Semper Augustus Investments Group annual letter to clients for the year ended December 31, 2015; title, “Party Like It’s Nineteen Ninety-Nine.”

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Bad Breadth, Intrinsic Value, And A Deep Dive Into Berkshire Hathaway

I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray;

But when I woke up this mornin’, could’ve sworn it was judgment day.

The sky was all purple, there were people runnin’ everywhere;

Tryin’ to run from the destruction, you know I didn’t even care.

Say two thousand zero zero party over, oops, out of time;

So tonight I’m gonna party like its nineteen ninety-nine - Prince

2015 went out with shades of 1999. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates, Luke Skywalker owned the box office, and a narrowing group of popular and increasingly overvalued stocks led the market to new highs, while the majority of stocks, including Berkshire Hathaway, lost altitude.

Semper Augustus

This year’s letter begins with an overview of the unfolding deterioration of breadth in the stock market. It compares the current bifurcation to the period leading up to the 2000 bubble, then discusses our intrinsic value model, a tool we created in March 2000 that demonstrates the degree to which the S&P 500 is nearly as overvalued today as it was then. We ruminate about a group of four highflying tech names known fondly as the FANG’s (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google). We sense they will be licking major wounds going forward. Finally we examine Berkshire Hathaway, our largest holding, in detail so deep that it would put both Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger to sleep, permanently. We address last year’s 12.5% decline in the stock and what it means for expected returns going forward. The report describes multiple approaches we use to value the business. It is a lengthy analysis; so long in fact, that the competition’s drumming pink bunny can’t keep going and going. The bottom line: Berkshire is increasingly durable and the stock is considerably undervalued. We expect to earn 8% to 12% per year depending on multiple expansion for at least the next decade and a half holding Berkshire, and the shares may earn double the return produced by the S&P 500. Berkshire is trading at 70% of intrinsic value, giving it 45% upside from today, just to get to fair value.

Semper Augustus - Breadth Leading Up To The 2000 Bubble Peak, And Today…

Yogi Berra’s best malapropisms and expressions lacking logic included:

  • The future ain’t what it used to be.
  • No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.
  • You can observe a lot just by watching.
  • It ain’t over till it’s over.
  • When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
  • It’s like déjà vu all over again.

Each of these “Yogiisms” fits today’s investment climate. The last is extremely apt here at the outset of 2016. The run-up to the bubble that burst in early 2000 involved such excesses and extremes that we really believed we’d never again see anything like it again. Well, history repeats, or at least rhymes, and in the words of Yogi, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Valuations and market behavior are frighteningly similar to what we saw in the late 1990’s, even more extreme in some cases. The number of stocks moving down has exceeded those moving ahead since May. EVERY major stock market decline since 1929 was preceded by a breakdown in breadth leading up to each market peak. While we saw such divergence in late 2007 through the fall of 2008, the episode leading up to 2000’s market peak is worth revisiting.

A Look Back at 1999

The stock market bubble peaked on March 10, 2000, with the NASDAQ closing at 5,048. The S&P 500 peaked two weeks later at 1,553, trading for about 40 times normalized earnings. The NASDAQ, dominated by high-flying tech and Internet shares, traded at an unbelievable 242 times earnings. We have fond memories of March 10, 2000, because from that day forward, for the first two years of the market collapse, which took the S&P down 50% and the NASDAQ by more than 80%, our stocks essentially went straight up. Under the surface, the market was breaking down long before March 10.

The late 1990’s were brutal for value-oriented investors. We launched Semper Augustus in late 1998 and managed to generate decent gains on the stocks in our portfolios, keeping pace with the S&P in 1999. But we were so far behind the 84% posted by the NASDAQ that the pressure to own and chase the tech names that were making everybody else “richer” was enormous. The first 70 days of 2000 were brutal. The markets, led by the insanely overvalued tech names, marched higher on a daily basis, while nearly every stock we owned was in decline. Investors liquidated real businesses with real value for the names creating arguably the greatest bubbles in capital markets history. Janus’ stock funds, all loaded with the same inflated tech names, were getting half of all of the money flowing into the entire mutual fund complex during the six months leading up to the March 10 peak. When the “markets” blew up, Janus blew up.

It took enormous effort to keep clients from chasing the tech bubble. We had cash on hand and as the stocks of real businesses got cheaper and cheaper, we put money to work at increasingly favorable prices. Several of our buys from that period we still own today. But it took every bit of energy we had to keep our clients on board and confident in the quality of businesses we were buying and in our favorable expectations, regardless of what the S&P or the NASDAQ did.

We penned a client letter in July 1999 titled, Large Cap Stocks Still Overvalued; Some Bargains in Small-Caps and Mid-Caps. The letter discussed a breakdown in breadth, the bifurcation in the market as a small handful of names drove the markets higher while the average stock lagged behind, many declining in price.

The blue chips, the GE’s, Coca-Cola’s, Wal-Mart’s and Exxon’s - the “new nifty fifty,” peaked at over 40 times earnings during 1998. Tech heavy indices continued to defy logic, narrowing through the remainder of 1999 and into early 2000. Tech, media and Internet stocks led the way toward the end of the advance. Everything unrelated to tech or telecom was in decline while tech sprinted ahead.

Our stocks managed to keep pace with the S&P 500’s 21% gain during 1999, but the NASDAQ was up an incredible 84%. We had lots of cash on hand, which muted our portfolio gains even more. As breadth deteriorated, we were able to put money to work. Toward the end of the bubble, in early March of 2000, nearly everything we owned fell. On the morning of March 10, the day of the peak, I was sitting at my desk literally shaking as Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Lucent, Cisco and Pets.com screamed upward as our portfolio names bled red. To maintain sanity I wrote a piece for Alan Abelson at Barron’s which pointed out the market cap of the NASDAQ was set to pass that of the NYSE, yet the businesses on

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