A number of years ago, Warren
Buffett implemented a vetting system to improve the
quality of questions at the annual Berkshire Hathaway
meeting. Under this system, shareholders are invited to
submit their questions in advance to three renowned
journalists, who screen the submissions and select six
questions each to pose to Mr. Buffett. I’m quite pleased
to report that for the third year in a row, a question I
submitted was selected and asked at the annual meeting.
Of course, asking the right questions is a key to
The backdrop to my question is that despite commentary from politicians, we feel that American business is thriving, that measures such as profitability and returns on capital are superb, and that the U.S. markets are likely to stay strong for the next 50-plus years. However, we recognize that a successful attack by a weapon of mass destruction could be disastrous if the government isn’t properly prepared to ensure the country continues to do well afterwards. Although we believe that American business is remarkably resilient and adaptive, we do think there is room for more preparation.
Carol Loomis, a very highly regarded business journalist, asked my question, as follows:
This question comes from Chris Gottscho of New York. Mr. Buffett, you have expressed concern about cyber, biological, nuclear, and chemical attacks. But preventing catastrophe is not getting enough attention. For example, a bill passed the House unanimously to harden the electric grid against a high altitude nuclear explosion. Not too many bills pass unanimously these days, but then, the bill got bottled up in the Senate. Have you ever considered funding – would it be a good idea for you to fund – a lobbying and educational campaign to promote the public good in this area and counteract industry lobbyists who are more interested in short-term profits?
Mr. Buffett responded at some
length that there is no problem remotely like the issue
of what he calls “CNBC:” 1 cyber, nuclear, biological,
or chemical attacks, and that if a successful attack
happens over the next several decades, and he thinks one
will, he hopes that the damage is minimized. He then
stated that if he knew how to reduce the probability of
a CNBC-type mass attack “by 5%, all my money would go to
that.” We think billions of dollars directed to a
lobbying and educational campaign would reduce the odds
by a lot more than 5%, so let’s hope that upon
reflection Mr. Buffett thinks the same and perhaps the
question spurs some action. (If you know any individuals
with deep pockets and a thirst for a cause, this is an
important one to mention.)
What this reminds us is that investing is about setting probabilities. Given the resiliency and adaptiveness of American business, we feel that our businesses and our markets would recover from and continue to thrive beyond a successful CNBC attack. Simply put, we believe that there has never been a better time to be alive on the planet and in America. Our country has had a fantastic business environment since the early 1600’s – even in 1776 Americans had the highest per capita income in the world. Since my Dad arrived from Germany in 1938, America’s standard of living per capita is up over six times. At the present time, entrepreneurial activity and technological innovation in America are robust. The eagerness of folks from China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere both to immigrate to the U.S. as well as to invest here is ample confirmation of the superiority of our economic system. We also believe that the diversity and inclusiveness of our work force widen our competitive advantages over other countries. While we are mindful of the fact that not all Americans are benefitting equally from the success of American businesses, and understand that this is a real challenge for our policy makers to address, we believe that it’s easier to meet this challenge in a climate of economic strength than it is in a climate of economic weakness.
So how does our optimistic view of American business translate to managing investments?
First, we find some thoughts Mr. Buffett expressed earlier this year on the investment markets bear repeating.
Furthermore, we continue to have great faith in “value
investing” – buying businesses for substantially less
than they are worth and holding them long-term. Norman’s
good friend, Irving Kahn, was Ben Graham’s teaching
assistant at Columbia Business School in the early
1930’s, around the time that Graham, along with David
Dodd, wrote Security Analysis, a seminal work on value
investing. Security Analysis is a framework of thinking
that at its core focuses on the importance of what you
pay for a business – your margin of safety. While some
folks have suggested that this approach no longer is
relevant in today’s markets, we could not disagree more.
We believe Berkshire stock, at its current bargain
valuation, is a great illustration of our investment
philosophy, although a value analysis can find many
other bargains in the current market as the herd looks
To us it seems obvious that what you pay for a business is critical. The recent stock price performance of Berkshire has prompted suggestions that Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger have lost their “touch,” and that technological trends have made things like free cash flow much less important. We feel loading up with too many companies that have little or no free cash flow, earnings, or likely returns on capital going forward is akin to putting too much junk in your trunk – your axle might break. Simply because others are filling their trunks with what we feel is dubious merchandise, and have been for a few years, doesn’t make paying high prices for “junky” businesses a good idea, especially if it means selling a solid business like Berkshire at a cheap value to have cash in order to follow this trend. As Mark Twain said, “There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate -- when he can’t afford it, and when he can.”
In addition, we think the protracted period of ultralow and even negative interest rates skews investor money flows as desperate investors chase higher returns by going into areas whose value characteristics seem to us to be questionable at best. Historically the crowd all following each other tends to work until it doesn’t. Group think by investors is hardly new – it has taken place in the past and is a fundamental part of human psychology. Reading Titan about John D. Rockefeller or other books about the history of business and investment markets, one thing that stands out is that while technology changes, human psychology stays the same. Herd behavior has been exacerbated by the extended low interest rates, but it hardly signals the demise of value investing.
In most cases the biggest risk to a business today is from technological change – this will only accelerate. Three excellent books on the potential changes coming in business are The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross, The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfson and Andrew McAfee, and The Third Wave by Steve Case. As Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, wrote regarding the Ross book: “The next 20 years are going to be even faster-moving and more transformative than the 20 we have just lived through. Predicting exactly what is going to happen is impossible. But thinking systematically and strategically … about robotics, genomics, and the codification of everything is absolutely critical.”
In our view, the wide variety of businesses that make up Berkshire -- bricks, chocolate, ice cream, railroads, and the like -- are far better protected from technology-driven challenges than the average publicly traded business in the U.S. Yet Berkshire stock trades at a big discount on various valuation metrics to the average company. To us, this is nonsensical. We believe that one reason for this disconnect is the age of Messrs. Buffett and Munger. However, even if they both pass away tomorrow,3 we think that Berkshire’s various holdings will continue to produce prodigious free cash flow that goes back to Omaha. Simply look at how Berkshire’s business has dramatically changed over the past 20 years from mostly owning publicly traded stocks to now being mostly made up of wholly owned businesses. The massive free cash flow it took to accomplish this transformation is unlikely to stop when Messrs. Buffett and Munger leave. But as Voltaire said: “Common sense is not so common.”
So how, one might ask, could Berkshire stock be down a double-digit percentage last year, while its businesses are generally doing well, with book value rising over the prior year? As Mr. Buffett said earlier in his career: “I think it is very easy to see what is likely to happen over the long term. Ben Graham told us why: ‘Though the stock market functions as a voting machine in the short run, it acts as a weighing machine in the long run.’ Fear and greed play important roles when votes are being cast, but they don’t register on the scale.” Mr. Buffett also said: “Ships will sail around the world but the Flat Earth Society will flourish. There will continue to be wide discrepancies between price and value in the marketplace, and those who read their Graham and Dodd will continue to prosper.”
We submit that although it might be popular to think that this period in investing history is somehow unique, value investing, just like American business, is still the best way to create long-term wealth.
1 Perhaps not surprisingly, Becky Quick from CNBC later asked Mr. Buffett to think of a new acronym!
2 We follow the bond markets closely, and know that debtors find themselves unable to pay far more often than many people realize. If you’d like an excellent cure for insomnia, please read Debt-Equity Swap Investing of Third World Investments: Will the I.R.S. Hinder U.S. Swappers written by a certain Chris Gottscho in the Virginia Tax Review in 1988 about the aftermath of investors thinking “this time it’s different” in an area of lending.
3 We hope that like Irving Kahn, Messrs. Buffett and Munger are lucky enough to manage money til they’re 109!