Berkshire Hathaway 2020 Annual Letter by Warren Buffett
Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) released its 2020 Letter to Shareholders over the weekend. If you also found reading this letter and Charlie Munger’s Daily Journal transcript an enjoyable way to spend your weekend… you might be an investing geek! As usual, the letter is not long at 15 pages. Here are my personal highlights.
I found the overall theme to be “Here’s a reminder of the many ways that Berkshire Hathaway is different than other companies”. For example, Buffett and Munger both started out with partnerships, where they invested nearly all their own net worth alongside their partners. They treated the investments as carefully as if it was their own money, because it was! I want to take the same care in writing this blog. I want to write things that I would want to read myself, and make recommendations that I would want to see being made to my own family and friends.
A minor surprise was that Buffett’s biggest purchase was $25 billion of BRK’s own shares in 2020 – roughly 5% of all outstanding shares! In other words, they though BRK itself was one of the best investments available in 2020. I guess I should have bought more BRKB when it was lingering at $165 a share.
Last year we demonstrated our enthusiasm for Berkshire’s spread of properties by repurchasing the equivalent of 80,998 “A” shares, spending $24.7 billion in the process. That action increased your ownership in all of Berkshire’s businesses by 5.2% without requiring you to so much as touch your wallet.
He also bought shares of a few big companies like Chevron ($8.6 billion) and Verizon ($4.1 billion), but it would seem that he thinks that most public and all available privately-held businesses are overpriced right now.
While Buffett indirectly pointed out that his Apple shares have gained nearly $90 billion for shareholders ($120B current value minus $31B cost basis), he also admitted a mistake in the price he paid for Precision Castparts:
The final component in our GAAP figure – that ugly $11 billion write-down – is almost entirely the quantification of a mistake I made in 2016. That year, Berkshire purchased Precision Castparts (“PCC”), and I paid too much for the company.
High prices for a stock can be a temporary illusion:
Investing illusions can continue for a surprisingly long time. Wall Street loves the fees that deal-making generates, and the press loves the stories that colorful promoters provide. At a point, also, the soaring price of a promoted stock can itself become the “proof” that an illusion is reality.
But, we should still appreciate our ability to own shares of wonderful businesses by buying shares with just a few clicks:
It took me a while to wise up. But Charlie – and also my 20-year struggle with the textile operation I inherited at Berkshire – finally convinced me that owning a non-controlling portion of a wonderful business is more profitable, more enjoyable and far less work than struggling with 100% of a marginal enterprise.
Be realistic about your expectations for bonds:
And bonds are not the place to be these days. Can you believe that the income recently available from a 10-year U.S. Treasury bond – the yield was 0.93% at yearend – had fallen 94% from the 15.8% yield available in September 1981? In certain large and important countries, such as Germany and Japan, investors earn a negative return on trillions of dollars of sovereign debt. Fixed-income investors worldwide – whether pension funds, insurance companies or retirees – face a bleak future.
Don’t take on unknown risk to chase higher yields:
Some insurers, as well as other bond investors, may try to juice the pathetic returns now available by shifting their purchases to obligations backed by shaky borrowers. Risky loans, however, are not the answer to inadequate interest rates. Three decades ago, the once-mighty savings and loan industry destroyed itself, partly by ignoring that maxim.
Buffett shared some historical profiles of Berkshire-owned companies that started out only as an idea from a single person or couple with limited funds. Through many years of hard work, determination, and taking advantage of the opportunities available in America, these turned into huge businesses. You may recognize the names: GEICO, See’s Candies, Clayton Homes, and Pilot Travel Centers.
Our unwavering conclusion: Never bet against America.
Productive assets such as farms, real estate and, yes, business ownership produce wealth – lots of it. Most owners of such properties will be rewarded. All that’s required is the passage of time, an inner calm, ample diversification and a minimization of transactions and fees. Still, investors must never forget that their expenses are Wall Street’s income.
2018 Letter discussed why BRK will continue to do fine without Warren Buffett around.
2018 Letter discussed using debt very sparingly and the importance of holding productive assets over a long time.
2017 Letter discussed patience, risk, and why they have so much cash.
2016 Letter touched on the rarity of skilled-stock pickers and some insight on his own stock-picking practices.
2015 Letter discussed his optimism in America and his “Big 4” stock holdings.
2014 Letter discussed the power of owning shares of productive businesses (and not just bonds).
2013 Letter included Buffett’s Simple Investment Advice to Wife After His Death.
The annual shareholder meeting will be virtual again this year, but at least it will include Charlie Munger! Yahoo Finance will livestream it on May 1st at 1pm EDT. I will probably wait to listen in the car via the Yahoo Finance podcast version.
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