Dear fellow investors / readers,
Warren Buffet annual shareholder letter has many nuggets of wisdom for all to learn. As there are many articles covering key points, I would like to share one from Forbes which I feel summarised it well.
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The Seven Best Quotes From Warren Buffett's Annual Shareholder Letter
I cover the good, the bad and the ugly of finance.
It was a good year for Warren Buffett, the 'Oracle of Omaha,' who saw Berkshire Hathaway's BRK.B +% stock rise 23.4% in 2016 and the firm's book value per share grow by 10.7%. In characteristic form Buffett, worth $76.3 billion according to FORBES' Real Time Rankings, used his annual shareholder letter to offer a review of Berkshire's performance during the year, which included a major bet on Apple AAPL +0.10% and airlines and the closing of its $37.2 billion acquisition of Precision Castparts.
Berkshire Hathaway generated $17.6 billion in operating earnings, or a 1% annualized increase, from businesses that span insurance, railroads, industrials, chemicals and home-building, to name a few. Its capital gains, mostly from realized investments, were $6.5 billion. Buffett's annual letter offered an optimistic view on the prospects of American capitalism, but the 29-page report also highlighted pitfalls like investment fees, and gimmicky corporate earnings. Though Buffett is the most followed investor on earth, his annual letter did not dwell much on new investments like Berkshire's Apple and airlines bets, or deals in the marketplace.
Of note, Berkshire Hathaway is a large investor in Kraft Heinz, having partnered with Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital to buy Heinz in 2013 and then Kraft Foods in 2015. Recently, Kraft Heinz pulled a $143 billion takeover offer for consumer products giant Unilever . Only four years in, Berkshire's Kraft Heinz investment is one of the firm's most profitable on record, with gains exceeding multi-decade holdings in American Express AXP -0.36%, Coca-Cola KO +0.29% and Wells Fargo WFC -1.16%. Berkshire has invested $9.8 billion in Kraft Heinz; its 325.4 million shares are now worth over $30 billion.
Below are excerpts of the best quotes from Berkshire Hathaway's 2016 shareholder letter:
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 19: Warren Buffett attends 'Becoming Warren Buffett' World Premiere at The Museum of Modern Art on January 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Stock Buybacks Aren't Always Bad
As the subject of repurchases has come to a boil, some people have come close to calling them un-American – characterizing them as corporate misdeeds that divert funds needed for productive endeavors. That simply isn’t the case: Both American corporations and private investors are today awash in funds looking to be sensibly deployed. I’m not aware of any enticing project that in recent years has died for lack of capital. (Call us if you have a candidate.)
Vanguard's John Bogle Is A Hero
If a statue is ever erected to honor the person who has done the most for American investors, the handsdown choice should be Jack Bogle. For decades, Jack has urged investors to invest in ultra-low-cost index funds. In his crusade, he amassed only a tiny percentage of the wealth that has typically flowed to managers who have promised their investors large rewards while delivering them nothing – or, as in our bet, less than nothing – of added value.
In his early years, Jack was frequently mocked by the investment-management industry. Today, however, he has the satisfaction of knowing that he helped millions of investors realize far better returns on their savings than they otherwise would have earned. He is a hero to them and to me.
Don't Bet Against America
Our efforts to materially increase the normalized earnings of Berkshire will be aided – as they have been throughout our managerial tenure – by America’s economic dynamism. One word sums up our country’s achievements: miraculous. From a standing start 240 years ago – a span of time less than triple my days on earth – Americans have combined human ingenuity, a market system, a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants, and the rule of law to deliver abundance beyond any dreams of our forefathers.
You need not be an economist to understand how well our system has worked. Just look around you. See the 75 million owner-occupied homes, the bountiful farmland, the 260 million vehicles, the hyper-productive factories, the great medical centers, the talent-filled universities, you name it – they all represent a net gain for Americans from the barren lands, primitive structures and meager output of 1776. Starting from scratch, America has amassed wealth totaling $90 trillion.
Too many managements – and the number seems to grow every year – are looking for any means to report, and indeed feature, “adjusted earnings” that are higher than their company’s GAAP earnings. There are many ways for practitioners to perform this legerdemain. Two of their favorites are the omission of “restructuring costs” and “stock-based compensation” as expenses.
Charlie and I want managements, in their commentary, to describe unusual items – good or bad – that affect the GAAP numbers. After all, the reason we look at these numbers of the past is to make estimates of the future. But a management that regularly attempts to wave away very real costs by highlighting “adjusted per-share earnings” makes us nervous. That’s because bad behavior is contagious: CEOs who overtly look for ways to report high numbers tend to foster a culture in which subordinates strive to be “helpful” as well. Goals like that can lead, for example, to insurers underestimating their loss reserves, a practice that has destroyed many industry participants.
Charlie and I cringe when we hear analysts talk admiringly about managements who always “make the numbers.” In truth, business is too unpredictable for the numbers always to be met. Inevitably, surprises occur. When they do, a CEO whose focus is centered on Wall Street will be tempted to make up the numbers.
Fees... Cut It Out!
Over the years, I’ve often been asked for investment advice, and in the process of answering I’ve learned a good deal about human behavior. My regular recommendation has been a low-cost S&P 500 index fund. To their credit, my friends who possess only modest means have usually followed my suggestion.
I believe, however, that none of the mega-rich individuals, institutions or pension funds has followed that same advice when I’ve given it to them. Instead, these investors politely thank me for my thoughts and depart to listen to the siren song of a high-fee manager or, in the case of many institutions, to seek out another breed of hyper-helper called a consultant.
That professional, however, faces a problem. Can you imagine an investment consultant telling clients, year after year, to keep adding to an index fund replicating the S&P 500? That would be career suicide. Large fees flow to these hyper-helpers, however, if they recommend small managerial shifts every year or so. That advice is often delivered in esoteric gibberish that explains why fashionable investment “styles” or current economic trends make the shift appropriate.
The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.
In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars. This reluctance of the rich normally prevails even though the product at issue is –on an expectancy basis – clearly the best choice. My calculation, admittedly very rough, is that the search by the elite for superior investment advice has caused it, in aggregate, to waste more than $100 billion over the past decade.
Figure it out: Even a 1% fee on a few trillion dollars adds up. Of course, not every investor who put money in hedge funds ten years ago lagged S&P returns. But I believe my calculation of the aggregate shortfall is conservative.
Much of the financial damage befell pension funds for public employees. Many of these funds are woefully underfunded, in part because they have suffered a double whammy: poor investment performance accompanied by huge fees. The resulting shortfalls in their assets will for decades have to be made up by local taxpayers.
Human behavior won’t change. Wealthy individuals, pension funds, endowments and the like will continue to feel they deserve something “extra” in investment advice. Those advisors who cleverly play to this expectation will get very rich. This year the magic potion may be hedge funds, next year something else. The likely result from this parade of promises is predicted in an adage: “When a person with money meets a person with experience, the one with experience ends up with the money and the one with money leaves with experience.”
Why Berkshire Loves Dividends
Before we leave this investment section, a few educational words about dividends and taxes: Berkshire, like most corporations, nets considerably more from a dollar of dividends than it reaps from a dollar of capital gains. That will probably surprise those of our shareholders who are accustomed to thinking of capital gains as the route to tax-favored returns.
But here’s the corporate math. Every $1 of capital gains that a corporation realizes carries with it 35 cents of federal income tax (and often state income tax as well). The tax on dividends received from domestic corporations, however, is consistently lower, though rates vary depending on the status of the recipient.
For a non-insurance company – which describes Berkshire Hathaway, the parent – the federal tax rate is effectively 101⁄2 cents per $1 of dividends received. Furthermore, a non-insurance company that owns more than 20% of an investee owes taxes of only 7 cents per $1 of dividends. That rate applies, for example, to the substantial dividends we receive from our 27% ownership of Kraft Heinz, all of it held by the parent company. (The rationale for the low corporate taxes on dividends is that the dividend-paying investee has already paid its own corporate tax on the earnings being distributed.)
Berkshire’s insurance subsidiaries pay a tax rate on dividends that is somewhat higher than that applying to non-insurance companies, though the rate is still well below the 35% hitting capital gains. Property/casualty companies owe about 14% in taxes on most dividends they receive. Their tax rate falls, though, to about 11% if they own more than 20% of a U.S.-based investee.
And that’s our tax lesson for today.
Buy When Others Are Fearful
Many companies, of course, will fall behind, and some will fail. Winnowing of that sort is a product of market dynamism. Moreover, the years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks. No one can tell you when these traumas will occur – not me, not Charlie, not economists, not the media. Meg McConnell of the New York Fed aptly described the reality of panics: “We spend a lot of time looking for systemic risk; in truth, however, it tends to find us.”
During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.
As for Berkshire, our size precludes a brilliant result: Prospective returns fall as assets increase. Nonetheless, Berkshire’s collection of good businesses, along with the company’s impregnable financial strength and owner-oriented culture, should deliver decent results. We won’t be satisfied with less.
(Full Disclosure: I own some Berkshire B-shares in a retirement account)
Please note that I respect all investment styles and in no way saying one method of investing is better than another. I know that everyone has their own preferred method and that is what makes the market interesting. Diversity.
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