Best Investment Read of the Year – 2012 Berkshire Hathaway Letter to Shareholders

You know you are a financial nerd when…your favorite time of the year is when Warren Buffett puts out Berkshire Hathaway’s annual letter to shareholders. These letters are always stuffed full of investment wisdom. These letters are a literal goldmine for the beginning investor looking for some advice and some words of wisdom when starting out. This year’s doesn’t disappoint.

These letters contain more nuggets of wisdom than any book you will find and at a price you can’t beat (Free!). If you have not read these yet, I can not tell you how much you are missing out.

A complete list of past letters can be found on Berkshire’s site, here:

 

Also, a list of letters from Charlie Munger (Buffett’s right hand man) to Wesco Financial shareholders are found here and contain some more great insight into one of the great investment minds that has ever lived:

 

 

Berskhire’s 2012 letter can be found here: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2012ltr.pdf

 

Here are some of the remarks I found most interesting, some of which we will undoubtedly go into detail on in later posts.  Feel free to add your favorites in a comment below:

 

 

  • Lots of discussion on investing for the long term, despite the uncertainty today :

 

“America has faced the unknown since 1776. It’s just that sometimes people focus on the myriad of uncertainties that always exist while at other times they ignore them (usually because the recent past has been uneventful). American business will do fine over time. And stocks will do well just as certainly, since their fate is tied to business performance. Periodic setbacks will occur, yes, but investors and managers are in a game that is heavily stacked in their favor. (The Dow Jones Industrials advanced from 66 to 11,497 in the 20th Century, a staggering 17,320% increase that materialized despite four costly wars, a Great Depression and many recessions. And don’t forget that shareholders received substantial dividends throughout the century as well.) Since the basic game is so favorable, Charlie and I believe it’s a terrible mistake to try to dance in and out of it based upon the turn of tarot cards, the predictions of “experts,” or the ebb and flow of business activity. The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it.”

 

  • A really interesting conversation on a company paying dividends compared to investing its profits to grow business:

 

“Here we have to make a few assumptions and use some math. The numbers will require careful reading, but they are essential to understanding the case for and against dividends. So bear with me.

We’ll start by assuming that you and I are the equal owners of a business with $2 million of net worth. The business earns 12% on tangible net worth – $240,000 – and can reasonably expect to earn the same 12% 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.”

 

  • Great insights into the types of companies he loves to invest in. His railroads and energy companies are discussed in detail in this letter. What is more old fashioned than a railroad? In times when the internet and social media are all the rage, the intelligent investor is sticking to tried and true industries that are always in demand and will always have a customer.

 

–       BNSF carries about 15% (measured by ton-miles) of all inter-city freight, whether it is transported by truck, rail, water, air, or pipeline. Indeed, we move more ton-miles of goods than anyone else, a fact making BNSF the most important artery in our economy’s circulatory system. BNSF also moves its cargo in an extraordinarily fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly way, carrying a ton of freight about 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. Trucks taking on the same job guzzle about four times as much fuel.

–       At MidAmerican, meanwhile, two key factors ensure its ability to service debt under all circumstances: the company’s recession-resistant earnings, which result from our exclusively offering an essential service, and its great diversity of earnings streams, which shield it from being seriously harmed by any single regulatory body. MidAmerican’s electric utilities serve regulated retail customers in ten states. Only one utility holding company serves more states. In addition, we are the leader in renewables: first, from a standing start nine years ago, we now account for 6% of the country’s wind generation capacity. Second, when we complete three projects now under construction, we will own about 14% of U.S. solar-generation capacity.

 

23 pages of the best investment advice you will ever get!

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