Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Concentrated Positions in Outstanding Businesses: Berkshire Shareholder Letter Highlights

An excerpt, on buying worthwhile amounts of a stock when attractively priced, from Warren Buffett's 1978 Berkshire Hathaway (BRKa) shareholder letter:

We get excited enough to commit a big percentage of insurance company net worth to equities only when we find (1) businesses we can understand, (2) with favorable long-term prospects, (3) operated by honest and competent people, and (4) priced very attractively. We usually can identify a small number of potential investments meeting requirements (1), (2) and (3), but (4) often prevents action. For example, in 1971 our total common stock position at Berkshire's insurance subsidiaries amounted to only $10.7 million at cost, and $11.7 million at market. There were equities of identifiably excellent companies available - but very few at interesting prices. (An irresistible footnote: in 1971, pension fund managers invested a record 122% of net funds available in equities - at full prices they couldn’t buy enough of them. In 1974, after the bottom had fallen out, they committed a then record low of 21% to stocks.)

The past few years have been a different story for us. At the end of 1975 our insurance subsidiaries held common equities with a market value exactly equal to cost of $39.3 million. At the end of 1978 this position had been increased to equities (including a convertible preferred) with a cost of $129.1 million and a market value of $216.5 million. During the intervening three years we also had realized pre-tax gains from common equities of approximately $24.7 million. Therefore, our overall unrealized and realized pre-tax gains in equities for the three year period came to approximately $112 million. During this same interval the Dow-Jones Industrial Average declined from 852 to 805. It was a marvelous period for the value-oriented equity buyer.

We continue to find for our insurance portfolios small portions of really outstanding businesses that are available, through the auction pricing mechanism of security markets, at prices dramatically cheaper than the valuations inferior businesses command on negotiated sales.

This program of acquisition of small fractions of businesses (common stocks) at bargain prices, for which little enthusiasm exists, contrasts sharply with general corporate acquisition activity, for which much enthusiasm exists. It seems quite clear to us that either corporations are making very significant mistakes in purchasing entire businesses at prices prevailing in negotiated transactions and takeover bids, or that we eventually are going to make considerable sums of money buying small portions of such businesses at the greatly discounted valuations prevailing in the stock market. (A second footnote: in 1978 pension managers, a group that logically should maintain the longest of investment perspectives, put only 9% of net available funds into equities - breaking the record low figure set in 1974 and tied in 1977.)

We are not concerned with whether the market quickly revalues upward securities that we believe are selling at bargain prices. In fact, we prefer just the opposite since, in most years, we expect to have funds available to be a net buyer of securities. And consistent attractive purchasing is likely to prove to be of more eventual benefit to us than any selling opportunities provided by a short-term run up in stock prices to levels at which we are unwilling to continue buying.

Our policy is to concentrate holdings. We try to avoid buying a little of this or that when we are only lukewarm about the business or its price. When we are convinced as to attractiveness, we believe in buying worthwhile amounts.


If prevailing share prices continue to get even cheaper for businesses with favorable long-term economics that's a good thing. At least it is for any investor interested in taking the approach that Buffett outlines above.

There's a sugar high to buying something and watching it immediately go up. Unfortunately, you often end up with the quantity of "an eyedropper" instead of a meaningful amount. Though it takes some patience, I prefer building large positions in outstanding companies in the current environment over any other.

It's easier to ends up with a bigger position at a better price even if favorable results may, for a time, be less than obvious and require some patience.

Adam

Long BRKb
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