In May 2003, I was fortunate enough to to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. (Full disclosure: I attended the meeting because I was then and remain now a Berkshire shareholder.) While at the meeting I struck up a conversation with some other attendees, who turned out to be a group of doctors who had attended medical school together, and who now invest together, and who every year have a reunion of sorts at the Berkshire annual meeting.
There are many people like these investing docs who hang on Buffett’s every word, perhaps hoping to replicate in some small way Buffett’s phenomenal investing success. The good news is that it isn’t necessary to go to Omaha to get Buffett’s own words about his approach to investing and business, as all of his Berkshire shareholders’ letters from 1977 to 2007 can be found on the Berkshire website, here.
But while the shareholder letters are available online, they are presented chronologically and are not indexed. There is not even a search function on the website, so other than going through a lot of words written over a lot of years, it is very difficult to find what Buffett has written about, say, zero coupon bonds, and difficult to see how his views on any given topic have changed over the years.
The great news for Buffett devotees is that there is a terrific alternative to laboring through 30 years' worth of Buffett’s letters to Berkshire shareholders. George Washington University Law Professor Lawrence Cunningham has read through all of them for us, and has distilled 30 years’ worth of Buffett’s commentary into a thematically arranged, absolutely wonderful book entitled “The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons from Corporate America,” which was recently released in a second edition (here). Professor Cunningham has added a brief introductory essay and afterword, but otherwise the book consists of the essence of Buffett. (It does also include an excerpt from one of Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger’s Letter to Wes.co shareholders and an amusing parody written by Buffett’s mentor, Ben Graham.)
Cunningham has done a masterful job distilling Buffett’s writings and organizing them according to topic. This arrangement not only facilitates a quick reference to Buffett’s comments on any given topic, but it also provides insight into how Buffett’s views on the topic may have evolved over time.
One thing that clearly emerges from a sustained reading of Buffett’s writing is that he is not only interested in developing the right investments and the right assets, he also wants to have the right sort of owner. Indeed, the reason Buffett has written the letters over the years is to develop and maintain “rational owners”; in the 1988 shareholders' letter, Buffett makes this explicit when he says that “all of our policies and our communications are designed to attract the business-oriented long-term owner and to filter out possible buyers whose focus is short-term and market-oriented.” From his essays about stock splits and dividends, it is also clear that the reason Berkshire has never split its shares and does not pay dividends is because of Berkshire wants to “avoid policies that attract buyers with a short-term focus on our stock price.” He wants investors focused on business values, not the company’s short-term share prices, and while a stock split or dividend might increase trading in Berkshire shares, “a hyperactive stock market is the pickpocket of enterprise.”
Buffett’s writings about the kind of owners he wants also dovetails with his extensive writings about the kind of managers owners should want. He is particularly concerned about the widespread practice of announcing earnings targets, noting the “many instances in which CEOs engaged in uneconomic operating maneuvers so that they could meet earnings target they had announced.’ He also says that investors should
beware of companies displaying weak accounting. If a company still does not expense options, or if its pension assumptions are fanciful, watch out. When managements take the low road in aspects that are visible, it is likely they will are following a similar path behind the scenes. There is seldom just one cockroach in the kitchen.
He adds that “managers that always promise to ‘make the numbers’ will at some point be tempted to make up the numbers.”
This thematic arrangement of Buffett’s writings facilitates insight into the many ways his past experience unquestionably continues to inform his decision making. For example, we might well wonder about Buffett’s view on the current subprime crisis, but when you read his commentary from the late 80s about junk bonds and the Wall Street wizards who created them, you don’t have to wonder very much about what he might think about, say, CDOs backed by subprime mortgages. In his 1990 letter, Buffett wrote about junk bonds that “as usual, the Street’s enthusiasm for an idea was proportional not it its merit, but rather to the revenue it would produce.” Buffett also commented:
In the final chapter of The Intelligent Investor Ben Graham [wrote]:"Confronted with a challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture a motto, Margin of Safety.” Forty-Two years after reading that, I still think those are the right three words. The failure of investors to heed this simple message caused them staggering losses.
Buffett went on to write later:
The banking business is no favorite of ours. When assets are twenty times equity – a common ratio in this industry – mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks. Most have resulted from a managerial failure we described last year when discussing the “institutional imperative:” the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so.
Buffett’s prescience on the problems with derivates has already been the matter of commentary on this blog here.
Anyone who needs persuasion that Buffett truly is a financial master who has the added gift to be able to explain complicated things simply should review the segments of the book discussing zero coupon bonds and the difference between accounting goodwill and economic goodwill.
In addition to Buffett's business wisdom and the clarity of his prose style, the other thing that comes through in these essays is how funny Buffett is, and in that respect Cunningham is to be complimented for managing to capture within a volume devoted to Buffett’s business writings the basic humorousness of the shareholder letters. I’m sure everyone has their favorite Buffett humor stories, but mine include the story told in the 1986 letter about the tailor who went to see the Pope, whose friends asked him what the Pope is like. Buffett writes that “our hero wasted no words: ‘He’s a forty-four medium.’” Another favorite that also makes it into this collection is the story about the man who asked his vet what to do for his horse that limped sometimes but seemed fine at other times. Buffett states that “the vet’s reply was pointed: ‘No problem – when he’s walking fine, sell him.’”
Cunningham’s book also captures my own personal favorite, from the 1985 letter. I have actually quoted this story previously on this blog, but I like it so much, I am reproducing it again here:
An oil prospector, moving to his heavenly reward, was met by St. Peter with bad news. “You’re qualified for residence”, said St. Peter, “but, as you can see, the compound reserved for oil men is packed. There’s no way to squeeze you in.” After thinking a moment, the prospector asked if he might say just four words to the present occupants. That seemed harmless to St. Peter, so the prospector cupped his hands and yelled, “Oil discovered in hell.” Immediately the gate to the compound opened and all of the oil men marched out to head for the nether regions. Impressed, St. Peter invited the prospector to move in and make himself comfortable. The prospector paused. “No,” he said, “I think I’ll go along with the rest of the boys. There might be some truth to that rumor after all.”
In any compendium, there are necessarily going to be some omissions, and while Cunningham’s inclusions are comprehensive and the overall product deserving of praise, I think the volume would be even more complete were it to include selections from Buffett’s writing over the years about insurance. The insurance business has been the segment on which Buffett has concentrated the most, and his reasons for his focus on this industry convey a lot about his approach to investing and his understanding of how business cycles work. In particular, Buffett’s many comments about “float” and the insurance “cycle” convey a lot about what his overall approach to investing and business. Greater inclusion of his insurance writings would also provide greater context for Buffett’s comments about September 9/11, which is included in this volume.
This volume also excludes Buffett’s writing about his investment in Gen Re. This is a serious omission in my view. Gen Re was by far Buffett’s largest investment, and the company lost over $7 billion dollars in the early years that he owned it. Buffett’ trenchant comments about the losses represent a very public statement about what he learned from the experience, clearly one of the more significant of the losses he faced. His pointed comments about the reason for the losses underscore some of his most important business principles.
It is also a personal gripe that though this volume omits Buffett’s writings generally about insurance, somehow the book manages to include every single instance where Buffett has said that his company does not carry D&O insurance. I have always thought that these statements are dangerous for mere ordinary mortals. It is fine for Buffett and his billionaire board members to disdain D&O insurance, but persons of more ordinary means can ill afford to run the risk of uninsured board service. Every time I read Buffett’s comments about D&O insurance, I feel like they should include a warning that “Readers should be cautioned to recall that he is one of the wealthiest people on the planet and his personal net worth is greater than the policyholders' surplus of most insurance companies’; readers should not attempt this trick at home.”
While I think this volume of essays is a worthy introduction to Buffett’s views and business philosophy, a lot of the writing will lack context for many readers. To know why Buffett quotes Ben Graham, and what he means by it, it is really necessary to understand more about Buffett’s days in graduate school and his early days working for Graham. His comments about many of his investments, such as Capital Cities/ABC or Solomon Brothers, require a great deal of prequel and sequel in order to appreciate fully what Buffett is saying. So I would recommend as a companion to this volume of essays Roger Lowenstein’s excellent biography of Buffett (here). Even though Lowenstein’s book is now 13 years old, it still conveys a lot about how Buffett got there, which is of course what most people – like those investing docs who attend the Berkshire annual meeting every year – are interested in.
But these last quibbles with the content, such as they are, are minor. The book itself is quite an accomplishment; it is that rare business book that is worthwhile and entertaining and enjoyable to read.
Special thanks to Professor Cunningham for calling my attention to the book.