At the height of the internet bubble, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger defend their decision not to buy tech stocks. They also reveal what may have contributed to the failure of Berkshire's big bid for LTCM, and criticize "corrupt" stock option accounting and smart people taking dumb risks with derivatives.
WARREN BUFFETT: Good morning. Really delighted we can have this many people come out for a meeting. It says something, I think, about the way you regard yourself as owners.
We're going to hustle through the business meeting. And then Charlie and I will be here for six hours or until our candy runs out — (laughter) — to answer any questions you have. We have people in a number of remote locations. And we have ways of bringing them into the questions as well.
Incidentally, if you hadn't figured it out already, this hyperkinetic bundle of energy here on my left is Charlie Munger — (laughter) — our vice-chairman. (Applause)
And we will now run through the business of the meeting.
The meeting will now come to order. I'm Warren Buffett, chairman of the board of directors of the company. I welcome you to this 1999 annual meeting of shareholders.
I will first introduce the Berkshire Hathaway directors that are present, in addition to myself. And if you'll stand up. It’s a little hard for me to see — there, right down here in the front row.
We have Susan T. Buffett. You stand and remain standing, please. (Applause)
If you encourage her, she'll sing another song. (Laughter)
Howard G. Buffett. Don't encourage him to sing a song. (Laughter and applause)
Malcolm G. Chace. (Applause)
Charlie, you've already met.
Ronald L. Olson. Ron? (Applause)
And Walter Scott Jr. (Applause)
Also with us today are partners in the firm of Deloitte and Touche, our auditors. They're available to respond to appropriate questions you might have concerning their firm's audit of the accounts of Berkshire.
Mr. Forrest Krutter is secretary of Berkshire. He will make a written record of the proceedings. Miss Becki Amick has been appointed inspector of elections at this meeting. She will certify to the count of votes cast in the election for directors.
The named proxy holders for this meeting are Walter Scott Jr. and Marc D. Hamburg. Proxy cards have been returned through last Friday, representing 1,133,684 Class A Berkshire shares and 3,485,885 Class B Berkshire shares to be voted by the proxy holders, as indicated on the cards.
That number of shares represents a quorum. And we will therefore directly proceed with the meeting. We will conduct the business of the meeting and then adjourn the formal meeting. After that, we will entertain questions that you might have.
Does the secretary have a report of the number of Berkshire shares outstanding entitled to vote and represented at the meeting?
FORREST KRUTTER: Yes, I do. As indicated in the proxy statement that accompanied the notice of this meeting, that was sent by first-class mail to all shareholders of record on March 5, 1999, being the record date of this meeting, there were 1,343,592 shares of Class A Berkshire Hathaway common stock outstanding, with each share entitled to one vote on motions considered at the meeting.
And 5,266,338 shares of Class B Berkshire Hathaway common stock outstanding with each share entitled to 1/200th of one vote on motions considered at the meeting.
Of that number, 1,133,684 Class A shares and 3,485,885 Class B shares are represented at this meeting by proxies returned through last Friday.
WARREN BUFFETT: Oh, thank you Forrest.
The one item of business of this meeting is to elect directors. If a shareholder is present who wishes to withdraw a proxy previously sent in and vote in person on the election of directors, he or she may do so.
Also, if any shareholder that is present has not turned in a proxy and desires a ballot in order to vote in person, you may do so.
If you wish to do this, please identify yourself to meeting officials in the aisles who will furnish a ballot to you. Would those persons desiring ballots please identify themselves, so that we may distribute them.
WARREN BUFFETT: I'd like to make one comment before we proceed to the election of directors. And that's that in the General Re proxy material, material relating to the General Re merger, it was stated that the intention was to have Ron Ferguson, the CEO of General Re, join the board of Berkshire Hathaway.
And that offer was extended, and still remains open, and will remain open for his lifetime and mine, at least, for Ron to join the board.
After thinking about it, he decided that he preferred not to be on the board. And in that judgment, he concurs with my feelings, generally, about boards, in that they can restrict your — it can restrict your activities in purchase and sale of a stock.
For example, if you do it in a six-month period, then you're automatically in trouble with the — and you have to return any profit, as calculated in a rather peculiar way, to the company. It means that your compensation system is laid out for the world to see.
There may be some tax restrictions, in terms of the deductibility of salary paid. And so, Ron notified me a little bit before the proxy material went out that he preferred, at least, to defer any decision on joining the board.
WARREN BUFFETT: I can tell you that it has cost Berkshire significant money by the fact that Charlie and I have been on various boards, because your hands are tied, in many respects, even if you don't have any knowledge of anything that might be of material, plus or minus — the very fact that it might be imputed to you, can restrict actions significantly.
So, we make a point of not trying to be on very many boards. Charlie and I have only gone on boards where we have very significant investments by Berkshire.
And sometimes those have caused us to take on a job that we didn't intend originally, as that Salomon movie showed.
So, Ron — the offer is a hundred percent open to Ron at any time. And if he changes his mind in any way, he will be on the board.
But that explains the discrepancy between the actions that are being taken this morning and what was described as likely to happen in the proxy material.
WARREN BUFFETT: Now, with that explanation, I would like to recognize Walter Scott Jr. to place a motion before the meeting with respect to election of directors. Walter?
WALTER SCOTT JR.: I move that Warren E. Buffett, Susan T. Buffett, Howard G. Buffett, Malcolm G. Chace, Charles T. Munger, Ronald L. Olson, and Walter Scott Jr. be elected as directors.
WARREN BUFFETT: Is there a second? Somebody should second it.
VOICE: I second the —
WARREN BUFFETT: We got a second out there, Susan?
VOICE: I second the motion.
WARREN BUFFETT: Oh, good. OK. It has been moved and seconded that Warren E. Buffett, Susan T. Buffett, Howard G. Buffett, Malcolm G. Chace, Charles T. Munger, Ronald L. Olson, and Walter Scott Jr. be elected as directors.
Are there any other nominations?
Long enough. Is there any discussion?
Long enough. The nominations are ready to be acted upon. If there are any shareholders voting in person, they should now mark their ballots on the election of directors and allow the ballots to be delivered to the inspector of election.
Will the proxy holders please also submit to the inspector of election, a ballot on the election of directors, voting the proxies in accordance with the instructions they have received?
Miss Amick, when you are ready, you may give your report.
BECKI AMICK: My report is ready. The ballot of the proxy holders, in response to proxies that were received through last Friday, cast not less than 1,145,271 votes for each nominee.
That number far exceeds the majority of the number of the total votes related to all Class A and Class B shares outstanding.
The certification required by Delaware law of the precise count of the votes, including the additional votes to be cast by the proxy holders in response to proxies delivered at this meeting, as well as those cast in person at this meeting, if any, will be given to the secretary to be placed with the minutes of this meeting.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you, Miss Amick.
Warren E. Buffett, Susan T. Buffett, Howard G. Buffett, Malcolm G. Chace, Charles T. Munger, Ronald L. Olson, and Walter Scott Jr. have been elected as directors.
WARREN BUFFETT: After adjournment of the business meeting, I will respond to questions that you may have that relate to the business of Berkshire, but do not call for any action at this meeting.
Does anyone have any further business to come before this meeting before we adjourn?
If not, I recognize Mr. Walter Scott Jr. to place a motion before the meeting.
WALTER SCOTT JR.: I move that this meeting be adjourned.
WARREN BUFFETT: Is there a second?
VOICES: I second the motion.
WARREN BUFFETT: A motion to adjourn has been made and seconded. We will vote by voice. Is there any discussion? If not, all in favor say "aye."
WARREN BUFFETT: All opposed say, "I'm leaving." No, say, "No," I'm sorry. (Laughter)
OK, the meeting is adjourned.
WARREN BUFFETT: Now, we'll move forward. (Applause) Thank you.
I ask you, was Joe Stalin ever any better, I mean? (Laughter)
We will — we have this room broken into eight zones, and then we have five more zones from various off-site locations. And we will move in order. We have microphones that you can go to, and we have a monitor at each microphone that will line people up.
We will rotate around the 13 zones. There's just one question per person. I'd ask that you identify yourself and state where you're from.
Now, you have to be a little careful on that because a lot of people will say that — who really aren't — will say that they're from Nebraska for status reasons. But — (laughter) — if you get beyond that, we will try to identify where everybody is from. And we'll start off in zone 1, which is on the right here at the front.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Tim Spear (PH). And I'm from Hertfordshire, England.
I was thinking in Ben Graham's book, “The Intelligent Investor,” he spends the first couple of chapters discussing the level of the market and whether it was safe for investment. I was wondering what you think of the market today?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we don’t — Charlie and I don't think about the market. And Ben didn't very much. I think he made a mistake to occasionally try and place a value on it.
We look at individual businesses. And we don't think of stocks as little items that wiggle around on the paper and that have charts attached to them. We think of them as parts of businesses.
And it is true that, currently, we have great trouble finding businesses that we both like and where we like the management and that they — and find them at an attractive price.
So, we do not find bargains in this market among the larger companies that are our universe.
That is not a stock market forecast in any way, shape, or form. We have no idea whether the market is going to go up today, or next week, or next month, or next year.
We do know that we will only buy things that we think make sense, in terms of the value that we receive for Berkshire. And when we can't find things, the money piles up. And when we find — when we do find things, we pile in.
But the stock market — I know of no one that has been successful at — and really made a lot of money predicting the actions of the market itself. I know a lot of people who have done well picking businesses and buying them at sensible prices. And that's what we're hoping to do.
CHARLIE MUNGER: How could you say it any better? (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, but the question is whether you can say it better, Charlie. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, we'll go to zone 2. That may be all you hear from him today. (Laughter)
Get used to it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning.
WARREN BUFFETT: Morning.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: David Winters, Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.
Could you give us a few hints about the incremental value of Gen Re's float under the Berkshire Hathaway umbrella and the potential for the growth of Gen Re's float over the long term?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. Gen Re's float, which is now available to Berkshire — it's a hundred percent-owned subsidiary, although part of that float is attributable to Cologne, which is only an 83 percent-owned subsidiary of Gen Re and also Berkshire.
But that, I would say, the incremental value today, because it's under the Berkshire umbrella, is zero. Because we are bringing nothing to the party that Gen Re's own investment people would not have brought to the party.
We obviously think that there will be important incremental value over a long period of time. We — but when that value will appear or how much of it develops, is a matter that's out of our hands.
We, right now, have close to 24 billion in total invested assets at Gen Re and Cologne. Like I say, 83 percent of the Cologne part is ours and 17 percent is — belongs to somebody else.
But we are bringing nothing to that party right now, in terms of any managerial skill that is going to add value. I would hope that over time, we would.
The second question, as to the growth of float, the growth of float at General Re and Cologne will certainly be very slow in the short term. The growth of float at GEICO will be significant, percentage-wise.
The reinsurance business does not have the same potential for growth as we have at GEICO. And growth is much slower to come about, because there are longer-term contractual commitments — that people are reluctant to change reinsurers. And they should be. We agree with that.
So you — at a level of 6 billion or so of premium volume and already 14 billion of float, you won't have growth of float unless premium volume is — becomes significantly higher in the future.
I think that will happen over time. It will not happen in the short term.
Charlie? If I may interrupt your breakfast? (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: I've got nothing to add.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 3. (Laughs)
You could always direct your questions to Charlie, incidentally. (Laughs)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger. Thank you for hosting another wonderful weekend. My name is Che Wai Woo (PH). I'm a proud shareholder from right here in Omaha.
One of the most interesting financial news developments this previous year was the near collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital.
I'd like to get your thoughts and Mr. Munger's thoughts about how these private partnerships operate, what your thoughts about the Long-Term Capital deal, and also the Fed’s intervention to save it.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, in that movie you saw, the time when Yellowstone was — when Old Faithful was performing in the background and Bill was trying to get me to watch that while I was on the phone —
A lot of that trip was spent talking to New York about making a bid for, what we'll call LTCM, Long-Term Capital Management.
And the caption on that photo, incidentally, is known as the geezer and the geyser. (Laughter)
And we were up in — we started in Alaska. And we were going down these canyons in a boat.
And the captain saying, you know, "Let's go over there and look at the sea lions." And I say, "Let's stay right where we are, where we got a satellite channel," because I was trying to talk on the phone all the time.
Charlie was in Hawaii. And we never did get a chance to talk during that whole period. I didn't want to bother him with a little thing like a bid for 100 billion-plus of securities, and I couldn't find him.
So it was — we were in an awkward place to pursue that. I think it's possible that if I'd been in New York or Charlie had been in New York during that period, that our bid might have been accepted.
There was just a report published within the last three or four days by a special committee representing the SEC, the Fed, I think, the Treasury and the CFTC — I think I'm right on those four. And it describes just a tiny bit of the events leading to the bid.
It referred, on page 14, I remember, it talked about our transaction unraveling. It didn't unravel from our side. I mean, we made a firm bid for 100 billion-plus of balance sheet assets and many hundreds of billions, in fact, over a trillion, of derivative contracts.
And, you know, this was in a market where prices were moving around very dramatically. And with that bulk of assets there, we thought we made a fairly good bid for a 45-minute or hour period. I don't think anybody else would've made the bid.
But in any event, the people at LTCM took the position that they could not accept that bid.
And therefore, the New York Fed in — had a group, largely investment banks there at the Fed. And that afternoon, faced with the prospect that LTCM could not or would not accept our bid, they arranged another takeover arrangement where additional money was put in.
WARREN BUFFETT: It's interesting. If you read that report, which is put together by these four very imminent bodies, I think on the first page, it says that the first so-called hedge fund — which is a term generally applied to entities like LTCM — first hedge fund was set up in 1949.
And I probably read that or heard that 50 times in the last — particularly in the last year. And of course, that's not true at all, and I've even pointed this out once or twice before.
But Ben Graham had — and Jerry Newman — had a classical hedge fund back in the '20s. And I worked for — I worked dually for a company called Graham-Newman Corp, which was a regulated investment company and Newman and Graham, which was an investment partnership with, I think, a 20 percent participation in profits and exactly the sort of entity that, today, is called a hedge fund.
So, if you read anyplace that the hedge fund concept originated in 1949, presumably with A.W. Jones, it's a — it’s not an accurate history. There are now — I ran something that would generally be called a hedge fund. I didn't like to think of it that way. I called it an investment partnership. But it would've been termed a hedge fund. Charlie ran one from about, what, 1963 to mid '70s or thereabouts.
And they have proliferated in a big way. Did he blink? (Laughter)
There are now hundreds of them. And of course, it's very enticing to any money manager to run, because if you do well, or even if you don't do so well but the market does well, you can make a lot of money running one.
This report that just came out has really nothing particularly harsh to say about the operation.
So, I think you will see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hedge funds. I think the current issue of Barron's may have a recap of how a large group did in the first quarter.
And there's a lot of money in those funds. And there's a huge incentive to form them. And there's a huge incentive to go out and attract more money if you run one. And when that condition exists in Wall Street, you can be sure that they won't wither away.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, what was interesting about that one is how talented the people were. And yet, they got in so much trouble. I think it also demonstrates that — I'd say, the general system of finance in America involving derivatives is irresponsible.
There's way too much risk in all these trillions of notational value sloshing around the world. There's no clearing system, as there is in a commodities market. And I don't think it's the last convulsion we're going to see in the derivatives game.
WARREN BUFFETT: It's fascinating, in that you had 16 extremely bright — I mean, extremely bright — people at the top of that. The average IQ would probably be as high or higher than organization you could find, among their top 16 people.
They individually had decades of experience and collectively had centuries of experience in operating in these sort of securities in which the LTCM was invested. And they had a huge amount of money of their own, up. And probably a very high percentage of their net worth in almost every case, up.
So here you had superbright, extremely experienced people operating with their own money. And, in effect, on that day in September, they were broke. And to me, that is absolutely fascinating.
There was book written,”You Only Have to Get Rich Once.” It's a great title. It's not a very good book. Walter Gutman wrote it, but it — many years ago. But the title is right, you only have to get rich once.
And why do people, very bright people, risk losing something that's very important to them, to gain something that's totally unimportant? The added money has no utility whatsoever.
And the money that was lost had enormous utility. And on top of that, reputation is tarnished and all of that sort of thing.
So that the gain/loss ratio, in any real sense, is just incredible. I mean, it's like playing Russian roulette.
I mean, if you hand me a revolver with six bullets — or six chambers — and one bullet and you say, "Pull it once for a million dollars," and I say, “No.” And then you say, "What is your price?" The answer is there is no price.
And there shouldn't be any price on taking the risk when you're already rich, particularly, of failure and embarrassment and all of that sort of thing. But people repeatedly do it. And they do it —
Whenever a bright person, a really bright person, goes broke that has a lot of money, it's because of leverage. It — you simply — you basically can't — it would be almost impossible to go broke without borrowed money being in the equation.
And as you know, at Berkshire, we've never used any real amount of borrowed money. Now, if we'd used somewhat more, you know, we'd be really rich. But if we'd used a whole lot more, we might have gotten in trouble some times. And there's just no upside to it, you know?
What's two percentage points more, you know, on a given year, that year? And run the risk of real failure. But very bright people do it, and they do it consistently, and they will continue to do it.
And as long as explosive-type instruments are out there, they will gravitate toward them. And particularly, people will gravitate toward them who have very little to lose, but who are operating with other people's money.
One of the things, for example, in the LTCM case — and Charlie mentioned it in terms of derivatives — in effect, there were ways found to get around the — and they were legal, obviously — to get around the margin requirements.
Because risk arbitrage is a business that Charlie and I have been in for 40 years in one form or another. And normally, that means putting up the money to buy the stock on the long side and then shorting something against it where you expect a merger or something to happen.
But through derivatives, people have found out how to do that, essentially putting up no money, just by writing a derivative contract on both sides. And there are margin requirements, as you know, that the Fed promulgates that, I believe, still call for 50 percent equity on stock purchases.
But those requirements do not apply if you arrange the transaction in derivative form. So that these billions of dollars of positions in equities, essentially, were being financed a hundred percent by the people who wrote the derivative contracts. And that leads to trouble.
You know, 99 percent of the time it works. But, you know, 83 and a thirds percent of the time, it works to play Russian roulette with one bullet in there and six chambers. But neither 83 1/3 percent or 99 percent is good enough when there is no gain to offset the risk of loss.
CHARLIE MUNGER: I would argue that there is a second factor that makes the situation dangerous. And that is that the accounting for being actively engaged in derivatives, interest rate swaps, et cetera is very weak. I think the Morgan Bank was the last holdout.
And they finally flipped to a lenient standard of accounting that's favored by people who are sharing in the profits from trading derivatives. And that's why they like liberal accounting.
So, you get an irresponsible clearing system, irresponsible accounting — this is not a good combination.
WARREN BUFFETT: JP Morgan shifted their accounting — I think — I'm not sure exactly when — around 1990. But Charlie and I, we probably became more familiar with that when we were back at Salomon.
And this is absolutely standard. You know, it's GAAP accounting. But it front-ends profits. And if you front-end profits and you pay people a percentage of the profits, you're going to get some very interesting results, sometimes.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 4.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Dan Kurs (PH) from Bonita Springs, Florida.
You've given many clues to investors to help them calculate Berkshire's intrinsic value.
I've attempted to calculate the intrinsic value of Berkshire using the discount of present value of its total look-through earnings. I've taken Berkshire's total look-through earnings and adjusted them for normalized earnings at GEICO, the super-cat business, and General Re.
Then I've assumed that Berkshire's total look-through earnings will grow at 15 percent per annum on average for 10 years, 10 years per annum for years 11 through 20. And that earnings stop growing after year 20, resulting in a coupon equaling year 20 earnings from the 21st year onward.
Lastly, I've discounted those estimated earnings stream at 10 percent to get an estimate of Berkshire's intrinsic value.
My question is, is this a sound method? Is there a risk-free interest rate, such as a 30-year Treasury, which might be the more appropriate rate to use here, given the predictable nature of your consolidated income stream? Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, that is a very good question. Because that is the sort of way we think in terms of looking at other businesses.
Investment is the process of putting out money today to get more money back at some point in the future. And the question is, how far in the future, how much money, and what is the appropriate discount rate to take it back to the present day and determine how much you pay?
And I would say you've stated the approach — I couldn't state it better myself. The exact figures you want to use, whether you want to use 15 percent gains in earnings or 10 percent gains in the second decade, I would — you know, I have no comment on those particular numbers.
But you have the right approach. We would probably, in terms — we would probably use a lower discount factor in evaluating any business now, under present-day interest rates.
Now, that doesn't mean we would pay that figure once we use that discount number. But we would use that to establish comparability across investment alternatives.
So, if we were looking at 50 companies and making the sort of calculation that you just talked about, we would use a — we would probably use the long-term government rate to discount it back.
But we wouldn't pay that number after we discounted it back. We would look for appropriate discounts from that figure.
But it doesn't really make any difference whether you use a higher figure and then look across them or use our figure and look for the biggest discount.
You've got the right approach. And then all you have to do is stick in the right numbers.
And you mentioned, in terms of our clues, we try to give you all of information that we would find useful, ourselves, in evaluating Berkshire's intrinsic value.
In our reports, you know, I can't think of anything we leave out that, if Charlie and I had been away for a year and we were trying to figure out — look at the situation fresh, evaluate things — there's, you know, there’s nothing, in my view, left out of our published materials.
Now, one important element in Berkshire, which is a secondary factor that gets into what you're talking about there, is that because we retain all earnings and because we have a growth of float over time, we have a considerable amount of money to invest.
And it really is the success with which we invest those retained earnings and growth and float that will have an important fact — that will be an important factor — in how fast our intrinsic value grows.
And to an important extent, the — what happens there is out of our control. I mean, it does depend on the markets in which we operate.
So, if our earnings, plus float, growth equals $3 billion, or something like that, in a current year — whether that $3 billion gets put to terrific use, satisfactory use, or no use at all, virtually, really depends, to a big extent, on external factors.
It also depends, to some extent, on our energy and insights and so on. But the external world makes a big difference in the reinvestment rate. And, you know, your guess is as good as ours on that.
But if we run into favorable external circumstances, your calculation of intrinsic value should — would — result in a higher number than if we run into the kind of circumstances that we've had the last 12 months.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. For many decades around here, we've had roughly a hundred percent — more than a hundred percent — of book net worth in marketable securities and had a lot of wonderful wholly-owned subsidiaries, to boot.
And then we've always had a very attractive place to put new money in as we generate it.
Well, we still got the wonderful businesses. But we're having trouble with the new money.
But it's not trouble, really, to have a pile of lovely money. (Laughter) This is not — I don't think there should be tears in the house. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Have you ever run into any unlovely money, Charlie? (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 5.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. My name is Ronald Towell (PH). I'm from Brooklyn, New York, and very appreciative of your graciousness as a host for this wonderful weekend.
My question has to do with the — (Applause)
My question has to do with the retailing industry, particularly the department stores and mass merchants. My question has two parts.
Without resorting to comments about specific companies, may I ask your opinion as to the long-term prospects for growth and profitability of this industry group?
The second part of my question is, given the fact that it is difficult to pick up a newspaper or to be an investor without being bombarded by what is purported to be the potential for exponential growth in the internet e-business, particularly directly to consumers, which could possibly eat into the revenues of these retailers —
And even if we assume a relatively low impact of, say, 5 to 10 percent revenue reductions, and given the fact that top-line growth is critical to any business, especially the bricks and mortar retailers, with their high proportions of fixed overhead, what advice could you give to a CEO of such a company?
And in turn, based on the proceeding scenario, what would be your opinion of the medium and long-term prospects for this industry?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, that's a good question, too.
And obviously, the internet is going to have an important impact on retailing. It will have a huge impact on some forms of retailing. Change them and maybe revolutionize them.
I think there's some other areas where it’ll — the impact will be less. But anytime we buy into a business, and anytime that we've bought in for some time, we have tried to think of what that business is going to look like in five, or 10, or 15 years.
And we recognize that the internet, in many forms of retailing, is likely to pose such a threat that we simply wouldn't want to get into the business. I mean, it — not that we can measure it perfectly.
But there are a number of retailing operations that we think are threatened. And we do not think that's the case in furniture retailing. And we have three very important operations there.
We could be wrong. But so far, that, you know, that would be my judgment, that furniture retailing will not be hurt.
You've seen other forms of retailing where you're already starting to see some inroads being made. But it's just started. The internet is going to be a huge force in many arenas. But it'll certainly be a huge force in retailing.
Now, it may benefit us in certain areas. I would expect the internet to benefit Borsheims in a very big way. And you noticed in the movie that we talked about borsheims.com coming online in May. There's something up there now. But you'll see a new format within a month or so.
Now, you might say in jewelry retailing, you know, with millions of things that you can click onto, 10 years from now, you know, who is going to be important in terms of online retailing of jewelry? I would argue that two firms have an enormous advantage going in.
I would argue that Tiffany has such an advantage. We don't own any Tiffany. But I would say that because of their name — brand names are going to mean very, very much when you have literally, you know, thousands and thousands of choices.
People can't — they have to trust somebody. And I think that Tiffany has a name that people would trust.
And I think Borsheims has a name that people would trust. And Borsheims sells jewelry a whole lot cheaper than Tiffany's.
So I would say that people who are price conscious, but also want to deal with a jeweler that they trust implicitly, will find their way to Borsheims in increasing numbers, over the internet.
And I would say that people that like the blue box, you know, are going to find their way to Tiffany's, over time. And they'll pay more money.
But I don't see them going for Brand X and buying fine jewelry over the internet.
So, I think that, with the brand that Borsheims has, and with careful nurturing of that brand, I would say that the internet offers Borsheims a chance to have the advantage in cost that comes from a huge one store location. And yet, also go into the homes of people in every part of the world. And that kind of a company should prosper.
There are other of our companies, I worry about. You know, I can worry about them being hurt in various ways.
GEICO is going to be a big beneficiary of the internet. We already are developing substantial business through it.
But I — if I were to buy into any retailing business, whether I was buying a stock of it or buying a whole business, I would think very hard about what people are going to be trying to do to that business through the internet.
And you know, it affects real estate that is dedicated to retailing. If you substitute 5 percent of the retail volume via the internet, where real estate is essentially free, you know, you can have a store in every town in the world through the internet without having any rental expense.
So, I would be — I would give a lot of thought to that if I were owning a lot of retail rental space.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I think it is tricky predicting the technological change. Either it will or won't destroy some business.
When I was young, the department stores had a bunch of, sort of, monopolistic advantages. A, they were downtown where the streetcar lines met. B, they had sort of a monopoly on extending revolving credit. And D, they had one-stop shopping in all kinds of weather. And nobody else did. And they lost all three of those advantages.
And yet, they've done well, a lot of them, for many decades since. At other times, you get a change and you just get destroyed.
Our trading stamp business was destroyed by changes in the economic world. And our World Book business has been seriously hurt by the personal computer, and the CD-ROM, and so forth.
WARREN BUFFETT: I —
CHARLIE MUNGER: We agree, it's a big risk. But it's not easy to make predictions in which you have great confidence.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, if you go down to 16th and Farnam, where the streetcar tracks used to cross, that was the best real estate in town. And people signed 100-year, 50-year leases on it. And it looked like there was nothing more safe, because they weren't going to move the streetcar lines.
The only thing was that they moved the streetcars. They just took and converted them into junk. And it seemed very permanent.
The advantage of the big department store, the Marshall Field in Chicago or the Macy's in New York, was this incredible breadth of merchandise. You could go and you could find 300 different types of spools of thread, or 500 — you could see 500 different wedding dresses, or whatever.
And you had these million square-foot, and even two million square-foot, downtown stores. And they were these huge emporiums.
And then the shopping center came along. And of course, the shopping center created, in effect, a store of many stores. And so, you had millions of square feet now, but you still had this incredible variety being offered.
The internet becomes a store in your, you know, computer, and it has an incredible variety of offerings, too.
Some of them don't lend themselves very well, it seems to me, to the retailing. And, you know, and others do.
But Charlie's right. It's hard to predict exactly how it will turn out.
I would expect, you know, automobile retailing to change in some important ways. And in part — in very significant part, influenced by the internet.
But, I wouldn’t — you know, I can't predict exactly how that'll happen. But I don't think it'll look the same 10 or 15 years from now.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 6.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Ben Knoll, and I'm from Minneapolis. Although I'd like to enhance my status by noting that I was born and raised in Lincoln. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: You just moved up. (Laughter)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Like, many others, I read Alice Schroeder's analysis of Berkshire Hathaway with great interest this last year. And she described her analysis as a toolkit for investors.
And I'm wondering if you see any substantial flaws in any of her toolkit. And in particular, the float-based valuation model that she put together. What are your views on that?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I don't want to comment on valuation.
But I can tell you that Alice is a first-class and serious analyst who spent a lot of time on Berkshire, and probably produced the first comprehensive report, at least that's been widely circulated, in the history of Berkshire.
It's kind of interesting that we got to a hundred billion dollars of market value before anybody really published a report about the company, but —
Alice understands the insurance business very well. She's an accountant, by background. So, she understands numbers. And she did a lot of work on the report. And I do recommend it to you as a toolkit. I make no comment at all about valuation.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Nothing to add.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 7.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello. I'm Martin Wiegand from Chevy Chase, Maryland. I want to thank you for the hospitality this weekend and the wisdom you share with us each year in your annual reports.
As a small businessman, one of trickiest jobs I have is dividing up the profits of our business between the employees who generate them.
Would you comment and share your thoughts on how you divide up the profits of the Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries with the employees who generate them.
And the follow-up is, Mr. Munger, do you have any suggested reading on that subject?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, we're glad to have you here, Martin. I went to high school and to the first couple years of college with Martin's father, who's also here today. And so, if you get a chance to meet Marty, Janie, and younger Martin, say hello to them.
In terms of the arrangements we have with compensation, they vary to an extraordinary degree among the various subsidiaries we have.
Because we have bought existing businesses. And we have tampered as little as possible with their cultures after we buy them. And some of those cultures are very different than others.
I mean, you know, you saw [Nebraska Furniture Mart's] Mrs. B earlier. You know, as you can imagine, she would leave a very strong imprint on any business with which she was involved.
And we have a number of very talented managers who have worked out the systems that they believe to be best for their companies.
Now, it is true that if we — if there's a stock option plan at a company, we will substitute a plan that is performance-based, which ties much more clearly to the performance of the business than any option plan could.
And we will have a — we will design one that has an expectable cost that's equal to the expectable cost of the option plan. So, we try to equate the cost.
And we try to make it even more — much more sensible from both the owner's standpoint and the employees' standpoint, in terms of the way it pays off based on how that business performs.
You probably read in our annual report how we put an across the board plan at GEICO that ties with our objectives. But basically, that was [CEO] Tony Nicely's work in terms of developing that plan.
I mean, he and I thought alike about what counted. And he developed a compensation grid that applied to everybody in the whole place, based on achieving the objectives that he felt were important and that we felt were important.
You will find — if you go to any Berkshire subsidiary — you will probably find that they have a compensation plan that's quite similar, with exception of options, to the plan that they had before we bought the operation. They have successful businesses.
And people get there different ways. Some people bat left-handed. Some people bat right-handed. You know, some people stand deep in the batter's box. Some crowd the plate. They all have different styles.
And the styles of our managers have proven successful in their own businesses. We keep the same managers. So, we don't try to superimpose any system from above, with the exception of what I've mentioned.
We do like the idea of paying for performance. I mean, that is kind of a fundamental tenant. Everybody says they like that. But then they design systems that payoff no matter what happens, in many cases. And we've been reluctant to do that.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, I think it's important for the shareholders to realize that we are probably more decentralized, in terms of personnel practices, than any company of our size, or bigger, in America. We don't have a headquarters culture that's forced on the operating businesses.
The operating businesses have their own cultures. And I think in every case I can think of, it's a wonderful culture. And we just leave them alone. It’s — comes naturally to me. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Charlie says we don't have a headquarters culture. Sometimes people think we don't have a headquarters. (Laughter)
We have no human relations department at Berkshire. We have no legal department. We have no investor relations. We have no public relations. We don't have any of that sort of thing.
We've got a bunch of all-stars, as we've put on the screen, out there running businesses. We ask them to mail the money to Omaha, but — (Laughter)
We'll even give them a stamp if they request it. (Laughter)
But beyond that, we don't really go. It would be foolish.
And what is interesting to me is how — I had a lot of preconceived ideas of what motivates people when I started out in business — but you can find certain organizations that resist paying stars on an individual basis. They like to think of themselves as a team and they'd rather have a team concept of payment.
And you can see others where they're much more individually oriented. Actually, Charlie can probably tell you that in terms of law firms. I mean, some law firms have a culture that is much more star-oriented than others. And, you know, you've seen successes in both places, haven't you, Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Absolutely.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: I can't remember a case when anybody has transferred from one operating Berkshire subsidiary to another. It's very rare.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, we don't try and cross-fertilize. We just — we think we've got a good thing going in, you know, in every plot of ground and we just assume they'll do best if left to their own initiative.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 8.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'm Brian Phillips (PH) from Chickamauga, Georgia.
And my question is, with regards to an insurance company, if you can use the float for cheap financing, why would you issue a fairly-priced bond?
WARREN BUFFETT: Why would we do what?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Issue a fairly-priced bond.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, well, the best form of financing for us is cheap float. Now, most insurance companies don't generate cheap float. So, I mean, there are plenty of companies in the insurance business who have a cost of float that makes it unattractive, actually, to expand their businesses.
Our insurance companies have had a terrific experience on cost of float. And we would develop it just as fast as we can.
Right now, we would have no interest in issuing a bond because we have more money around than we know what to do with. And it comes from low-cost float.
But if there came a time when things were very attractive and we had utilized all the money from our float and from retained earnings and all of that to invest, and we still saw opportunities, we might very well borrow moderate amounts of money in the market.
It would cost us more than our float was costing us. But it still, incrementally, would provide earnings.
Now, we would try to gain more float under those circumstances as well. But we would not just quit when we ran out of money from float. We would go ahead and borrow moderate amounts of money. We would never borrow huge amounts of money, though.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I agree.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. You can see why we've been partners a long time. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Now, we go to some off — some sites away from this main hall. And not sure how exactly we're going to do this. But we'll go to zone 9 and see if zone 9 comes in.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello. My name is Howard Love. I'm from San Francisco. Thank you very much for this weekend in general and this meeting in particular.
Recently, at a talk at the Wharton Business School, Mr. Buffett, you indicated that — you were talking about the problems of compounding large size, which I appreciate and understand.
But you indicated — you're quoted in the local paper as saying that you are confident that if you were working with a sum closer to a million dollars, that you could compound that at a 50 percent rate.
For those of us who aren't saddled with the $100 billion problem — (laughter) — could you talk about what types of investments you'd be looking at and where in today's market you think significant inefficiencies exist? Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. I think I may have been very slightly misquoted. But I certainly said something to the effect that working —
I think I talked about this group I get together every two years and how I poll that group as to what they think they can compound money at with a hundred thousand, a million, a hundred million, a billion, and other types of sums.
And I pointed out how this group of 60 or so people that I get together with every couple years — how their expectations of return would go very rapidly down this slope.
It is true. I think I can name a half a dozen people that I think could compound a million dollars — or at least they could earn 50 percent a year on a million dollars — have that as expectation, if they needed it.
I mean, they'd have to give their full attention to be working on the sum. And those people could not compound money, a hundred million or a billion, at anything remotely like that rate.
I mean, there are little tiny areas which, if you follow what I said on the screen there, on that Adam Smith's interview a few years ago.
If you start with A and you go through and you look at everything and you find small securities in your area of competence that you can understand the business, I think you — and occasionally find little arbitrage situations or little wrinkles here and there in the market —
I think, working with a very small sum, that there is an opportunity to earn very high returns. But that advantage disappears very rapidly as the money compounds. Because I, you know, from a million to 10 million, I would say it would fall off dramatically, in terms of the expectable rate.
Because there are little — you find very small things that, you know, you can make — you are almost certain to make high returns on. But you don't find very big things in that category today.
I'll leave to you the fun of finding them yourselves. Terrible to spoil the treasure hunt.
And the truth is, I don't look for them anymore. Every now and then, I'll stumble into something just by accident. But I'm not in the business of looking for them. I'm looking for things that Berkshire could put its money in, and that rules out all of that sort of thing.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I would agree. But I would also say that what we did 40 or so years ago was, in some respects, more simple than what you're going to have to do.
WARREN BUFFETT: Right.
CHARLIE MUNGER: We had it very easy, compared to you. It can still be done. But it's harder now.
You have to know more. I mean, just sifting through the manuals until you find something that's selling at two times earnings, that won't work for you.
WARREN BUFFETT: It'll work. It's just you won't find any. (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 10, please?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Jonathan Brandt. I'm from New York City.
Warren, you wrote in 1977 that the return on equity and growth of book value for corporate America tended towards, and averaged, about 13 percent, no matter the inflation environment.
After properly expensing options and so-called non-recurring charges and taking into account the high price-earnings ratio paid for increasingly frequent acquisitions, do you think that 13 percent figure is still roughly correct?
Also, what quantitative method would you suggest that investors use for expensing the option grants of publicly traded firms where there is no realistic prospect for the substitution of such an options program with a cash-based performance incentive plan?
In other words, how do you derive the five to 10 percent earnings dilution referred to in this year's Berkshire's annual report? And is it possible that the dilution figure could be even higher than that? Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. Thanks, John. Just like Martin Wiegand, Jon Brandt is the son of a very good friend of mine, where we worked together for decades. And Jon is now an analyst with Ruane Cunniff and a very good one.
He also — he says it didn't happen this way. But when he was about four years old, I was at his house for dinner with the parents. And he suggested to me, after dinner, he said, "How about a game of chess?"
I looked at this four-year-old. I thought, you know, "This is the kind of guy —"
I said, "Should we play for money?" (Laughter)
And he said, "Name your stakes." So, I backed off, and — (laughter) — we sat down.
And after about 12 moves, I could see I was in mortal trouble. So, I suggested it was time for him to get to bed. (Laughter)
The question about return on equity, it's true. Back in 1977, I believe, I wrote an article for Fortune and talked about this, more or less, this figure of 12 or 13 percent that return on equity kept coming back to, and explained why I didn't think it was affected by inflation, which was a hot topic of the day very much.
And it wasn't. But in recent — in the last few years, earnings have been reported at very high figures on the S&P, although you've had these very substantial restructuring charges, which every management likes to tell you doesn't count.
I love that, when they, you know, they say, "Well, you know, we earned a dollar a share in total last year, but look at the two dollars a share that we tell you we really earned. The other dollar a share doesn't count." And then they throw in mistakes of the past or mistakes of the future. And every three or four years, ask you to forget this as if it doesn't mean anything.
We've never had a charge like that that we've set forth in Berkshire and we never will.
It isn't that we don't have things we do that cost us money in moving around. But we do not ask you to forget about those costs.
The report — even allowing for options costs and restructuring charge and everything, return on equity has been surprisingly — to me — surprisingly high in the last few years.
And there's a real question in a capitalistic society whether if long-term rates are 5 1/2 percent, whether return on equity can be, across the board, some number like 18 or 20 percent.
There're an awful lot of companies out there that are implicitly promising you, either by what they say their growth in earnings will be, or various other ways, that they're going to earn at these rates of 20 percent-plus. And, you know, I'm dubious about those claims. But we will see.
WARREN BUFFETT: The question about how we charge for stock options is very simple. If we look at what a company issues in options over, say, a five-year period and divide by fives — because the grants are irregular — or whatever’s — if there's some reason why that seems inappropriate, we might use something else.
But we try to figure out what the average option issuance is going to be. And then we say to ourselves, "How much could the company have received for those options if they'd sold them as warrants to the public?"
I mean, they can sell me options on any company in the world. I'll pay some price for an option on anything.
And we would look at what the fair market value of those options would be that day if they were transferable options. Now, they aren't transferable. But they also — employees sometimes get their options repriced downward, which you don't get if you have public options.
So, we say that the cost to the shareholder of issuing the options is about what could be received if they sold — turned those options into warrants — and sold them public or sold them as options.
And that's the cost. I mean, it's a compensation cost.
And just try going to a company that's had a lot of options grants every year and tell them you're going to quit giving the options and pay people the same amount of money. They'll say, "You took away part of my earnings."
And we say, if you've taken away part of the earnings, then let's show it in the income account and show it as a cost. Because it is a cost.
And I think, actually, a number of auditors agreed to that position many years ago. And they started receiving pressure from their clients who said, "Gee, you know, that might hurt our earnings if we reported that cost."
And the auditors caved. And they put pressure on Congress when it came up a few years ago. And I think it's a scandal. But it's happened.
We are going to — in evaluating a business, whether we're going to buy the entire business or whether we're going to buy part of it — we're going to figure out how much it's costing us to issue — and when the company issues those options every year.
And if they reprice them, we're going to figure how much that particular policy costs us. And that is coming out of our pocket as investors. And I think people are quite foolish if they ignore that.
I don't think it's going to change. It's too much in corporate America's interest to keep it out of the income account and keep issuing more and more options percentage-wise, and not have it hit the income account, and to reprice when stocks go down. But that doesn't make it right.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, I go so far as to say it's fundamentally wrong not to have rational, honest accounting in big American corporations.
And it's very important not to let little corruptions start, because they become big corruptions. And then you have vested interest that fight to perpetuate them.
Surely, there are a lot of wonderful companies that issue stock options. And that stock options go to a lot of wonderful employees that are really earning them. But all that said, the accounting in America is corrupt. And it is not a good idea to have corrupt accounting.
WARREN BUFFETT: You can see the problem of the creep in it, once it starts.
It's much like campaign finance reform. I mean, if you let it go for a long time, the system becomes so embedded and the participants become so dependent upon it, that there becomes a huge constituency that will fight like the very devil to prevent any change, regardless of the logic of the situation.
I mean, once you get a significant number of important players benefiting from any kind of corruption in any kind of system, you're going to have a terrible time changing it. That's why, you know, it should be changed early.
And it would've been easier to change the accounting for stock options some decades back when it was first proposed, than now. Because, you know, basically corporate America's hooked on it.
This does not mean that we are against options, per se. If Charlie and I die tonight and you had two new faces up here who didn't have the benefit of having bought a lot of Berkshire a long time ago, and they had responsibility for the whole enterprise, it would not be inappropriate to pay them in some way that was reflective of the prosperity of the whole enterprise.
I mean, they would — it would be crazy to pay the people at Dairy Queen in options of Berkshire Hathaway or pay the people at Star Furniture or any one of our operations, because they have responsibility for a given unit. And what the price of Coca-Cola stock does could swamp their efforts in either direction. It just would be inappropriate.
But it would not be inappropriate to pay somebody that's got the responsibility for all of Berkshire in a way that reflected the prosperity of all of Berkshire.
And a properly designed option system, which would be much different than the ones you see, because it'd be much more rational, could well make sense for one or two people that had the responsibility for this whole place.
Charlie and I aren't interested in that. But I think that you may be looking at two people up here, 50 years from now, I hope, where it would be appropriate.
But any option system, A, should not involve giving an option of less than the place could be sold for today, regardless of the market price. Because once management's in control, they can make that decision. And it should reflect the cost of capital. And very, very few systems reflect the cost of capital.
But if we're going to sit here and plow all the money back every year into the business and, in effect, use your earnings, interest-free, to increase our own earnings in the future, we think there has to be a cost of capital to have a properly designed option system.
People aren't interested in that. The option consultants aren't interested in that, because that isn't what their clientele wants.
Charlie, you're probably wound up a little more now on this, too?
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, I've wound up enough.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: We'll go to zone 11.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Warren and Charlie, good morning.
WARREN BUFFETT: Good morning.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Maurus Spence from Waterloo, Nebraska.
Some 30 years ago, you disbanded your Buffett partnership saying that you felt out of step with the market and you feared a permanent loss of capital.
Given today's market and current valuations, if Berkshire Hathaway was a partnership of 100 partners, instead of a corporation, would you consider disbanding it as you did 30 years ago? And if not, why not? And was that the right decision back then?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, if our activities were limited to marketable securities, and I had less than a hundred partners, and we were operating with this kind of money, so that there was a real limitation on what we could do, I would simply tell the partners and let them make the decision. That would be easy enough.
We're not in that position. A, we've got a number of wonderful businesses. And those businesses will grow in value. And in some cases, very significantly, in value.
And it's not a feasible way. People have their own way, if they decide that — since we're unable to find things, that they'd rather go on to something else — they have their own way of getting out. And they can get out at, certainly, a premium to the amount of money they put into the business over the years.
So, if I were running a marketable securities portfolio now and were limited to that, I would explain very carefully to my partners how limited my ability to make money in this market would be. And then I would ask them to do whatever they wish to do. Some of them might want to pull out and others might want to stay.
In the 1969 period when I closed up, A, I had a somewhat similar situation in terms of finding things.
And B, I really felt that the expectations of people had been so raised by the experience we’d had over the previous 13 years, that it made me very uncomfortable. And I felt unable to dampen those expectations.
And I really just didn't find it comfortable to operate where my partners, even though they might nod their heads understandingly and say that, "You know, we really know why you aren't making any money while everybody else is."
I didn't think I wanted to face the internal pressure that would come from that. I don't feel any such internal pressure in running Berkshire.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, that — I think there are some similarities between 1969-70 and the present time. But I don't think that means that 1973-4 lies right ahead of us. We can't predict that.
You can argue it worked out wonderfully for Warren to quit in '69. And then have '73-4 to come into with his powder dry. I don't think we're likely to be that quite that fortunate again.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, it was a long time from ‘69, though, to ‘73. I mean, it sounds easy, looking back. But the Nifty Fifties, you may remember, sort of hit their peak in ‘72. So, although there was a sinking spell for a while in that ’69 -70 period, the market came back very strong.
But you know, that's part of the game. I mean, it stayed cheap a long time from the ‘73 period on.
And you will find waves of optimism and pessimism. And they'll never be exactly like they were before. But they will come in some form or other.
That does not mean we're sitting around with a bunch of cash because we expect stocks to go down, though.
We keep looking for things. We're looking for things right now. We're talking to people right now about things where we could expend substantial sums of money. But it's much more difficult in this period.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 12?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. My name is Jenna (PH). I'm from Long Island, New York.
And I was reading through your annual report.
You made reference to Wagner and some country western song I never heard of.
I was just wondering what kind of music influences you. And are you planning on doing, like, a musical video? (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I think with the performance I gave earlier in the movie, I don't think there's any future for me. But I do have a very musical family.
And since you asked, I will point out that my son Peter's recent CD is available at the Disney booth outside. And Peter had a very successful experience here on public television in March and will be on tour later on. And my wife is extremely musical.
But I don't think I've got much of a future in it. So far, I get — no one ever asks me to come back. (Laughter)
I mean, I've had a lot of introductory appearances, but very few encores.
I like all kinds of music. You know, I really — I've always liked music. We started out around the house singing church hymns. And in 1942, my two sisters who are here today, joined me in a 15-minute program on WOW, then the leading radio station in Omaha. And we sang “America the Beautiful.”
And my dad got elected to Congress on the back of that program. (Laughter)
We liked to take credit for it. And you — see my sisters at the end of the meeting.
Charlie, what kind of music do you like?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, the one thing I agree with is that if we're going to star Warren, it should be in a musical. The straight acting won't do. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: It took me an hour to get that bald for "Annie," incidentally. It takes a long time to get bald — dressing room.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 13, please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger. My name is Jack Sutton (PH) from Brooklyn, New York. Thank you for hosting today's meeting.
With reference to communication stocks, because of the growth of cellular communications and the internet, certain stocks hold the prospect of substantially above-average revenue and earnings growth.
AT&T and Nokia, as an example, earn respectable margins and return on common equity and would seem to fit Berkshire's criteria from a financial perspective.
Has Berkshire reviewed stocks in the area of communications? And would you consider an investment in this area at some time in the future?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, there's certainly no question amazing things have happened in communications.
It's interesting that you mention AT&T. Because AT&T's return on equity over the last 15 years has been, you know, has been very, very poor. Now, they've had special charges time after time and said, "Don't count this."
But the overall return on equity, if you calculate it for AT&T for the last 15 years, it's not been good at all. They were the, you know, they were the leader in the field. But so far, what has happened has hurt them, at least relative to their competition, far more than it's helped them.
We have a fellow on our board, Walter Scott, who's right here in the front row — I can't quite see him — who knows a lot more about this.
He used to try to explain to me these changes that were taking place. We'd ride down to football games on Saturday and Walter would patiently explain to me like he was talking to a sixth grader, what was going to happen in communications. And the problem was that he had a fourth grader in the car with him, namely me. (Laughter)
So, I never got it. But Walter did. And he's done very well in MFS and Level 3.
And I think for people who understand it, and are reasonably early, you know, they could very well be substantial money to be made. There's been an awful lot of money made in this town of Omaha by people who've participated in this. But I'm not one of them.
And I have no insights that I bring to that game that I think are in any way superior, and — in, probably, many cases, not even equal to those of other participants.
There's a lot of difference between making money and spotting a wonderful industry. You know, the two most important industries in the first half of this century in the United States — in the world, probably — were the auto industry and the airplane industry.
Here you had these two discoveries, both in the first decade — essentially in the first decade — of the century. And if you'd foreseen, in 1905 or thereabouts, what the auto would do to the world, let alone this country, or what the airplane would do, you might have thought that it was a great way to get rich.
But very, very few people got rich by being — by riding the back of that auto industry. And probably even fewer got rich by participating in the airline industry over that time.
I mean, millions of people are flying around every day. But the number of people who've made money carrying them around is very limited.
And the capital has been lost in that business, the bankruptcies. It's been a terrible business. It's been a marvelous industry.
So you do not want to necessarily equate the prospects of growth for an industry with the prospects for growth in your own net worth by participating in it.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, it reminds me of a time in World War II when — where these two aircraft officers I knew, and they didn't have anything to do at the time. And some general came in to visit. And he said to one of them, he says, "Lieutenant Jones, what do you do?" He says, "I don't do anything."
And he turned to the second one. And he says, "What do you do?" And he says, "I help Lieutenant Jones." (Laughter)
That's been my contribution on communications investments. (Laughter and applause)
WARREN BUFFETT: You can address me as Lieutenant Jones for the rest of the meeting. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, incidentally, some people have thanked us for providing this meeting. I want to thank you because the quality — I think we have the best shareholders meeting in the country.
And the quality of the meeting is absolutely — (applause) — in direct proportion to the quality of the shareholders.
We would have nothing without this participation. And I really thank you. It's a big effort to come here for a lot of you. And I thank you for that.
Our plan, incidentally, will be to take a break at noon. They have a lot of food outside that they will sell you. (Laughter)
And then we'll come back in 30 minutes or thereabouts or 45 minutes, depending on how the lines are out there.
And then we'll reconvene for the afternoon. And those of you who are not in this main hall, if you want to come over and join the main hall, there will be enough seats for everybody in the afternoon. And then Charlie and I will continue till about 3:30.
WARREN BUFFETT: Let's go back to zone 1, please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Mr. Buffett, over here. Good morning. I'm Allan Maxwell. I live in Omaha.
When you walk down the street, heads turn to watch you. Do you ever get tired of being Warren Buffett? If you could come back again, would you want to be Warren Buffett? (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: I think I'd probably want to be Mrs. B. She made it to 104, so I — (Laughter)
And incidentally, I think there were three siblings at her funeral. Now, that some set of genes. You don't have to worry about the Furniture Mart.
No, you see a lot of the publicity bit here for a couple of days around the time of the meeting. But life goes on in a very normal way.
And I've had a lot fun. I have fun every day of my life. I had a lot of fun when I was 25. But I have just as much fun now. And I think, you know, if my health stays good, it'll keep being the same way.
Because, you know, I get to do what I want to do. And I get to do it with people I like and admire and trust. And it doesn't get any better than that.
Charlie? Do you want to come back as Lieutenant Jones? (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: I think there are very few people who would change their skin for somebody else's. I think we all want to play our own games.
WARREN BUFFETT: We'll go to zone 2 with those remarks. (Laughter)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi.
WARREN BUFFETT: Hi.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'm Liam O’Connor (PH). I come from County Kerry in Ireland. And I must admit the sun shines a little bit more over here than it does on the other side of the world.
I was wondering, today, if you could shed some light on accounting for goodwill.
You reference in your report, in several aspects, including your principles — owner principles — and as well as the fact — with the current merger of General Re.
It seems to me there are several different methods that are used worldwide, through amortization, to direct write-off.
And the fact, when a merger like this is taken, it kind of skews the balance sheet. And I was wondering, in your view, what would you recommend as a more appropriate method for accounting for goodwill?
And secondly, if I could direct it to Charlie, one of the ideas — why not tie goodwill to the share price and have an intangible and a tangible part of shareholder's equity, the intangible piece being the difference between the book value and the share value of a company?
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, I'll take the first part. And it's a good question about goodwill and the treatment of goodwill for accounting purposes.
I actually wrote on that subject. I think it was in 1983 in the annual report. And if you click onto to the berkshirehathaway.com you can look at the older letters. And you will see a discussion of what I think should be the way goodwill is handled. And then we've discussed it at various other times in the Owner's Manual.
To give it to you briefly, in the U.K., for example, goodwill is written off instantly so it never appears in book value. And there's no subsequent charge for it.
If I were setting the accounting rules, I would treat all acquisitions as purchases — which is what we've done, virtually, without exception at Berkshire — I would treat all acquisitions as purchases.
I would set up the economic goodwill, because we are paying for goodwill when we buy a General Re. I mean, we are playing billions and billions of dollars for it. Or when we buy a GEICO or when we buy an Executive Jet. That is what we are buying, is economic — what I call economic goodwill.
I believe it should stay on the balance sheet as reflective of the money you've laid out to buy it. But I don't think it should be amortized. I think in cases where it is permanently impaired and clear that it's lost its value, it should be charged off at that time.
But generally speaking — in our own case, the economic goodwill that we now have far exceeds the amount that we put on the books originally. And therefore, even by a great amount, exceeds the amount that remains on the books after amortization.
I do not think an amortization charge is inappropriate — is appropriate — at Berkshire for the goodwill that we have attached to the — our businesses. Most of those businesses have increased their economic goodwill — in some cases, by dramatic amounts — since we've purchased them.
But I think the cost ought to be on the balance sheet. It’s what we — it shows what we paid for them. I think it should be recorded there.
I don't think that the coming change in accounting is likely to be along the lines that I've suggested here. But I do think it's the most rational way to approach the problem.
And I think that because there is this great difference between purchase and pooling accounting, that some really stupid things are done in the corporate world.
And I have talked to managers who deplored the fact that they were using their stock in a deal and going through some — various maneuvers to get pooling accounting because they thought it was economically a dumb thing to do.
But they did it, rather than record amortization charges that would result from purchase accounting. And, you know, they're very frank about that in private. They don't say as much as about it in public.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, generally speaking, I think that what Warren argues for would be the best system.
Namely, set up the goodwill as an asset and don't amortize it in the ordinary case.
Or there would be plenty of cases when — the cases wouldn't be ordinary cases when amortization would be rational and, in fact, should be required.
So, I don't think there is any one easy answer to this one. And there's a lot of crazy distortion in corporate practice because of all the changes.
I mean, Australia has cowboy accounting. And Europe has this write-it-all-off-immediately accounting, which is — what would you call it? — half-cowboy accounting. And maybe mining promoter accounting.
We think the system should be better than that.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 3?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning.
WARREN BUFFETT: Morning.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Mike, from Omaha.
And it's been said that you're the white knight of the investment world because you rescue companies from hostile takeovers. Are there any companies you are now trying to help out? And would you please name those companies? (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: You have a cell phone that you're going to place orders with? (Laughter)
No, we — what we really want to buy into are wonderful businesses, or at least extremely good businesses. And we want them to have managements we like. And we want the price to be attractive.
And we are not in the business of being white knights. We're in the business of being investors in things that look sensible to us. And I don't think I've been approached by anybody in connection with that.
We do get approached occasionally. I should say, we get approached when somebody, occasionally, when somebody has a takeover bid. And they say, "Would you like to top it or something?" To which our answer, invariably, is no.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, we're very good at saying no. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Charlie's better than I am, even.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 4.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. My name is Matt Haverty (PH). I'm from Kansas City.
Twenty years ago, China unleashed capitalism within its borders. Since then, I believe it has benefited more from that economic system than any major country in history.
I also believe that this momentum, combined with China's size and demographics, will make it the most fertile economic environment in the world during the next few decades.
Nonetheless, there are many Chinese companies with easy-to-understand businesses and 20 percent per annum sales growth this decade, trading at five times or less last year's earnings.
What is your assessment of the risk/reward of investing directly in Chinese companies?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I don't know that much about them. But I — certainly if I could buy companies that were earning 20 percent on equity and had promises — gave promise — of being able to continue to do that while reemploying most of the capital, and they were selling at five times earnings, and I felt good about the quality of the earnings, you know, I would say that would have to be an interesting field.
My guess is that it's not a large enough field, in terms of the ones that meet those tests you named, for Berkshire to profitably participate. And whether you could buy all of those companies from the U.S., I think there’d be a lot of — there could well be a lot of problems in that.
But I would say, any time you can buy good businesses — really good businesses — which we define as businesses who earn high returns on capital at five times earnings — and you believe in the quality of the earnings, and they can reemploy a significant portion of those earnings, additionally, at the 20 percent rate, you know, you will make a lot of money if you're right in your assessment on that.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, I don't know much about China. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: But that is not to knock it in any way, shape or form. Because I mean, in terms of — there could well be opportunities in areas like that, if you can identify those kind of businesses. We would have trouble identifying those businesses, ourselves.
But that doesn't mean that, you know, you will have trouble or other people who are much more familiar with the economy there, would have trouble.
So, I encourage you to look at your own area of expertise in something like that. And you'll do much better.
If the conditions you describe exist and you can identify the right company, you will do much better in that than you will in American markets, in my view.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 5.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. My name is Fred Castano (PH), from East Point, Michigan. And I appreciate this opportunity.
With Berkshire's size becoming very large, are we to expect major future investments to be in the form of complete buyouts, such as the General Re acquisition? Or would you still consider nibbling in the stock market?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we don't want to nibble. But we would like to take big gulps in the stock market from time to time.
But we've always wanted to acquire entire businesses. People never seem to really believe that, back when we were buying See’s Candy or the Buffalo News or National Indemnity. But that's been our number one preference right along.
It's just that we've found that much of the time we could get far for more our money, in terms of wonderful businesses, by buying pieces in the stock market, than we could by negotiated purchase.
There may have been — there may be some movement, in terms of the availability of the two, toward the negotiated purchase, although you — it's almost impossible to make a wonderful buy in a negotiated purchase.
I mean, you will never make the kind of buy in a negotiated purchase that you can in a bad — that you can make via stocks in a stock — in a weak stock market. It just isn't going to happen.
The person on the other side cares too much. Whereas, in the stock market, in a 1973 or 1974, you were dealing with the marginal seller. And whatever price they establish for the business, you could buy it.
I couldn't have bought the entire Washington Post Company for $80 million in 1974. But I could buy 10 percent of it from a bunch of people who were just operating, you know, based on calculating betas or doing something of the sort. And they were in a terrible market. And it was possible to buy a piece of it on that valuation. You never get that kind of buy in a negotiated purchase.
We always are more interested in a negotiated — large negotiated — deals than we are in stock purchases. But we are not going to find a way, probably, to use all the money that way.
And we occasionally may get chances to put big chunks of money into attractive businesses that are — which we buy through the stock market, five, 10 percent of company or something of that sort.
CHARLIE MUNGER: My guess is over the next five years, we'll do some of both. Both the entire business and the big gulps in the stock market.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, I agree with that.
We'll keep working at both. We're not finding a lot in either arena. We might be a little more likely to find it in the negotiated business. It won't be any huge bargain. We're not going to get any huge bargain in the — in a negotiated purchase.
We are more likely to find what I would call a fair deal there under today's circumstances, than we will in the market. But I agree with Charlie. Over the next five years, I think you'll see us do both.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 6.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger. My name is Jane Bell (PH) from Des Moines, Iowa. (Mild applause)
In response to an earlier question, you spoke of people being rich and very, very rich.
It seems to me there's a difference between being rich and being wealthy. I assume you consider yourself to be both. Which is the more important to you?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I think we may ask you to define. I don't want to sound like President Clinton here, too much, but we may ask you — (Laughter)
I might want — if you'd really define the "rich" and "wealthy," so that I get the distinction, then I think we can give you a better answer on it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, in my mind, being rich is having an awful lot of money. Being very, very rich is having even more. And being wealthy doesn't necessarily equate to having a lot of money.
WARREN BUFFETT: What does it equate to, then? I just want — (Laughter)
I think I know what you mean. But I still want you to clear it up before I give you an answer on it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, this, of course, is my opinion.
WARREN BUFFETT: I mean, you could be wealthy in health, for example. And I agree with you, that certainly, there'd be nothing you'd value more than good health for you, you know, yourself and your family. But I — you go ahead.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, I believe you're starting to get it. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Have patience. (Laughter)
No, there's no question about it. I mean, being — the money makes very little difference after a moderate level. I tell this to college students that I talk to.
I mean, they are basically living about the same life I'm living. (Laughter)
You know, we eat the same foods. I mean, that I can guarantee you. (Laughter)
And, you know, there's no important difference in our dress. There's no important difference at all in the car we drive. There's no difference in the television set that we sit there and, you know, watch the Super Bowl on or anything of the sort.
There's really no difference in — you know, they've got air-conditioning in summer. And I got air-conditioning and I got heat in winter. Almost everything of any importance in daily life, we equate on.
The one thing I do is I travel a lot better than they do, you know, NetJets. (Laughter)
So the travel is — travel I do a lot easier than they do.
Everything else in their lives, it just — you know, I'll switch places any time. It doesn't make any difference.
So, the — then you get down to the things of health and who loves you. I mean, that’s — you know, there’s nothing — if you have a minimum level of — I mean, you want to have enough so that you eat three times a day, and that you sleep in reasonably comfortable surroundings, and so on.
But everybody in this room has that. And yet, some of the people, by the definition that you've given, are obviously much more wealthy than others. And it's not measured by their net worth, if you define it that way.
I don't disagree with that definition. I might not use the term, wealth, in describing it. But I'd certainly maybe call it well-being or something of the sort.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Sure, there are a lot of things in life way more important than wealth. All that said, some people do get confused. I play golf with a man. He says, "What good is health? You can't buy money with it." (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Did I ever tell you about Charlie's twin brother that he golfs a lot with? (Laughter)
No, I'll take health any time, incidentally.
CHARLIE MUNGER: So will I.
WARREN BUFFETT: The important thing, even in your work, I mean, is — to an extreme extent, it seems to me, is who you do it with.
I mean, it — you can have — if you're going to spend eight hours a day working, the most important isn't how much money you make, it's how you feel during those eight hours, in terms of the people you're interacting with, and how interesting what you're doing is, and all of that.
Well, you know, I consider myself incredibly lucky in that respect. I can't think of anything I'd rather do. And I can't think of any group of people I'd rather do it with.
And if you asked me to trade away a very significant percentage of my net worth, either for some extra years in life, or being able to do, during those years, what I want to do, you know, I'd do it in a second.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 7.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, my name is McCall Bang (PH). I'm from central Florida. It's nice and sunny there.
WARREN BUFFETT: Not so bad here either, now. (Laughs)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question was, last year somebody asked about the pharmaceutical companies and the aging baby boomers, et cetera. And you said it was difficult to single out individual companies. And I believe Mr. Munger succinctly said that we blew it on that one.
I was wondering, however, if the idea of regulation and, you know, the specter of what happened in ‘92, ‘93 with an unelected politician kind of dampered the whole industry for a period, there — if that plays a part in giving you a little ambivalence about investing in that area for the future.
Is that simply an unknowable? Or with all the, you know, a lot of the political — the things we see here today — if that causes you some concern about, you know, the future of that area?
I know that you're concerned about the growth of — in companies having to spend money, in Washington with regulation, et cetera. So, I'd like to know your thoughts, specifically if you have some ambivalence because of future regulation with pharmaceutical companies?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, if we could buy a group of leading pharmaceutical companies at a below-market multiple, I think we'd do it in a second. And we had the opportunity to do that in that 1993 period, as you mentioned. And we didn't do it. So, we did blow it.
Because clearly, the pharmaceutical industry, as a whole, has done very well. And it has some of the threats that you enumerated, in terms of regulation and so on.
But, you know, every industry has some problems. And the pharmaceutical industry has enough going for it that the threats you named should not cause, in my view, should not cause the securities to sell at a depressed multiple, which they did.
Now, that's no longer the circumstance. We don’t like — you know, we're not going to buy them at present prices. But, we — at least I think they’re, you know, as a group, they're good businesses.
I do think it's very hard to pick out the winner. You know, so if I did buy them, I would buy them — I would buy a group of the leading companies. But I wouldn't be buying them at these prices.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. I would argue that the pharmaceutical industry has done more good for the customers than almost any other industry in America. It's just fabulous what's been invented in my lifetime, starting with all the antibiotics that have prevented so much death and so much family tragedy.
And I think the country has been very wise to have a system where the pharmaceutical companies can make almost obscene amounts of money. I think we've all been well-served by the large profits in the pharmaceutical industry.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 8.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning Mr. Buffett, Mr. Munger. My name is Gary Rastrum (PH) from right here in Omaha.
My question is, somewhere I thought I'd read that you buy at least one share of every company on the New York — or on the exchanges — to get the annual report. Is that true or is that a thing of the past? And if it is true, how do you keep track of all that information?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, it's got an element of truth in it. Many years ago, I did buy one share of a great many companies. And I'd get these dividend checks for eight cents and 10 cents. (Laughter)
And I used to pay my bridge losses by endorsing these checks by the hundreds and giving them to the people who'd just won a dollar. And they — and then no one asked me to bridge games anymore. (Laughter)
So I have adopted a new program where I buy a hundred shares of a great many companies. Actually, I buy them in my foundation so I don't go crazy at income tax time. And I probably, just as a guess, would have a couple hundred companies. So, it isn't every company, by a long shot.
But there are at least several hundred companies where I want to be a registered shareholder, and — to make sure I get the mailings promptly. And I do keep those around. And I very — even after I lose interest, I very seldom sell one. So, I'll just keep buying more.
And I’ll only buy a hundred shares in something I might want to keep track of, but I'll probably buy a hundred shares in all of their competitors and — so that I keep reading about those companies as well.
It does pay to have a flow of information come in over the desk.
And the answer to that question reminds me of a point which I'd like to bring up, briefly, here.
And that is that our shareholders — unfortunately there's no way around this — unless they go to the internet on the Saturday that we designate to read the annual report, and where it's up on our home site, berkshirehathaway.com, are going to receive their reports at significantly different times.
And the ones who have their shares in their own names are very likely to get those reports faster than the ones that have it — have their shares held in street names. And from our standpoint, unfortunately, probably 90 percent of the shareholders we have, have their name — have their stock held in street names.
Now, what happens on that, is we print the reports up. We mail the ones to the shareholders who are of record, who have the stock in their own names. We send the balance to where their brokers or bankers tell us to send them.
About 90 percent go to one place in New Jersey, but that's out of our control. I mean, if Merrill Lynch or Charles Schwab or whomever, Fidelity, turns their list over to that firm, they are the ones that mail the reports. We truck those reports back to them.
We may, next year, try to figure out a way to get them printed closer. But it's out of our control when those reports go out. So our shareholders receive their reports on widely varying dates, which like I say, you know, I would rather not have that happen.
It means that in terms of sending in your request for tickets to this meeting, many people we had this year as late as maybe the 10th of April, still hadn't gotten their reports. And they wondered about their tickets.
So if it's convenient for you, you will — you know, it's better to have your stock in your own name. Now, that isn't convenient for many people. I understand that. But you will get our reports on a more reliable basis and a more prompt basis if you do it that way.
If you have your stock in street name, you know, I urge you to look on those dates we've laid out in the report for next year, to click onto our homepage. Because then you will have the information just as quickly as everybody — as your fellow shareholder does.
We want very much to have a level playing field. And we want everyone to have access to the information as close to simultaneously as possible and during a time when the market is not open.
We think that just makes sense. That's the way we'd do it if we were running a partnership.
But there is this problem with street name holdings of somewhat erratic distribution. And that's the reason why, when I want to keep track of, say, all of the companies in the pharmaceutical industry, I'll buy a hundred shares of each one and I'll stick them in the name of the foundation. And that mailing comes directly to me in Omaha.
WARREN BUFFETT: So let's go onto zone 9.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'm Lola Wells (PH) from Florida.
You have been recently quoted in the newspapers as saying that some major corporations have used questionable practices to make their operations seem more favorable. Would you be willing to be more specific about these practices?
WARREN BUFFETT: Not until I'm on my deathbed. The — no, I have followed a policy of criticizing by practice and praising by name, and we will not —
You know, we do — Charlie and I both find certain practices very deplorable. And they aren't limited to a single, or a few, large corporations. But it would — we would probably be less effective in arguing for change if we went to a few specific examples.
A, they would not be that much different, probably, than hundreds of other, or at least dozens of other companies. And secondly, those who get critical of the world, find the world gets very critical of them, promptly.
And I think we do more good by, in a sense, hating the sin and loving the sinner. So, we will continue to point out the sin. But we will not name the sinners.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Warren, I think she wants you to name the practices.
WARREN BUFFETT: Oh, the practices?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Not the miscreants.
WARREN BUFFETT: Oh, well, the practices are some — (laughter) — the practices are some of the things of the things we've said.
They relate to accounting charges that are designed to throw, into a given period, a whole lot of things that should've been covered in subsequent periods in the earnings account. Or to smooth out or to inflate earnings in future accounts.
There's a lot of that being done. There's a lot that's been done. The SEC, under Arthur Levitt, who I admire enormously for his efforts on this, is making a concerted attempt to get corporate America to clean up its act on that.
But it'll only be because somebody hits them over the head. I mean, it has become totally fashionable to play games with the timing of expenses and revenues. And frankly, until the SEC got tougher, in my view, the auditors were not doing enough about it.
I think that, in terms of hiding compensation expense and not recording it, in the case of options and all of that, I think —
Companies now have the option of recording option costs in the income account. But you have not seen any great flood of people doing it.
And actually, the way they show it in the footnotes is quite deceptive, in my view, because they try to make assumptions that minimize what the income account impact would be.
But the cost to the shareholder is what counts. I mean, that is the compensation cost, as far as we're concerned. And that's been minimized.
The whole effort to engage in pooling rather than purchase accounting, I’ve seen a lot of — there's been a lot of deceptive accounting, in that respect. There's been deceptive accounting on purchase accounting adjustments. So those are the kind of things we're talking about.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, it's the big bath accounting, and the subsequent release back into earnings of taking an overly large bath, that create a lot of the abuse.
WARREN BUFFETT: We could name names. We won't. But I mean, we have seen, firsthand, managements who think they are doing — they say they're doing what everybody else does. The truth is, they are now because everybody else is doing it.
And it takes some outside force, in this case, probably the SEC — it should've been the auditors and — to clean up the act. Because once it becomes prevalent, the fellow who is — who says, "I'm going to do it fair and square," all of a sudden becomes at a disadvantage in capital markets.
He's penalized. And he says, "Why should I penalize my shareholders by doing something when, legally I can get away with doing something else?"
CHARLIE MUNGER: Nothing more.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 10.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger. My name is Robert McClure (PH), and my wife and I live in Singapore. My question concerns insurance.
In the 1994 annual report, you made the following remarks. And I quote, "A prudent insurer will want its protection against true mega-catastrophes — such as a $50 billion windstorm loss on Long Island or an earthquake of similar cost in California — to be absolutely certain.
“That same insurer knows that the disaster making it dependent on a large super-cat recovery is also the disaster that could cause many reinsurers to default. There's not much sense in paying premiums for coverages that will evaporate precisely when they are needed.
"So the certainty that Berkshire will be both solvent and liquid after a catastrophe of unthinkable proportions is a major competitive advantage for us." End quote. As I said, that was in the 1994 annual report. Please give us an update on those remarks.
Would you say that that competitive advantage you described is intact? Or would you go so far to say that it has been enhanced over the past five years with the merger of General Re and with what's happened in the super-cat insurance industry?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, I would say that that reputation — certainly the reputation is a stronger — oh, it’s stronger than ever.
I mean, Berkshire's preeminent position as the reinsurer most certain to pay after any conceivable natural disaster — that reputation is stronger today than it's ever been, and General Re's reputation right along with it.
I would say the commercial advantage inherent in that reputation is very important. I can't tell you exactly how it rates compared to 1994. But I can tell you that it's important.
It tends to be more important when we're reinsuring other very large entities, either primary insurers or large reinsurers, than it is with the smaller company. The smaller company probably focuses on that less.
But we are writing, probably this week, a very large cover for a very important reinsurer. I don't think they'd want to buy that from almost anyone else. I mean, a couple of people, maybe, but —
They may — they could decide not to buy it from us because they might not feel they wanted to buy it. I think in this case, they will. But I don't think they would have a list of 10 people from whom they'd buy it. They're too smart for that. Because it's a very high-level cover. And if that is called upon, there will be a number of people whose checks will not clear. And Berkshire's check, undoubtedly, will clear.
So, it is a big — the reputation has never been better. The commercial advantage is significant. How much it translates into — you know, it — that can vary from year to year. But I think it's a permanent advantage that Berkshire will have.
I mean, I think five years from now and 10 years from now and particularly after there has been a huge super-cat, it will be a great asset to Berkshire to be thought of as, essentially, as I've described it, as Fort Knox.
And we will pay under any circumstances. And there aren't many people in the insurance or reinsurance business that can truly say that. And when the very big cover comes along, we should have very few competitors.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I think that's exactly right.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. Zone 11.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning.
WARREN BUFFETT: Morning.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Richard Corry (PH) from England.
Could you please say what was the main factor which produced the very substantial gain in intrinsic value mentioned in your report?
I ask this because per share gains in portfolio and operating profits were modest. And you said that there was no (inaudible) gain from issuing shares for acquisitions.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we did increase the float per share very significantly last year, I mean, invested assets per share. And I would say that, in the — GEICO's business was worth far more at the end of the year than at the start of the year. And that was our largest subsidiary at the start of the year. And if anything, GEICO's competitive position continues to improve.
I would say that Executive Jet is a natural fit into Berkshire. And we paid a significant sum for it. But that it will be a very, very big company 10 or 15 years from now.
And perhaps — well, I'm almost sure it'll get there sooner as part of Berkshire, than it wouldn't gotten there otherwise. And its dominance may be even greater over the years as part of the Berkshire family than it would have independently. Although it would've done very well independently.
I mean, it had a terrific management. It had — it started early, and they had the most service-oriented company you could imagine. So, it would've done fine without us, but I think it will do even considerably better and get there faster with us.
So, I think there — I think in the aviation field, certainly in the primary insurance field, we had large gains in intrinsic value. And I think that, additionally, we had a significantly greater amount of invested asset per share to work with.
So, I feel good about what happened with intrinsic value last year. The problem is doing it year after year after year.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Just basically, we have a wonderful bunch of businesses. And we have a float that keeps increasing and a pretty good record of doing pretty well in marketable securities. None of that has gone away.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 12?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello. My name is Elias Kanner (PH). And I am from New York City.
Mr. Buffett, thank you for this entire weekend. I met you at the ballgame on Saturday and at Gorat's yesterday. It was a great honor for me each time.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is this: Mr. Buffett, will you groom a younger man or woman as your heir apparent? If so, when might you do this?
When I say younger, I mean a person 15 to 20 years younger than yourself. Of course, I'm not complaining. You're the best in the world.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, 15 or 20 years younger is a lot easier to do than it used to be. (Laughter)
A large percentage of the world's population is now eligible.
The — we have, today, the people to take over Berkshire. There's no problem about that at all. They have been named in letters that the directors have. And they are in place.
Exactly who will be the two people will of course — or it could be one person — will depend on when Charlie and I are out of the picture.
I mean, if we'd written the letter 10 years ago, it might have been different than today. It might be different 15 years from now.
So, our death or incapacity, the timing of it, will determine exactly who will be the current person in that letter. But we have those people in place. They don't need to be groomed from this point forward.
They exist. They're ready. They'd be ready to run Berkshire tomorrow morning.
And I think you'd be quite pleased with the job they did. And that's why I don't worry about having — I've got 99 3/4 percent of my net worth in Berkshire. And, you know, I don't want any of it sold. If I knew I was going to die next week, I would not want it sold in the coming week. And I don't want it sold after I die.
I feel comfortable with the businesses and the managers and the successor top management that we have at Berkshire. But I just don't want them to take over too early. (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. I actually think that the prospects for continuity of corporate culture, to the extent we have one at Berkshire, is higher than prospects for continuity of corporate culture at most other large public companies.
I don't see Berkshire changing its way of operating, even if Warren were to expire tonight. And I think that the capital, the fresh cash, would be allocated less well. But as I've said at past shareholder meetings, well, that's too damn bad. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: That's why we don't have a public relations department.
CHARLIE MUNGER: By the way — (Laughter)
I don't think the job would be ill done, I just don't think it would be done quite as well as Warren does it.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, Zone 13. (Laughter and applause)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger. I'm Cary Flecker (PH) from Wellington, Florida. Thank you for stopping by the convention center before, Mr. Buffett. It's nice to see you again.
WARREN BUFFETT: My pleasure.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Recently, much has been made of the fact that Berkshire is the largest company to not be included in the S&P 500.
Do you gentleman have an opinion as — or what is your opinion — as to whether Berkshire should be included and why? Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, that's a question we've gotten asked quite often since the General Re deal was announced.
Berkshire, if you talk to the S&P people, I think they would say — I think they've even said it publicly, or at least a representative has — that we certainly qualify in every way that — except from what they might term the liquidity standpoint.
It's probable that maybe it's 6 percent, maybe 7 percent of the investment funds, the equity funds in the United States are indexed. And the number, or the amount, is going up somewhat as we go along. I saw an article to the contrary on that. But I think they had it wrong. The amount of index money is, in my view, rising month by month.
So, if you were to put Berkshire into the index tomorrow, in effect, you'd have a market order to buy 6 to 7 percent of the company, or roughly 100,000 shares a day.
That would not be good, you know, if the stock would obviously spike up dramatically as some stocks already have when they've been added. I mean, there’ve been some — I've looked at the list of all the companies that have been added and some have moved up substantially.
And we would have even — there’d be even more impact at Berkshire than the typical stock because our stock is fairly tightly held. Most people don't want to sell it.
There are two solutions to that. Three solutions, one of them being not to put us in the index.
But we are the most — I think, probably the most significant in the United States that isn't in the index, in terms of market value and a lot of other factors.
So, if you want to put Berkshire or a company like it in the index and not have some crazy market aberration, you could have one of two things happen. And this would be true, I think, more and more of other companies, as well, as they add them to the index and there's more money against index.
One, you could have the company agree that at the time it was added to the index that simultaneously, the company, itself, would sell an amount of stock that was about equal to the index buying that would be generated.
In other words, if we were to offer 100,000 shares, roughly, of A stock at the same as being added to the index, that would neutralize the index buying.
The only problem with that is we don't want to sell 100,000 shares or 10,000 shares or 100 shares of A stock at Berkshire unless we had some very good use for the money. It isn't going to happen. (Applause)
So we are not going to do something like that just because we want to be in an index.
The other possibility, and I believe this was used in Australia, when a very large mutual life company converted to stock. I think it was the largest company in Australia — AMP. And that would be to phase in the weighting of a stock like Berkshire.
And I think later on, I think they may have to do it for all stocks. But phase in the weighting, say, over a 12-month period. So that I was 1/12th weighted the first month, 1/12th weighted the second month and so on. That means, in effect, there would have to be a market order once a month for a half of 1 percent, roughly, of Berkshire.
Well, I don't think that would be very particularly disruptive. And I think there’d be a — once you knew that phase in was coming, there would be some anticipation so that you would not get big spikes in the stock and dips, subsequently.
I think that would be a logical way, but Standard and Poor's, to date, has not had to do that sort of thing. And they may have various reasons, and various good reasons for not wanting to do that.
Now, if indexation continues to grow as it has and you get a situation where 15 percent of the money becomes indexed, you know, I think they're going to have to come up with some approach similar to one of these two that I've named, or it will simply get too disruptive to the market.
It would be interesting. I know America Online has behaved very well since it was introduced to the S&P some time back.
But I would think that it might get to be the case that, if you simply shorted the companies that got added to the S&P after the S&P effect had been felt, that that might — you might find that those stocks would tend to underperform, as that one artificial buy order, in effect, its impact wore off.
So, I think something is going to happen. I think indexation has far exceeded what anybody anticipated, including S&P or including me or Charlie. And I think there's been a good reason for it to develop.
I think as it continues to develop it will have more and more impact on the market in ways that, probably, S&P is not that excited about, nor would the index funds be excited about.
So, there's likely to come a solution to the liquidity problem that might be particularly acute at Berkshire, but that prevails throughout the market, that occurs when stocks are added.
And I would think if they adopt some solution, that certainly, if they adopt a solution of gradual weighting, that Berkshire would be a very logical candidate for the S&P.
It really makes no difference to us what is done along that line. We would not unhappy being in the S&P, as long as it didn't have some huge market impact at the moment of putting it in.
On the other hand, you know, we love the owners we've got. And I don't see how we could improve on this group much by having the index funds.
So, it — we'll see what happens on it. It is not a big deal to us. And we want to be sure if we're ever added, it isn't too big a deal to the market.
Because I would not like — you know, the people who sold that day, might like it — but I would not like the stock to jump up, you know, $20,000 a share on one day because there's some market order for 100,000 shares, and then gradually work its way back down to where it should've been in the first place.
No one benefits from that except the people who sell in the very short-term. And that is not the group that I primarily worry about.
CHARLIE MUNGER: My guess is that Berkshire will eventually be in the S&P index. Somebody will figure out how to do that, sensibly. Maybe not soon. But someday.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. Zone 1.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is James Claus (PH), and I'm here from New York City.
Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger, today we've already heard you talk about a few countries outside of the U.S., here.
And my question is, if you're directly investing in equities outside the United States, what would be your requirements for the market as a whole?
And by this, I mean things like the transparency of the accounting system, the breadth and liquidity in the market, the rights of shareholders, the stability of the currency. And it'd be nice if you'd mention a few of these countries.
Kind of just a little addendum, there, is — for the companies in these countries, how relevant do you believe the reconciliation to U.S. GAAP contained in Form 20F really is?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, the answer is most of those points you mentioned would be of interest to us.
We'd have to rule out anything where the markets aren't big enough. I mean, we are looking to put hundreds of millions of dollars into any single investment, at a minimum. Certainly, we think in terms of 500 million as being a minimum. We make exceptions to that. And that's going to rule out a great many companies.
Transparency of accounting and accounting rules: we care about that but we can make adjustments mentally. In some respects, we may think, in certain countries, accounting is better than here.
And so, as long as we understand the accounting system, we will be looking toward the same kind of a discount model in our mind of how much cash is this business going to generate over years and how much is going to have to be put into it.
And it's the same sort of calculation that goes into our thinking here. And here, we don't follow strictly GAAP accounting in our thinking. So we don’t — the accounting differences would not bother us, as long as we understood those accounting differences.
The nuances of taxes, the corporate governance that you mentioned could make a difference. If we thought corporate governance was far inferior to here, we'd have to make an adjustment for that fact.
But I would say that in most of the major countries, the countries that have stock markets that are big enough so we could take a real position, it's a possibility that we would invest in any of them.
We don’t — we wouldn't rule out, you know, Japan, Germany, France, England, the major markets.
Now, it's important to recognize that in all the world's stock markets, something like 53 percent of the value is in the U.S. market. I mean, here we have 4 1/2 percent of the world's population. But 53 percent of the value of all publicly held companies in the world is represented in — with companies in the U.S. market. So, we are a big part of the pie.
But we're very willing to look at almost all of the rest of the pie as long as we're talking about markets that are big enough to let us put real money into them.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, so far, we haven't done much, as Warren has said. But we don't have a rule against it. What more can we say? (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: We can say, "Zone 2." (Laughter)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning, Mr. Buffett. My name is Jean-Philippe Cramers (PH), and I'm coming from London, England. I have a question regarding Coca-Cola.
The first part is, are you worried that the earnings of Coca-Cola might continue to be affected by the weakness in the emerging markets and the strength of the dollar over the next few years?
And the second part is on the P/E ratio of Coca-Cola at 35 times earnings. Are you worried about the potential rise in interest rates? And is it linked to your views on inflation that you are not worried about the rise in interest rate? Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, in relation to the strength of the dollar, which means that profits in foreign currencies don't translate into as many dollars, we — I — we don't have any big feeling on that.
I mean, if I — if we had strong feelings about the dollar's behavior, vis-à-vis the yen, or the euro, or the pound, or whatever it might be — you know, we could give vent to those views by actually buying or selling large amounts of foreign exchange.
We don't know what — which way the dollar's going to go. So, I have no — I have nothing in my mind, in regard to any decision on buying or selling Coke, that would relate to any prediction in my mind about the course of the dollar.
The earnings of Coke have been affected by the strength of the dollar in the last few years, particularly the strength against the yen when, you know, when it went from 80-odd to 140-odd. That was a huge hit, in terms of what the — in terms of the yen translation into dollars from those profits. And the strength of the dollar generally would hurt.
But looking forward, I don't have any prediction on that.
It's in Coke's interest to have countries around the world prosperous. I mean, they will benefit from increased prosperity, increased standards of living, throughout the world. I think we'll see that over any 10 or 20-year period. I think people's preference for Coke will do nothing but grow Coca-Cola products.
So, what I am concerned about is share of market and then, what I call share of mind. In other words, what do people think about Coca-Cola now, compared to 10 years ago or 20 years ago? What are they going to think about it 10 years from now?
Coca-Cola has a marvelous share of mind around the world. Everybody in the world, almost, has something in their mind about Coca-Cola products and overwhelmingly, it's favorable.
You can’t — you know, try to think of three other companies like it. I can't do it, in terms of that ubiquity of good feeling, essentially, about the product.
We measure it by unit cases sold and by shares outstanding. And we want a lot more unit cases sold. And we like the idea of fewer shares outstanding over time.
I'll give you — I’ll be giving that same answer 10, or 15, or 20 years from now. And I think they'll be a lot more unit cases sold then.
It is true that the case growth slowed starting in the second half of last year and continuing through the first quarter of this year. But that's happened from time to time in the past.
In my view, you know, that is not — it's not an important item. It may be an important item in what the stock does, you know, in a six-month period or a one-year period. But we'll be around 10 years from now, and Coca-Cola will be around 10 years from now.
And right now, we own eight-point-one or two percent of Coca-Cola. And we'll probably own a larger percentage 10 years from now, because they'll have probably repurchased some stock.
The P/E ratio of Coke, like virtually every other leading company in the world strikes us as, you know, they all strike us as being quite full.
That doesn't mean they're going to go down. But it does mean that our enthusiasm for buying more of these wonderful companies is less than it was when the P/E ratios were substantially less.
Ideally, those are the kind of companies we want to buy more of over time. We understand their businesses.
And my guess is that there's a reasonable chance, at least, that sometime in the next 10 years, we buy more shares of either Coke or Gillette or American Express or some of those other wonderful companies we own.
We do not like the P/E ratios, generally. But, again, I stress that does not mean they're going down. It just means that we got spoiled in terms of how much we got for our money in the past. And we hope that we get spoiled again.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, I — if what matters to you is what you think Coke is going to look like 10 years out or even further out, you don't really pay much attention to short-term economic developments in this country or that, or currency rates, or any other such things.
They don't really help you in making the 10 or 15-year projection. And that's the one we're making. So, we have tuned out all this noise, as it's called and what —
WARREN BUFFETT: Sometimes.
CHARLIE MUNGER: — communication networks — tune out the noise. And if you look at the big picture, we think Coke is fine.
WARREN BUFFETT: It's hard to think of a better business in the world, among big businesses. You know, there's obviously companies that are starting from much smaller bases that could grow faster. But it's hard to think of a much more solid business.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 3?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: — Newport Beach, California, Bruce Lindsay. And formerly from Omaha, Nebraska. And I have a question.
Some time ago I read that you were buying silver. I never knew the reason why you were buying silver.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we covered silver purchase in the 1997 annual report for a special reason. A, it was part of a group of three unconventional investments we made. And one of those investments was of sufficient size so we felt people ought to know about it, specifically.
And then we felt our shareholders ought to know that we sometimes do things that they might not have guessed that we would do, from reading past annual reports. So we named the three unconventional investments.
But in this year's report, we have stated we will not be naming those investments unless one of two things happened: one is that they become of a size that you should know about them specifically, in order to evaluate the kind of thing we do in Berkshire and the commitment of resources that has been made, or two, if regulatory authorities either — obviously, if they require us to report it, we'll report it immediately.
Or in the case of silver, a year-plus ago, an important regulatory authority indicated they would’ve — that they’d prefer if we report it. We weren't required to do so. But — and our desire is to cooperate on that, anyway. So, we did report it.
But we stated in this year's report that absent those factors, we will not be giving details on unconventional investments any more than we give any more details on our regular equity holdings, than we're, more or less, required to do.
We did say that we had changed certain of the unconventional investments that were described in the previous year’s report. And we stated that we'd entered into several new ones.
So, we are in some things that most of you or maybe all of you don't know about. But they aren't of sufficient size so that they're going to, in any material way at all, affect your investment.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Nothing to add.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 4.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Morning, Mr. Buffett. Wayne Lang (PH) from Toronto, Canada.
Last year, when you were asked about the Year 2000 computer issue, you expressed some concerns about the cost overruns and the federal government readiness.
Our two countries are in much better shape this year. But could you update us on your current thinking and what concerns you may have about the impact of the lesser readiness, internationally, on our company's revenues, supply chain, or on the stock market?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, last year I think I also told you I didn't really consider myself an expert on this. And what I tell you is just what I pick up from being on audit committees or talking to people who are a lot smarter than I am in this sort of area.
But that doesn't mean they're right on it. Because they weren't talking about it 15 years ago, when they should have been talking about it.
So I — my general feeling — and all secondhand — my general feeling is that the part of the world that we have to worry about is in pretty good shape.
It's cost a lot of money in various places. It's cost us a fair amount of money. But it’s — some companies, it's cost a terrific amount of money.
But I do not think it's going to be a big deal. And, I — you know, I could be wrong. And I'm less worried about it being a big deal today than I was a year ago.
You know, and Charlie, do you have anything to add?
CHARLIE MUNGER: No.
WARREN BUFFETT: Does that mean you think it's going to be less of a big deal than you thought a year ago?
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, it means I have nothing to add.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. (Laughter)
That's probably what I should have said in the first place.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 5. (Laughter)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. My name is Bob Brewer (PH). And I'm from down the road in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I just wanted to ask you how you think the continuing economic turmoil in Japan is likely to affect the global economy and the U.S. stock market over the next five to 10 years?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, Charlie and I are no good on those macro questions.
But I would say this: I mean, the Japan problem has been around, now — in financial markets and banking systems — has been around for some time now. So, I see no reason why it should have more impact on the rest of world now than it has had in the last few years. And I would say it's had certainly very little effect on the U.S. in the last few years.
It's not — it's no factor in our thinking at all, in terms of what we would buy or sell tomorrow morning. I mean, if we got offered a good business tomorrow — unless it was directly involved and its primary business was in Japan — but if it was a business in this country, that's not something that we would be thinking about. We would be thinking about the specifics of that business.
We don't really get too concerned about the things that come and go. I mean, in the end, if we're right about a business over a 10 or 20-year period — take See’s Candy.
We bought it in 1972. Look what happened in 1973 and 4, you know, and all the oil shocks and what this country was going through and inflation, all that sort of thing.
For us to — and let's say in 1972 somebody laid out a roadmap from 1972 to 1982, with the prime rate going to 21 1/2 percent, long-term rates going to 15 percent. And all of the things happening, the Dow going to 570 or what — or 560.
That wasn't the important thing. The important thing was that this peanut brittle tastes like it does, which is terrific. (Laughter)
And that over time, we could get a little more money for it. So, you know. See’s made $4 million, pretax, in 1972, when we bought it. It made 62 million last year.
It doesn't — we don't want to be thinking about the wrong things when we're buying businesses. And that applies to marketable securities, just as much as it does as when we're buying 100 percent of the business.
If we're right about the business, the macro factors aren't going to make any difference, you know. And if we're wrong about the business, macro factors are not going to bail us out.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, what I think is interesting in Japan is interesting to one, as a citizen.
Here's a major industrial country. And we understand all about Keynesian economics and everything else. And when it starts sliding down into a big recession, it just keeps going and going, and floundering, and staying down. And year follows year, and you take the interest rates down to practically zero, and you run a big budget deficit. The economy still stays down.
I think this has been very interesting to the economists of the world. I don't think any of them would've predicted that as modern a country as Japan could contract for as long as it did.
And I think the cause is related to the extremeness of its booms in both land prices and security prices, and the corruption in its accounting practices and in its regulation of financial system, including banks.
I think it's an interesting lesson for the world, of how important it is not to let a lot of slop get into the accounting and regulatory systems. And how a lot of folly in markets doesn't help, either.
WARREN BUFFETT: Sort of fascinating to, you know — people keep saying, "Why doesn't Japan stimulate?" Well, they got short-term rates down to zero. And long-term rates at 2 percent. Well, that should stimulate me. But — (laughter) — it doesn’t —
As Charlie says, it sort of defied, a little bit, some of the classical Keynesian theory on that. But in the '30s, we had the same problem in this country. We drove interest rates way down towards the latter half of the '30s, and —
CHARLIE MUNGER: And I would argue that probably the extreme prosperity in America is related to this so-called wealth effect, with stock markets going up and up. And I think people thought that was a smaller factor than maybe it is.
WARREN BUFFETT: Zone 6.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger. My name is Jeff Lilly (PH) from Denver, Colorado.
My question is as follows: over the last couple of years, I've read both of you quoted as not following the stock price on a day-to-day basis, not being terribly concerned about whether Berkshire is up or down.
You now have analyst coverage. Perhaps you requested it, or perhaps you acquiesced to it.
But my question is whether this reflects any change in your attention paid to the stock price or your philosophy about investor relations, and whether you think the analyst coverage is going to have any impact on the stock price going forward?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, no. It reflects no change in our attitude toward stock price. I mean, we are concerned about building the intrinsic value per share of Berkshire at the highest rate we can, consistent with a couple of other principles that we've set forth.
And we hope very much that the stock price stays in a zone that is not too wide around intrinsic value — that there's is going to be some zone of some sort, because intrinsic value itself is not precisely calculable. And in addition, you wouldn't expect it to track it penny for penny.
But we don't want it to go crazy in either direction in relation to intrinsic value.
When we made the deal with General Re, that attracted more analyst attention and institutional investor attention because General Re's shareholder base was overwhelmingly institutional.
So, institutions had to decide whether they were going to continue with their investment or clean it out. And we knew we would end up with more institutional ownership, subsequently.
Alice Schroeder asked me, prior to the merger meeting, she said there were a group of institutions that were coming to the meeting, which I liked. I mean, the fact that they were serious enough about their investment to come and see what Berkshire was all about.
And a few of them even had a requirement, I think, from their own boards that they, at least, have sat down with management. So, we spent — or I spent an hour or so with a group that she had put together and they came to Omaha.
But that's the last contact I've had with any institutional investor. And we will have no special meetings with institutional investors or anything. I mean, they are absolutely welcome to attend this meeting to get all of the information that’s dispensed.
I think it's very useful, frankly, to have an analyst or two that is well-versed in Berkshire and that thinks straight and does their homework. And that's a plus, because it means we don't have to do it.
And in effect, that if institutions want to talk to somebody about it, they don't call me. Because they're not going to have much luck calling me. And they can call Alice or some other analyst that wants to do it.
And that's perfect. We have a non-paid — it is not investor relations because that's thought of somebody as sort of pumping your stock — but at least we have a information office now — a non-paid information office.
And you know, that goes along the grain of my nature. (Laughter)
And we — people say, "Do you want individual owners? You want institutional owners?" What we want are informed owners who are in sync with our objectives, our measurements, our time horizons, all of that sort of thing.
I mean, we want people that are going to be comfortable owning Berkshire, and we don't want people who are owning it for reasons different — in a way different — that are different from our reasons for owning.
We don't want people that are concerned about quarterly earnings. We don't want people who are concerned about stock splits. We don't, you know — we don't want people that need to be pumped up about the stock, periodically.
It's just not of interest to us. Because it just means we have to keep living that way in the future. And it's not the way we want to live now, it's not the way we want to live in the future.
What we really want are a bunch of people, like we have in this audience, who sit down and read, and think and understand that they're making an investment. It's not just a little ticker symbol. They're buying part of a business. They know what the business is all about.
They know how we think, they know how we measure ourselves. They’re comfortable with that.
And they can come in individual or institutional form. And when we get them, we like to keep them.
So there's no change in our attitude about that. There is a change in coverage, in that we — there is some limited amount of coverage in Wall Street, which I guess for a company with a 110 or 20 billion of market value, there should be.
WARREN BUFFETT: We'll have one more question then we'll break for lunch. We'll go to zone 7. And after this question, we'll break. We'll come back in about 45 minutes or so, and those of you — as long as we see that everybody's gotten served with food in that time — and we'll — any of those who are offsite or over at the Holiday, I think, there are buses to bring you over, you can drive over, and there'll be plenty of room here. You can also go out and tour the Boeing business jet. We'll sell you as little as 50 hours a year, I believe, on it. So, take your wallets at lunch time. Yep?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. My name's Marc Rabinov from Melbourne, Australia.
I was wondering if you could help us out with the flight operations, which are now a large part of Berkshire. I think we're still putting a lot of capital into them.
I was wondering, you've pooled both of them together in the annual report. And I was hoping, perhaps, you could help us out with what return on equity you're expecting for each of those divisions.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, the more capital intensive is the flight safety operation. Because every simulator costs real money. And we will add a number of simulators each year.
So, flight safety — you can look at their figures before we acquired them, and it's reasonable to extrapolate those numbers out on a larger basis — base as we go along.
But flight safety's return on equity is not going to move up or down by a dramatic amount. I mean, our simulator training prices are related to the cost of the simulator. And so, there's not going to be way higher returns on equity, nor should there be way lower returns on equity.
There is a growth on the equity employed in the business, because it is a growing business and we're training more and more pilots every year. But that'll be a fairly steady thing.
The Executive Jet business is in an earlier part of its development, although it's the leader in its field, by far. But we're doing substantial investment spending in a place like Europe. And we'll be doing that on an accelerated pace, if anything.
In the end, though, our customers end up owning the plane. So, we have an investment in a core fleet of planes, which supplements the customer's planes.
But by its nature, it's not a capital-intensive business. We are moving around a lot of capital every day. We'll have 140 or so customer planes now and an aggregate, you know, just to pick a figure, that those planes are certainly worth a billion and a half or more.
And we've got 7 billion of planes on order, or some number like that. But we will sell those planes to our customers. So it could be, down the line, that it will be a business with a very good return on capital.
We'll still have an investment in the core fleet and we'll have some facilities — hanger facilities and that sort of thing. But our customers will have the big capital investment.
I should point out, they'll have a whole lot less capital investment if they own their entire plane themselves. So, they will be getting a bargain as well.
Let's take off for lunch. And I'll see you back here in about 45 minutes, those of you who wish to rejoin us. Thank you. (Applause)