In the previous article we collected the jokes that Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio) used in his shareholder letters. He also used a lot of analogies and anecdotes in his shareholder letters. He likes to use simple analogies to make his ideas easy to understand. These are of those he used in his shareholder letters.
If a company sinks most of this money in other businesses that earn low returns, the company’s overall return on retained capital may nevertheless appear excellent because of the extraordinary returns being earned by the portion of earnings incrementally invested in the core business. The situation is analogous to a Pro-Am golf event: even if all of the amateurs are hopeless duffers, the team’s best-ball score will be respectable because of the dominating skills of the professional.
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Nevertheless, Burlington (textile) has lost sales volume in real dollars and has far lower returns on sales and equity now than 20 years ago. Split 2-for-1 in 1965, the stock now sells at 34 -- on an adjusted basis, just a little over its $60 price in 1964. Meanwhile, the CPI has more than tripled. Therefore, each share commands about one-third the purchasing power it did at the end of 1964. Regular dividends have been paid but they, too, have shrunk significantly in purchasing power.
This devastating outcome for the shareholders indicates what can happen when much brain power and energy are applied to a faulty premise. The situation is suggestive of Samuel Johnson’s horse: “A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse - not a remarkable mathematician.” Likewise, a textile company that allocates capital brilliantly within its industry is a remarkable textile company - but not a remarkable business.
My conclusion from my own experiences and from much observation of other businesses is that a good managerial record (measured by economic returns) is far more a function of what business boat you get into than it is of how effectively you row (though intelligence and effort help considerably, of course, in any business, good or bad). Some years ago I wrote: “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.” Nothing has since changed my point of view on that matter. Should you find yourself in a chronically-leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.
Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio), our Vice Chairman, and I really have only two jobs. One is to attract and keep outstanding managers to run our various operations. This hasn’t been all that difficult. Usually the managers came with the companies we bought, having demonstrated their talents throughout careers that spanned a wide variety of business circumstances. They were managerial stars long before they knew us, and our main contribution has been to not get in their way. This approach seems elementary: if my job were to manage a golf team - and if Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer were willing to play for me - neither would get a lot of directives from me about how to swing.
Good jockeys will do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both Berkshire's textile business and Hochschild, Kohn had able and honest people running them. The same managers employed in a business with good economic characteristics would have achieved fine records. But they were never going to make any progress while running in quicksand.
In the past, I've observed that many acquisition-hungry managers were apparently mesmerized by their childhood reading of the story about the frog-kissing princess. Remembering her success, they pay dearly for the right to kiss corporate toads, expecting wondrous transfigurations. Initially, disappointing results only deepen their desire to round up new toads.
("Fanaticism," said Santyana, "consists of redoubling your effort when you've forgotten your aim.") Ultimately, even the most optimistic manager must face reality. Standing knee-deep in unresponsive toads, he then announces an enormous "restructuring" charge. In this corporate equivalent of a Head Start program, the CEO receives the education but the stockholders pay the tuition.
In my early days as a manager I, too, dated a few toads. They were cheap dates - I've never been much of a sport - but my results matched those of acquirers who courted higher-priced toads. I kissed and they croaked.
After several failures of this type, I finally remembered some useful advice I once got from a golf pro (who, like all pros who have had anything to do with my game, wishes to remain anonymous). Said the pro: "Practice doesn't make perfect; practice makes permanent." And thereafter I revised my strategy and tried to buy good businesses at fair prices rather than fair businesses at good prices.
In any case, why potential buyers even look at projections prepared by sellers baffles me. Charlie and I never give them a glance, but instead keep in mind the story of the man with an ailing horse. Visiting the vet, he said: "Can you help me?
Sometimes my horse walks just fine and sometimes he limps." The vet's reply was pointed: "No problem - when he's walking fine, sell him." In the world of mergers and acquisitions, that horse would be peddled as Secretariat.
Many of our managers don't have to work for a living, but simply go out and perform every day for the same reason that wealthy golfers stay on the tour: They love both doing what they do and doing it well.
So smile when you read a headline that says "Investors lose as market falls." Edit it in your mind to "Disinvestors lose as market falls -- but investors gain." Though writers often forget this truism, there is a buyer for every seller and what hurts one necessarily helps the other. (As they say in golf matches: "Every putt makes someone happy.")
The distortion du jour is the "restructuring charge," an accounting entry that can, of course, be legitimate but that too often is a device for manipulating earnings. In this bit of legerdemain, a large chunk of costs that should properly be attributed to a number of years is dumped into a single quarter, typically one already fated to disappoint investors. In some cases, the purpose of the charge is to clean up earnings misrepresentations of the past, and in others it is to prepare the ground for future misrepresentations. In either case, the size and timing of these charges is dictated by the cynical proposition that Wall Street will not mind if earnings fall short by $5 per share in a given quarter, just as long as this deficiency ensures that quarterly earnings in the future will consistently exceed expectations by five cents per share.
This dump-everything-into-one-quarter behavior suggests a corresponding "bold, imaginative" approach to -- golf scores. In his first round of the season, a golfer should ignore his actual performance and simply fill his card with atrocious numbers -- double, triple, quadruple bogeys -- and then turn in a score of, say, 140. Having established this "reserve," he should go to the golf shop and tell his pro that he wishes to "restructure" his imperfect swing. Next, as he takes his new swing onto the course, he should count his good holes, but not the bad ones. These remnants from his old swing should be charged instead to the reserve established earlier. At the end of five rounds, then, his record will be 140, 80, 80, 80, 80 rather than 91, 94, 89, 94, 92. On Wall Street, they will ignore the 140 -- which, after all, came from a "discontinued" swing -- and will classify our hero as an 80 shooter (and one who never disappoints).
For those who prefer to cheat up front, there would be a variant of this strategy. The golfer, playing alone with a cooperative caddy-auditor, should defer the recording of bad holes, take four 80s, accept the plaudits he gets for such athleticism and consistency, and then turn in a fifth card carrying a 140 score. After rectifying his earlier scorekeeping sins with this "big bath," he may mumble a few apologies but will refrain from returning the sums he has previously collected from comparing scorecards in the clubhouse. (The caddy, need we add, will have acquired a loyal patron.)
Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking. When companies or investment professionals use terms such as "EBITDA" and "pro forma," they want you to unthinkingly accept concepts that are dangerously flawed. (In golf, my score is frequently below par on a pro forma basis: I have firm plans to "restructure" my putting stroke and therefore only count the swings I take before reaching the green.)
We cherish cost-consciousness at Berkshire. Our model is the widow who went to the local newspaper to place an obituary notice. Told there was a 25-cents-a-word charge, she requested “Fred Brown died.” She was then informed there was a seven-word minimum. “Okay” the bereaved woman replied, “make it ‘Fred Brown died, golf clubs for sale’.”
If Charlie, I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat – and you can only save one of us – swim to Ajit.
At Berkshire, we can – without incurring taxes or much in the way of other costs – move huge sums from businesses that have limited opportunities for incremental investment to other sectors with greater promise. Moreover, we are free of historical biases created by lifelong association with a given industry and are not subject to pressures from colleagues having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That’s important: If horses had controlled investment decisions, there would have been no auto industry.