Warren Buffett on Risk, Optimism, and Ketchup

Warren Buffett released his latest annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders on Friday. You can read the whole thing here, but I pulled out some of the best quotes below.

On performance: "For the ninth time in 48 years, Berkshire's percentage increase in book value was less than the S&P's percentage gain (a calculation that includes dividends as well as price appreciation). In eight of those nine years, it should be noted, the S&P had a gain of 15% or more. We do better when the wind is in our face. To date, we've never had a five-year period of underperformance, having managed 43 times to surpass the S&P over such a stretch."

On Berkshire's future leaders: "Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, our new investment managers, have proved to be smart, models of integrity, helpful to Berkshire in many ways beyond portfolio management, and a perfect cultural fit. We hit the jackpot with these two. In 2012 each outperformed the S&P 500 by double-digit margins. They left me in the dust as well. ...Todd and Ted are young and will be around to manage Berkshire's massive portfolio long after Charlie and I have left the scene. You can rest easy when they take over."


On investing: "There was a lot of hand-wringing last year among CEOs who cried 'uncertainty' when faced with capital allocation decisions (despite many of their businesses having enjoyed record levels of both earnings and cash). At Berkshire, we didn't share their fears, instead spending a record $9.8 billion on plant and equipment in 2012, about 88% of it in the United States. That's 19% more than we spent in 2011, our previous high. Charlie and I love investing large sums in worthwhile projects, whatever the pundits are saying ... We will keep our foot to the floor and will almost certainly set still another record for capital expenditures in 2013. Opportunities abound in America."

On confidence: "A thought for my fellow CEOs: Of course, the immediate future is uncertain; America has faced the unknown since 1776. It's just that sometimes people focus on the myriad of uncertainties that always exist while at other times they ignore them (usually because the recent past has been uneventful). American business will do fine over time. And stocks will do well just as certainly, since their fate is tied to business performance. Periodic setbacks will occur, yes, but investors and managers are in a game that is heavily stacked in their favor. (The Dow Jones Industrials advanced from 66 to 11,497 in the 20th Century, a staggering 17,320% increase that materialized despite four costly wars, a Great Depression and many recessions. And don't forget that shareholders received substantial dividends throughout the century as well.)"

On the recent Heinz deal: "We couldn't be in better company. Jorge Paulo is a longtime friend of mine and an extraordinary manager. His group and Berkshire will each contribute about $4 billion for common equity in the holding company. Berkshire will also invest $8 billion in preferred shares that pay a 9% dividend. The preferred has two other features that materially increase its value: at some point it will be redeemed at a significant premium price and the preferred also comes with warrants permitting us to buy 5% of the holding company's common stock for a nominal sum. Our total investment of about $12 billion soaks up much of what Berkshire earned last year. But we still have plenty of cash and are generating more at a good clip. So it's back to work; Charlie and I have again donned our safari outfits and resumed our search for elephants."

On market timing: "Since the basic game is so favorable, Charlie and I believe it's a terrible mistake to try to dance in and out of it based upon the turn of tarot cards, the predictions of 'experts,' or the ebb and flow of business activity. The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it."

On the competition: "There are a lot of ways to lose money in insurance, and the industry never ceases searching for new ones."

On a coming reckoning: "Insurance earnings are now benefiting from 'legacy' bond portfolios that deliver much higher yields than will be available when funds are reinvested during the next few years -- and perhaps for many years beyond that. Today's bond portfolios are, in effect, wasting assets. Earnings of insurers will be hurt in a significant way as bonds mature and are rolled over."

On diversification: "If the insurance industry should experience a $250 billion loss from some megacatastrophe -- a loss about triple anything it has ever experienced -- Berkshire as a whole would likely record a significant profit for the year because it has so many streams of earnings. All other major insurers and reinsurers would meanwhile be far in the red, with some facing insolvency."

On valuation: "Of course, a business with terrific economics can be a bad investment if the price paid is excessive. We have paid substantial premiums to net tangible assets for most of our businesses, a cost that is reflected in the large figure we show for intangible assets. Overall, however, we are getting a decent return on the capital we have deployed in this sector. Furthermore, the intrinsic value of the businesses, in aggregate, exceeds their carrying value by a good margin. Even so, the difference between intrinsic value and carrying value in the insurance and regulated industry segments is far greater. It is there that the huge winners reside."

On risk: "Charlie and I believe in operating with many redundant layers of liquidity, and we avoid any sort of obligation that could drain our cash in a material way. That reduces our returns in 99 years out of 100. But we will survive in the 100th while many others fail. And we will sleep well in all 100."

On share repurchases: "Indeed, disciplined repurchases are the surest way to use funds intelligently: It's hard to go wrong when you're buying dollar bills for 80¢ or less. We explained our criteria for repurchases in last year's report and, if the opportunity presents itself, we will buy large quantities of our stock. We originally said we would not pay more than 110% of book value, but that proved unrealistic. Therefore, we increased the limit to 120% in December when a large block became available at about 116% of book value." 

More on Berkshire
Warren Buffett's long track record of success has made him one of the best investors of all time. With the Buffett at the helm, Berkshire Hathaway has grown book value per share at a compounded annual rate of 19.8% for nearly 50 years! Despite an incredible historical track record, investors have to understand the key issues to watch moving forward. To help investors, the Fool's resident Berkshire Hathaway expert, Joe Magyer, has created this premium research report on the company. Inside, you'll receive ongoing updates as key news hits, as well as reasons to both buy and sell the stock. Claim a copy by clicking here now.

The article Warren Buffett on Risk, Optimism, and Ketchup originally appeared on Fool.com.

Morgan Housel owns shares of Berkshire. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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