Associated PressPublished Saturday February 27, 2010
Buffett sees end to housing slump
The national slump in housing should be over within a year or so, Warren Buffett said today in his annual letter to shareholders, but prices will remain "far below 'bubble' levels, of course."
Problems will continue with high-value houses in parts of the country "where overbuilding was particularly egregious," Buffett wrote. But elsewhere, the supply of new houses will be back in line with the demand.
That's a bit of good news from Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. His letter, released this morning, gives a wide-ranging review of the past year's activities and insights into the economy.
He said the country has been "wise" to cut back on the number of new houses being built so that buyers can absorb the surplus of housing.
The alternatives, Buffett wrote humorously: "Blow up a lot of houses, a tactic similar to the destruction of autos that occurred with the 'cash-for-clunkers” program,' " or "speed up household formations by, say, encouraging teenagers to cohabitate, a program not likely to suffer from a lack of volunteers."
The report said Berkshire's 2009 gain in value was its biggest since 2003, a 19.8 percent increase. Buffett compares the company's performance with the Standard & Poor's index of 500 stocks, which gained 26.5 percent, or 6.7 percentage points better.
It was only the seventh time since 1965 that the index did better than Berkshire. Buffett said it's more important for Berkshire to out-perform the S&P 500 during down years than during rallies.
For 2008, for example, the index declined 37 percent, while Berkshire declined only 9.6 percent.
"In other words, our defense has been better than our offense, and that's likely to continue," Buffett wrote.
He pegged Berkshire's per-share book value at the end of 2009 at $84,487 per share, up from $70,530 a year earlier. That's a separate figure from the market price Berkshire shares bring from investors, currently $119,800 each.
Each year Buffett's letter is widely read by investors interested in his ideas about investing and observations on the economy and other matters.
Following the biggest acquisition in Berkshire history, the $27 billion purchase of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., Buffett said Berkshire has added at least 65,000 shareholders to its 500,000 existing shareholders. He spent much of the report explaining the companies Berkshire owns and his business philosophy -- "both a freshman orientation session for our BNSF newcomers and a refresher course for Berkshire veterans."
Among Buffett's views:
-- Berskhire has about $20 billion in cash, less than usual, because of the Burlington Northern purchase and other investments over the past year and a half. "But we sleep well," Buffett said, expressing confidence in those investments.
-- Berkshire has about 257,000 employees in more than 80 companies.
-- Net income at Berkshire was $194 million in the fourth quarter of 2009, up 65.8 percent from $117 million a year earlier, and $5.2 billion for all of 2009, up 4 percent from $5 billion in 2008. Revenue increased 4.4 percent to $112.5 billion, although many of its businesses in construction-related industries showed declines.
-- Despite sales declines due to the recession, profits improved in 2009 at nine of the company's retailers, including Borsheim's and the Nebraska Furniture Mart.
-- NetJets, which sells partial ownership of private aircraft, lost $711 million in 2009 but is "now solidly profitable." Buffett credited Omaha David Sokol, who became CEO of NetJets last August, with the turnaround.
-- Buffett expects the attendance at this year's May 1 annual shareholders meeting in Omaha to exceed last year's record 35,000 because of the expanded shareholder list. That compares with 12 people who attended the annual meeting in 1981.
Buffett issued his usual invitation to shareholders to attend the "annual Woodstock for Capitalists," adding this: "P.S. Come by rail."
Excerpts from the report:
• "When the financial system went into cardiac arrest in September 2008, Berkshire was a supplier of liquidity and capital to the system, not a supplicant."
*#149; "Almost all of the many and widely-diverse operations in this (manufacturing, service and retailing) sector suffered to one degree or another from 2009's severe recession. The major exception was McLane, our distributor of groceries, confections and non-food items to thousands of retail outlets, the largest by far Wal-Mart.
• "The major problem for Berkshire last year was NetJets. ...In the eleven years that we have owned the company, it has recorded an aggregate pre-tax loss of $157 million. Moreover, the company's debt has soared from $102 million at the time of purchase to $1.9 billion in April. Without Berkshire's guarantee of this debt, NetJets would have been out of business."
• "Dave Sokol, the enormously talented builder and operator of MidAmerican Energy, became CEO of NetJets in August. His leadership has been transforming: Debt has already been reduced to $1.4 billion, and, after suffering a staggering loss of $711 million in 2009, the company is now solidly profitable."
• "We make no attempt to woo Wall Street. Investors who buy and sell based upon media or analyst commentary are not for us. Instead we want partners who join us at Berkshire because they wish to make a long-term investment in a business they themselves understand and because it's one that follows policies with which they concur."
• "We told you last year that very unusual conditions then existed in the corporate and municipal bond markets and that these securities were ridiculously cheap relative to U.S. Treasuries. We backed this view with some purchases, but I should have done far more. Big opportunities come infrequently. When it's raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble."
• "...within a year or so residential housing problems should be largely behind us, the exceptions being only high-value houses and those in certain localities where overbuilding was particularly egregious. Prices will remain far below "bubble" levels, of course, but for every seller (or lender) hurt by this there will be a buyer who benefits. Indeed, many families that couldn'tafford to buy an appropriate home a few years ago now find it well within their means because the bubble burst."
• "At the end of 2009, we became a 50% owner of Berkadia Commercial Mortage, the country's third-largest servicer of commercial mortgages. ...Though commercial real estate will face major problems in the next few years, long-term opportunities for Berkadia are significant."
• "With our acquisition of BNSF, we now have about 257,000 employees and literally hundreds of different operating units. We hope to have many more of each. But we will never allow Berkshire to become some monolith that is overrun with committees, budget presentations and multiple layers of management."
• "Our BNSF operation, it should be noted, has certain important economic characteristics that resemble those of our electric utilities. ...It is inconceivable that our country will realize anything close to its full economic potential without its possessing first-class electricity and railroad systems. We will do our part to see that they exist."
• "The big minus is that our performance advantage has shrunk dramatically as our size has grown, an unpleasant trend that is certain to continue. To be sure, Berkshire has many outstanding businesses and a cadre of truly great managers, operating within an unusual corporate culture that lets them maximize their talents. Charlie and I believe these factors will continue to produce better-than-average results over time. But huge sums forge their own anchor and our future advantage, if any, will be a small fraction of our historical edge."
• "Charlie and I avoid businesses whose futures we can't evaluate, no matter how exciting their products may be. In the past, it required no brilliance for people to foresee the fabulous growth that awaited such industries as autos (in 1910), aircraft (in 1930) and television sets (in 1950). But the future then also included competitive dynamics that would decimate almost all of the companies entering those industries. Even the survivors tended to come away bleeding."
• "....At Berkshire we will stick with businesses whose profit picture for decades to come seems reasonably predictable. Even then, we will make plenty of mistakes."
• "In earlier days, Charlie and I shunned capital-intensive businesses such as public utilities. ...Anticipating, however, that Berkshire will generate ever-increasing amounts of cash, we are today quite willing to enter businesses that regularly require large capital expenditures. ...Berkshire's every-growing collection of good to great businesses should produce above-average, though certainly not spectacular, returns in the decades ahead."
• "In 1995, GEICO was the country's sixth largest auto insurer; now we are number three."
• "Ajit's (Jain, who heads National Indemnity reinsurance) business is just the opposite of GEICO's. At that company, we have millions of small policies that largely renew year after year. Ajit writes relatively few policies, and the mix changes significantly from year to year. Throughout the world, he is known as the man to call when something both very large and unusual needs to be insured. If Charlie, I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat -- and you can only save one of us -- swim to Ajit."
• "Our third insurance powerhouse is General Re. Some years back this operation was troubled; now it is a gleaming jewel in our insurance crown. ...Tad (Montross, who heads General Re) and his associates have developed a major life reinsurance operation that has grown increasingly valuable. ...Last year General Re finally attained 100% ownership of Cologne Re, which since 1995 has been a key -- though only partially-owned -- part of our presence around the world. Tad and I will be visiting Cologne in September to thank its managers for their important contribution to Berkshire."
• "Though last year was again a terrible year for home sales, HomeServices (the nation's second largest real estate brokerage firm, owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings) earned a modest sum. It also acquired a firm in Chicago and will add other quality brokerage operations when they are available at sensible prices. A decade from now, HomeServices is likely to be much larger."
• "Our property-casualty (P/C) insurance business has been the engine behind Berkshire's growth and will continue to be. It has worked wonders for us."
• "In my perhaps biased view, Berkshire has the best large insurance operation in the world. And I will absolutely state that we have the best managers. Our float has grown from $16 million in 1967, when we entered the business, to $62 billion at the end of 2009. Moreover, we have now operated at an underwriting profit for seven consecutive years. ...Let me emphasize again that cost-free float is not a result to be expected for the P/C industry as a whole..."