on one of his CEO's....
A hugely important event in Berkshire’s history occurred on a Saturday in 1985. Ajit Jain came into our office in Omaha – and I immediately knew we had found a superstar. (He had been discovered by Mike Goldberg, now elevated to St. Mike.)
If Charlie, I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat – and you can only save one of us – swim to Ajit.
on Mistakes made...
And now a painful confession: Last year your chairman closed the book on a very expensive business fiasco entirely of his own making.
For many years I had struggled to think of side products that we could offer our millions of loyal
GEICO customers. Unfortunately, I finally succeeded, coming up with a brilliant insight that we should market our own credit card. I reasoned that GEICO policyholders were likely to be good credit risks and, assuming we offered an attractive card, would likely favor us with their business. We got business all right – but of the wrong type.
Our pre-tax losses from credit-card operations came to about $6.3 million before I finally woke up. We then sold our $98 million portfolio of troubled receivables for 55¢ on the dollar, losing an additional $44 million.
GEICO’s managers, it should be emphasized, were never enthusiastic about my idea. They warned me that instead of getting the cream of GEICO’s customers we would get the – – – – – well, let’s call it the non-cream. I subtly indicated that I was older and wiser.
I was just older.
In my view a board of directors of a huge financial institution is derelict if it does not insist that its CEO bear full responsibility for risk control. If he’s incapable of handling that job, he should look for other employment. And if he fails at it – with the government thereupon required to step in with funds or guarantees – the financial consequences for him and his board should be severe.
It has not been shareholders who have botched the operations of some of our country’s largest financial institutions. Yet they have borne the burden, with 90% or more of the value of their holdings wiped out in most cases of failure. Collectively, they have lost more than $500 billion in just the four largest financial fiascos of the last two years. To say these owners have been “bailed-out” is to make a mockery of the term.
The CEOs and directors of the failed companies, however, have largely gone unscathed. Their fortunes may have been diminished by the disasters they oversaw, but they still live in grand style. It is the behavior of these CEOs and directors that needs to be changed: If their institutions and the country are harmed by their recklessness, they should pay a heavy price – one not reimbursable by the companies they’ve damaged nor by insurance. CEOs and, in many cases, directors have long benefitted from oversized financial carrots; some meaningful sticks now need to be part of their employment picture as well.
Our subsidiaries made a few small “bolt-on” acquisitions last year for cash, but our blockbuster deal with BNSF required us to issue about 95,000 Berkshire shares that amounted to 6.1% of those previously outstanding. Charlie and I enjoy issuing Berkshire stock about as much as we relish prepping for a colonoscopy.
The reason for our distaste is simple. If we wouldn’t dream of selling Berkshire in its entirety at the current market price, why in the world should we “sell” a significant part of the company at that same inadequate price by issuing our stock in a merger?
In evaluating a stock-for-stock offer, shareholders of the target company quite understandably focus on the market price of the acquirer’s shares that are to be given them. But they also expect the transaction to deliver them the intrinsic value of their own shares – the ones they are giving up. If shares of a prospective acquirer are selling below their intrinsic value, it’s impossible for that buyer to make a sensible deal in an all-stock deal. You simply can’t exchange an undervalued stock for a fully-valued one without hurting your shareholders.
Imagine, if you will, Company A and Company B, of equal size and both with businesses intrinsically worth $100 per share. Both of their stocks, however, sell for $80 per share. The CEO of A, long on confidence and short on smarts, offers 11⁄4 shares of A for each share of B, correctly telling his directors that B is worth $100 per share. He will neglect to explain, though, that what he is giving will cost his shareholders $125 in intrinsic value. If the directors are mathematically challenged as well, and a deal is therefore completed, the shareholders of B will end up owning 55.6% of A & B’s combined assets and A’s shareholders will own 44.4%. Not everyone at A, it should be noted, is a loser from this nonsensical transaction. Its CEO now runs a company twice as large as his original domain, in a world where size tends to correlate with both prestige and compensation.
If an acquirer’s stock is overvalued, it’s a different story: Using it as a currency works to the acquirer’s advantage. That’s why bubbles in various areas of the stock market have invariably led to serial issuances of stock by sly promoters. Going by the market value of their stock, they can afford to overpay because they are, in effect, using counterfeit money. Periodically, many air-for-assets acquisitions have taken place, the late 1960s having been a particularly obscene period for such chicanery. Indeed, certain large companies were built in this way. (No one involved, of course, ever publicly acknowledges the reality of what is going on, though there is plenty of private snickering.)
In our BNSF acquisition, the selling shareholders quite properly evaluated our offer at $100 per share. The cost to us, however, was somewhat higher since 40% of the $100 was delivered in our shares, which Charlie and I believed to be worth more than their market value. Fortunately, we had long owned a substantial amount of BNSF stock that we purchased in the market for cash. All told, therefore, only about 30% of our cost overall was paid with Berkshire shares.
In the end, Charlie and I decided that the disadvantage of paying 30% of the price through stock was offset by the opportunity the acquisition gave us to deploy $22 billion of cash in a business we understood and liked for the long term. It has the additional virtue of being run by Matt Rose, whom we trust and admire. We also like the prospect of investing additional billions over the years at reasonable rates of return. But the final decision was a close one. If we had needed to use more stock to make the acquisition, it would in fact have made no sense. We would have then been giving up more than we were getting.
I have been in dozens of board meetings in which acquisitions have been deliberated, often with the directors being instructed by high-priced investment bankers (are there any other kind?). Invariably, the bankers give the board a detailed assessment of the value of the company being purchased, with emphasis on why it is worth far more than its market price. In more than fifty years of board memberships, however, never have I heard the investment bankers (or management!) discuss the true value of what is being given. When a deal involved the issuance of the acquirer’s stock, they simply used market value to measure the cost. They did this even though they would have argued that the acquirer’s stock price was woefully inadequate – absolutely no indicator of its real value – had a takeover bid for the acquirer instead been the subject up for discussion.
When stock is the currency being contemplated in an acquisition and when directors are hearing from an advisor, it appears to me that there is only one way to get a rational and balanced discussion. Directors should hire a second advisor to make the case against the proposed acquisition, with its fee contingent on the deal not
going through. Absent this drastic remedy, our recommendation in respect to the use of advisors remains: “Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.”
on the annual meeting...
Our best guess is that 35,000 people attended the annual meeting last year (up from 12 – no zeros
omitted – in 1981). With our shareholder population much expanded, we expect even more this year. Therefore,
we will have to make a few changes in the usual routine. There will be no change, however, in our enthusiasm
for having you attend. Charlie and I like to meet you, answer your questions and – best of all – have you buy lots
of goods from our businesses.
The meeting this year will be held on Saturday, May 1st. As always, the doors will open at the Qwest
Center at 7 a.m., and a new Berkshire movie will be shown at 8:30. At 9:30 we will go directly to the
question-and-answer period, which (with a break for lunch at the Qwest’s stands) will last until 3:30. After a
short recess, Charlie and I will convene the annual meeting at 3:45. If you decide to leave during the day’s
question periods, please do so while Charlie is talking. (Act fast; he can be terse.)
The best reason to exit, of course, is to shop. We will help you do that by filling the 194,300-squarefoot
hall that adjoins the meeting area with products from dozens of Berkshire subsidiaries. Last year, you did
your part, and most locations racked up record sales. But you can do better. (A friendly warning: If I find sales
are lagging, I get testy and lock the exits.)
on management style...
Charlie and I mainly attend to capital allocation and the care and feeding of our key managers. Most of these managers are
happiest when they are left alone to run their businesses, and that is customarily just how we leave them. That puts them in
charge of all operating decisions and of dispatching the excess cash they generate to headquarters. By sending it to us, they
don’t get diverted by the various enticements that would come their way were they responsible for deploying the cash their
businesses throw off. Furthermore, Charlie and I are exposed to a much wider range of possibilities for investing these funds
than any of our managers could find in his or her own industry.