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Key Takeaways from the Latest Warren Buffett Shareholder Letter

- By GuruFocus

This morning Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio) released his 2016 shareholder letter. To read the complete letter, please go here. These are the takeaways by Dr. Charlie Tian, the founder of GuruFocus.com. Most of the texts are excerpts from the shareholder letter.

Book Value:

Berkshire's gain in net worth during 2016 was $27.5 billion, which increased the per-share book value of both our Class A and Class B stock by 10.7%. Over the last 52 years (that is, since present management took over), per-share book value has grown from $19 to $172,108, a rate of 19% compounded annually.*

But, over time, it necessarily widens the gap between Berkshire's intrinsic value and its book value. Today, the large - and growing - unrecorded gains at our winners produce an intrinsic value for Berkshire's shares that far exceeds their book value. The overage is truly huge in our property/casualty insurance business and significant also in many other operations.

Acquisition Mistakes

I earlier described our gradual shift from a company obtaining most of its gains from investment activities to one that grows in value by owning businesses. Launching that transition, we took baby steps - making small acquisitions whose impact on Berkshire's profits was dwarfed by our gains from marketable securities. Despite that cautious approach, I made one particularly egregious error, acquiring Dexter Shoe for $434 million in 1993. Dexter's value promptly went to zero. The story gets worse: I used stock for the purchase, giving the sellers 25,203 shares of Berkshire that at yearend 2016 were worth more than $6 billion.

Unfortunately, I followed the GEICO purchase by foolishly using Berkshire stock - a boatload of stock - to buy General Reinsurance in late 1998. After some early problems, General Re has become a fine insurance operation that we prize. It was, nevertheless, a terrible mistake on my part to issue 272,200 shares of Berkshire in buying General Re, an act that increased our outstanding shares by a whopping 21.8%.

Scary Times

During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.

Share repurchase

To recap Berkshire's own repurchase policy: I am authorized to buy large amounts of Berkshire shares at 120% or less of book value because our Board has concluded that purchases at that level clearly bring an instant and material benefit to continuing shareholders. By our estimate, a 120%-of-book price is a significant discount to Berkshire's intrinsic value, a spread that is appropriate because calculations of intrinsic value can't be precise.

The authorization given me does not mean that we will "prop" our stock's price at the 120% ratio. If that level is reached, we will instead attempt to blend a desire to make meaningful purchases at a value-creating price with a related goal of not over-influencing the market.

It is important to remember that there are two occasions in which repurchases should not take place, even if the company's shares are underpriced. One is when a business both needs all its available money to protect or expand its own operations and is also uncomfortable adding further debt. Here, the internal need for funds should take priority. This exception assumes, of course, that the business has a decent future awaiting it after the needed expenditures are made.

The second exception, less common, materializes when a business acquisition (or some other investment opportunity) offers far greater value than do the undervalued shares of the potential repurchaser. Long ago, Berkshire itself often had to choose between these alternatives. At our present size, the issue is far less likely to arise.

Insurance float

A huge policy has increased float to more than $100 billion.

Moreover, our P/C companies have an excellent underwriting record. Berkshire has now operated at an underwriting profit for 14 consecutive years, our pre-tax gain for the period having totaled $28 billion. That record is no accident: Disciplined risk evaluation is the daily focus of all of our insurance managers, who know that while float is valuable, its benefits can be drowned by poor underwriting results. All insurers give that message lip service. At Berkshire it is a religion, Old Testament style.

Regulated, Capital-Intensive Businesses

All told, BHE and BNSF invested $8.9 billion in plant and equipment last year, a massive commitment to their segments of America's infrastructure. We relish making such investments as long as they promise reasonable returns - and, on that front, we put a large amount of trust in future regulation.

In the railroad industry, where current costs for many depreciable items far outstrip historical costs. The inevitable result is that reported earnings throughout the railroad industry are considerably higher than true economic earnings

At BNSF, to get down to particulars, our GAAP depreciation charge last year was $2.1 billion. But were we to spend that sum and no more annually, our railroad would soon deteriorate and become less competitive. The reality is that - simply to hold our own - we need to spend far more than the cost we show for depreciation. Moreover, a wide disparity will prevail for decades.

(All that said, Charlie and I love our railroad, which was one of our better purchases.)

Manufacturing, Service and Retailing Operations

Viewed as a single entity, the companies in the manufacturing, service and retailing group are an excellent business. They employed an average of $24 billion of net tangible assets during 2016 and, despite their holding large quantities of excess cash and carrying very little debt, earned 24% after-tax on that capital.

On stock-based compensation

To say "stock-based compensation" is not an expense is even more cavalier. CEOs who go down that road are, in effect, saying to shareholders, "If you pay me a bundle in options or restricted stock, don't worry about its effect on earnings. I'll 'adjust' it away."


This is the calculated cost per share and the gains for the new investments of Berkshire, calculated by GuruFocus:

# of Shares Cost ($b) Share Cost ($) Current Price ($) Gain (%)
Apple Inc (AAPL) 61,242,652 6,747 110.1683 136.66 24.0%
Delta Airlines Inc. (DAL) 54,934,718 2,299 41.84967 50.46 20.6%
Southwest Airlines Co (LUV) 43,203,775 1,757 40.66774 58.54 43.9%
United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL) 26,620,184 1,477 55.48421 75.08 35.3%
Phillips 66 (PSX) 74,587,892 5,841 78.3103 78.03 -0.4%

Excluded from the table - but important - is our ownership of $5 billion of preferred stock issued by Bank of America. This stock, which pays us $300 million per year, also carries with it a valuable warrant allowing Berkshire to purchase 700 million common shares of Bank of America for $5 billion at any time before September 2, 2021. At yearend, that privilege would have delivered us a profit of $10.5 billion.

"The Bet" Between Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio) and the Funds of Funds

The compounded annual increase to date for the index fund is 7.1%, which is a return that could easily prove typical for the stock market over time. The five funds-of-funds delivered, through 2016, an average of only 2.2%, compounded annually.

The bet was started in 2008 and will end in 2017.

The Jokes:

During the accounting nonsense that flourished during the 1960s, the story was told of a CEO who, as his company revved up to go public, asked prospective auditors, "What is two plus two?" The answer that won the assignment, of course, was, "What number do you have in mind?"

In January 1966, when I was managing $44 million, I wrote my limited partners: "I feel substantially greater size is more likely to harm future results than to help them. This might not be true for my own personal results, but it is likely to be true for your results. Therefore, . . . I intend to admit no additional partners to BPL. I have notified Susie that if we have any more children, it is up to her to find some other partnership for them."

Long ago, a brother-in-law of mine, Homer Rogers, was a commission agent working in the Omaha stockyards. I asked him how he induced a farmer or rancher to hire him to handle the sale of their hogs or cattle to the buyers from the big four packers (Swift, Cudahy, Wilson and Armour). After all, hogs were hogs and the buyers were experts who knew to the penny how much any animal was worth. How then, I asked Homer, could any sales agent get a better result than any other?

Homer gave me a pitying look and said: "Warren, it's not how you sell 'em, it's how you tell 'em." What worked in the stockyards continues to work in Wall Street.

This article first appeared on GuruFocus.