David Kass Notes From Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting – May 2, 2015
Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting
May 2, 2015
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(Notes taken by David Kass, Department of Finance, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland)
A one hour humorous film was shown in which the highlight was Warren Buffett (“The Berkshire Bomber”) challenging World Welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather to a boxing match to be held at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Charlie Rose on CBS News breaks in with a bulletin announcing this challenge. Warren Buffett shows up at Floyd Mayweather's training facility and is being held back by his daughter and others while he yells at Mayweather (apparently curse words that are bleeped out). While Mayweather is hitting a punching bag in his gym, Buffett is working out at home on an exercise bicycle while reading the Wall Street Journal. Steve Wynn announces that he is betting $10,000 on Buffett. On the night of the championship fight, the MGM Grand is sold out, with Jack Nicholson seated in the first row. Seated in his corner, Mayweather has his handlers give him a mouth guard and a sip of water. Buffett, in his corner, is dressed with a T-shirt and still wearing his glasses. He drinks Coca-Cola and is given See's Candies as his mouth guard. Both fighters then stand in the middle of the ring glaring at each other and separated by a referee. (The movie ends at this point.) (Note: Several hours after the Berkshire annual meeting, Floyd Mayweather defeated Manny Pacquiao for the World Welterweight title at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.)
Warren Buffett (age 84) and Charlie Munger (age 91) then walk on the stage and sit down. The format for asking questions was similar to the last six annual meetings. One-third of the questions were selected by three business journalists: Andrew Ross Sorkin (CNBC and the New York Times), Becky Quick (CNBC), and Carol Loomis (Fortune). Shareholders had e-mailed over 2,000 questions to the journalists, who then selected 18 questions relating to Berkshire and its operations. The journalists who were seated on the stage, alternated with analysts Gregg Warren (Morningstar), Jonathan Brandt (Ruane, Cunniff, and Goldfarb), and Gary Ransom (Dowling & Partners), and with shareholders in the audience in the asking of questions.
Approximately 45,000 – 50,000 were in attendance (celebrating Warren Buffett's 50 years at Berkshire Hathaway). This compared to previous records of 40,000 in 2014, 36,000 – 38,000 in 2010-2013, and 35,000 in 2009, 31,000 in 2008, 27,000 in 2007, and 24,000 in 2006.) The CenturyLink Center (18,000 capacity) and all of the overflow rooms were filled for the first time.
Buffett initially commented on Berkshire's 2015 first quarter earnings and mentioned that Burlington Northern's results were improving.
Questions were asked in the following order:
(1) Loomis: The Seattle Times recently published an article alleging predatory lending practices by Clayton Homes. Also, Berkshire's partnership with 3G Capital has led to massive layoffs. Is Berkshire being ethical?
Buffett: There were many errors in the Seattle Times article. We have no interest in selling a mortgage and having a default. Clayton keeps 100% of the mortgages. Only 3% of Clayton mortgages default. The customers are mostly people with low monthly incomes. Our money is at risk. The average cost of a manufactured home plus land is $95,000. The Seattle Times article alleged that Clayton was making a 20% profit. They don't know the difference between gross margin and net profit. Our gross margin equals 20%, but our net margin is only 2%. I have not received any complaints about Clayton's lending practices and we are regulated.
Munger: Clayton has a 50% market share of manufactured housing.
Buffett: With respect to 3G Capital, we have never said that there should be more people running the business than needed. After 3G reduced the number of employees, they have done extremely well. There were more than 1.6 million people working for railroads in 1945. Now there are less than 200,000. Trains now carry more freight, over longer distances and with very high safety standards. Capitalism requires efficiency over time.
(2) Brandt: Will Van Tuyl (car dealerships) need to adapt to new modes of selling such as one price and no negotiations?
Buffett: I do not know the answer. People say they do not like negotiations, but then they do it. Van Tuyl will adapt to whatever the customer wants. I wouldn't be surprised that in 5 – 10 years the buying system will still be the same. Van Tuyl will be very profitable in relation to the capital we invest in it.
(3) Audience: What five characteristics do you use to predict earnings of companies 5 – 10 years from now?
Munger: There is no one size fits all system. We keep learning. We can't give you a formula.
Buffett: There are a lot of things that we look at such as what the business will look like. We evaluate if we want to be in partnership with this person or management and count on them to behave well into the future. That stops a fair number of deals.
(4) Quick: Charlie, did you try to talk Warren out of IBM?
Munger: I did not. IBM is very adaptable. They were undergoing a temporary reversal and we bought at a reasonable price.
Buffett: It was a 2 – 0 vote on IBM. The company will be buying back its stock in the future and we would like the price to be lower.
Munger: If people weren't so often wrong, we wouldn't be rich.
(5) Ransom: Do you agree with Charlie in his annual letter that Berkshire could not repeat its success if entering the insurance business today?
Buffett: There were three historical pieces of good luck that were involved in our entry into the insurance business: (1)My meeting with Lorimar Davidson at Geico in 1950 and the education he provided about the insurance business, (2) Buying National Indemnity in 1967, and (3) The arrival of Ajit Jain in the mid-80's. The odds of repeating this today would be very low.
(6) Audience: Can Berkshire's culture endure after you leave?
Buffett: Berkshire's culture runs deep and is clearly defined. I expect it to continue and become even stronger. An example is 97% of shareholders voting that they do not want a dividend.
(7) Sorkin: With the negative impact that sugar is having on consumers' health, have we reached an inflection point? Is Coke's moat narrowing?
Buffett: Twenty years from now more Coke will be consumed than today. I estimate that a quarter of all calories I consume come from Coke. I am not sure which quarter. If I ate broccoli and Brussels sprouts I would not have lived as long.
Munger: Sugar is enormously helpful. It prevents the premature softening of the arteries.
Buffett: I don't see smiles on people's faces at Whole Foods.
(8)Gregg Warren: A question about buying more auto dealerships.
Buffett: There are no large economies of scale, but running them well is important. Berkshire will not be financing the auto loans. Banks such as Wells Fargo are the lenders with a low cost of capital. We will keep the dealerships local.
(9) Audience: Question about Berkshire's culture.
Buffett: Culture comes from the top and has to be consistent and part of written communications. It should be rewarded when followed and punished when not.
(10) Loomis: Question on the general level of the market within the context of two metrics that Buffett has used before: (1) Market cap to GDP now at 125% (same as 1999), and (2) Corporate profits at 10.5% of GDP vs. 4% long term average.
Buffett: The high corporate profits percentage of GDP means that American businesses are doing well. Market cap to GDP is high because of low interest rates. If interest rates return to normal levels, then stocks look high. But if interest rates remain low, stocks are cheap. Any company with an economist has one employee too many.
(11) Brandt: Question about railroad safety and how new rules regarding oil tankers would impact BNSF and Union Tank Car (Marmon).
Buffett: BNSF and Berkshire Energy have the best safety records in their industry. We will not be buying new railroad cars, but will be retrofitting.
(12) Audience: How can students who have not gone to the best business schools develop a network?
Munger: You should just try hard. Play the hand you are dealt. I don't have any business school training, why should you?
Buffett: Business schools taught efficient markets. I'm glad I avoided it. What about law schools?
Munger: Law schools are like pie eating contests. If you win, you get to eat more pie.
(13) Quick: How would a BP-type railroad accident affect Berkshire?
Buffett: Our reinsurance unit offers high limits up to $5 billion. You run trains slower in urban areas, down to 35 mph. We would offer insurance, but the railroad industry did not like our rates and did not buy it.
(14) Ransom: Question about moving capital around within the insurance business.
Buffett: We have moved cash from subsidiaries to parent company. It's easier when you have one big pocket such as National Indemnity.
(15) Audience: Question on Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and if the US should join. Also, will the dollar still be the reserve currency in the future?
Buffett: I know nothing about AIIB.
Munger: I know less than you.
Buffett: The probability that the dollar will be the reserve currency 50 years from now is very high.
Munger: I am nervous about printing a lot of money and spending. I prefer it be spent on infrastructure rather than spreading it around from a helicopter.
(16) Sorkin: Question about rebranding Berkshire companies and using the Berkshire Hathaway name.
Munger: Brands like See's are enormously valuable.
(17) Gregg Warren: Question on Renewable Energy.
Buffett: There are more opportunities in wind and solar. Facilities are being developed using tax credits. This enables Berkshire Energy to invest more money, as it is part of the consolidated tax return of Berkshire. Most utilities do not pay that much income tax so they cannot invest as much.
Greg Abel: 58% of energy provided in Iowa is from wind.
(18) Audience: What was the biggest mistake you have made?
Buffett: Dexter Shoe was by far the biggest mistake. We paid $400 million for Dexter in Berkshire stock which is now worth $6 – $7 billion. Dexter went bankrupt. We do not like issuing shares.
(19) Loomis: You warned in 2008 about the possibility of inflation. Are you still concerned about it?
Buffett: So far I've been wrong. I would not have predicted that you could have five years of zero interest rates and negative rates in Europe without more inflation. The U.S. can sustain 2-2.5% deficit (GDP) and not increase the debt/GDP ratio. If there is economic turbulence we are prepared ($60 billion cash). Most others are not.
(20) Brandt: Question about the discrepancy between cash taxes and reported taxes ($37 billion) and if the deferred tax liability is similar to float. Will the deferred taxes ever have to be paid?
Buffett: He does not look at deferred taxes as a hidden form of equity. Float from insurance is a terrific asset. Deferred taxes are a plus but not an asset.
(21) Audience: Question about Henry Singleton's Teledyne.
Munger: Henry was a lot smarter than Warren or me. He had very clever incentives for all of his executives. But they went too far leading to scandals.
(22) Quick: Is Berkshire too big to fail?
Buffett: The definition of a SIFI is at least 85% of revenues come from financial related businesses. Berkshire's revenue from finance is only around 20%.
(23) Ransom: Question relating to Workers Compensation.
Buffett: We are experimenting with Workers Compensation. We'll see if customers want to buy it.
(24) Sorkin: If 3G ran Berkshire would there be layoffs and emphasis on short term profits?
Buffett: Geico is run as efficiently as 3G. Berkshire's home office has only 25 people.
(25) Gregg Warren: Question on 3G efficiency and private labels vs. brand names.
Buffett: Private labels have been around for a long time. Lots of people tried other cola brands. Wilkinson came up with stainless steel blades, but Gillette has 70% of the market. If you have a good brand and you invest in it, it is a great asset.
(26) Audience: Can value investing be applied in all markets?
Buffett: Value investing principles apply everywhere. I would look at stocks the same way as you would look at a farm or an apartment.
(27) Loomis: How does the threat of chemical, nuclear, biological, and cyber terrorism affect the outlook for Berkshire?
Buffett: This country has a wonderful future but can be nullified by mad men, rogue states, and sociopaths who wish to have access to weapons of mass destruction. We need to be extremely vigilant with the security of the U.S. The luckiest person in the world today is the baby being born in the U.S.
(28) Brandt: Question about CEO vs. CIO at Berkshire
Buffett: I would not want someone whose sole experience is in investments to run Berkshire. I've had experience with both running businesses and investments.
Munger: Marketable securities are becoming less important at Berkshire.
(29) Audience: Question about Ted Weschler and Todd Combs.
Buffett: Ted Weschler and Todd Combs are very smart about businesses and investments. They understand the reality of business operations. They have qualities of character that are important to Charlie and me. We want people that you want to be around and hand responsibility to. Ted worked on this acquisition in Germany (motorcycle accessory firm). He's smart, has good sense, and knows how to deal with people. We run into more dysfunctional people with IQ's of 160 or more. We've seen a group of brilliant people who self-destructed to make money they did not need. Some people have difficulty functioning day to day even though they have moments of brilliance.
Munger: Trustworthiness is more important than brains. We wouldn't hire anyone if we didn't trust him or her.
Warren Buffett updated the results of his charity bet: S&P 500 Index Fund vs. hedge funds (fund of funds): From 2008 -2014 — cumulative: S&P 500 up 63.5% vs. hedge fund up 19.6%
Buffett: Hedge fund managers have done well, but not their investors.
(30) Quick: Which types of businesses are best to own during periods of high inflation?
Buffett: Businesses that do not require reinvestment of capital are good. Real estate and brands do well in periods of inflation. In capital intensive industries, depreciation charges are inadequate in inflationary periods.
Munger: If inflation goes out of control, there is big trouble. If not for the Weimar Republic inflation, we may not have had Hitler. Think of the price the world paid for that. We don't want inflation because it is good for See's Candies.
(31) Ransom: Is the Berkshire Specialty Insurance business doing well enough that you don't have to make an acquisition?
Buffett: Berkshire Specialty could be a very big operation 5 – 10 years from now. We don't need to buy.
(32) Audience: What advice would you give to build a business with an enduring culture?
Munger: You get your reputation over a long period of time.
Buffett: The reputation companies get over time is the one they deserve.
(33) Sorkin: Many insurance companies cite global warming as a risk that impacts their business and pricing. How does it affect Berkshire?
Buffett: We price our insurance one year at a time. I see nothing on the global warming front that causes me to change the price. That doesn't mean that global warming is not important. But if I was writing a 50 year wind farm policy in Florida, I would think hard about the effect of global warming.
(34) Gregg Warren: Question about Berkshire's investments in ConocoPhillips (COP), Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Berkshire Energy
Munger: XOM wasn't a bad cash substitute. The dividend yield was high at the price we paid.
Buffett: But Berkshire Energy is different. There is nothing we like better than backing Greg Abel in buying energy companies. We look for strong management, strong growth prospects, and constructive regulatory jurisdiction as key attributes for an acquisition.
(35) Audience: Question about the U.S. tax code
Buffett: The share of corporate profits to GDP is at record levels. But corporate taxes decreased as a percentage of GDP. It used to be around 4% of GDP 40 years ago and is now around 2%. The tax code can be made more rational but I don't shed any tears for American businesses over the tax code. American businesses are earning around 15% on tangible equity.
(36) Loomis: Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations in 1776. How did it shape your philosophy?
Buffett: The Wealth of Nations did not shape my investment approach, but I learned economics from it. If you read Keynes, Adam Smith, Ricardo and “Where are the Customers' Yachts” (by Fred Schwed), you will learn a lot. I have used an idea from Adam Smith, division of labor, to let other people do what they are best at and work in the field that they are most productive – such as having the Gates Foundation manage my philanthropic activities.
(37) Brandt: Have you found that management from the public companies you acquire have a harder time making long-term decisions than private companies?
Buffett: This is not an issue for us. Our managers know how to run Berkshire businesses for the long-term.
(38) Audience: What are the differences between corporate cultures in Germany and the U.S.?
Munger: Germans are good at technology. They work hard and produce more.
Buffett: I predict we will buy at least one (German) company in the next five years. Berkshire is on their radar screen now. Prices there are more attractive than in the U.S.
(39) Quick: Why is my (78 year old shareholder) Geico policy not priced lower than the competition?
Buffett: Geico has lower prices 40% of the time. Our competition has different underwriting weightings but on average Geico will be lower. It's definitely worth 15 minutes to call Geico.
(40) Ransom: Question about changes in the reinsurance business.
Buffett: The reinsurance business is not as good as it was. It has become a fashionable asset class for funds looking for uncorrelated assets. This has led to less attractive prices. But there are certain things in the reinsurance market that only Berkshire can do.
Munger: We are in reinsurance for the long haul.
(41) Audience: Question from a very young shareholder: How do you make friends and get people to like you?
Munger: I was obnoxious when I was young. So I figured the only way to get people to like me was to get rich and generous quickly.
Buffett: I was obnoxious too but I tried and changed my behavior as I aged. You should get smarter about human behavior over time. Try to change your behavior to match the attributes you like in others.
Munger: In marriage it is better to change your behavior than your spouse's. Look for someone with low expectations.
(42) Sorkin: Was buying NetJets a mistake?
Buffett: It's a good business. We resell planes to owners. We have no anti-union sentiments. The pilots earn $145,000 per year and have 7 days on and 7 days off. We pay for transportation costs to get to work. We give pilots more training than anyone else. The labor dispute will get settled.
(43) Gregg Warren: Since the Duracell business is in decline, would you have done this deal with Procter & Gamble without the tax considerations?
Buffett: Both Berkshire and Procter & Gamble had tax advantages of doing the deal this way. We probably would not have done the deal without the tax advantages. It is similar to a real estate exchange agreement. Although the battery business will decline it will be around for a long time. The deal will be completed in the fourth quarter of 2015.
(44) Audience: Question about philanthropy.
Buffett: I've promised to give 99% to charity. There's no Forbes 400 in the graveyard. I have everything I need. But wealth has so much more utility for someone else.
(45) Loomis: Would you consider returning capital to Berkshire shareholders using assets such as Coca-Cola and American Express in a tax efficient transaction similar to Yahoo's distribution of Alibaba stock to its shareholders?
Buffett: There is no way to distribute assets to shareholders without paying taxes. With large gains in marketable securities, I do not see how they get that money to their shareholders without paying taxes.
(46) Brandt: Household formation is low even with low unemployment. Is this cyclical?
Buffett: It always turns down in a recession. You could argue we are still in one. I suspect young people would want to own homes.
Munger: I have grandchildren who I wish would marry somebody suitable soon. They should quit looking for the pie in the sky.
(47) Audience: Question on corporate philanthropy.
Buffett: I am a big believer in individual philanthropy rather than corporate philanthropy. Shareholders should be choosing their own charities. I do not believe that corporate funds are my money. We used to have a good shareholder contribution system but we had to change (Note: Shareholders were able to designate which charities they wanted Berkshire to contribute to on a per share basis for the shares they owned.)
Munger: My desire to give away somebody else's money is also very restrained.
(48) Quick: Question on the Euro and Eurozone.
Munger: The Euro had a noble motivation and has done a lot of good. There are countries in the EU that should not be there. They created something that is unwise. You cannot get into a business partnership with your frivolous, drunken brother-in-law.
Buffett: The Euro is a good idea that needs some work. There are flaws that can be corrected.
Munger: The Euro has investment banker aided fraud, not exactly novel.
(49) Ransom: Are there synergies between Van Tuyl (automobile dealerships) and Geico?
Buffett: I do not think so. Historically, it has not been effective.
Munger: I agree. It's a dumb idea. We are not going to do it.
(50) Audience: Question on the silver market.
Buffett: I have not paid attention to the silver market in a long time. The silver market is very small. It is the byproduct of copper mining.
(51) Sorkin: If Buffett is going to give away all of his shares, how would Berkshire defend itself from activists? Would it be a failure if Berkshire is broken up?
Buffett: There are a lot of benefits to the way Berkshire is structured and there is nothing to be gained by splitting it up. I think it is unlikely in any long or medium term that the value of the parts will exceed the value of the whole. The best defense against activism is performance. The market value of Berkshire will keep rising and I think that will prevent any meaningful activism.
Munger: It is not a constructive activity for activists to indiscriminately urge more share repurchases because they are acquiring shares that trade above intrinsic value.
Buffett: It is a very simple decision. Can you purchase shares below intrinsic value? The history of share repurchases shows that it falls off a cliff when prices are low and peaks when stock prices are high. Berkshire will repurchase shares when they sell for less than 120% of book value, but not at 200% of book value.
Munger: I can't think of any activists I want to marry into my family.
(52) Gregg Warren: How does American Express defend its moat?
Buffett: Ken Chenault has done a good job of anticipating changes. There is a lot of loyalty to American Express. I believe that propriety cards are better than co-branded cards.
Munger: I would prefer if they had a little less competition, but that is life.
Buffett: American Express has an incredible history of adapting. They started as an express company involved in transportation of goods and they were replaced by railroads. They then got into traveler's checks and Diner's Club came along with their credit cards. American Express then started their credit card business and priced it at $5 and built a premium brand. They are very nimble and very smart. I am happy we own 15% of the company.
(53) Audience: How do you teach children about finance and money?
Buffett: Encourage good habits (saving) early on. The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.
(54) Audience: Question about closing out or unwinding Berkshire's equity put options and deleveraging Berkshire.
Buffett: I would like to close out the equity puts but it is unlikely we can agree on the price. I think it is unlikely that they just run out over time. We have very little debt so there is not much to de-lever. Logically, we should take on more debt at these rates. We could use debt if a large deal came about.
(55) Audience: Is the rate of return higher in China on auto dealerships?
Buffett: I don't think we will get benefits of scale as we buy more auto dealerships. I do not know the situation in China. There are 17,000 dealerships in the US and we own 81, so there is room to grow. But the problem is price. We will be using the Van Tuyl price as the yardstick. If anything, we will buy for a price that is a little less. We would rather buy at 10x or 12x earnings in a bad year than 8x in a good year.
(56) Audience: What is your secret for staying so young and energetic? Do you use the Internet a lot?
Buffett: If I would have to give up my plane which costs about $1 million a year or give up the Internet which costs about $100, I would give up the plane. Where else, on a cold, snowy evening, can you get three of your friends together for a game of bridge?
Munger: Younger people are more likely to use it than we are.
Buffett: It has changed Geico's business dramatically.
(57) Audience (Whitney Tilson): How concerned are you about income inequality? Do you think raising the minimum wage is a good idea? What impact might this have on the profitability of corporate America?
Buffett: Since I was born in 1930, the average GDP per capita of the U.S. has gone up by 6 times. I have nothing against raising the minimum wage, but to raise it to a level sufficient to really change things very much would cost a whole lot of jobs. I am much more a believer in reforming and enlarging the earned income tax credit, which rewards people who work, but also takes care of people whose skills do not fit well into the market system.
Munger: Well you have just heard a Democrat speaking. Here is a Republican who agrees with him. I think if we raise the minimum wage a lot, it would be massively stupid and hurt the poor. I think it would help the poor to make the earned income tax credit bigger.
(58) Audience: With business schools costing $60,000, how will the average family be able to pay for college tuition?
Munger: The average American gets education by going to cheaper schools. Most people are paying less and getting subsidies. It is a big problem. Education keeps getting more expensive. Maybe college students do better because they started better.
Buffett: College education may be worth more because people going to college earn more.
Munger: There is a big tendency to raise prices because they can collect it. A lot is happening in education. In the Great Recession, all universities were overstaffed and they laid off a lot of people. They worked better. Rightsizing is not bad. It is a real problem to look at those sticker shocks. Pick out the best option and live with it.
(59) Audience: Question on the Chinese economy.
Munger: I'm a big fan of what's happening in China. They are smart in copying Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore). LKY drove out corruption. He paid civil servants better and recruited better. He created a better system and China is essentially copying his system. China has come so far so fast . It has never happened in the history of the world that a country of this size has come so far so fast. That is what Berkshire does, copy bright people.
(60) Audience: How did you figure out operational metrics in new industries/businesses you were evaluating when you started out 50 years ago?
Buffett: We try to get a feel for what the company would look like 5 – 10 years from now. We kept reading and thinking. These were easier decisions then than now. We lean towards things where we are certain to get a decent result vs. getting a brilliant result from something we are not sure of.
Munger: We made some of our luck be being curious and seeking wisdom. But there is nothing like getting your nose whacked to obtain wisdom. Everyone who has followed the Graham-Newman path has done well. Our good family backgrounds helped us identify good people.
(61) Audience: How did you persuade your early investors to invest with you?
Munger: We didn't do well until we had a winning record.
Buffett: I started selling stocks when I was 20 years old. I looked 16 and behaved like I was 12. I used to walk around town and called on people. My early investors had faith in me. Ben Graham was winding up his partnership, and he recommended me.
(62) Audience: What matters to you most and why?
Munger: I was better at figuring things out and I knew I was never going to be good at anything else. A man's duty is to become as rational as he can possibly be.
Buffett: What matters most to me is that Berkshire does well. I get to work with people that I like. We hate losing someone else's money. That would keep me up at night.
(63) Audience: What were the most important factors contributing to your early success?
Buffett: I had a great teacher, exceptional focus, right emotional qualities and enjoyed the game. Ben Graham's philosophy made total sense.
Munger: It is an easy game if someone's got the temperament for it and keeps at it.
(64) Audience: Question on the Wall Street Journal and its moat and advantages
Buffett: Dow Jones basically owned the financial field and the news ticker in the 60's and there was incredible growth in the industry for the next 30-40 years. They missed what was going to happen when Michael Bloomberg comes along and takes away financial information. They could have pursued other areas and made the company billions of dollars. They started with a good position, trusted name, and were in every brokerage firm in the country. Then they let the world pass them by.