Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Buffett on Acquisition Decisions: Berkshire Shareholder Letter Highlights

Warren Buffett had the following to say about acquisitions in the 1981 Berkshire Hathaway (BRKa) shareholder letter:

Our acquisition decisions will be aimed at maximizing real economic benefits, not at maximizing either managerial domain or reported numbers for accounting purposes. (In the long run, managements stressing accounting appearance over economic substance usually achieve little of either.)

Regardless of the impact upon immediately reportable earnings, we would rather buy 10% of Wonderful Business T at X per share than 100% of T at 2X per share. Most corporate managers prefer just the reverse, and have no shortage of stated rationales for their behavior.

He later adds...

In fairness, we should acknowledge that some acquisition records have been dazzling. Two major categories stand out.

The first involves companies that, through design or accident, have purchased only businesses that are particularly well adapted to an inflationary environment. Such favored business must have two characteristics: (1) an ability to increase prices rather easily (even when product demand is flat and capacity is not fully utilized) without fear of significant loss of either market share or unit volume, and (2) an ability to accommodate large dollar volume increases in business (often produced more by inflation than by real growth) with only minor additional investment of capital. Managers of ordinary ability, focusing solely on acquisition possibilities meeting these tests, have achieved excellent results in recent decades. However, very few enterprises possess both characteristics, and competition to buy those that do has now become fierce to the point of being self-defeating.

The second category involves the managerial superstars - men who can recognize that rare prince who is disguised as a toad, and who have managerial abilities that enable them to peel away the disguise.

Buffett makes it clear he doesn't qualify for the Category 2 variety:

And, despite a reasonably good understanding of the economic factors compelling concentration in Category 1, our actual acquisition activity in that category has been sporadic and inadequate. Our preaching was better than our performance. (We neglected the Noah principle: predicting rain doesn't count, building arks does.)

Then says:

Currently, we find values most easily obtained through the open-market purchase of fractional positions in companies with excellent business franchises and competent, honest managements. We never expect to run these companies, but we do expect to profit from them.

We expect that undistributed earnings from such companies will produce full value (subject to tax when realized) for Berkshire and its shareholders. If they don't, we have made mistakes as to either: (1) the management we have elected to join; (2) the future economics of the business; or (3) the price we have paid.

We have made plenty of such mistakes - both in the purchase of non-controlling and controlling interests in businesses. Category (2) miscalculations are the most common. Of course, it is necessary to dig deep into our history to find illustrations of such mistakes - sometimes as deep as two or three months back.

Lots of mistakes will occur even for those who know what they're doing with a long track record of investment performance.

Mistakes may be inevitable but the key is learning how to keep them small.


Long BRKb
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