Quotes & Quips from Warren Buffett’s 2014 Shareholder Letter

 

 

Warren Buffett‘s annual letter to his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders is one of the most widely read corporate reports in the business community.

That’s partly because investors of all sorts–from small-time stock-pickers to the big-name hedge-fund folks–are curious to learn from one of the most successful capitalists in history. But it’s also partly because the “Oracle of Omaha” simply has a way with words.

Below are some of the highlights of the latest letter from Berkshire’s chairman, which was released over the weekend. For a full, annotated version of the letter, click here.

On investing opportunities in the U.S.:

“Though we will always invest abroad as well, the mother lode of opportunities runs through America. The treasures that have been uncovered up to now are dwarfed by those still untapped. Through dumb luck, [Vice Chairman] Charlie [Munger] and I were born in the United States, and we are forever grateful for the staggering advantages this accident of birth has given us.”

On learning through experience:

“[M]y experience in business helps me as an investor and that my investment experience has made me a better businessman. Each pursuit teaches lessons that are applicable to the other. And some truths can only be fully learned through experience. (In Fred Schwed’s wonderful book, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?, a Peter Arno cartoon depicts a puzzled Adam looking at an eager Eve, while a caption says, “There are certain things that cannot be adequately explained to a virgin either by words or pictures.” If you haven’t read Schwed’s book, buy a copy at our annual meeting. Its wisdom and humor are truly priceless.)”

On the future of the U.S.:

“The dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. Gains won’t come in a smooth or uninterrupted manner; they never have. And we will regularly grumble about our government. But, most assuredly, America’s best days lie ahead.”

We are blessed to have the United States as our home field.”

On the future of Berkshire:

“A century hence, BNSF [Berkshire’s railroad] and Berkshire Hathaway Energy will still be playing vital roles in our economy. Homes and autos will remain central to the lives of most families. Insurance will continue to be essential for both businesses and individuals. Looking ahead, Charlie and I see a world made to order for Berkshire. We feel fortunate to be entrusted with its management.”

“Your company is the Gibraltar of American business and will remain so.”

On Berkshire’s investment in Tesco:

“Attentive readers will notice that Tesco, which last year appeared in the list of our largest common stock investments, is now absent. An attentive investor, I’m embarrassed to report, would have sold Tesco shares earlier. I made a big mistake with this investment by dawdling.”

On risky investing behavior:

“Investors, of course, can, by their own behavior, make stock ownership highly risky. And many do. Active trading, attempts to “time” market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees to managers and advisors, and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy.”

On taking control of Berkshire, a failing Massachusetts textile company, in 1965:

“I became the dog that caught the car.”

On whether Buffett will buy another New England textile mill:

“The northern textile industry is finally extinct. You need no longer panic if you hear that I’ve been spotted wandering around New England.”

On the key advice he got from Vice Chairman Charlie Munger

The blueprint he gave me was simple: Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.”

On Berkshire’s ability to invest in new industries:

“[W]e are free of historical biases created by lifelong association with a given industry and are not subject to pressures from colleagues having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That’s important: If horses had controlled investment decisions, there would have been no auto industry.”

“In effect, the world is Berkshire’s oyster – a world offering us a range of opportunities far beyond those realistically open to most companies. We are limited, of course, to businesses whose economic prospects we can evaluate. And that’s a serious limitation: Charlie and I have no idea what a great many companies will look like ten years from now. But that limitation is much smaller than that borne by an executive whose experience has been confined to a single industry.”

On mergers and spin-offs:

“Investment bankers, being paid as they are for action, constantly urge acquirers to pay 20% to 50% premiums over market price for publicly-held businesses. The bankers tell the buyer that the premium is justified for “control value” and for the wonderful things that are going to happen once the acquirer’s CEO takes charge. (What acquisition-hungry manager will challenge that assertion?)

aight faces – again appear and just as earnestly urge spinning off the earlier acquisition in order to “unlock shareholder value.” Spin-offs, of course, strip the owning company of its purported “control value” without any compensating payment. The bankers explain that the spun-off company will flourish because its management will be more entrepreneurial, having been freed from the smothering bureaucracy of the parent company. (So much for that talented CEO we met earlier.)”

On the prospect of Berkshire facing trouble:

“I believe the chance of any event causing Berkshire to experience financial problems is essentially zero. We will always be prepared for the thousand-year flood; in fact, if it occurs we will be selling life jackets to the unprepared. Berkshire played an important role as a “first responder” during the 2008-2009 meltdown, and we have since more than doubled the strength of our balance sheet and our earnings potential.”

On cash:

“At a healthy business, cash is sometimes thought of as something to be minimized – as an unproductive asset that acts as a drag on such markers as return on equity. Cash, though, is to a business as oxygen is to an individual: never thought about when it is present, the only thing in mind when it is absent.”

On the possibility of Berkshire paying a dividend:

“Eventually – probably between ten and twenty years from now – Berkshire’s earnings and capital resources will reach a level that will not allow management to intelligently reinvest all of the company’s earnings. At that time our directors will need to determine whether the best method to distribute the excess earnings is through dividends, share repurchases or both. If Berkshire shares are selling below intrinsic business value, massive repurchases will almost certainly be the best choice. You can be comfortable that your directors will make the right decision.”

On the next CEO of Berkshire:

“Character is crucial: A Berkshire CEO must be ‘all in’ for the company, not for himself.”

“It’s important that neither ego nor avarice motivate him to reach for pay matching his most lavishly-compensated peers, even if his achievements far exceed theirs. A CEO’s behavior has a huge impact on managers down the line: If it’s clear to them that shareholders’ interests are paramount to him, they will, with few exceptions, also embrace that way of thinking.”

“My successor will need one other particular strength: the ability to fight off the ABCs of business decay, which are arrogance, bureaucracy and complacency. When these corporate cancers metastasize, even the strongest of companies can falter.”

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