In the other institutional bucket are professionals who manage their clients’ money, whether those funds belong to wealthy individuals, universities, pensioners or whomever. These professional managers have a mandate to move funds from one investment to another based on their judgment as to valuation and prospects. That is an honorable, though difficult, occupation.
We are happy to work for this “active” group, while they meanwhile search for a better place to deploy the funds of their clientele. Some managers, to be sure, have a long-term focus and trade very infrequently. Others use computers employing algorithms that may direct the purchase or sale of shares in a nano-second. Some professional investors will come and go based upon their macro-economic judgments.
Our fourth bucket consists of individual shareholders who operate in a manner similar to the active institutional managers I’ve just described. These owners, understandably, think of their Berkshire shares as a possible source of funds when they see another investment that excites them. We have no quarrel with that attitude, which is similar to the way we look at some of the equities we own at Berkshire.
All of that said, Charlie and I would be less than human if we did not feel a special kinship with our fifth bucket: the million-plus individual investors who simply trust us to represent their interests, whatever the future may bring. They have joined us with no intent to leave, adopting a mindset similar to that held by our original partners. Indeed, many investors from our partnership years, and/or their descendants, remain substantial owners of Berkshire.
A prototype of those veterans is Stan Truhlsen, a cheerful and generous Omaha ophthalmologist as well as personal friend, who turned 100 on November 13, 2020. In 1959, Stan, along with 10 other young Omaha doctors, formed a partnership with me. The docs creatively labeled their venture Emdee, Ltd. Annually, they joined my wife and me for a celebratory dinner at our home.
When our partnership distributed its Berkshire shares in 1969, all of the doctors kept the stock they received. They may not have known the ins and outs of investing or accounting, but they did know that at Berkshire they would be treated as partners.
Two of Stan’s comrades from Emdee are now in their high-90s and continue to hold Berkshire shares. This group’s startling durability – along with the fact that Charlie and I are 97 and 90, respectively – serves up an interesting question: Could it be that Berkshire ownership fosters longevity?
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Berkshire’s unusual and valued family of individual shareholders may add to your understanding of our reluctance to court Wall Street analysts and institutional investors. We already have the investors we want and don’t think that they, on balance, would be upgraded by replacements.
There are only so many seats – that is, shares outstanding – available for Berkshire ownership. And we very much like the people already occupying them.
Of course, some turnover in “partners” will occur. Charlie and I hope, however, that it will be minimal. Who, after all, seeks rapid turnover in friends, neighbors or marriage?
In 1958, Phil Fisher wrote a superb book on investing. In it, he analogized running a public company to managing a restaurant. If you are seeking diners, he said, you can attract a clientele and prosper featuring either hamburgers served with a Coke or a French cuisine accompanied by exotic wines. But you must not, Fisher warned, capriciously switch from one to the other: Your message to potential customers must be consistent with what they will find upon entering your premises.
At Berkshire, we have been serving hamburgers and Coke for 56 years. We cherish the clientele this fare has attracted.
The tens of millions of other investors and speculators in the United States and elsewhere have a wide variety of equity choices to fit their tastes. They will find CEOs and market gurus with enticing ideas. If they want price targets, managed earnings and “stories,” they will not lack suitors. “Technicians” will confidently instruct them as to what some wiggles on a chart portend for a stock’s next move. The calls for action will never stop.
Many of those investors, I should add, will do quite well. After all, ownership of stocks is very much a “positive-sum” game. Indeed, a patient and level-headed monkey, who constructs a portfolio by throwing 50 darts at a board listing all of the S&P 500, will – over time – enjoy dividends and capital gains, just as long as it never gets tempted to make changes in its original “selections.”
Productive assets such as farms, real estate and, yes, business ownership produce wealth – lots of it. Most owners of such properties will be rewarded. All that’s required is the passage of time, an inner calm, ample diversification and a minimization of transactions and fees. Still, investors must never forget that their expenses are Wall Street’s income. And, unlike my monkey, Wall Streeters do not work for peanuts.
When seats open up at Berkshire – and we hope they are few – we want them to be occupied by newcomers who understand and desire what we offer. After decades of management, Charlie and I remain unable to promise results. We can and do, however, pledge to treat you as partners.
And so, too, will our successors.
A Berkshire Number that May Surprise You
Recently, I learned a fact about our company that I had never suspected: Berkshire owns American-based property, plant and equipment – the sort of assets that make up the “business infrastructure” of our country – with a GAAP valuation exceeding the amount owned by any other U.S. company. Berkshire’s depreciated cost of these domestic “fixed assets” is $154 billion. Next in line on this list is AT&T, with property, plant and equipment of $127 billion.
Our leadership in fixed-asset ownership, I should add, does not, in itself, signal an investment triumph. The best results occur at companies that require minimal assets to conduct high-margin businesses – and offer goods or services that will expand their sales volume with only minor needs for additional capital. We, in fact, own a few of these exceptional businesses, but they are relatively small and, at best, grow slowly.
Asset-heavy companies, however, can be good investments. Indeed, we are delighted with our two giants – BNSF and BHE: In 2011, Berkshire’s first full year of BNSF ownership, the two companies had combined earnings of $4.2 billion. In 2020, a tough year for many businesses, the pair earned $8.3 billion.
BNSF and BHE will require major capital expenditures for decades to come. The good news is that both are likely to deliver appropriate returns on the incremental investment.
Let’s look first at BNSF. Your railroad carries about 15% of all non-local ton-miles (a ton of freight moved one mile) of goods that move in the United States, whether by rail, truck, pipeline, barge or aircraft. By a significant margin, BNSF’s loads top those of any other carrier.
The history of American railroads is fascinating. After 150 years or so of frenzied construction, skullduggery, overbuilding, bankruptcies, reorganizations and mergers, the railroad industry finally emerged a few decades ago as mature and rationalized.