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Saturday, March 05, 2005

Warren Buffet's Annual Letter

Berkshire Hathaway has just come out with their 2004 annual report. Warren Buffett's letter to shareholders is always worth reading, both for what he says and for the clarity and style with which he says it. A couple of sections deserve particular note:

Over the 35 years, American business has delivered terrific results. It should therefore have been easy for investors to earn juicy returns: All they had to do was piggyback Corporate America in a diversified, low-expense way. An index fund that they never touched would have done the job. Instead many investors have had experiences ranging from mediocre to disastrous.

There have been three primary causes: first, high costs, usually because investors traded excessively or spent far too much on investment management; second, portfolio decisions based on tips and fads rather than on thoughtful, quantified evaluation of businesses; and third, a start-and-stop approach to the market marked by untimely entries (after an advance has been long underway) and exits (after periods of stagnation or decline). Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.
He also mentions that BH has a big stockpile of cash ($43 Billion), and that they resisted the temptation to spend it (negative-NPV projects, anyone?):

I didn’t do that job very well last year. My hope was to make several multi-billion dollar acquisitions that would add new and significant streams of earnings to the many we already have. But I struck out. Additionally, I found very few attractive securities to buy. Berkshire therefore ended the year with $43 billion of cash equivalents, not a happy position. Charlie and I will work to translate some of this hoard into more interesting assets during 2005, though we can’t promise success.
This provides a good setting for discussing the agency problems related to free cash flow, managers' incentives to build empires, and so on (like I've said before, I'm an agency/governance kind of guy - unlike Haley Joel Osment, I see agency problems everywhere).

Click here for the whole letter.

On day 1 in my advanced corporate course, we go over a case based on a takeover executed done by Berkshire Hathaway. As a part of it, we go through Buffett's investment philosophy and compare/contrast it to commonly held finance theory. In his various writings, Buffett repeatedly mentions "intrinsic value".

It's also pretty instructive for students to read Berkshire's "Owners' Manual (starting on page 73 of the 2004 annaul report).

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