(Notes taken by Professor David Kass, Department of Finance, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland and Rahul Shah, MBA student)
Warren Buffett (WB) met with 20 MBA students from each of eight universities, including the University of Maryland, on November 15, 2013. The MBA students asked 16 questions in the following order:
(1) Has Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) lowered its hurdle rate as it grew larger?
[drizzle]WB: BRK does not have a hurdle rate. The added capital makes it harder to achieve superior returns. If I manage $1 million I will get better returns than managing $210 billion (BRK’s net worth). Size is the enemy of performance. I would still rather manage $210 billion than $1 million.
(2) In the past you said you attribute 85% of your investing to Benjamin Graham and 15% to Philip Fisher. Has that percentage changed?
WB: I developed my investment strategy under Graham. I went to Columbia and learned from Graham. With Graham’s approach, you cannot lose money over time. It’s very quantitative in nature, and you have to do reasonably well. On the other hand, it has less and less application as you get into bigger and bigger companies with larger sums of money. It’s better to buy wonderful businesses at fair prices than so-so businesses at low prices.
With the “cigar approach”, you can find a nasty cigar on the ground, with one puff left, can pick it up, light it and you get a free puff. You can keep doing this and get many free puffs. That’s one approach, that’s what I did. I looked for very cheap stocks quantitatively. After exposure to Fisher and Charlie, I started looking for better companies. Previously I was doing both. Now we are looking for good companies, not just cheap companies. Railroads are huge, and they will be good in 10 years, and 100 years from now. Burlington Northern is now earning $6 billion pre-tax, as compared to $3 billion a few years ago before we bought it. Moving much towards Fisher now and less Ben Graham because we are working with larger sums. With smaller sums, we would be looking at better margins/cheaper stocks.
When I got out of school, I went through Moody’s manual page by page. Got to page 1433 and learned the good ones were in the back. Western insurance company in 1951 was earning $29.09 a share, the year before $21.66. The price of the stock had traded between 3 and 13 the previous 12 months. The price was at 16 when I saw it, less than 1 x earnings. A few years ago, in 2004, someone told me I should look at Korea. I got a book from Citigroup which had 1 stock to a page. Describes all the publicly traded companies in Korea. Went through it and found about 20 companies (ex. Day-Han flower mills) it had book value, eps, and securities. Didn’t tell you anything about the share until you look at the price. Found about 20 like that in an afternoon and bought some of all of them, but didn’t know enough about all of them to load up on them. If you buy 20 stocks selling at 2 times earnings, you’re going to make money. That’s Ben Graham and you can make money doing this. If you’re working with bigger money, you have to do Fisher/Charlie style and buy big businesses. Berkshire now looks for large, very strong companies. Like Nebraska Furniture Mart – bought in 1983 and it’s probably earning 20 times as much now. Charlie told me – “You’re never going to disagree with me because you’re smart and I’m always right”.
(3) What is the process you follow in writing the annual shareholders letter? How do you decide what you’re going to write about?
WB: I finished the 2013 letter already, but I will send it out on Feb 28. I already know what I’m going to say, just have to fill in some numbers and send it off.
I try to think of my shareholders as my partners. I try to think of the information I would want them to send me if they were running the place, and I was the shareholder. What would I want to know? This is what I tell them. In my first draft, I address it to my sisters who don’t know a lot about finance. “Dear sisters”- I explain to them what they would want to know in their position. I also like to write one section that is a general teaching lesson that doesn’t directly apply to Berkshire. This year 2600 words (out of 11,500) are thoughts about investing. I’m talking to all people thinking about investing and how they should go about it. I take one subject and just write a chapter on this, annually. Some people are interested, some are not. If they’re going to have most of their money with me, I like to talk to them as if they are in the room with me — economic principles of BRK – so people know what we are all about.
In 1956 I bought a ledger for $0.49, two pieces of paper for a partnership document but didn’t worry about the partnership agreement. I just explained the ground rules in about half a page: This is what I can do, this is what I can’t do, this is how I intend to go about it, and this is how I measure my success. If this looks good to you, then buy in. If you don’t want to buy in, then don’t – we can still be friends. These ground rules are in the back of the Berkshire Hathaway report tailored to investors. In our ground rules, though our management is corporate our attitude is partnership. We consider you as partners. You need to have common ground, just like a marriage. It would be crazy to get married when you differ on important points. The annual shareholders report is ready now. BRK has unusual shareholders, many of whom have 80% of their net worth in BRK. I have almost 100% of my net worth in BRK. But if the market goes down 50% we might rewrite it (laughter).
(4) Why did you convert Goldman Sachs warrants into a smaller stake in the company?
WB: Goldman Sachs and GE, we helped finance them in 2008 which I never dreamt would happen (Imagine GE calling you, telling you they need your financing assistance). BRK received warrants with preferred stocks, expiring in 5 years (Sept 2013). Warrants to buy $5 billion Goldman Sachs common stock and $3 billion GE common stock. If we exercised, we would have had to invest an additional $8 billion. These two companies didn’t want to issue all of those new shares. Earlier this year we decided, they didn’t want to issue all of those shares, we didn’t want to spend $8 billion. Let’s do a settlement, both wanted to. We didn’t have to lay out cash and they didn’t need to issue all of those shares. BRK ended up with Goldman Sachs shares valued close to $2 billion without any outlay of BRK’s cash. GE was only $200 million. BRK has only one big warrant