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From The Archives: Warren Buffett On Intrinsic Value [Pt. 2]

Continued on from part one……

Outside the Berkshire letters, the largest and most comprehensive guide from Buffett on the topic of intrinsic value can be found in the Berkshire’s Owners Manual.

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“Now let’s focus on a term that I mentioned earlier and that you will encounter in future annual reports.”

First of all, a definition of intrinsic value:

“Intrinsic value is an all-important concept that offers the only logical approach to evaluating the relative attractiveness of investments and businesses. Intrinsic value can be defined simply: It is the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life.”

Then Buffett moves on to calculating intrinsic value, a process, that I covered earlier, which is more of an art than a precise science. The seems that, as it’s never possible to come up with an exact answer, Buffett and Charlie Munger, a quite happy to keep their calculations to themselves:

“The calculation of intrinsic value, though, is not so simple. As our definition suggests, intrinsic value is an estimate rather than a precise figure, and it is additionally an estimate that must be changed if interest rates move or forecasts of future cash flows are revised. Two people looking at the same set of facts, moreover – and this would apply even to Charlie and me – will almost inevitably come up with at least slightly different intrinsic value figures. That is one reason we never give you our estimates of intrinsic value. What our annual reports do supply, though, are the facts that we ourselves use to calculate this value. Meanwhile, we regularly report our per-share book value, an easily calculable number, though one of limited use.”

Warren Buffett on Berkshire's Book Value

When it comes down to it, calculating intrinsic value is much more complex than calculating book value. And anyway, book value can be misleading in itself as it does not account for funds tied up in unproductive assets:

“For example, in 1964 we could state with certitude that Berkshire’s per-share book value was $19.46. However, that figure considerably overstated the company’s intrinsic value, since all of the company’s resources were tied up in a sub-profitable textile business. Our textile assets had neither going-concern nor liquidation values equal to their carrying values. Today, however, Berkshire’s situation is reversed: Now, our book value far understates Berkshire’s intrinsic value, a point true because many of the businesses we control are worth much more than their carrying value. Inadequate though they are in telling the story, we give you Berkshire’s book-value figures because they today serve as a rough, albeit significantly understated, tracking measure for Berkshire’s intrinsic value. In other words, the percentage change in book value in any given year is likely to be reasonably close to that year’s change in intrinsic value.”

See also: Hidden Value Stocks

If you’re confused by the concept of intrinsic value and book value, Buffett gives a great example:

“You can gain some insight into the differences between book value and intrinsic value by looking at one form of investment, a college education. Think of the education’s cost as its “book value.” If this cost is to be accurate, it should include the earnings that were foregone by the student because he chose college rather than a job. For this exercise, we will ignore the important non-economic benefits of an education and focus strictly on its economic value. First, we must estimate the earnings that the graduate will receive over his lifetime and subtract from that figure an estimate of what he would have earned had he lacked his education. That gives us an excess earnings figure, which must then be discounted, at an appropriate interest rate, back to graduation day. The dollar result equals the intrinsic economic value of the education. Some graduates will find that the book value of their education exceeds its intrinsic value, which means that whoever paid for the education didn’t get his money’s worth. In other cases, the intrinsic value of an education will far exceed its book value, a result that proves capital was wisely deployed. In all cases, what is clear is that book value is meaningless as an indicator of intrinsic value.”