Here’s Part 2 of (what I think are) the highlights from the 2015 Shareholder Letter. I really should call this “the accounting edition”.
It’s better to have a partial interest in the Hope Diamond than to own all of a rhinestone.
On bisexual business:
Our flexibility in capital allocation – our willingness to invest large sums passively in non-controlled businesses – gives us a significant edge over companies that limit themselves to acquisitions they will operate. Woody Allen once explained that the advantage of being bi-sexual is that it doubles your chance of finding a date on Saturday night. In like manner – well, not exactly like manner – our appetite for either operating businesses or passive investments doubles our chances of finding sensible uses for Berkshire’s endless gusher of cash. Beyond that, having a huge portfolio of marketable securities gives us a stockpile of funds that can be tapped when an elephant-sized acquisition is offered to us.
On accounting treatment:
Over the last 51 years (that is, since present management took over), per-share book value has grown from $19 to $155,501, a rate of 19.2% compounded annually.*
During the first half of those years, Berkshire’s net worth was roughly equal to the number that really counts: the intrinsic value of the business. The similarity of the two figures existed then because most of our resources were deployed in marketable securities that were regularly revalued to their quoted prices (less the tax that would be incurred if they were to be sold). In Wall Street parlance, our balance sheet was then in very large part “marked to market.”
By the early 1990s, however, our focus had changed to the outright ownership of businesses, a shift that diminished the relevance of balance-sheet figures. That disconnect occurred because the accounting rules that apply to controlled companies are materially different from those used in valuing marketable securities. The carrying value of the “losers” we own is written down, but “winners” are never revalued upwards.
We’ve had experience with both outcomes: I’ve made some dumb purchases, and the amount I paid for the economic goodwill of those companies was later written off, a move that reduced Berkshire’s book value. We’ve also had some winners – a few of them very big – but have not written those up by a penny.
Over time, this asymmetrical accounting treatment (with which we agree) necessarily widens the gap between intrinsic value and book value. Today, the large – and growing – unrecorded gains at our “winners” make it clear that Berkshire’s intrinsic value far exceeds its book value.
More on accounting treatment:
Our Heinz partnership with Jorge Paulo Lemann, Alex Behring and Bernardo Hees more than doubled its size last year by merging with Kraft. Before this transaction, we owned about 53% of Heinz at a cost of $4.25 billion. Now we own 325.4 million shares of Kraft Heinz (about 27%) that cost us $9.8 billion. […]
Though we sold no Kraft Heinz shares, “GAAP” (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) required us to record a $6.8 billion write-up of our investment upon completion of the merger. That leaves us with our Kraft Heinz holding carried on our balance sheet at a value many billions above our cost and many billions below its market value, an outcome only an accountant could love.
On hostile takeovers:
To be sure, certain hostile offers are justified: Some CEOs forget that it is shareholders for whom they should be working, while other managers are woefully inept. In either case, directors may be blind to the problem or simply reluctant to make the change required. That’s when new faces are needed.
On ignoring depreciation:
I suggest that you ignore a portion of GAAP amortization costs. But it is with some trepidation that I do that, knowing that it has become common for managers to tell their owners to ignore certain expense items that are all too real. “Stock-based compensation” is the most egregious example. The very name says it all: “compensation.” If compensation isn’t an expense, what is it? And, if real and recurring expenses don’t belong in the calculation of earnings, where in the world do they belong?
Wall Street analysts often play their part in this charade, too, parroting the phony, compensation-ignoring “earnings” figures fed them by managements. Maybe the offending analysts don’t know any better. Or maybe they fear losing “access” to management. Or maybe they are cynical, telling themselves that since everyone else is playing the game, why shouldn’t they go along with it. Whatever their reasoning, these analysts are guilty of propagating misleading numbers that can deceive investors.
Depreciation charges are a more complicated subject but are almost always true costs. Certainly they are at Berkshire. I wish we could keep our businesses competitive while spending less than our depreciation charge, but in 51 years I’ve yet to figure out how to do so. Indeed, the depreciation charge we record in our railroad business falls far short of the capital outlays needed to merely keep the railroad running properly, a mismatch that leads to GAAP earnings that are higher than true economic earnings. (This overstatement of earnings exists at all railroads.) When CEOs or investment bankers tout pre-depreciation figures such as EBITDA as a valuation guide, watch their noses lengthen while they speak.
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