Berkshire Hathaway’s Disintermediation: Buffett’s New Managerial Model by SSRN
George Washington University
Berkshire Hathaway, among history’s largest and most successful corporations, shuns middlemen; its chairman, the legendary investor Warren Buffett, excoriates financial intermediaries. The acquisitive conglomerate rarely borrows money, retains brokers, or hires consultants. Its governance is lean, using an advisory board and bucking all forms of corporate bureaucracy. Berkshire’s shareholders also minimize the roles of intermediaries like stockbrokers and stock exchanges by trading little and holding for lengthy periods.
By exploring Berkshire’s antipathy to intermediation, this article supports the view that public policy ought to make considerable room for companies to define their own internal business practices and that more companies ought to consider emulating aspects of Berkshire’s disintermediation. While Buffett’s legacy to date has been to lead two generations of value investors, Berkshire’s radically ingenious disintermediation has the potential to shape the next two generations of value managers, as argued in this paper and at greater length in the author’s recent book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values.
Berkshire Hathaway’s Disintermediation: Buffett’s New Managerial Model – Introduction
Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett is famous for dissing financial intermediaries – he is not only a champion of disintermediation but a lifelong practitioner of non-intermediation. At Berkshire, a publicly-traded holding company, disintermediation is acute at the parent level. It starts with a governance structure featuring Buffett, a controlling shareholder who effectively founded the firm in 1965 and has served continuously as its chairman and chief executive since 1970. Today, from an office with two dozen staff in Omaha, Nebraska, Buffett is the steward of a sprawling conglomerate that employs 340,000 people.
Berkshire Hathaway’s formal governance is headed by Buffett’s handpicked board of directors, his friends and family, who pride themselves more for being just like shareholders than on serving as monitors of management for them. Berkshire’s shareholder body embraces the company’s unusual approach to corporate governance and concurs with Buffett’s aversion to intermediaries, trading lightly in the stock to the dismay of stockbrokers and concentrating their portfolios in it despite financial advisory orthodoxy to diversify.
Eighty percent of Berkshire Hathaway’s nearly $600 billion in assets are operated by its sixty principal subsidiaries, supplemented by a portfolio of securities in other companies representing the remaining twenty percent of total assets. Built over five decades through scores of acquisitions and investments, Berkshire has rarely borrowed money, retained a business broker to scout for acquisition targets, or engaged an investment banker for advice. Upon acquisition of a company, Berkshire gives unit chiefs carte blanche to run their businesses without interfacing with parent level officers on anything except financial reporting and internal auditing. The decentralized model, akin to disintermediation, lacks the tight control protocols common in corporate America, inculcating instead a trust-based culture of stewardship with a record of strong profitability. Any subsidiary seeking financing need only request it from Berkshire, without resorting to the intermediated channels of America’s system of corporate finance.
Berkshire Hathaway’s success using an unorthodox approach underscores the value of flexibility in governance design, the appeal of a trust-based corporate culture, and the capacity for self-reliance in lieu of intermediaries. The variety of distribution channels in its subsidiaries and investees reflects the utility of alternative degrees of mediation, ruled by factors such as the efficacy of self-reliance. While the exact normative implications of Berkshire’s complex story are more contestable than its descriptive accomplishments, the touchstone is pragmatism over ideology, with weighty roles for autonomy, efficiency, and thrift.
In 1956, a twenty-six year old Warren Buffett formed an investment partnership to acquire small businesses and equity stakes in larger companies. In 1965, the partnership took control of Berkshire Hathaway, a publicly-held and struggling textile manufacturer. The Buffett Partnership soon dissolved, with Berkshire shares distributed to the partners. Berkshire proceeded to acquire interests in diverse businesses, including insurance, manufacturing, finance, and newspapers. Its results through 2015 have vastly exceeded benchmarks such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average or Standard & Poor’s 500. From 1965 to 2015, the Dow increased eighteen-fold while Berkshire increased by 12,000 times, a compound annual rate of 21%, double the S&P.
Despite the change from the partnership to the corporate form, Buffett has always preserved the sense of partnership at Berkshire Hathaway. The legacy is reflected in the first of fifteen principles stated for decades in Berkshire’s “owners’ manual”: “While our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership.”4 The “Berkshire system,” as vice chairman Charlie Munger dubbed it recently,5 differs significantly from prevailing practices at other large American corporations. And while legions of investors have attempted to mimic Buffett’s investment philosophy, few have emulated Berkshire’s corporate practices.6 Yet the Berkshire system has many advantages.
Berkshire Hathaway differs from the typical public company model characterized by separation of share ownership from managerial control and associated agency costs.8 Rather, Buffett has been Berkshire’s controlling shareholder since 1965. He initially owned forty-five percent of Berkshire’s voting and economic interest; today, having made annual transfers of shares for charitable purposes for a decade, Buffett owns thirty-four percent of Berkshire’s voting power and twenty-one percent of its economic interest.9
So Berkshire may not have needed many of the devices designed to control agency costs in public companies, which often entail intermediation. But controlling shareholders create another set of agency costs for minority shareholders.10 And Berkshire’s unparalleled success and thorough renunciation of such devices makes it wise to ask whether they are necessary or desirable at companies without a controlling shareholder too.
Buffett is, in effect, Berkshire Hathaway’s founder, as he transformed the company from a struggling textile manufacturer into an investment vehicle and then a conglomerate. Throughout most of that time, since 1970, he has also served as Berkshire’s only chief executive and board chairman. Such longevity is unique—most modern CEO tenures are far shorter and even legendary long-serving CEOs had tenures half that, including Alfred Sloan, John D. Rockefeller and John F. Welch. The tenure enabled Buffett to put a seemingly indelible imprint on the company, highlighted by non-intermediation. While some companies and advocates endorse age limits for officers and term limits for directors, Berkshire’s shareholders have gained substantially thanks to Buffett’s long tenure in both roles.
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