Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Oracle of Omaha

Warren Buffett's 2008 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders is out. I'm going to pull what I found to be the most interesting quotes for you here:

"We’re certain, for example, that the economy will be in shambles throughout 2009 – and, for that matter, probably well beyond – but that conclusion does not tell us whether the stock market will rise or fall." - page 4

"When investing, pessimism is your friend, euphoria the enemy." - page 5

"Additionally, the market value of the bonds and stocks that we continue to hold suffered a significant decline along with the general market. This does not bother Charlie and me. Indeed, we enjoy such price declines if we have funds available to increase our positions. Long ago, Ben Graham taught me that “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.” Whether we’re talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down." - page 5

"Our long-avowed goal is to be the “buyer of choice” for businesses – particularly those built and owned by families. The way to achieve this goal is to deserve it. That means we must keep our promises; avoid leveraging up acquired businesses; grant unusual autonomy to our managers; and hold the purchased companies through thick and thin (though we prefer thick and thicker)" - page 7

"As we view GEICO’s current opportunities, Tony and I feel like two hungry mosquitoes in a nudist camp. Juicy targets are everywhere" - page 8

"Reinsurance is a business of long-term promises, sometimes extending for fifty years or more. This past year has retaught clients a crucial principle: A promise is no better than the person or institution making it. That’s where General Re excels: It is the only reinsurer that is backed by an AAA corporation. Ben Franklin once said, “It’s difficult for an empty sack to stand upright.” That’s no worry for General Re clients." - Page 9

"Why are our borrowers – characteristically people with modest incomes and far-from-great credit scores – performing so well? The answer is elementary, going right back to Lending 101. Our borrowers simply looked at how full-bore mortgage payments would compare with their actual – not hoped-for – income and then decided whether they could live with that commitment. Simply put, they took out a mortgage with the intention of paying it off, whatever the course of home prices. Just as important is what our borrowers did not do. They did not count on making their loan payments by means of refinancing. They did not sign up for “teaser” rates that upon reset were outsized relative to their income. And they did not assume that they could always sell their home at a profit if their mortgage payments became onerous. Jimmy Stewart would have loved these folks." - page 11

"Commentary about the current housing crisis often ignores the crucial fact that most foreclosures do not occur because a house is worth less than its mortgage (so-called “upside-down” loans). Rather, foreclosures take place because borrowers can’t pay the monthly payment that they agreed to pay. Homeowners who have made a meaningful down-payment – derived from savings and not from other borrowing – seldom walk away from a primary residence simply because its value today is less than the mortgage. Instead, they walk when they can’t make the monthly payments." - page 12

"Home ownership is a wonderful thing. My family and I have enjoyed my present home for 50 years, with more to come. But enjoyment and utility should be the primary motives for purchase, not profit or refi possibilities. And the home purchased ought to fit the income of the purchaser. The present housing debacle should teach home buyers, lenders, brokers and government some simple lessons that will ensure stability in the future. Home purchases should involve an honest-to-God down payment of at least 10% and monthly payments that can be comfortably handled by the borrower’s income. That income should be carefully verified.
Putting people into homes, though a desirable goal, shouldn’t be our country’s primary objective.
Keeping them in their homes should be the ambition." - page 12

"Investors should be skeptical of history-based models. Constructed by a nerdy-sounding priesthood using esoteric terms such as beta, gamma, sigma and the like, these models tend to look impressive. Too often, though, investors forget to examine the assumptions behind the symbols. Our advice: Beware of geeks bearing formulas." - page 15

"I have pledged – to you, the rating agencies and myself – to always run Berkshire with more than ample cash. We never want to count on the kindness of strangers in order to meet
tomorrow’s obligations. When forced to choose, I will not trade even a night’s sleep for the chance of extra profits." - page 16

"Approval, though, is not the goal of investing. In fact, approval is often counter-productive because it sedates the brain and makes it less receptive to new facts or a re-examination of conclusions formed earlier. Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns" - page 16

"Improved “transparency” – a favorite remedy of politicians, commentators and financial regulators for averting future train wrecks – won’t cure the problems that derivatives pose. I know of no reporting mechanism that would come close to describing and measuring the risks in a huge and complex portfolio of derivatives. Auditors can’t audit these contracts, and regulators can’t regulate them. When I read the pages of “disclosure” in 10-Ks of companies that are entangled with these instruments, all I end up knowing is that I don’t know what is going on in their portfolios (and then I reach for some aspirin)." - page 17

"Derivatives contracts, in contrast, often go unsettled for years, or even decades, with counterparties building up huge claims against each other. “Paper” assets and liabilities – often hard to quantify – become important parts of financial statements though these items will not be validated for many years. Additionally, a frightening web of mutual dependence develops among huge financial institutions. Receivables and payables by the billions become concentrated in the hands of a few large dealers who are apt to be highly-leveraged in other ways as well. Participants seeking to dodge troubles face the same problem as someone seeking to avoid venereal disease: It’s not just whom you sleep with, but also whom they are sleeping with.

Sleeping around, to continue our metaphor, can actually be useful for large derivatives dealers because it assures them government aid if trouble hits. In other words, only companies having problems that can infect the entire neighborhood – I won’t mention names – are certain to become a concern of the state (an outcome, I’m sad to say, that is proper). From this irritating reality comes The First Law of Corporate Survival for ambitious CEOs who pile on leverage and run large and unfathomable derivatives books: Modest incompetence simply won’t do; it’s mindboggling screw-ups that are required." - page 17 & 18

Warren also has an interesting analysis of how he thinks the Black-Scholes options pricing model overstates the risks in the put options he has sold when looking at long term options, on page 20 of the letter.


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