As usual the 2016 Letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders by Warren Buffet provides great thoughts for investors.
American business – and consequently a basket of stocks – is virtually certain to be worth far more in the years ahead. Innovation, productivity gains, entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of capital will see to that. Ever-present naysayers may prosper by marketing their gloomy forecasts. But heaven help them if they act on the nonsense they peddle.
Warren is not a fan of market timing, for good reason. I do think he may be a bit overly-optimistic. It is not something innate about the geography of the USA that means whoever is within that area will prosper over the long term. Our actions as a society materially impact our long term success. Yes, we have done very well economically and we have many factors continuing to make that likely to continue. But it is not certain.
Those willing to challenge rosy projections serve a useful purpose. But investors must be careful not to lose out on gains. Timing the market is rarely successful. Even in the cases where people do reasonable well getting out of a highly priced market they often fail to get back into the market until after they lose money on the effort (they may save a bit on the downside but then don’t get back in until they missed more upside than they saved on the downside).
- understand all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses;
- conservatively assess the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does;
- set a premium that, on average, will deliver a profit after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and
- (4) be willing to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained.
Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. They simply can’t turn their back on business that is being eagerly written by their competitors. That old line, “The other guy is doing it, so we must as well,” spells trouble in any business, but in none more so than insurance.
Must of Berkshire Hathaway’s success is due to what seem like fairly easy things to do. For example, what Warren discusses here. This reinforces a point that is often overlooked which is the management philosophy that has helped Berkshire Hathaway achieve their success. Every year Warren Buffett praises the senior managers at various Berkshire Hathaway companies for good reason.
The fairly simple idea of hiring trustworthy, capable and ethical people and giving them freedom to manage for the long term seems too easy to provide an advantage. But it does. Warren Buffett is very careful to pick people that are more concerned with providing value to customers over the long term than promoting themselves and seeking massive short term rewards for themselves. This simple act of hiring people that are willing to put customers and shareholders before themselves allows your organizations to function in its long term best interest.
In so many other companies short term incentives destroy value (Warren’s point 4 above). This failure can extend to companies Warren is significantly invested in: such as the long term and deep seeded mismanagement at Wells Fargo due to very poor leadership at that company for years. But in general, Berkshire Hathaway is much better at avoiding these toxic behaviors driven by very poor executive leadership when compared to other companies.
The importance of Berkshire Hathaway focusing on the long term and not getting distracted by short term financial measures is vastly under-appreciated.
By focusing managers and CEOs on actually running the business Berkshire Hathaway again does well compared to their competitors. Far too many companies spend the time of executives on playing financial games to divert huge payments to themselves that they then try to claim are not really costs. This is enormously costly to investors and our economy.
Diversification and keeping down fees are the investing strategies that will help more investors than anything else.