Reading the Buffett Letters: 2015

Here are the three key points, which I found interesting in Warren Buffett’s 2015 letter to shareholders:

(1) On GAAP adjustments

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?

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.

Our public reports of earnings will, of course, continue to conform to GAAP. To embrace reality, however, you should remember to add back most of the amortization charges we report. You should also subtract something to reflect BNSF’s inadequate depreciation charge.

(2) On complicated financial products

Mortgage-origination practices are of great importance to both the borrower and to society. There is no question that reckless practices in home lending played a major role in bringing on the financial panic of 2008, which in turn led to the Great Recession. In the years preceding the meltdown, a destructive and often corrupt pattern of mortgage creation flourished whereby (1) an originator in, say, California would make loans and (2) promptly sell them to an investment or commercial bank in, say, New York, which would package many mortgages to serve as collateral for a dizzyingly complicated array of mortgage-backed securities to be (3) sold to unwitting institutions around the world.

As if these sins weren’t sufficient to create an unholy mess, imaginative investment bankers sometimes concocted a second layer of sliced-up financing whose value depended on the junkier portions of primary offerings. (When Wall Street gets “innovative,” watch out!) While that was going on, I described this “doubling-up” practice as requiring an investor to read tens of thousands of pages of mind-numbing prose to evaluate a single security being offered.

Both the originator and the packager of these financings had no skin in the game and were driven by volume and mark-ups. Many housing borrowers joined the party as well, blatantly lying on their loan applications while mortgage originators looked the other way. Naturally, the gamiest credits generated the most profits.

Smooth Wall Street salesmen garnered millions annually by manufacturing products that their customers were unable to understand. (It’s also questionable as to whether the major rating agencies were capable of evaluating the more complex structures. But rate them they did.)

(3) On climate change

It seems highly likely to me that climate change poses a major problem for the planet. I say “highly likely” rather than “certain” because I have no scientific aptitude and remember well the dire predictions of most “experts” about Y2K. It would be foolish, however, for me or anyone to demand 100% proof of huge forthcoming damage to the world if that outcome seemed at all possible and if prompt action had even a small chance of thwarting the danger.

This issue bears a similarity to Pascal’s Wager on the Existence of God. Pascal, it may be recalled, argued that if there were only a tiny probability that God truly existed, it made sense to behave as if He did because the rewards could be infinite whereas the lack of belief risked eternal misery. Likewise, if there is only a 1% chance the planet is heading toward a truly major disaster and delay means passing a point of no return, inaction now is foolhardy. Call this Noah’s Law: If an ark may be essential for survival, begin building it today, no matter how cloudless the skies appear.

Up to now, climate change has not produced more frequent nor more costly hurricanes nor other weather-related events covered by insurance. As a consequence, U.S. super-cat rates have fallen steadily in recent years, which is why we have backed away from that business. If super-cats become costlier and more frequent, the likely –though far from certain – effect on Berkshire’s insurance business would be to make it larger and more profitable.

As a citizen, you may understandably find climate change keeping you up nights. As a homeowner in a low-lying area, you may wish to consider moving. But when you are thinking only as a shareholder of a major insurer, climate change should not be on your list of worries.

Source: Berkshire Hathaway – Chairman’s letter to shareholders: 2015

 

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