Saturday, February 27, 2010

Warren Buffett's 2009 Annual Shareholder Message

The Berkshire Hathaway 2009 Annual Report is in most ways just like any other. However, the biggest distinction from others is the candid, 17 page Chairman's Letter. It is a report on their businesses, and anything else financial, from the co-CEO, Warren Buffett. The whole thing is worth a glance. I took a glance and found these gems I want to remember.

On their property and casualty insurance businesses:
Insurers receive premiums upfront and pay claims later. In extreme cases, such as those arising from certain workers’ compensation accidents, payments can stretch over decades. This collect-now, pay-later model leaves us holding large sums – money we call “float” – that will eventually go to others. Meanwhile, we get to invest this float for Berkshire’s benefit. Though individual policies and claims come and go, the amount of float we hold remains remarkably stable in relation to premium volume. Consequently, as our business grows, so does our float.

If premiums exceed the total of expenses and eventual losses, we register an underwriting profit that adds to the investment income produced from the float. This combination allows us to enjoy the use of free money – and, better yet, get paid for holding it. Alas, the hope of this happy result attracts intense competition, so vigorous in most years as to cause the P/C industry as a whole to operate at a significant underwriting loss. This loss, in effect, is what the industry pays to hold its float. Usually this cost is fairly low, but in some catastrophe-ridden years the cost from underwriting losses more than eats up the income derived from use of float.

On their regulated utility businesses:
In earlier days, Charlie and I shunned capital-intensive businesses such as public utilities. Indeed, the best businesses by far for owners continue to be those that have high returns on capital and that require little incremental investment to grow. We are fortunate to own a number of such businesses, and we would love to buy more. Anticipating, however, that Berkshire will generate ever-increasing amounts of cash, we are today quite willing to enter businesses that regularly require large capital expenditures. We expect only that these businesses have reasonable expectations of earning decent returns on the incremental sums they invest. If our expectations are met – and we believe that they will be – Berkshire’s ever-growing collection of good to great businesses should produce above-average, though certainly not spectacular, returns in the decades ahead.

On their manufacturing, service and retailing businesses:
Every business we own that is connected to residential and commercial construction suffered severely in 2009. Combined pre-tax earnings of Shaw, Johns Manville, Acme Brick, and MiTek were $227 million, an 82.5% decline from $1.295 billion in 2006, when construction activity was booming. These businesses continue to bump along the bottom, though their competitive positions remain undented.

The major problem for Berkshire last year was NetJets, an aviation operation that offers fractional ownership of jets.

On their finance and financial products business:
Our largest operation in this sector is Clayton Homes, the country’s leading producer of modular and manufactured homes.

The industry is in shambles for two reasons, the first of which must be lived with if the U.S. economy is to recover. This reason concerns U.S. housing starts (including apartment units). In 2009, starts were 554,000, by far the lowest number in the 50 years for which we have data. Paradoxically, this is good news.

People thought it was good news a few years back when housing starts – the supply side of the picture – were running about two million annually. But household formations – the demand side – only amounted to about 1.2 million. After a few years of such imbalances, the country unsurprisingly ended up with far too many houses.

On their investment book:
We told you last year that very unusual conditions then existed in the corporate and municipal bond markets and that these securities were ridiculously cheap relative to U.S. Treasuries. We backed this view with some purchases, but I should have done far more. Big opportunities come infrequently. When it’s raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble.