Warren Buffett has just released his eagerly anticipated letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. As always, the letter was filled with a number of investment gems and lessons.
Three key takeaways from the letter this year are summarised below:
Own and then learn from your mistakes
Even the Oracle of Omaha makes investment mistakes. When this happens, he owns the mistake and tries to learn from it. In this year’s letter, the 2016 acquisition of Precision Castparts was labelled a “a big one.”
“The final component in our GAAP figure – that ugly $11 billion write-down – is almost entirely the quantification of a mistake I made in 2016. That year, Berkshire purchased Precision Castparts (“PCC”), and I paid too much for the company.
No one misled me in any way – I was simply too optimistic about PCC’s normalized profit potential. Last year, my miscalculation was laid bare by adverse developments throughout the aerospace industry, PCC’s most important source of customers.
In purchasing PCC, Berkshire bought a fine company – the best in its business. Mark Donegan, PCC’s CEO, is a passionate manager who consistently pours the same energy into the business that he did before we purchased it. We are lucky to have him running things.
I believe I was right in concluding that PCC would, over time, earn good returns on the net tangible assets deployed in its operations. I was wrong, however, in judging the average amount of future earnings and, consequently, wrong in my calculation of the proper price to pay for the business. PCC is far from my first error of that sort. But it’s a big one.”
Retained earnings can build value
Some investors may be disappointed when companies don’t always pay out as much of their earnings as they would like. For example, last month Breville Group Ltd (ASX BRG) delivered record half year profits but reduced its payout ratio.
Buffett used his letter to remind investors of the power of retained earnings to create value. Berkshire Hathaway has famously only ever paid one dividend in its history and that was deemed a mistake by Buffett.
“As I’ve emphasized many times, Charlie and I view Berkshire’s holdings of marketable stocks – at yearend worth $281 billion – as a collection of businesses. We don’t control the operations of those companies, but we do share proportionately in their long-term prosperity. From an accounting standpoint, however, our portion of their earnings is not included in Berkshire’s income. Instead, only what these investees pay us in dividends is recorded on our books. Under GAAP, the huge sums that investees retain on our behalf become invisible.”
What’s out of sight, however, should not be out of mind: Those unrecorded retained earnings are usually building value – lots of value – for Berkshire. Investees use the withheld funds to expand their business, make acquisitions, pay off debt and, often, to repurchase their stock (an act that increases our share of their future earnings). As we pointed out in these pages last year, retained earnings have propelled American business throughout our country’s history. What worked for Carnegie and Rockefeller has, over the years, worked its magic for millions of shareholders as well.”
Get rich patiently
With day trading growing in popularity thanks to things like the GameStop-Reddit short squeeze, Buffett reminded investors of Berkshire Hathaway’s investment strategy of growing wealth for shareholders patiently over the long term.
“In 1958, Phil Fisher wrote a superb book on investing. In it, he analogized running a public company to managing a restaurant. If you are seeking diners, he said, you can attract a clientele and prosper featuring either hamburgers served with a Coke or a French cuisine accompanied by exotic wines. But you must not, Fisher warned, capriciously switch from one to the other: Your message to potential customers must be consistent with what they will find upon entering your premises.
At Berkshire, we have been serving hamburgers and Coke for 56 years. We cherish the clientele this fare has attracted.
The tens of millions of other investors and speculators in the United States and elsewhere have a wide variety of equity choices to fit their tastes. They will find CEOs and market gurus with enticing ideas. If they want price targets, managed earnings and “stories,” they will not lack suitors. “Technicians” will confidently instruct them as to what some wiggles on a chart portend for a stock’s next move. The calls for action will never stop.
However, Buffett warned:
“Still, investors must never forget that their expenses are Wall Street’s income. And, unlike my monkey, Wall Streeters do not work for peanuts.
When seats open up at Berkshire – and we hope they are few – we want them to be occupied by newcomers who understand and desire what we offer. After decades of management, Charlie and I remain unable to promise results. We can and do, however, pledge to treat you as partners.”