Berkshire Hathaway 2014 Buffett Letter: Buy Businesses, Not Currency

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brklettersBerkshire Hathaway has released their 2014 Letter to Shareholders [pdf]. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Warren Buffett taking over the company (1965-2015), both Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger wrote separate letters discussing both the past 50 years and looking forward to the next 50 years. This is in addition to normal discussion of 2014 activities and performance.

As always, the letter is written in a straightforward and approachable fashion. Even if you aren’t interested in BRK stock at all, reading the letter is very educational for investors and business owners of any experience level. Highly recommend reading the entire thing.

In terms of investing advice for the individual investor, he talks about the difference between buying shares of businesses and buying “dollars”.

The unconventional, but inescapable, conclusion to be drawn from the past fifty years is that it has been far safer to invest in a diversified collection of American businesses than to invest in securities – Treasuries, for example – whose values have been tied to American currency. That was also true in the preceding half-century, a period including the Great Depression and two world wars. Investors should heed this history. To one degree or another it is almost certain to be repeated during the next century.

Stock prices will always be far more volatile than cash-equivalent holdings. Over the long term, however, currency-denominated instruments are riskier investments – far riskier investments – than widely-diversified stock portfolios that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions. That lesson has not customarily been taught in business schools, where volatility is almost universally used as a proxy for risk. Though this pedagogic assumption makes for easy teaching, it is dead wrong: Volatility is far from synonymous with risk. Popular formulas that equate the two terms lead students, investors and CEOs astray.

It is true, of course, that owning equities for a day or a week or a year is far riskier (in both nominal and purchasing-power terms) than leaving funds in cash-equivalents. […] For the great majority of investors, however, who can – and should – invest with a multi-decade horizon, quotational declines are unimportant. Their focus should remain fixed on attaining significant gains in purchasing power over their investing lifetime. For them, a diversified equity portfolio, bought over time, will prove far less risky than dollar-based securities.

One other tidbit that will surely be dissected by the media is that Charlie Munger hinted who would be the successor as CEO if/when Buffett were to step down. The two people named were Greb Abel, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, and Ajit Jain, who heads Berkshire’s reinsurance business. From Munger’s letter:

Provided that most of the Berkshire system remains in place, the combined momentum and opportunity now present is so great that Berkshire would almost surely remain a better-than-normal company for a very long time even if (1) Buffett left tomorrow, (2) his successors were persons of only moderate ability, and (3) Berkshire never again purchased a large business.

But, under this Buffett-soon-leaves assumption, his successors would not be “of only moderate ability.” For instance, Ajit Jain and Greg Abel are proven performers who would probably be under-described as “world-class.” “World-leading” would be the description I would choose. In some important ways, each is a better business executive than Buffett.

I would also point out this part from Buffett’s letter:

Our directors believe that our future CEOs should come from internal candidates whom the Berkshire board has grown to know well. Our directors also believe that an incoming CEO should be relatively young, so that he or she can have a long run in the job. Berkshire will operate best if its CEOs average well over ten years at the helm. (It’s hard to teach a new dog old tricks.) And they are not likely to retire at 65 either (or have you noticed?).

Greb Abel is 52 and Ajit Jain is 63. So my prediction would be Abel, the younger person. But really, the more important part of the letter is how they explain the structure and the culture of Berkshire will endure.

(I was surprised that Buffett also recommended AirBNB for booking a room for their annual meeting in Omaha.)

Shareholder letters from 1977 to 2014 are available free to all on the Berkshire Hathaway website. You can also now purchase all of the Shareholder letters from 1965 to 2013 for only $2.99 in Amazon Kindle format (~$22 paperback). Three bucks is a very reasonable price to have an approved copy forever stored in electronic format; you used to be able to find PDFs floating around on document-sharing sites, but it looks like they have reclaimed copyright protection on them.

If you missed it, last year’s letter discussed Buffett’s Simple Investment Advice to Wife After His Death.

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  1. I also like his pointed comment about volatility and risk not being the same thing, and how business education has led so many astray by equating the two.

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