are the equal owners of a business with $2 million of net worth. The business earns12% on tangible net worth—$240,000—and can reasonably expect to earn the same12% on reinvested earnings. Furthermore, there are outsiders who always wish to buy into our business at 125% of net worth. Therefore, the value of what we each own is now $1.25 million. You would like to have the two of us shareholders receive one-third of our company’s annual earnings and have two-thirds be reinvested. That plan, you feel, will nicely balance your needs for both current income and capital growth. So you suggest that we pay out$80,000 of current earnings and retain $160,000 to increase the future earnings of the business. In the first year, your dividend would be $40,000, and as earnings grew and the one- third payout was maintained, so too would your dividend. In total, dividends and stock value would increase 8% each year (12%earned on net worth less 4% of net worth paid out). After ten years our company would have a net worth of $4,317,850 (the original $2 million compounded at 8%)and your dividend in the upcoming year would be $86,357. Each of us would have shares worth $2,698,656 (125% of our half of the company’s net worth). And we would live happily ever after—with dividends and the value of our stock continuing to grow at 8% annually. There is an alternative approach, however, that would leave us even happier. Under this scenario, we would leave all earnings in the company and each sell 3.2% of our shares annually. Since the shares would be sold at 125% of book value, this approach would produce the same $40,000 of cash initially, a sum that would grow annually. Call this option the “sell-off”approach. Under this “sell-off” scenario, the net worth of our company increases to $6,211,696 after ten years ($2 million compounded at 12%). Because we would be selling shares each year, our percentage ownership would have declined, and, after ten years, we would each own 36.12% of the business. Even so, your share of the net worth of the company at that time would be $2,243,540. And, remember, every dollar of net worth attributable to each of us can be sold for $1.25. Therefore, the market value of your remaining shares would be $2,804,425, about 4% greater than the value of your shares if we had followed the dividend approach. Moreover, your annual cash receipts from the sell-off policy would now be running 4% more than you would have received under the dividend scenario. Voila!—you would have both more cash to spend annually and more capital value.”
“This calculation, of course, assumes that our hypothetical company can earn an average of 12% annually on net worth and that its shareholders can sell their shares for an average of 125% of book value. To that point, the S&P 500 earns considerably more than 12% on net worth and sells at a price far above 125% of that net worth. Both assumptions also seem reasonable for Berkshire, though certainly not assured.”
On Dilutive Stock Issuances
“Finally, a word should be said about the “double whammy” effect upon owners of the acquiring company when value-diluting stock issuances occur. Under such circumstances, the first blow is the loss of intrinsic business value that occurs through the merger itself. The second is the downward revision in market valuation that, quite rationally, is given to that now-diluted business value. For current and prospective owners understandably will not pay as much for assets lodged in the hands of a management that has a record of wealth-destruction through unintelligent share issuances as they will pay for assets entrusted to a management with precisely equal operating talents, but a known distaste for anti-owner actions. Once management shows itself insensitive to the interests of owners, shareholders will suffer a long time from the price/value ratio afforded their stock(relative to other stocks), no matter what assurances management gives that the value-diluting action taken was a one-of-a-kind event.”
On the Importance of Sound Capital Allocation
“Overtime, the skill with which a company’s managers allocate capital has an enormous impact on the enterprise’s value. Almost by definition, a really good business generates far more money (at least after its early years) than it can use internally. The company could, of course, distribute the money to shareholders by way of dividends or share repurchases. But often the CEO asks a strategic planning staff, consultants or investment bankers whether an acquisition or two might make sense. That’s like asking your interior decorator whether you need a $50,000 rug.”
On Owner Earnings
“If we think through these questions, we can gain some insights about what may be called “owner earnings.” These represent(a) reported earnings plus (b) depreciation, depletion, amortization, and certain other non-cash charges such as Company N’s items (1) and (4) less (c)the average annual amount of capitalized expenditures for plant and equipment, etc. that the business requires to fully maintain its long-term competitive position and its unit volume. (If the business requires additional working capital to maintain its competitive position and unit volume, the increment also should be included in (c). However, businesses following the LIFO inventory method usually do not require additional working capital if unit volume does not change.)”
On Goodwill and Amortization
“You can live a full and rewarding life without ever thinking aboutGoodwill 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.
On The Best Way To Think About Berkshire’s Earnings
“I believe the best way to think about our earnings is in terms of “look-through” results, calculated as follows: Take $250 million, which is roughly our share of the 1990 operating earnings retained by our investees; subtract $30 million, for the incremental taxes we would have owed had that $250 million been paid to us in dividends; and add the remainder, $220 million, to our reported operating earnings of $371million. Thus our 1990 “look-through earnings” were about $590 million.
On Intrinsic Value
“Intrinsic value can be defined simply: It is the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life. The calculation of intrinsic value, though, is not so simple. As our definition suggests, intrinsic value is an estimate rather than a precise figure, and it is additionally an estimate that must be changed if interest rates move or forecasts of future cash flows are revised. Two people looking at the same set of facts, moreover—and this would apply even to Charlie and me—will almost inevitably come up with at least slightly different intrinsic value figures. That is one reason we never give you our estimates of intrinsic value. What our annual reports do supply, though, are the facts that we ourselves use to calculate this value. Meanwhile, we regularly report our per-share book value, an easily calculable number, though one of limited use.The limitations do not arise from our holdings of marketable securities, which are carried on our books at their current prices. Rather the inadequacies of book value have to do with the companies we control, whose values as stated on our books may be far different from their intrinsic values. The disparity can go in either direction. For example, in 1964 we could state with certitude thatBerkshire’s per-share book value was $19.46. However, that figure considerably overstated the company’s intrinsic value, since all of the company’s resources were tied up in a sub-profitable textile business. Our textile assets had neither going-concern nor liquidation values equal to their carrying values.Today, however, Berkshire’s situation is reversed: Our March 31, 1996 book value of $15,180 far understates Berkshire’s intrinsic value, a point true because many of the businesses we control are worth much more than their carrying value. Inadequate though they are in telling the story, we give youBerkshire’s book-value figures because they today serve as a rough, albeit significantly understated, tracking measure for Berkshire’s intrinsic value. In other words, the percentage change in book value in any given year is likely to be reasonably close to that year’s change in intrinsic value.
On Perception Versus Reality
“Managers thinking about accounting issues should never forget one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite riddles: “How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg?” The answer: “Four, because calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.” It behooves managers to remember that Abe’s right even if an auditor is willing to certify that the tail is a leg.”
On Deferred Capital Gains Tax Liabilities
“In economic terms, the liability resembles an interest-free loan from the U.S. Treasury that comes due only at our election (unless, of course, Congress moves to tax gains before they are realized). This “loan” is peculiar in other respects as well: It can be used only to finance the ownership of the particular, appreciated stocks and it fluctuates in size—daily as market prices change and periodically if tax rates change. In effect, this deferred tax liability is equivalent to a very large transfer tax that is payable only if we elect to move from one asset to another.
On Succession Planning
“In both Berkshire’s business acquisitions and large, tailored investment moves, it is important that our counterparties be both familiar with and feel comfortable with Berkshire’s CEO. Developing confidence of that sort and cementing relationships takes time. The payoff, though, can be huge. Both the board and I believe we now have the right person to succeed me as CEO—a successor ready to assume the job the day after I die or step down. In certain important respects, this person will do a better job thanI am doing.”
“Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist.”
Warren Buffett is one of the best investors to have ever lived. He is also a remarkably gifted educator.
If you’re interested in learning more about Warren Buffett, we would recommend two books: