Great Books Distilled: Books by History's Greatest Innovators, Founders, and Investors

The page is a reading list sharing the best books written by history's greatest innovators, founders, and investors. You’ll find more than 100 good books to read, organized by category. This is a reading list for people who don’t have time for unimportant books — which should be everyone. I only list the best books I've read and recommend. So you can be sure that each will be worth your time.

Great Books by Category

These are the best books to read, listed by category. Along with a few collections of rare and hard-to-find speeches, lectures, talks, interviews, letters, and memos that are a great way to go deeper.

All Book Summaries

For the best books that I read, I go through the painstaking effort to put together and publish my personal notes including highlights, excerpts, and takeaways. You get the best 5% of the ideas in these books in a form that takes 20 minutes at most to read.

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Daniel Scrivner

The Essays of Warren Buffett: Warren's Ideas from 50+ Years Grouped by Topic

Book Summary

This is my book summary of The Essays of Warren Buffett by Lawrence Cunningham. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.


Audio and Video Book Summary

On Outliers with Daniel Scrivner, I recorded a nearly 3 hour summary of The Essays of Warren Buffett. It explores business principles Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have used to build Berkshire Hathaway, the unique culture they've built, and deep analysis of how they think about valuations, investing, and incentives. For more, read through the full show notes and transcript for Part 1 and Part 2 of my book summary.

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Overview

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” — Francis Bacon (The Essays of Francis Bacon, 1696)

If you've ever wanted to read through all of Warren Buffett's shareholder letters, you really have two choices: read every from cover-to-cover letter separately OR read through the best advice from over the years grouped into clear categories ranging from Investing to Acquisitions to Taxation. Having done both I can guarantee you that reading through the best wisdom arranged by category is much more fun and insightful. You don't just get Warren's thoughts on Investing for instance from one shareholder letter — you get his best ideas from every letter.

All the letters are woven together into a fabric that reads as a complete and coherent narrative of a sound business and investment philosophy.

What Lawrence Cunningham has created with The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America is remarkable. I'd argue that reading it in its entirety is just as valuable as getting an MBA. It contains all of the best advice that Warren Buffett has shared over the years — all hard fought and won from real-world experience. This isn't a book about theory, it's a book about wisdom gained from decades of practices.

As Lawrence Cunningham sums up in the introduction, "Experienced readers of Warren Buffett's letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway have gained an enormously valuable informal education."


The Book in Three Sentences

For the last 45+ years, Warren Buffett has published the most widely read annual letter in human history for Berkshire Hathaway. In them he's shared a wealth of wisdom, all won from first-hand experience, on everything from investing in the stock market, to how CEOs should be compensated, to Berkshire Hathaway's most important business principles. In The Essays of Warren Buffett, Lawrence Cunningham has grouped Warren's letters from over the years into categories ranging from Governance to Acquisitions to Valuation.


A Short Primer on Berkshire Hathaway

For those asking, "Why is it worth studying Warren Buffett's shareholder letters?" The answer lies in what Berkshire Hathaway has built over the last 50+ years.

In the introduction, Lawrence Cunningham lays out the size and scale of Berkshire Hathaway’s operations and investments in just a few short paragraphs. It’s a staggering description given Berkshire Hathaway has been built in just a few decades from a failing textile business.

Buffett took the helm of Berkshire in 1965, when its book value per share was $19.46 and its intrinsic value per share far lower. Today, its book value per share exceeds $200,000 and its intrinsic value far higher. The growth rate in book value per share during that period is about 19% compounded annually.

Berkshire is now a holding company engaged in 80 distinct business lines. Berkshire's most important business is insurance, carried on through various companies including its 100% owned subsidiary, GEICO Corporation, among the largest auto insurers in the United States, and General Re Corporation, one of the largest reinsurers in the world. In 2010, Berkshire acquired Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, among the largest railroads in North America, and has long owned and operated large energy companies.

Some Berkshire subsidiaries are massive: ten would be included in the Fortune 500 if they were stand-alone companies. Its other interests are so vast that, as Buffett writes: "when you are looking at Berkshire, you are looking across corporate America."

Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger built this sprawling enterprise by investing in businesses with excellent economic characteristics and run by outstanding managers. While they prefer negotiated acquisitions of 100% of such a business at a fair price, they take a "double-barreled approach" of buying on the open market less than 100% of some businesses when they can do so at a pro-rata price well below what it would take to buy 100%.

Berkshire's value can be approximated by first segmenting the whole into five separate elements, which Buffett refers to as the groves of Berkshire's forest:

- Some dozen insurance companies whose operations generate abundant investable funds (low-cost liabilities called float), as of late running to $115 billion, which support the four asset groves.

- Scores of operating subsidiaries, including a dozen of America's largest companies, most wholly owned, worth some $300 billion.

- A concentrated selection of common stock investments representing sizable ownership percentages in major American companies, worth nearly $200 billion.

- Holdings in U.S. Treasuries and other cash equivalents, lately exceeding $100 billion.

- And a handful of investment partnerships, such as Berkadia (with Leucadia National) and partial ownership of Kraft Heinz, together worth perhaps $15 billion.

Berkshire might be fairly valued by summing such asset groves minus the insurance float (and less an estimate for deferred taxes on the sale of assets). But an additional element of value arises from housing the groves under one corporate canopy. These include value from the low cost of funds, flexible capital allocation, reduced corporate risk, minuscule overhead, tax efficiencies, and a distinct corporate culture.

According to Buffett, these results follow not from any master plan but from focused investing — allocating capital by concentrating on businesses with outstanding economic characteristics and run by first-rate managers.

Buffett views Berkshire as a partnership among him, Munger and other shareholders, and virtually all his net worth is in Berkshire stock. His economic goal is long-term—to maximize Berkshire's per share intrinsic value by owning all or part of a diversified group of businesses that generate cash and above-average returns. In achieving this goal, Buffett foregoes expansion for the sake of expansion and foregoes divestment of businesses so long as they generate some cash and have good management.

Berkshire retains and reinvests earnings when doing so delivers at least proportional increases in per share market value over time. It uses debt sparingly and sells equity only when it receives as much in value as it gives. Buffett penetrates accounting conventions, especially those that obscure real economic earnings.

These owner-related business principles, as Buffett calls them, are the organizing themes of the accompanying essays. As organized, the essays constitute an elegant and instructive manual on management, investment, finance, and accounting. Buffett's basic principles form the framework for a rich range of positions on the wide variety of issues that exist in all aspects of business. They go far beyond mere abstract platitudes. It is true that investors should focus on fundamentals, be patient, and exercise good judgment based on common sense. In Buffett's essays, these advisory tidbits are anchored in the more concrete principles by which Buffett lives and thrives.

Buffett on Berkshire Hathaway’s Culture

Berkshire is now a sprawling conglomerate, constantly trying to sprawl further. Conglomerates, it should be acknowledged, have a terrible reputation. And they richly deserve it. Let me first explain why they are in the doghouse, and then I will go on to describe why the conglomerate form brings huge and enduring advantages to Berkshire.

Since I entered the business world, conglomerates have enjoyed several periods of extreme popularity, the silliest of which occurred in the late 1960s. The drill for conglomerate CEOs then was simple: By personality, promotion or dubious accounting—and often by all three—these managers drove a fledgling conglomerate's stock to, say, 20 times earnings and then issued shares as fast as possible to acquire another business selling at ten-or-so times earnings. They immediately applied “pooling” accounting to the acquisition, which—with not a dime's worth of change in the underlying businesses—automatically increased per-share earnings, and used the rise as proof of managerial genius. They next explained to investors that this sort of talent justified the maintenance, or even the enhancement, of the acquirer's p/e multiple. And, finally, they promised to endlessly repeat this procedure and thereby create ever-increasing per-share earnings.

Wall Street's love affair with this hocus-pocus intensified as the 1960s rolled by. The Street's denizens are always ready to suspend disbelief when dubious maneuvers are used to manufacture rising per-share earnings, particularly if these acrobatics produce mergers that generate huge fees for investment bankers. Auditors willingly sprinkled their holy water on the conglomerates' accounting and sometimes even made suggestions as to how to further juice the numbers. For many, gushers of easy money washed away ethical sensitivities.

Since the per-share earnings gains of an expanding conglomerate came from exploiting p/e differences, its CEO had to search for businesses selling at low multiples of earnings. These, of course, were characteristically mediocre businesses with poor long-term prospects. This incentive to bottom-fish usually led to a conglomerate's collection of underlying businesses becoming ever junkier. That mattered little to investors: It was deal velocity and pooling accounting they looked to for increased earnings.

The resulting firestorm of merger activity was fanned by an adoring press. Companies such as ITT, Litton Industries, Gulf & Western, and LTV were lionized, and their CEOs became celebrities. (These once-famous conglomerates are now long gone. As Yogi Berra said, “Every Napoleon meets his Watergate.”) Back then, accounting shenanigans of all sorts—many of them ridiculously transparent—were excused or overlooked. Indeed, having an accounting wizard at the helm of an expanding conglomerate was viewed as a huge plus: Shareholders in those instances could be sure that reported earnings would never disappoint, no matter how bad the operating realities of the business might become.

In the late 1960s, I attended a meeting at which an acquisitive CEO bragged of his “bold, imaginative accounting.” Most of the analysts listening responded with approving nods, seeing themselves as having found a manager whose forecasts were certain to be met, whatever the business results might be. Eventually, however, the clock struck twelve, and everything turned to pumpkins and mice. Once again, it became evident that business models based on the serial issuances of overpriced shares—just like chain-letter models—most assuredly redistribute wealth, but in no way create it. Both phenomena, nevertheless, periodically blossom in our country—they are every promoter's dream—though often they appear in a carefully-crafted disguise. The ending is always the same: Money flows from the gullible to the fraudster. And with stocks, unlike chain letters, the sums hijacked can be staggering.

So what do Charlie and I find so attractive about Berkshire's conglomerate structure? To put the case simply: If the conglomerate form is used judiciously, it is an ideal structure for maximizing long-term capital growth. One of the heralded virtues of capitalism is that it efficiently allocates funds. The argument is that markets will direct investment to promising businesses and deny it to those destined to wither. That is true: With all its excesses, market-driven allocation of capital is usually far superior to any alternative.

Nevertheless, there are often obstacles to the rational movement of capital. A CEO with capital employed in a declining operation seldom elects to massively redeploy that capital into unrelated activities. A move of that kind would usually require that long-time associates be fired and mistakes be admitted. Moreover, it's unlikely that CEO would be the manager you would wish to handle the redeployment job even if he or she was inclined to undertake it.

At the shareholder level, taxes and frictional costs weigh heavily on individual investors when they attempt to reallocate capital among businesses and industries. Even tax-free institutional investors face major costs as they move capital because they usually need intermediaries to do this job. A lot of mouths with expensive tastes then clamor to be fed—among them investment bankers, accountants, consultants, lawyers and such capital-reallocators as leveraged buyout operators. Money-shufflers don't come cheap.

In contrast, a conglomerate such as Berkshire is perfectly positioned to allocate capital rationally and at minimal cost. Of course, form itself is no guarantee of success: We have made plenty of mistakes, and we will make more. Our structural advantages, however, are formidable.

At Berkshire, we can—without incurring taxes or much in the way of other costs—move huge sums from businesses that have limited opportunities for incremental investment to other sectors with greater promise. Moreover, we are free of historical biases created by lifelong association with a given industry and are not subject to pressures from colleagues having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That's important: If horses had controlled investment decisions, there would have been no auto industry.

Another major advantage we possess is the ability to buy pieces of wonderful businesses—a.k.a. common stocks. That's not a course of action open to most managements. Over our history, this strategic alternative has proved to be very helpful; a broad range of options sharpens decision-making. The businesses we are offered by the stock market every day—in small pieces, to be sure—are often far more attractive than the businesses we are concurrently being offered in their entirety. Additionally, the gains we've realized from marketable securities have helped us make certain large acquisitions that would otherwise have been beyond our financial capabilities.

In effect, the world is Berkshire's oyster—a world offering us a range of opportunities far beyond those realistically open to most companies. We are limited, of course, to businesses whose economic prospects we can evaluate. And that's a serious limitation: Charlie and I have no idea what a great many companies will look like ten years from now. But that limitation is much smaller than that borne by an executive whose experience has been confined to a single industry. On top of that, we can profitably scale to a far larger size than the many businesses that are constrained by the limited potential of the single industry in which they operate.

Berkshire has one further advantage that has become increasingly important over the years: We are now the home of choice for the owners and managers of many outstanding businesses. Families that own successful businesses have multiple options when they contemplate sale. Frequently, the best decision is to do nothing. There are worse things in life than having a prosperous business that one understands well. But sitting tight is seldom recommended by Wall Street. (Don't ask the barber whether you need a haircut.)

When one part of a family wishes to sell while others wish to continue, a public offering often makes sense. But, when owners wish to cash out entirely, they usually consider one of two paths. The first is sale to a competitor who is salivating at the possibility of wringing “synergies” from the combining of the two companies. This buyer invariably contemplates getting rid of large numbers of the seller's associates, the very people who have helped the owner build his business. A caring owner, however—and there are plenty of them—usually does not want to leave his long-time associates sadly singing the old country song: “She got the goldmine, I got the shaft.”

The second choice for sellers is the Wall Street buyer. For some years, these purchasers accurately called themselves “leveraged buyout firms.” When that term got a bad name in the early 1990s—remember RJR and Barbarians at the Gate?—these buyers hastily relabeled themselves “private-equity.” The name may have changed but that was all: Equity is dramatically reduced and debt is piled on in virtually all private-equity purchases. Indeed, the amount that a private-equity purchaser offers to the seller is in part determined by the buyer assessing the maximum amount of debt that can be placed on the acquired company.

Later, if things go well and equity begins to build, leveraged buy-out shops will often seek to re-leverage with new borrowings. They then typically use part of the proceeds to pay a huge dividend that drives equity sharply downward, sometimes even to a negative figure. In truth, “equity” is a dirty word for many private-equity buyers; what they love is debt. And, when interest rates are very low, these buyers can frequently pay top dollar. Later, the business will be resold, often to another leveraged buyer. In effect, the business becomes a piece of merchandise.

Berkshire offers a third choice to the business owner who wishes to sell: a permanent home, in which the company's people and culture will be retained (though, occasionally, management changes will be needed). Beyond that, any business we acquire dramatically increases its financial strength and ability to grow. Its days of dealing with banks and Wall Street analysts are also forever ended. Some sellers don't care about these matters. But, when sellers do, Berkshire does not have a lot of competition.

Sometimes pundits propose that Berkshire spin-off certain of its businesses. These suggestions make no sense. Our companies are worth more as part of Berkshire than as separate entities. One reason is our ability to move funds between businesses or into new ventures instantly and without tax. In addition, certain costs duplicate themselves, in full or part, if operations are separated. Here's the most obvious example: Berkshire incurs nominal costs for its single board of directors; were our dozens of subsidiaries to be split off, the overall cost for directors would soar. So, too, would regulatory and administration expenditures.

Finally, there are sometimes important tax efficiencies for Subsidiary A because we own Subsidiary B. For example, certain tax credits that are available to our utilities are currently realizable only because we generate huge amounts of taxable income at other Berkshire operations. That gives Berkshire Hathaway Energy a major advantage over most public-utility companies in developing wind and solar projects.

Investment bankers, being paid as they are for action, constantly urge acquirers to pay 20% to 50% premiums over market price for publicly-held businesses. The bankers tell the buyer that the premium is justified for “control value” and for the wonderful things that are going to happen once the acquirer's CEO takes charge. (What acquisition-hungry manager will challenge that assertion?)

A few years later, bankers—bearing straight faces—again appear and just as earnestly urge spinning off the earlier acquisition in order to “unlock shareholder value.” Spin-offs, of course, strip the owning company of its purported “control value” without any compensating payment. The bankers explain that the spun-off company will flourish because its management will be more entrepreneurial, having been freed from the smothering bureaucracy of the parent company. (So much for that talented CEO we met earlier.)

If the divesting company later wishes to reacquire the spun-off operation, it presumably would again be urged by its bankers to pay a hefty “control” premium for the privilege. (Mental “flexibility” of this sort by the banking fraternity has prompted the saying that fees too often lead to transactions rather than transactions leading to fees.)

It's possible, of course, that someday a spin-off or sale at Berkshire would be required by regulators. Berkshire carried out such a spin-off in 1979, when new regulations for bank holding companies forced us to divest a bank we owned in Rockford, Illinois.

Voluntary spin-offs, though, make no sense for us: We would lose control value, capital-allocation flexibility and, in some cases, important tax advantages. The CEOs who brilliantly run our subsidiaries now would have difficulty in being as effective if running a spun-off operation, given the operating and financial advantages derived from Berkshire's ownership. Moreover, the parent and the spun-off operations, once separated, would likely incur moderately greater costs than existed when they were combined.

This sums up the advantages Berkshire Hathaway has accrued over 50+ years of operating nicely:

Today Berkshire possesses (1) an unmatched collection of businesses, most of them now enjoying favorable economic prospects; (2) a cadre of outstanding managers who, with few exceptions, are unusually devoted to both the subsidiary they operate and to Berkshire; (3) an extraordinary diversity of earnings, premier financial strength and oceans of liquidity that we will maintain under all circumstances; (4) a first-choice ranking among many owners and managers who are contemplating sale of their businesses; and (5) in a point related to the preceding item, a culture, distinctive in many ways from that of most large companies, that we have worked 50 years to develop and that is now rock-solid. These strengths provide us a wonderful foundation on which to build.

Warren Buffett continues with a look at the road ahead:

Now let's take a look at the road ahead. Bear in mind that if I had attempted 50 years ago to gauge what was coming, certain of my predictions would have been far off the mark. With that warning, I will tell you what I would say to my family today if they asked me about Berkshire's future.

First and definitely foremost, I believe that the chance of permanent capital loss for patient Berkshire shareholders is as low as can be found among single-company investments. That's because our per-share intrinsic business value is almost certain to advance over time.

This cheery prediction comes, however, with an important caution: If an investor's entry point into Berkshire stock is unusually high—at a price, say, approaching double book value, which Berkshire shares have occasionally reached—it may well be many years before the investor can realize a profit. In other words, a sound investment can morph into a rash speculation if it is bought at an elevated price. Berkshire is not exempt from this truth.

Purchases of Berkshire that investors make at a price modestly above the level at which the company would repurchase its shares, however, should produce gains within a reasonable period of time. Berkshire's directors will only authorize repurchases at a price they believe to be well below intrinsic value. (In our view, that is an essential criterion for repurchases that is often ignored by other managements.)

For those investors who plan to sell within a year or two after their purchase, I can offer no assurances, whatever the entry price. Movements of the general stock market during such abbreviated periods will likely be far more important in determining your results than the concomitant change in the intrinsic value of your Berkshire shares. Since I know of no way to reliably predict market movements, I recommend that you purchase Berkshire shares only if you expect to hold them for at least five years. Those who seek short-term profits should look elsewhere.

Another warning: Berkshire shares should not be purchased with borrowed money. There have been three times since 1965 when our stock has fallen about 50% from its high point. Someday, something close to this kind of drop will happen again, and no one knows when. Berkshire will almost certainly be a satisfactory holding for investors. But it could well be a disastrous choice for speculators employing leverage.

I believe the chance of any event causing Berkshire to experience financial problems is essentially zero. We will always be prepared for the thousand-year flood; in fact, if it occurs we will be selling life jackets to the unprepared. Berkshire played an important role as a “first responder” during the 2008-2009 meltdown, and we have since more than doubled the strength of our balance sheet and our earnings potential. Your company is the Gibraltar of American business and will remain so.

Financial staying power requires a company to maintain three strengths under all circumstances: (1) a large and reliable stream of earnings; (2) massive liquid assets; and (3) no significant near-term cash requirements. Ignoring that last necessity is what usually leads companies to experience unexpected problems: Too often, CEOs of profitable companies feel they will always be able to refund maturing obligations, however large these are. In 2008-2009, many managements learned how perilous that mindset can be.

Here's how we will always stand on the three essentials. First, our earnings stream is huge and comes from a vast array of businesses. Our shareholders now own many large companies that have durable competitive advantages, and we will acquire more of those in the future. Our diversification assures Berkshire's continued profitability, even if a catastrophe causes insurance losses that far exceed any previously experienced.

Next up is cash. At a healthy business, cash is sometimes thought of as something to be minimized—as an unproductive asset that acts as a drag on such markers as return on equity. Cash, though, is to a business as oxygen is to an individual: never thought about when it is present, the only thing in mind when it is absent.

American business provided a case study of that in 2008. In September of that year, many long-prosperous companies suddenly wondered whether their checks would bounce in the days ahead. Overnight, their financial oxygen disappeared. At Berkshire, our “breathing” went uninterrupted. Indeed, in a three-week period spanning late September and early October, we supplied $15.6 billion of fresh money to American businesses. We could do that because we always maintain at least $20 billion—and usually far more—in cash equivalents. And by that we mean U.S. Treasury bills, not other substitutes for cash that are claimed to deliver liquidity and actually do so, except when it is truly needed. When bills come due, only cash is legal tender. Don't leave home without it.

Finally—getting to our third point—we will never engage in operating or investment practices that can result in sudden demands for large sums. That means we will not expose Berkshire to short-term debt maturities of size nor enter into derivative contracts or other business arrangements that could require large collateral calls.

Some years ago, we became a party to certain derivative contracts that we believed were significantly mispriced and that had only minor collateral requirements. These have proved to be quite profitable. Recently, however, newly-written derivative contracts have required full collateralization. And that ended our interest in derivatives, regardless of what profit potential they might offer. We have not, for some years, written these contracts, except for a few needed for operational purposes at our utility businesses.

Moreover, we will not write insurance contracts that give policyholders the right to cash out at their option. Many life insurance products contain redemption features that make them susceptible to a “run” in times of extreme panic. Contracts of that sort, however, do not exist in the property-casualty world that we inhabit. If our premium volume should shrink, our float would decline—but only at a very slow pace.

The reason for our conservatism, which may impress some people as extreme, is that it is entirely predictable that people will occasionally panic, but not at all predictable when this will happen. Though practically all days are relatively uneventful, tomorrow is always uncertain. (I felt no special apprehension on December 6, 1941 or September 10, 2001.) And if you can't predict what tomorrow will bring, you must be prepared for whatever it does.

A CEO who is 64 and plans to retire at 65 may have his own special calculus in evaluating risks that have only a tiny chance of happening in a given year. He may, in fact, be “right” 99% of the time. Those odds, however, hold no appeal for us. We will never play financial Russian roulette with the funds you've entrusted to us, even if the metaphorical gun has 100 chambers and only one bullet. In our view, it is madness to risk losing what you need in pursuing what you simply desire.

Despite our conservatism, I think we will be able every year to build the underlying per-share earning power of Berkshire. That does not mean operating earnings will increase each year—far from it. The U.S. economy will ebb and flow—though mostly flow—and, when it weakens, so will our current earnings. But we will continue to achieve organic gains, make bolt-on acquisitions and enter new fields. I believe, therefore, that Berkshire will annually add to its underlying earning power.

In some years the gains will be substantial, and at other times they will be minor. Markets, competition, and chance will determine when opportunities come our way. Through it all, Berkshire will keep moving forward, powered by the array of solid businesses we now possess and the new companies we will purchase. In most years, moreover, our country's economy will provide a strong tailwind for business. We are blessed to have the United States as our home field.

The bad news is that Berkshire's long-term gains—measured by percentages, not by dollars—cannot be dramatic and will not come close to those achieved in the past 50 years. The numbers have become too big. I think Berkshire will outperform the average American company, but our advantage, if any, won't be great.

Eventually—probably between ten and twenty years from now—Berkshire's earnings and capital resources will reach a level that will not allow management to intelligently reinvest all of the company's earnings. At that time our directors will need to determine whether the best method to distribute the excess earnings is through dividends, share repurchases or both. If Berkshire shares are selling below intrinsic business value, massive repurchases will almost certainly be the best choice. You can be comfortable that your directors will make the right decision.

No company will be more shareholder-minded than Berkshire. For more than 30 years, we have annually reaffirmed our Shareholder Principles (reprinted in the Prologue), always leading off with: “Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership.” This covenant with you is etched in stone. We have an extraordinarily knowledgeable and business-oriented board of directors ready to carry out that promise of partnership.

To further ensure continuation of our culture, I have suggested that my son, Howard, succeed me as a non-executive Chairman. My only reason for this wish is to make change easier if the wrong CEO should ever be employed and there occurs a need for the Chairman to move forcefully. I can assure you that this problem has a very low probability of arising at Berkshire—likely as low as at any public company. In my service on the boards of nineteen public companies, however, I've seen how hard it is to replace a mediocre CEO if that person is also Chairman. (The deed usually gets done, but almost always very late.)

If elected, Howard will receive no pay and will spend no time at the job other than that required of all directors. He will simply be a safety valve to whom any director can go if he or she has concerns about the CEO and wishes to learn if other directors are expressing doubts as well. Should multiple directors be apprehensive, Howard's chairmanship will allow the matter to be promptly and properly addressed.

Choosing the right CEO is all-important and is a subject that commands much time at Berkshire board meetings. Managing Berkshire is primarily a job of capital allocation, coupled with the selection and retention of outstanding managers to captain our operating subsidiaries. Obviously, the job also requires the replacement of a subsidiary's CEO when that is called for. These duties require Berkshire's CEO to be a rational, calm and decisive individual who has a broad understanding of business and good insights into human behavior. It's important as well that he knows his limits.

Character is crucial: A Berkshire CEO must be “all in” for the company, not for himself. (I'm using male pronouns to avoid awkward wording, but gender should never decide who becomes CEO.) He can't help but earn money far in excess of any possible need for it. But it's important that neither ego nor avarice motivate him to reach for pay matching his most lavishly-compensated peers, even if his achievements far exceed theirs. A CEO's behavior has a huge impact on managers down the line: If it's clear to them that shareholders' interests are paramount to him, they will, with few exceptions, also embrace that way of thinking.

My successor will need one other particular strength: the ability to fight off the ABCs of business decay, which are arrogance, bureaucracy and complacency. When these corporate cancers metastasize, even the strongest of companies can falter. The examples available to prove the point are legion, but to maintain friendships I will exhume only cases from the distant past.

In their glory days, General Motors, IBM, Sears Roebuck and U.S. Steel sat atop huge industries. Their strengths seemed unassailable. But the destructive behavior I deplored above eventually led each of them to fall to depths that their CEOs and directors had not long before thought impossible. Their one-time financial strength and their historical earning power proved no defense.

Only a vigilant and determined CEO can ward off such debilitating forces as Berkshire grows ever larger. He must never forget Charlie's plea: “Tell me where I'm going to die, so I'll never go there.” If our non-economic values were to be lost, much of Berkshire's economic value would collapse as well. “Tone at the top” will be key to maintaining Berkshire's special culture.

Fortunately, the structure our future CEOs will need to be successful is firmly in place. The extraordinary delegation of authority now existing at Berkshire is the ideal antidote to bureaucracy. In an operating sense, Berkshire is not a giant company but rather a collection of large companies. At headquarters, we have never had a committee nor have we ever required our subsidiaries to submit budgets (though many use them as an important internal tool). We don't have a legal office nor departments that other companies take for granted: human relations, public relations, investor relations, strategy, acquisitions, you name it.

We do, of course, have an active audit function; no sense being a damned fool. To an unusual degree, however, we trust our managers to run their operations with a keen sense of stewardship. After all, they were doing exactly that before we acquired their businesses. With only occasional exceptions, furthermore, our trust produces better results than would be achieved by streams of directives, endless reviews and layers of bureaucracy. Charlie and I try to interact with our managers in a manner consistent with what we would wish for, if the positions were reversed.

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?).

In both Berkshire's business acquisitions and large, tailored investment moves, it is important that our counterparties be both familiar with and feel comfortable with Berkshire's CEO. Developing confidence of that sort and cementing relationships takes time. The payoff, though, can be huge. Both the board and I believe we now have the right person to succeed me as CEO—a successor ready to assume the job the day after I die or step down. In certain important respects, this person will do a better job than I am doing.

Investments will always be of great importance to Berkshire and will be handled by several specialists. They will report to the CEO because their investment decisions, in a broad way, will need to be coordinated with Berkshire's operating and acquisition programs. Overall, though, our investment managers will enjoy great autonomy. In this area, too, we are in fine shape for decades to come.

All told, Berkshire is ideally positioned for life after Charlie and I leave the scene. We have the right people in place—the right directors, managers and prospective successors to those managers. Our culture, furthermore, is embedded throughout their ranks. Our system is also regenerative. To a large degree, both good and bad cultures self-select to perpetuate themselves. For very good reasons, business owners and operating managers with values similar to ours will continue to be attracted to Berkshire as a one-of-a-kind and permanent home.

The above was initially published in 2014 as part of the 50th Anniversary section of the Shareholder Letter.


Owner-Related Business Principles

In 1983, Warren Buffett wrote down what he calls Berkshire's "Owner-Related Business Principles" which serve as a sort of Owner's Manual. While originally published in 1983, it was shared annually from 1988 to 2017 with occasional modifications. The version below is from 1996. It lays the 15 principles Berkshire Hathaway follows in its approach to operating and communicating with shareholders.

In some ways, our shareholder group is a rather unusual one, and this affects our manner of reporting to you. For example, at the end of each year about 98% of the shares outstanding are held by people who also were shareholders at the beginning of the year. Therefore, in our annual report we build upon what we have told you in previous years instead of restating a lot of material. You get more useful information this way, and we don't get bored.

Furthermore, perhaps 90% of our shares are owned by investors for whom Berkshire is their largest security holding, very often far and away the largest. Many of these owners are willing to spend a significant amount of time with the annual report, and we attempt to provide them with the same information we would find useful if the roles were reversed.

In contrast, we include no narrative with our quarterly reports. Our owners and managers both have very long time-horizons in regard to this business, and it is difficult to say anything new or meaningful each quarter about events of long-term significance.

But when you do receive a communication from us, it will come from the fellow you are paying to run the business. Your Chairman has a firm belief that owners are entitled to hear directly from the CEO as to what is going on and how he evaluates the business, currently and prospectively. You would demand that in a private company; you should expect no less in a public company. A once-a-year report of stewardship should not be turned over to a staff specialist or public relations consultant who is unlikely to be in a position to talk frankly on a manager-to-owner basis.

We feel that you, as owners, are entitled to the same sort of reporting by your managers as we feel is owed to us at Berkshire Hathaway by managers of our business units. Obviously, the degree of detail must be different, particularly where information would be useful to a business competitor or the like. But the general scope, balance, and level of candor should be similar. We don't expect a public relations document when our operating managers tell us what is going on, and we don't feel you should receive such a document.

In large part, companies obtain the shareholder constituency that they seek and deserve. If they focus their thinking and communications on short-term results or short-term stock market consequences they will, in large part, attract shareholders who focus on the same factors. And if they are cynical in their treatment of investors, eventually that cynicism is highly likely to be returned by the investment community.

Phil Fisher, a respected investor and author, once likened the policies of the corporation in attracting shareholders to those of a restaurant attracting potential customers. A restaurant could seek a given clientele—patrons of fast foods, elegant dining, Oriental food, etc.—and eventually obtain an appropriate group of devotees. If the job were expertly done, that clientele, pleased with the service, menu, and price level offered, would return consistently. But the restaurant could not change its character constantly and end up with a happy and stable clientele. If the business vacillated between French cuisine and take-out chicken, the result would be a revolving door of confused and dissatisfied customers.

So it is with corporations and the shareholder constituency they seek. You can't be all things to all people, simultaneously seeking different owners whose primary interests run from high current yield to long-term capital growth to stock market pyrotechnics, etc.

The reasoning of managements that seek large trading activity in their shares puzzles us. In effect, such managements are saying that they want a good many of the existing clientele continually to desert them in favor of new ones—because you can't add lots of new owners (with new expectations) without losing lots of former owners.

We much prefer owners who like our service and menu and who return year after year. It would be hard to find a better group to sit in the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder “seats” than those already occupying them. So we hope to continue to have a very low turnover among our owners, reflecting a constituency that understands our operation, approves of our policies, and shares our expectations. And we hope to deliver on those expectations.

(1) Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership. Charlie Munger and I think of our shareholders as owner-partners, and of ourselves as managing partners. (Because of the size of our shareholdings we are also, for better or worse, controlling partners.) We do not view the company itself as the ultimate owner of our business assets but instead view the company as a conduit through which our shareholders own the assets.

Charlie and I hope that you do not think of yourself as merely owning a piece of paper whose price wiggles around daily and that is a candidate for sale when some economic or political event makes you nervous. We hope you instead visualize yourself as a part owner of a business that you expect to stay with indefinitely, much as you might if you owned a farm or apartment house in partnership with members of your family. For our part, we do not view Berkshire shareholders as faceless members of an ever-shifting crowd, but rather as co-venturers who have entrusted their funds to us for what may well turn out to be the remainder of their lives.

The evidence suggests that most Berkshire shareholders have indeed embraced this long-term partnership concept. The annual percentage turnover in Berkshire's shares is a fraction of that occurring in the stocks of other major American corporations, even when the shares I own are excluded from the calculation.

In effect, our shareholders behave in respect to their Berkshire stock much as Berkshire itself behaves in respect to companies in which it has an investment. As owners of, say, Coca-Cola or American Express shares, we think of Berkshire as being a nonmanaging partner in two extraordinary businesses, in which we measure our success by the long-term progress of the companies rather than by the month-to-month movements of their stocks. In fact, we would not care in the least if several years went by in which there was no trading, or quotation of prices, in the stocks of those companies. If we have good long-term expectations, short-term price changes are meaningless for us except to the extent they offer us an opportunity to increase our ownership at an attractive price.

(2) In line with Berkshire's owner-orientation, most of our directors have a significant portion of their net worth invested in the company. We eat our own cooking.

Charlie's family has the majority of its net worth in Berkshire shares; I have more than 98%. In addition, many of my relatives—my sisters and cousins, for example—keep a huge portion of their net worth in Berkshire stock.

Charlie and I feel totally comfortable with this eggs-in-one-basket situation because Berkshire itself owns a wide variety of truly extraordinary businesses. Indeed, we believe that Berkshire is close to being unique in the quality and diversity of the businesses in which it owns either a controlling interest or a minority interest of significance.

Charlie and I cannot promise you results. But we can guarantee that your financial fortunes will move in lockstep with ours for whatever period of time you elect to be our partner. We have no interest in large salaries or options or other means of gaining an “edge” over you. We want to make money only when our partners do and in exactly the same proportion. Moreover, when I do something dumb, I want you to be able to derive some solace from the fact that my financial suffering is proportional to yours.

(3) Our long-term economic goal (subject to some qualifications mentioned later) is to maximize Berkshire's average annual rate of gain in intrinsic business value on a per-share basis. We do not measure the economic significance or performance of Berkshire by its size; we measure by per-share progress. We are certain that the rate of per-share progress will diminish in the future—a greatly enlarged capital base will see to that. But we will be disappointed if our rate does not exceed that of the average large American corporation.

(4) Our preference would be to reach our goal by directly owning a diversified group of businesses that generate cash and consistently earn above-average returns on capital. Our second choice is to own parts of similar businesses, attained primarily through purchases of marketable common stocks by our insurance subsidiaries. The price and availability of businesses and the need for insurance capital determine any given year's capital allocation.

In recent years, we have made a number of acquisitions. Though there will be dry years, we expect to make many more in the decades to come, and our hope is that they will be large. If these purchases approach the quality of those we have made in the past, Berkshire will be well served.

The challenge for us is to generate ideas as rapidly as we generate cash. In this respect, a depressed stock market is likely to present us with significant advantages. For one thing, it tends to reduce the prices at which entire companies become available for purchase. Second, a depressed market makes it easier for our insurance companies to buy small pieces of wonderful businesses—including additional pieces of businesses we already own—at attractive prices. And third, some of those same wonderful businesses are consistent buyers of their own shares, which means that they, and we, gain from the cheaper prices at which they can buy.

Overall, Berkshire and its long-term shareholders benefit from a sinking stock market much as a regular purchaser of food benefits from declining food prices. So when the market plummets—as it will from time to time—neither panic nor mourn. It's good news for Berkshire.

(5) Because of our two-pronged approach to business ownership and because of the limitations of conventional accounting, consolidated reported earnings may reveal relatively little about our true economic performance. Charlie and I, both as owners and managers, virtually ignore such consolidated numbers. However, we will also report to you the earnings of each major business we control, numbers we consider of great importance. These figures, along with other information we will supply about the individual businesses, should generally aid you in making judgments about them.

To state things simply, we try to give you in the annual report the numbers and other information that really matter. Charlie and I pay a great deal of attention to how well our businesses are doing, and we also work to understand the environment in which each business is operating. For example, is one of our businesses enjoying an industry tailwind or is it facing a headwind? Charlie and I need to know exactly which situation prevails and to adjust our expectations accordingly. We will also pass along our conclusions to you.

Over time, the large majority of our businesses have exceeded our expectations. But sometimes we have disappointments, and we will try to be as candid in informing you about those as we are in describing the happier experiences. When we use unconventional measures to chart our progress—for instance, you will be reading in our annual reports about insurance “float”—we will try to explain these concepts and why we regard them as important. In other words, we believe in telling you how we think so that you can evaluate not only Berkshire's businesses but also assess our approach to management and capital allocation.

(6) Accounting consequences do not influence our operating or capital-allocation decisions. When acquisition costs are similar, we much prefer to purchase $2 of earnings that is not reportable by us under standard accounting principles than to purchase $1 of earnings that is reportable. This is precisely the choice that often faces us since entire businesses (whose earnings will be fully reportable) frequently sell for double the pro-rata price of small portions (whose earnings will be largely unreportable). In aggregate and over time, we expect the unreported earnings to be fully reflected in our intrinsic business value through capital gains.

We have found over time that the undistributed earnings of our investees, in aggregate, have been as fully as beneficial to Berkshire as if they had been distributed to us (and therefore had been included in the earnings we officially report). This pleasant result has occurred because most of our investees are engaged in truly outstanding businesses that can often employ incremental capital to great advantage, either by putting it to work in their businesses or by repurchasing their shares. Obviously, every capital decision that our investees have made has not benefitted us as shareholders, but overall we have garnered far more than a dollar of value for each dollar they have retained. We consequently regard look-through earnings as realistically portraying our yearly gain from operations.

(7) We use debt sparingly. We will reject interesting opportunities rather than over-leverage our balance sheet. This conservatism has penalized our results but it is the only behavior that leaves us comfortable, considering our fiduciary obligations to policyholders, lenders and the many equity holders who have committed unusually large portions of their net worth to our care. (As one of the Indianapolis “500” winners said: “To finish first, you must first finish.”)

The financial calculus that Charlie and I employ would never permit our trading a good night's sleep for a shot at a few extra percentage points of return. I've never believed in risking what my family and friends have and need in order to pursue what they don't have and don't need.

Besides, Berkshire has access to two low-cost, non-perilous sources of leverage that allow us to safely own far more assets than our equity capital alone would permit: deferred taxes and “float,” the funds of others that our insurance business holds because it receives premiums before needing to pay out losses. Both of these funding sources have grown rapidly and now total about $170 billion.

Better yet, this funding to date has often been cost-free. Deferred tax liabilities bear no interest. And as long as we can break even in our insurance underwriting, the cost of the float developed from that operation is zero. Neither item, of course, is equity; these are real liabilities. But they are liabilities without covenants or due dates attached to them. In effect, they give us the benefit of debt—an ability to have more assets working for us—but saddle us with none of its drawbacks.

Of course, there is no guarantee that we can obtain our float in the future at no cost. But we feel our chances of attaining that goal are as good as those of anyone in the insurance business. Not only have we reached the goal in the past (despite a number of important mistakes by your Chairman), our 1996 acquisition of GEICO materially improved our prospects for getting there in the future. Since 2011, we expect additional borrowings to be concentrated in our utilities and railroad businesses, loans that are nonrecourse to Berkshire. Here, we will favor long-term, fixed-rate loans.

(8) A managerial “wish list” will not be filled at shareholder expense. We will not diversify by purchasing entire businesses at control prices that ignore long-term economic consequences to our shareholders. We will only do with your money what we would do with our own, weighing fully the values you can obtain by diversifying your own portfolios through direct purchases in the stock market.

Charlie and I are interested only in acquisitions that we believe will raise the per-share intrinsic value of Berskhire's stock. The size of our paychecks or our offices will never be related to the size of Berkshire's balance sheet.

(9) We feel noble intentions should be checked periodically against results. We test the wisdom of retaining earnings by assessing whether retention, over time, delivers shareholders at least $1 of market value for each $1 retained. To date, this test has been met. We will continue to apply it on a five-year rolling basis. As our net worth grows, it is more difficult to use retained earnings wisely.

I should have written the “five-year rolling basis” sentence differently, an error I didn't realize until I received a question about this subject at the 2009 annual meeting.

When the stock market has declined sharply over a five-year stretch, our market-price premium to book value has sometimes shrunk. And when that happens, we fail the test as I improperly formulated it. In fact, we fell far short as early as 1971-75, well before I wrote this principle in 1983.

The five-year test should be: (1) during the period did our book-value gain exceed the performance of the S&P; and (2) did our stock consistently sell at a premium to book, meaning that every $1 of retained earnings was always worth more than $1? If these tests are met, retaining earnings has made sense.

(10) We will issue common stock only when we receive as much in business value as we give. This rule applies to all forms of issuance—not only mergers or public stock offerings, but stock-for-debt swaps, stock options, and convertible securities as well. We will not sell small portions of your company—and that is what the issuance of shares amounts to—on a basis inconsistent with the value of the entire enterprise.

When we sold the Class B shares in 1996, we stated that Berkshire stock was not undervalued—and some people found that shocking. That reaction was not well-founded. Shock should have registered instead had we issued shares when our stock was undervalued. Managements that say or imply during a public offering that their stock is undervalued are usually being economical with the truth or uneconomical with their existing shareholders' money: Owners unfairly lose if their managers deliberately sell assets for 80¢ that in fact are worth $1. We didn't commit that kind of crime in our offering of Class B shares and we never will. (We did not, however, say at the time of the sale that our stock was overvalued, though many media have reported that we did.)

(11) You should be fully aware of one attitude Charlie and I share that hurts our financial performance: Regardless of price, we have no interest at all in selling any good businesses that Berkshire owns. We are also very reluctant to sell sub-par businesses as long as we expect them to generate at least some cash and as long as we feel good about their managers and labor relations. We hope not to repeat the capital-allocation mistakes that led us into such sub-par businesses. And we react with great caution to suggestions that our poor businesses can be restored to satisfactory profitability by major capital expenditures. (The projections will be dazzling and the advocates sincere, but, in the end, major additional investment in a terrible industry usually is about as rewarding as struggling in quicksand.) Nevertheless, gin rummy managerial behavior (discard your least promising business at each turn) is not our style. We would rather have our overall results penalized a bit than engage in that kind of behavior.

We continue to avoid gin rummy behavior. True, we closed our textile business in the mid-1980s after 20 years of struggling with it, but only because we felt it was doomed to run never-ending operating losses. We have not, however, given thought to selling operations that would command very fancy prices nor have we dumped our laggards, though we focus hard on curing the problems that cause them to lag. To clean up some confusion voiced in 2016, we emphasize that the comments here refer to businesses we control, not to marketable securities.

(12) We will be candid in our reporting to you, emphasizing the pluses and minuses important in appraising business value. Our guideline is to tell you the business facts that we would want to know if our positions were reversed. We owe you no less. Moreover, as a company with a major communications business, it would be inexcusable for us to apply lesser standards of accuracy, balance and incisiveness when reporting on ourselves than we would expect our news people to apply when reporting on others. We also believe candor benefits us as managers: The CEO who misleads others in public may eventually mislead himself in private.

At Berkshire you will find no “big bath” accounting maneuvers or restructurings nor any “smoothing” of quarterly or annual results. We will always tell you how many strokes we have taken on each hole and never play around with the scorecard. When the numbers are a very rough “guesstimate,” as they necessarily must be in insurance reserving, we will try to be both consistent and conservative in our approach.

We will be communicating with you in several ways. Through the annual report, I try to give all shareholders as much value-defining information as can be conveyed in a document kept to reasonable length. We also try to convey a liberal quantity of condensed but important information in the quarterly reports we post on the internet, though I don't write those (one recital a year is enough). Still another important occasion for communication is our Annual Meeting, at which Charlie and I are delighted to spend five hours or more answering questions about Berkshire. But there is one way we can't communicate: on a one-on-one basis. That isn't feasible given Berkshire's many thousands of owners.

In all of our communications, we try to make sure that no single shareholder gets an edge: We do not follow the usual practice of giving earnings “guidance” or other information of value to analysts or large shareholders. Our goal is to have all of our owners updated at the same time.

(13) Despite our policy of candor we will discuss our activities in marketable securities only to the extent legally required. Good investment ideas are rare, valuable and subject to competitive appropriation just as good product or business acquisition ideas are. Therefore we normally will not talk about our investment ideas. This ban extends even to securities we have sold (because we may purchase them again) and to stocks we are incorrectly rumored to be buying. If we deny those reports but say “no comment” on other occasions, the no-comments become confirmation.

Though we continue to be unwilling to talk about specific stocks, we freely discuss our business and investment philosophy. I benefitted enormously from the intellectual generosity of Ben Graham, the greatest teacher in the history of finance, and I believe it appropriate to pass along what I learned from him, even if that creates new and able investment competitors for Berkshire just as Ben's teachings did for him.

(14) To the extent possible, we would like each Berkshire shareholder to record a gain or loss in market value during his period of ownership that is proportional to the gain or loss in per-share intrinsic value recorded by the company during that holding period. For this to come about, the relationship between the intrinsic value and the market price of a Berkshire share would need to remain constant, and by our preferences at 1-to-1. As that implies, we would rather see Berkshire's stock price at a fair level than a high level. Obviously, Charlie and I can't control Berkshire's price. But by our policies and communications, we can encourage informed, rational behavior by owners that, in turn, will tend to produce a stock price that is also rational. Our it's-as-bad-to-be-overvalued-as-to-be-undervalued approach may disappoint some shareholders. We believe, however, that it affords Berkshire the best prospect of attracting long-term investors who seek to profit from the progress of the company rather than from the investment mistakes of their partners.

(15)We regularly compare the gain in Berkshire's per-share book value to the performance of the S&P 500. Over time, we hope to outpace this yardstick. Otherwise, why do our investors need us? The measurement, however, has certain shortcomings. Moreover, it now is less meaningful on a year-to-year basis than was formerly the case. That is because our equity holdings, whose value tends to move with the S&P 500, are a far smaller portion of our net worth than they were in earlier years. Additionally, gains in the S&P stocks are counted in full in calculating that index, whereas gains in Berkshire's equity holdings are counted at 79% because of the federal tax we incur. We, therefore, expect to outperform the S&P in lackluster years for the stock market and underperform when the market has a strong year.

The above originally appeared in the 1979 Shareholder Letter and was then shared annually from 1988 to 2017 with occasional modification as “Owner’s Manual.”


On Selling One's Business

As much of Berkshire Hathaway’s success has depended on their ability to acquire wonderful businesses, it’s worth studying how Warren Buffett positions Berkshire as an acquirer. What follows is a letter send to potential sellers of businesses, which Warren shared in the 1990 Shareholder Letter as Appendix B. It’s a masterclass not only in sales, but in deeply understanding the mindset of business owner’s who have spent what typically amounts to a lifetime — or several generations — of work.

Most business owners spend the better part of their lifetimes building their businesses. By experience built upon endless repetition, they sharpen their skills in merchandising, purchasing, personnel selection, etc. It's a learning process, and mistakes made in one year often contribute to competence and success in succeeding years.

In contrast, owner-managers sell their business only once—frequently in an emotionally-charged atmosphere with a multitude of pressures coming from different directions. Often, much of the pressure comes from brokers whose compensation is contingent upon consummation of a sale, regardless of its consequences for both buyer and seller. The fact that the decision is so important, both financially and personally, to the owner can make the process more, rather than less, prone to error. And, mistakes made in the once-in-a-lifetime sale of a business are not reversible.

Price is very important, but often is not the most critical aspect of the sale. You and your family have an extraordinary business—one of a kind in your field—and any buyer is going to recognize that. It's also a business that is going to get more valuable as the years go by. So if you decide not to sell now, you are very likely to realize more money later on. With that knowledge you can deal from strength and take the time required to select the buyer you want.

If you should decide to sell, I think Berkshire Hathaway offers some advantages that most other buyers do not. Practically all of these buyers will fall into one of two categories:

(1) A company located elsewhere but operating in your business or in a business somewhat akin to yours. Such a buyer—no matter what promises are made—will usually have managers who feel they know how to run your business operations and, sooner or later, will want to apply some hands-on “help.” If the acquiring company is much larger, it often will have squads of managers, recruited over the years in part by promises that they will get to run future acquisitions. They will have their own way of doing things and, even though your business record undoubtedly will be far better than theirs, human nature will at some point cause them to believe that their methods of operating are superior. You and your family probably have friends who have sold their businesses to larger companies, and I suspect that their experiences will confirm the tendency of parent companies to take over the running of their subsidiaries, particularly when the parent knows the industry, or thinks it does.

(2) A financial maneuverer, invariably operating with large amounts of borrowed money, who plans to resell either to the public or to another corporation as soon as the time is favorable. Frequently, this buyer's major contribution will be to change accounting methods so that earnings can be presented in the most favorable light just prior to his bailing out. This sort of transaction is becoming much more frequent because of a rising stock market and the great supply of funds available for such transactions.

If the sole motive of the present owners is to cash their chips and put the business behind them—and plenty of sellers fall in this category—either type of buyer that I've just described is satisfactory. But if the sellers' business represents the creative work of a lifetime and forms an integral part of their personality and sense of being, buyers of either type have serious flaws.

Berkshire is another kind of buyer—a rather unusual one. We buy to keep, but we don't have, and don't expect to have, operating people in our parent organization. All of the businesses we own are run autonomously to an extraordinary degree. In most cases, the managers of important businesses we have owned for many years have not been to Omaha or even met each other. When we buy a business, the sellers go on running it just as they did before the sale; we adapt to their methods rather than vice versa.

We have no one—family, recently recruited MBAs, etc.—to whom we have promised a chance to run businesses we have bought from owner-managers. And we won't have.

You know of some of our past purchases. I'm enclosing a list of everyone from whom we have ever bought a business, and I invite you to check with them as to our performance versus our promises. You should be particularly interested in checking with the few whose businesses did not do well in order to ascertain how we behaved under difficult conditions.

Any buyer will tell you that he needs you personally—and if he has any brains, he most certainly does need you. But a great many buyers, for the reasons mentioned above, don't match their subsequent actions to their earlier words. We will behave exactly as promised, both because we have so promised, and because we need to in order to achieve the best business results.

This need explains why we would want the operating members of your family to retain a 20% interest in the business. We need 80% to consolidate earnings for tax purposes, which is a step important to us. It is equally important to us that the family members who run the business remain as owners. Very simply, we would not want to buy unless we felt key members of present management would stay on as our partners. Contracts cannot guarantee your continued interest; we would simply rely on your word.

The areas I get involved in are capital allocation and selection and compensation of the top managers. Other personnel decisions, operating strategies, etc. are their bailiwick. Some Berkshire managers talk over some of their decisions with me; some don't. It depends upon their personalities and, to an extent, upon their own personal relationship with me.

If you should decide to do business with Berkshire, we would pay in cash. Your business would not be used as collateral for any loan by Berkshire. There would be no brokers involved.

Furthermore, there would be no chance that a deal would be announced and that the buyer would then back off or start suggesting adjustments (with apologies, of course, and with an explanation that banks, lawyers, boards of directors, etc. were to be blamed). And finally, you would know exactly with whom you are dealing. You would not have one executive negotiate the deal only to have someone else in charge a few years later, or have the president regretfully tell you that his board of directors required this change or that (or possibly required sale of your business to finance some new interest of the parent's).

It's only fair to tell you that you would be no richer after the sale than now. The ownership of your business already makes you wealthy and soundly invested. A sale would change the form of your wealth, but it wouldn't change its amount. If you sell, you will have exchanged a 100%-owned valuable asset that you understand for another valuable asset—cash—that will probably be invested in small pieces (stocks) of other businesses that you understand less well. There is often a sound reason to sell but, if the transaction is a fair one, the reason is not so that the seller can become wealthier.

I will not pester you; if you have any possible interest in selling, I would appreciate your call. I would be extraordinarily proud to have Berkshire, along with the key members of your family, own __________; I believe we would do very well financially; and I believe you would have just as much fun running the business over the next 20 years as you have had during the past 20.

Sincerely,
Warren E. Buffett

As a bit of additional commentary on how Berkshire Hathaway approaches acquisitions, this excerpt from the 1999 Shareholder Letter is worth adding:

Our acquisitions usually develop as referrals from other managers who have sold to us in the past. At other companies, executives may devote themselves to pursuing acquisition possibilities with investment bankers, utilizing an auction process that has become standardized. In this exercise the bankers prepare a “book” that makes me think of the Superman comics of my youth. In the Wall Street version, a formerly mild-mannered company emerges from the investment banker's phone booth able to leap over competitors in a single bound and with earnings moving faster than a speeding bullet. Titillated by the book's description of the acquiree's powers, acquisition-hungry CEOs—Lois Lanes all, beneath their cool exteriors—promptly swoon.

What's particularly entertaining in these books is the precision with which earnings are projected for many years ahead. If you ask the author-banker, however, what his own firm will earn next month, he will go into a protective crouch and tell you that business and markets are far too uncertain for him to venture a forecast.

Here's one story I can't resist relating: In 1985, a major investment banking house undertook to sell Scott Fetzer, offering it widely—but with no success. Upon reading of this strikeout, I wrote Ralph Schey, Scott Fetzer's CEO, expressing an interest in buying the business. I had never met Ralph, but within a week we had a deal. Unfortunately, Scott Fetzer's letter of engagement with the banking firm provided it a $2.5 million fee upon sale, even if it had nothing to do with finding the buyer. I guess the lead banker felt he should do something for his payment, so he graciously offered us a copy of the book on Scott Fetzer that his firm had prepared. With his customary tact, Charlie responded: “I'll pay $2.5 million not to read it.”

At Berkshire, our carefully-crafted acquisition strategy is simply to wait for the phone to ring. Happily, it sometimes does so, usually because a manager who sold to us earlier has recommended to a friend that he think about following suit.

Mr. Market

One of the most powerful concepts Warren Buffett picked up from Benjamin Graham is "Mr. Market." Buffett describes Mr. Market as a fellow with incurable emotional problems who moves between euphoria and depression. He appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell his interest to you. Whether you like it or not, Mr. Market is there to serve you—not guide you. He wrote about Mr. Market in Berkshire Hathaway's 1987 Shareholder Letter.

Whenever Charlie and I buy common stocks for Berkshire's insurance companies (leaving aside arbitrage purchases, discussed later) we approach the transaction as if we were buying into a private business. We look at the economic prospects of the business, the people in charge of running it, and the price we must pay. We do not have in mind any time or price for sale. Indeed, we are willing to hold a stock indefinitely so long as we expect the business to increase in intrinsic value at a satisfactory rate. When investing, we view ourselves as business analysts — not as market analysts, not as macroeconomic analysts, and not even as security analysts.

Our approach makes an active trading market useful, since it periodically presents us with mouth-watering opportunities. But by no means is it essential: a prolonged suspension of trading in the securities we hold would not bother us any more than does the lack of daily quotations on World Book or Fechheimer. Eventually, our economic fate will be determined by the economic fate of the business we own, whether our ownership is partial or total.

Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success. He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his.

Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market's quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him.

Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn't mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option.  Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you.

But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren't certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don't belong in the game. As they say in poker, "If you've been in the game 30 minutes and you don't know who the patsy is, you're the patsy."


Ben's Mr. Market allegory may seem out-of-date in today's investment world, in which most professionals and academicians talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas. Their interest in such matters is understandable, since techniques shrouded in mystery clearly have value to the purveyor of investment advice. After all, what witch doctor has ever achieved fame and fortune by simply advising "Take two aspirins"?

The value of market esoterica to the consumer of investment advice is a different story.  In my opinion, investment success will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets. Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the marketplace. In my own efforts to stay insulated, I have found it highly useful to keep Ben's Mr. Market concept firmly in mind.

Following Ben's teachings, Charlie and I let our marketable equities tell us by their operating results - not by their daily, or even yearly, price quotations - whether our investments are successful. The market may ignore business success for a while, but eventually will confirm it. As Ben said: "In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine." The speed at which a business's success is recognized, furthermore, is not that important as long as the company's intrinsic value is increasing at a satisfactory rate. In fact, delayed recognition can be an advantage: It may give us the chance to buy more of a good thing at a bargain price.

Sometimes, of course, the market may judge a business to be more valuable than the underlying facts would indicate it is. In such a case, we will sell our holdings. Sometimes, also, we will sell a security that is fairly valued or even undervalued because we require funds for a still more undervalued investment or one we believe we understand better.

We need to emphasize, however, that we do not sell holdings just because they have appreciated or because we have held them for a long time. (Of Wall Street maxims the most foolish may be "You can't go broke taking a profit.") **We are quite content to hold any security indefinitely, so long as the prospective return on equity capital of the underlying business is satisfactory, management is competent and honest, and the market does not overvalue the business.**

However, our insurance companies own three marketable common stocks that we would not sell even though they became far overpriced in the market. **In effect, we view these investments exactly like our successful controlled businesses — a permanent part of Berkshire rather than merchandise to be disposed of once Mr. Market offers us a sufficiently high price.** To that, I will add one qualifier: These stocks are held by our insurance companies and we would, if absolutely necessary, sell portions of our holdings to pay extraordinary insurance losses. We intend, however, to manage our affairs so that sales are never required.

A determination to have and to hold, which Charlie and I share, obviously involves a mixture of personal and financial considerations. To some, our stand may seem highly eccentric. (Charlie and I have long followed David Oglivy's advice: "Develop your eccentricities while you are young. That way, when you get old, people won't think you're going ga-ga.") Certainly, in the transaction-fixated Wall Street of recent years, our posture must seem odd: To many in that arena, both companies and stocks are seen only as raw material for trades.

Our attitude, however, fits our personalities and the way we want to live our lives. Churchill once said, "You shape your houses and then they shape you." We know the manner in which we wish to be shaped. For that reason, we would rather achieve a return of X while associating with people whom we strongly like and admire than realize 110% of X by exchanging these relationships for uninteresting or unpleasant ones.

In the 1997 Shareholder Letter, Warren added a few thoughts I think are pertinent on the topic.

How We Think About Market Fluctuations

A short quiz: If you plan to eat hamburgers throughout your life and are not a cattle producer, should you wish for higher or lower prices for beef? Likewise, if you are going to buy a car from time to time but are not an auto manufacturer, should you prefer higher or lower car prices? These questions, of course, answer themselves.

But now for the final exam: If you expect to be a net saver during the next five years, should you hope for a higher or lower stock market during that period? Many investors get this one wrong. Even though they are going to be net buyers of stocks for many years to come, they are elated when stock prices rise and depressed when they fall. In effect, they rejoice because prices have risen for the "hamburgers" they will soon be buying. This reaction makes no sense. Only those who will be sellers of equities in the near future should be happy at seeing stocks rise. Prospective purchasers should much prefer sinking prices.

For shareholders of Berkshire who do not expect to sell, the choice is even clearer. To begin with, our owners are automatically saving even if they spend every dime they personally earn: Berkshire "saves" for them by retaining all earnings, thereafter using these savings to purchase businesses and securities. Clearly, the more cheaply we make these buys, the more profitable our owners' indirect savings program will be.

Furthermore, through Berkshire you own major positions in companies that consistently repurchase their shares. The benefits that these programs supply us grow as prices fall: When stock prices are low, the funds that an investee spends on repurchases increase our ownership of that company by a greater amount than is the case when prices are higher. For example, the repurchases that Coca-Cola, The Washington Post and Wells Fargo made in past years at very low prices benefitted Berkshire far more than do today's repurchases, made at loftier prices.

At the end of every year, about 97% of Berkshire's shares are held by the same investors who owned them at the start of the year. That makes them savers. They should therefore rejoice when markets decline and allow both us and our investees to deploy funds more advantageously.

So smile when you read a headline that says "Investors lose as market falls." Edit it in your mind to "Dis-investors lose as market falls — but investors gain." Though writers often forget this truism, there is a buyer for every seller and what hurts one necessarily helps the other. (As they say in golf matches: "Every putt makes someone happy.")
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We gained enormously from the low prices placed on many equities and businesses in the 1970s and 1980s. Markets that then were hostile to investment transients were friendly to those taking up permanent residence. In recent years, the actions we took in those decades have been validated, but we have found few new opportunities. In its role as a corporate "saver," Berkshire continually looks for ways to sensibly deploy capital, but it may be some time before we find opportunities that get us truly excited.

Farms, Real Estate, and Stock

In 2013, Warren Buffett told the story of two personal investments he made: a small 400-acre farm and a commercial property near NYU in New York. It offers a fascinating glimpse into how Warren approaches investing — regardless of the asset class. As you'll learn, it all boils down to focusing on the future productivity of the asset and not overpaying when purchasing the asset.

"Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike." — The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham

It is fitting to have a Ben Graham quote open this discussion because I owe so much of what I know about investing to him. I will talk more about Ben a bit later, and I will even sooner talk about common stocks. But let me first tell you about two small non-stock investments that I made long ago. Though neither changed my net worth by much, they are instructive.

This tale begins in Nebraska. From 1973 to 1981, the Midwest experienced an explosion in farm prices, caused by a widespread belief that runaway inflation was coming and fueled by the lending policies of small rural banks. Then the bubble burst, bringing price declines of 50% or more that devastated both leveraged farmers and their lenders. Five times as many Iowa and Nebraska banks failed in that bubble’s aftermath than in our recent Great Recession.

From 1973 to 1981, the Midwest experienced an explosion in farm prices, caused by a widespread belief that runaway inflation was coming and fueled by the lending policies of small rural banks. Then the bubble burst, bringing price declines of 50% or more that devastated both leveraged farmers and their lenders. Five times as many Iowa and Nebraska banks failed in that bubble’s aftermath than in our recent Great Recession.

In 1986, I purchased a 400-acre farm, located 50 miles north of Omaha, from the FDIC. It cost me $280,000, considerably less than what a failed bank had lent against the farm a few years earlier. I knew nothing about operating a farm. But I have a son who loves farming and I learned from him both how many bushels of corn and soybeans the farm would produce and what the operating expenses would be. From these estimates, I calculated the normalized return from the farm to then be about 10%. I also thought it was likely that productivity would improve over time and that crop prices would move higher as well. Both expectations proved out.

I needed no unusual knowledge or intelligence to conclude that the investment had no downside and potentially had substantial upside.
There would, of course, be the occasional bad crop and prices would sometimes disappoint. But so what? There would be some unusually good years as well, and I would never be under any pressure to sell the property. Now, 28 years later, the farm has tripled its earnings and is worth five times or more what I paid. I still know nothing about farming and recently made just my second visit to the farm.

In 1993, I made another small investment. Larry Silverstein, Salomon’s landlord when I was the company’s CEO, told me about a New York retail property adjacent to NYU that the Resolution Trust Corp. was selling. Again, a bubble had popped – this one involving commercial real estate – and the RTC had been created to dispose of the assets of failed savings institutions whose optimistic lending practices had fueled the folly.

Here, too, the analysis was simple. As had been the case with the farm, the unleveraged current yield from the property was about 10%. But the property had been undermanaged by the RTC, and its income would increase when several vacant stores were leased. Even more important, the largest tenant – who occupied around 20% of the project’s space – was paying rent of about $5 per foot, whereas other tenants averaged $70. The expiration of this bargain lease in nine years was certain to provide a major boost to earnings. The property’s location was also superb: NYU wasn’t going anywhere.

I joined a small group, including Larry and my friend Fred Rose, that purchased the parcel. Fred was an experienced, high-grade real estate investor who, with his family, would manage the property. And manage it they did. As old leases expired, earnings tripled. Annual distributions now exceed 35% of our original equity investment. Moreover, our original mortgage was refinanced in 1996 and again in 1999, moves that allowed several special distributions totaling more than 150% of what we had invested. I’ve yet to view the property.

Income from both the farm and the NYU real estate will probably increase in the decades to come. Though the gains won’t be dramatic, the two investments will be solid and satisfactory holdings for my lifetime and, subsequently, for my children and grandchildren.

I tell these tales to illustrate certain fundamentals of investing:

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You don’t need to be an expert in order to achieve satisfactory investment returns. But if you aren’t, you must recognize your limitations and follow a course certain to work reasonably well. Keep things simple and don’t swing for the fences. When promised quick profits, respond with a quick “no.”

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Focus on the future productivity of the asset you are considering. If you don’t feel comfortable making a rough estimate of the asset’s future earnings, just forget it and move on. No one has the ability to evaluate every investment possibility. But omniscience isn’t necessary; you only need to understand the actions you undertake.

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If you instead focus on the prospective price change of a contemplated purchase, you are speculating. There is nothing improper about that. I know, however, that I am unable to speculate successfully, and I am skeptical of those who claim sustained success at doing so. Half of all coin-flippers will win their first toss; none of those winners has an expectation of profit if he continues to play the game. And the fact that a given asset has appreciated in the recent past is never a reason to buy it.

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With my two small investments, I thought only of what the properties would produce and cared not at all about their daily valuations. Games are won by players who focus on the playing field – not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. If you can enjoy Saturdays and Sundays without looking at stock prices, give it a try on weekdays.

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Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time. Indeed, it is dangerous because it may blur your vision of the facts that are truly important. (When I hear TV commentators glibly opine on what the market will do next, I am reminded of Mickey Mantle’s scathing comment: “You don’t know how easy this game is until you get into that broadcasting booth.”)

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My two purchases were made in 1986 and 1993. What the economy, interest rates, or the stock market might do in the years immediately following – 1987 and 1994 – was of no importance to me in making those investments. I can’t remember what the headlines or pundits were saying at the time. Whatever the chatter, corn would keep growing in Nebraska and students would flock to NYU.

There is one major difference between my two small investments and an investment in stocks. Stocks provide you minute-to-minute valuations for your holdings whereas I have yet to see a quotation for either my farm or the New York real estate.

It should be an enormous advantage for investors in stocks to have those wildly fluctuating valuations placed on their holdings – and for some investors, it is. After all, if a moody fellow with a farm bordering my property yelled out a price every day to me at which he would either buy my farm or sell me his – and those prices varied widely over short periods of time depending on his mental state – how in the world could I be other than benefited by his erratic behavior? If his daily shout-out was ridiculously low, and I had some spare cash, I would buy his farm. If the number he yelled was absurdly high, I could either sell to him or just go on farming.

Owners of stocks, however, too often let the capricious and often irrational behavior of their fellow owners cause them to behave irrationally as well. Because there is so much chatter about markets, the economy, interest rates, price behavior of stocks, etc., some investors believe it is important to listen to pundits – and, worse yet, important to consider acting upon their comments.

Those people who can sit quietly for decades when they own a farm or apartment house too often become frenetic when they are exposed to a stream of stock quotations and accompanying commentators delivering an implied message of “Don’t just sit there, do something.” **For these investors, liquidity is transformed from the unqualified benefit it should be to a curse.**

A “flash crash” or some other extreme market fluctuation can’t hurt an investor any more than an erratic and mouthy neighbor can hurt my farm investment. Indeed, tumbling markets can be helpful to the true investor if he has cash available when prices get far out of line with values. **A climate of fear is your friend when investing; a euphoric world is your enemy.**

During the extraordinary financial panic that occurred late in 2008, I never gave a thought to selling my farm or New York real estate, even though a severe recession was clearly brewing. And, if I had owned 100% of a solid business with good long-term prospects, it would have been foolish for me to even consider dumping it. **So why would I have sold my stocks that were small participations in wonderful businesses?** True, any one of them might eventually disappoint, but as a group they were certain to do well. Could anyone really believe the earth was going to swallow up the incredible productive assets and unlimited human ingenuity existing in America?

When Charlie and I buy stocks – which we think of as small portions of businesses – our analysis is very similar to that which we use in buying entire businesses. We first have to decide whether we can sensibly estimate an earnings range for five years out, or more. If the answer is yes, we will buy the stock (or business) if it sells at a reasonable price in relation to the bottom boundary of our estimate. If, however, we lack the ability to estimate future earnings – which is usually the case – we simply move on to other prospects. In the 54 years we have worked together, we have never foregone an attractive purchase because of the macro or political environment, or the views of other people. In fact, these subjects never come up when we make decisions.

Aesop's Fable and Valuing Financial Assets

In 2000, Warren Buffett wrote about the timeless formula for all assets that are published for financial gain and related it to Aesop's fable that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." As always, Warren cuts through the noise of imprecise valuation measures — ranging from book value to growth rate — and gives investors 3 simple questions they must answer to determine the valuation of anything: How certain are you that there are indeed birds in the bush? When will they emerge and how many will there be? And what is the risk-free interest rate?

The formula for valuing all assets that are purchased for financial gain has been unchanged since it was first laid out by a very smart man in about 600 B.C. (though he wasn’t smart enough to know it was 600 B.C.).

The oracle was Aesop and his enduring, though somewhat incomplete, investment insight was “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” **To flesh out this principle, you must answer only three questions. How certain are you that there are indeed birds in the bush? When will they emerge and how many will there be? What is the risk-free interest rate (which we consider to be the yield on long-term U.S. bonds)? If you can answer these three questions, you will know the maximum value of the bush — and the maximum number of the birds you now possess that should be offered for it.** And, of course, don’t literally think birds. Think dollars.

Aesop’s investment axiom, thus expanded and converted into dollars, is immutable. It applies to outlays for farms, oil royalties, bonds, stocks, lottery tickets, and manufacturing plants. And neither the advent of the steam engine, the harnessing of electricity nor the creation of the automobile changed the formula one iota — nor will the Internet. Just insert the correct numbers, and you can rank the attractiveness of all possible uses of capital throughout the universe.

Common yardsticks such as dividend yield, the ratio of price to earnings or to book value, and even growth rates have nothing to do with valuation except to the extent they provide clues to the amount and timing of cash flows into and from the business. Indeed, growth can destroy value if it requires cash inputs in the early years of a project or enterprise that exceed the discounted value of the cash that those assets will generate in later years. Market commentators and investment managers who glibly refer to “growth” and “value” styles as contrasting approaches to investment are displaying their ignorance, not their sophistication. Growth is simply a component — usually a plus, sometimes a minus — in the value equation.

Alas, though Aesop’s proposition and the third variable — that is, interest rates — are simple, plugging in numbers for the other two variables is a difficult task. Using precise numbers is, in fact, foolish; working with a range of possibilities is the better approach.

Usually, the range must be so wide that no useful conclusion can be reached. Occasionally, though, even very conservative estimates about the future emergence of birds reveal that the price quoted is startlingly low in relation to value. (Let’s call this phenomenon the IBT — Inefficient Bush Theory.) To be sure, an investor needs some general understanding of business economics as well as the ability to think independently to reach a well- founded positive conclusion. But the investor does not need brilliance nor blinding insights.

At the other extreme, there are many times when the most brilliant of investors can’t muster a conviction about the birds to emerge, not even when a very broad range of estimates is employed. This kind of uncertainty frequently occurs when new businesses and rapidly changing industries are under examination. In cases of this sort, any capital commitment must be labeled speculative.

Now, speculation — in which the focus is not on what an asset will produce but rather on what the next fellow will pay for it — is neither illegal, immoral nor un-American. But it is not a game in which Charlie and I wish to play. We bring nothing to the party, so why should we expect to take anything home?

The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. **Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money.** After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities — that is, continuing to speculate in companies that have gigantic valuations relative to the cash they are likely to generate in the future — will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.

Last year, we commented on the exuberance — and, yes, it was irrational — that prevailed, noting that investor expectations had grown to be several multiples of probable returns. One piece of evidence came from a Paine Webber-Gallup survey of investors conducted in December 1999, in which the participants were asked their opinion about the annual returns investors could expect to realize over the decade ahead. Their answers averaged 19%. That, for sure, was an irrational expectation: For American business as a whole, there couldn’t possibly be enough birds in the 2009 bush to deliver such a return.

Far more irrational still were the huge valuations that market participants were then putting on businesses almost certain to end up being of modest or no value. Yet investors, mesmerized by soaring stock prices and ignoring all else, piled into these enterprises. It was as if some virus, racing wildly among investment professionals as well as amateurs, induced hallucinations in which the values of stocks in certain sectors became decoupled from the values of the businesses that underlay them.

This surreal scene was accompanied by much loose talk about “value creation.” We readily acknowledge that there has been a huge amount of true value created in the past decade by new or young businesses, and that there is much more to come. But value is destroyed, not created, by any business that loses money over its lifetime, no matter how high its interim valuation may get.

What actually occurs in these cases is wealth transfer, often on a massive scale. By shamelessly merchandising birdless bushes, promoters have in recent years moved billions of dollars from the pockets of the public to their own purses (and to those of their friends and associates). The fact is that a bubble market has allowed the creation of bubble companies, entities designed more with an eye to making money off investors rather than for them. Too often, an IPO, not profits, was the primary goal of a company’s promoters. At bottom, the “business model” for these companies has been the old-fashioned chain letter, for which many fee-hungry investment bankers acted as eager postmen.

But a pin lies in wait for every bubble. And when the two eventually meet, a new wave of investors learns some very old lessons: First, many in Wall Street — a community in which quality control is not prized — will sell investors anything they will buy. Second, speculation is most dangerous when it looks easiest.

At Berkshire, we make no attempt to pick the few winners that will emerge from an ocean of unproven enterprises. We’re not smart enough to do that, and we know it. Instead, we try to apply Aesop’s 2,600-year-old equation to opportunities in which we have reasonable confidence as to how many birds are in the bush and when they will emerge (a formulation that my grandsons would probably update to “A girl in a convertible is worth five in the phonebook.”). Obviously, we can never precisely predict the timing of cash flows in and out of a business or their exact amount. We try, therefore, to keep our estimates conservative and to focus on industries where business surprises are unlikely to wreak havoc on owners. Even so, we make many mistakes: I’m the fellow, remember, who thought he understood the future economics of trading stamps, textiles, shoes and second-tier department stores.

Lately, the most promising “bushes” have been negotiated transactions for entire businesses, and that pleases us. You should clearly understand, however, that these acquisitions will at best provide us only reasonable returns. Really juicy results from negotiated deals can be anticipated only when capital markets are severely constrained and the whole business world is pessimistic. We are 180 degrees from that point.

Beating Costs with Indexing

In 2005, Warren wrote about how investors actively minimize their investment returns by resorting to expensive "helpers" that eat a substantial chunk of any real returns and not recognizing that returns decrease a motion increases when it comes to investing. He reminds us to remember that: "With unimportant exceptions, the most that owners in aggregate can earn between now and Judgement Day is what their businesses in aggregate earn."

How to Minimize Investment Returns

It’s been an easy matter for Berkshire and other owners of American equities to prosper over the years. Between December 31, 1899 and December 31, 1999, to give a really long-term example, the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497. (Guess what annual growth rate is required to produce this result; the surprising answer is at the end of this section.) This huge rise came about for a simple reason: Over the century American businesses did extraordinarily well and investors rode the wave of their prosperity. Businesses continue to do well. But now shareholders, through a series of self-inflicted wounds, are in a major way cutting the returns they will realize from their investments.

The explanation of how this is happening begins with a fundamental truth: **With unimportant exceptions, such as bankruptcies in which some of a company’s losses are borne by creditors, the most that owners in aggregate can earn between now and Judgment Day is what their businesses in aggregate earn.** True, by buying and selling that is clever or lucky, investor A may take more than his share of the pie at the expense of investor B. And, yes, all investors feel richer when stocks soar. But an owner can exit only by having someone take his place. If one investor sells high, another must buy high. **For owners as a whole, there is simply no magic – no shower of money from outer space – that will enable them to extract wealth from their companies beyond that created by the companies themselves.**

Indeed, owners must earn less than their businesses earn because of “frictional” costs. And that’s my point: These costs are now being incurred in amounts that will cause shareholders to earn far less than they historically have.

To understand how this toll has ballooned, imagine for a moment that all American corporations are, and always will be, owned by a single family. We’ll call them the Gotrocks. After paying taxes on dividends, this family – generation after generation – becomes richer by the aggregate amount earned by its companies. Today that amount is about $700 billion annually. Naturally, the family spends some of these dollars. But the portion it saves steadily compounds for its benefit. In the Gotrocks household everyone grows wealthier at the same pace, and all is harmonious.

But let’s now assume that a few fast-talking Helpers approach the family and persuade each of its members to try to outsmart his relatives by buying certain of their holdings and selling them certain others. The Helpers – for a fee, of course – obligingly agree to handle these transactions. The Gotrocks still own all of corporate America; the trades just rearrange who owns what. So the family’s annual gain in wealth diminishes, equaling the earnings of American business minus commissions paid. The more that family members trade, the smaller their share of the pie and the larger the slice received by the Helpers. This fact is not lost upon these broker-Helpers: Activity is their friend and, in a wide variety of ways, they urge it on.

After a while, most of the family members realize that they are not doing so well at this new “beat- my-brother” game. Enter another set of Helpers. These newcomers explain to each member of the Gotrocks clan that by himself he’ll never outsmart the rest of the family. The suggested cure: “Hire a manager – yes, us – and get the job done professionally.” These manager-Helpers continue to use the broker-Helpers to execute trades; the managers may even increase their activity so as to permit the brokers to prosper still more. Overall, a bigger slice of the pie now goes to the two classes of Helpers.

The family’s disappointment grows. Each of its members is now employing professionals. Yet overall, the group’s finances have taken a turn for the worse. The solution? More help, of course.

It arrives in the form of financial planners and institutional consultants, who weigh in to advise the Gotrocks on selecting manager-Helpers. The befuddled family welcomes this assistance. By now its members know they can pick neither the right stocks nor the right stock-pickers. Why, one might ask, should they expect success in picking the right consultant? But this question does not occur to the Gotrocks, and the consultant-Helpers certainly don’t suggest it to them.

The Gotrocks, now supporting three classes of expensive Helpers, find that their results get worse, and they sink into despair. But just as hope seems lost, a fourth group – we’ll call them the hyper-Helpers – appears. These friendly folk explain to the Gotrocks that their unsatisfactory results are occurring because the existing Helpers – brokers, managers, consultants – are not sufficiently motivated and are simply going through the motions. “What,” the new Helpers ask, “can you expect from such a bunch of zombies?”

The new arrivals offer a breathtakingly simple solution: Pay more money. Brimming with self- confidence, the hyper-Helpers assert that huge contingent payments – in addition to stiff fixed fees – are what each family member must fork over in order to really outmaneuver his relatives.

The more observant members of the family see that some of the hyper-Helpers are really just manager-Helpers wearing new uniforms, bearing sewn-on sexy names like HEDGE FUND or PRIVATE EQUITY. The new Helpers, however, assure the Gotrocks that this change of clothing is all-important, bestowing on its wearers magical powers similar to those acquired by mild-mannered Clark Kent when he changed into his Superman costume. Calmed by this explanation, the family decides to pay up.

And that’s where we are today: A record portion of the earnings that would go in their entirety to owners – if they all just stayed in their rocking chairs – is now going to a swelling army of Helpers. Particularly expensive is the recent pandemic of profit arrangements under which Helpers receive large portions of the winnings when they are smart or lucky, and leave family members with all of the losses – and large fixed fees to boot – when the Helpers are dumb or unlucky (or occasionally crooked).

A sufficient number of arrangements like this – heads, the Helper takes much of the winnings; tails, the Gotrocks lose and pay dearly for the privilege of doing so – may make it more accurate to call the family the Hadrocks. Today, in fact, the family’s frictional costs of all sorts may well amount to 20% of the earnings of American business. In other words, the burden of paying Helpers may cause American equity investors, overall, to earn only 80% or so of what they would earn if they just sat still and listened to no one.

Long ago, Sir Isaac Newton gave us three laws of motion, which were the work of genius. But Sir Isaac’s talents didn’t extend to investing: He lost a bundle in the South Sea Bubble, explaining later, “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.” If he had not been traumatized by this loss, Sir Isaac might well have gone on to discover the Fourth Law of Motion: For investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases.

Here's the answer to the annual growth rate of the Down from December 31, 1899 and December 31, 1999:

Here’s the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this section: To get very specific, the Dow increased from 65.73 to 11,497.12 in the 20th century, and that amounts to a gain of 5.3% compounded annually. (Investors would also have received dividends, of course.) To achieve an equal rate of gain in the 21st century, the Dow will have to rise by December 31, 2099 to – brace yourself – precisely 2,011,011.23. But I’m willing to settle for 2,000,000; six years into this century, the Dow has gained not at all.

Charlie Munger on "The Berkshire System"

On Berkshire Hathaway's 50th anniversary, Charlie Munger contributed his reflections on what he called "The Berkshire System." In that essay, he shares his reflections on what they got right and why Berkshire has been so successful. As always, Charlie's reflections are both simple and profound. He wastes no time and dives straight to the point.

Vice Chairman's Thoughts - Past and Future

To the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc:

I closely watched the 50-year history of Berkshire’s uncommon success under Warren Buffett. And it now seems appropriate that I independently supplement whatever celebratory comment comes from him. I will try to do five things.

1.  (1)  Describe the management system and policies that caused a small and unfixably-doomed commodity textile business to morph into the mighty Berkshire that now exists,
2.  (2)  Explain how the management system and policies came into being,
3.  (3)  Explain, to some extent, why Berkshire did so well,
4.  (4)  Predict whether abnormally good results would continue if Buffett were soon to depart, and
5.  (5)  Consider whether Berkshire’s great results over the last 50 years have implications that may prove useful elsewhere.

The management system and policies of Berkshire under Buffett (herein together called “the Berkshire System”) were fixed early and are described below:

1. Berkshire would be a diffuse conglomerate, averse only to activities about which it could not make useful predictions.
2. Its top company would do almost all business through separately incorporated subsidiaries whose CEOs would operate with very extreme autonomy.
3. There would be almost nothing at conglomerate headquarters except a tiny office suite containing a Chairman, a CFO, and a few assistants who mostly helped the CFO with auditing, internal control, etc.
4. Berkshire subsidiaries would always prominently include casualty insurers. Those insurers as a group would be expected to produce, in due course, dependable underwriting gains while also producing substantial “float” (from unpaid insurance liabilities) for investment.
5. There would be no significant system-wide personnel system, stock option system, other incentive system, retirement system, or the like, because the subsidiaries would have their own systems, often different.
6. Berkshire’s Chairman would reserve only a few activities for himself.
1.  He would manage almost all security investments, with these normally residing in Berkshire’s casualty insurers.
2. He would choose all CEOs of important subsidiaries, and he would fix their compensation and obtain from each a private recommendation for a successor in case one was suddenly needed.
3. He would deploy most cash not needed in subsidiaries after they had increased their competitive advantage, with the ideal deployment being the use of that cash to acquire new subsidiaries.
4. He would make himself promptly available for almost any contact wanted by any subsidiary’s CEO, and he would require almost no additional contact.
5. He would write a long, logical, and useful letter for inclusion in his annual report, designed as he would wish it to be if he were only a passive shareholder, and he would be available for hours of answering questions at annual shareholders’ meetings.
6. He would try to be an exemplar in a culture that would work well for customers, shareholders, and other incumbents for a long time, both before and after his departure.
7. His first priority would be reservation of much time for quiet reading and thinking, particularly that which might advance his determined learning, no matter how old he became; and
8. He would also spend much time in enthusiastically admiring what others were accomplishing.
7. New subsidiaries would usually be bought with cash, not newly issued stock.
8. Berkshire would not pay dividends so long as more than one dollar of market value for shareholders was being created by each dollar of retained earnings.
9. In buying a new subsidiary, Berkshire would seek to pay a fair price for a good business that the Chairman could pretty well understand. Berkshire would also want a good CEO in place, one expected to remain for a long time and to manage well without need for help from headquarters.
10. In choosing CEOs of subsidiaries, Berkshire would try to secure trustworthiness, skill, energy, and love for the business and circumstances the CEO was in.
11. As an important matter of preferred conduct, Berkshire would almost never sell a subsidiary.
12. Berkshire would almost never transfer a subsidiary’s CEO to another unrelated subsidiary.
13. Berkshire would never force the CEO of a subsidiary to retire on account of mere age.
14. Berkshire would have little debt outstanding as it tried to maintain (i) virtually perfect creditworthiness under all conditions and (ii) easy availability of cash and credit for deployment in times presenting unusual opportunities.
15. Berkshire would always be user-friendly to a prospective seller of a large business. An offer of such a business would get prompt attention. No one but the Chairman and one or two others at Berkshire would ever know about the offer if it did not lead to a transaction. And they would never tell outsiders about it.

Both the elements of the Berkshire system and their collected size are quite unusual. No other large corporation I know of has half of such elements in place.

How did Berkshire happen to get a corporate personality so different from the norm?

Well, Buffett, even when only 34 years old, controlled about 45% of Berkshire’s shares and was completely trusted by all the other big shareholders. He could install whatever system he wanted. And he did so, creating the Berkshire system.

Almost every element was chosen because Buffett believed that, under him, it would help maximize Berkshire’s achievement. He was not trying to create a one-type-fits-all system for other corporations. Indeed, Berkshire’s subsidiaries were not required to use the Berkshire system in their own operations. And some flourished while using different systems.

What was Buffett aiming at as he designed the Berkshire system? Well, over the years I diagnosed several important themes:

1. He particularly wanted continuous maximization of the rationality, skills, and devotion of the most important people in the system, starting with himself.
2. He wanted win/win results everywhere--in gaining loyalty by giving it, for instance.
3. He wanted decisions that maximized long-term results, seeking these from decision makers who usually stayed long enough in place to bear the consequences of decisions.
4. He wanted to minimize the bad effects that would almost inevitably come from a large bureaucracy at headquarters.
5. He wanted to personally contribute, like Professor Ben Graham, to the spread of wisdom attained.

When Buffett developed the Berkshire system, did he foresee all the benefits that followed? No. Buffett stumbled into some benefits through practice evolution. But, when he saw useful consequences, he strengthened their causes.

Why did Berkshire under Buffett do so well? Only four large factors occur to me:

1. The constructive peculiarities of Buffett,
2. The constructive peculiarities of the Berkshire system,
3. Good luck, and
4. The weirdly intense, contagious devotion of some shareholders and other admirers, including some in the press.

I believe all four factors were present and helpful. But the heavy freight was carried by the constructive peculiarities, the weird devotion, and their interactions.

In particular, Buffett’s decision to limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years, was a lollapalooza. Buffett succeeded for the same reason Roger Federer became good at tennis.

Buffett was, in effect, using the winning method of the famous basketball coach, John Wooden, who won most regularly after he had learned to assign virtually all playing time to his seven best players. That way, opponents always faced his best players, instead of his second best. And, with the extra playing time, the best players improved more than was normal.

And Buffett much out-Woodened Wooden, because in his case the exercise of skill was concentrated in one person, not seven, and his skill improved and improved as he got older and older during 50 years, instead of deteriorating like the skill of a basketball player does.

Moreover, by concentrating so much power and authority in the often-long-serving CEOs of important subsidiaries, Buffett was also creating strong Wooden-type effects there. And such effects enhanced the skills of the CEOs and the achievements of the subsidiaries.

Then, as the Berkshire system bestowed much-desired autonomy on many subsidiaries and their CEOs, and Berkshire became successful and well known, these outcomes attracted both more and better subsidiaries into Berkshire, and better CEOs as well.

And the better subsidiaries and CEOs then required less attention from headquarters, creating what is often called a “virtuous circle.”

How well did it work out for Berkshire to always include casualty insurers as important subsidiaries?

Marvelously well. Berkshire’s ambitions were unreasonably extreme and, even so, it got what it wanted.

Casualty insurers often invest in common stocks with a value amounting roughly to their shareholders’ equity, as did Berkshire’s insurance subsidiaries. And the S&P 500 Index produced about 10% per annum, pre-tax, during the last 50 years, creating a significant tailwind.

And, in the early decades of the Buffett era, common stocks within Berkshire’s insurance subsidiaries greatly outperformed the index, exactly as Buffett expected. And, later, when both the large size of Berkshire’s stockholdings and income tax considerations caused the index-beating part of returns to fade to insignificance (perhaps not forever), other and better advantage came. Ajit Jain created out of nothing an immense reinsurance business that produced both a huge “float” and a large underwriting gain. And all of GEICO came into Berkshire, followed by a quadrupling of GEICO’s market share. And the rest of Berkshire’s insurance operations hugely improved, largely by dint of reputational advantage, underwriting discipline, finding and staying within good niches, and recruiting and holding outstanding people.

Then, later, as Berkshire’s nearly unique and quite dependable corporate personality and large size became well known, its insurance subsidiaries got and seized many attractive opportunities, not available to others, to buy privately issued securities. Most of these securities had fixed maturities and produced outstanding results.

Berkshire’s marvelous outcome in insurance was not a natural result. Ordinarily, a casualty insurance business is a producer of mediocre results, even when very well managed. And such results are of little use. Berkshire’s better outcome was so astoundingly large that I believe that Buffett would now fail to recreate it if he returned to a small base while retaining his smarts and regaining his youth.

Did Berkshire suffer from being a diffuse conglomerate? No, its opportunities were usefully enlarged by a widened area for operation. And bad effects, common elsewhere, were prevented by Buffett’s skills.

Why did Berkshire prefer to buy companies with cash, instead of its own stock? Well, it was hard to get anything in exchange for Berkshire stock that was as valuable as what was given up.

Why did Berkshire’s acquisition of companies outside the insurance business work out so well for Berkshire shareholders when the normal result in such acquisitions is bad for shareholders of the acquirer?

Well, Berkshire, by design, had methodological advantages to supplement its better opportunities. It never had the equivalent of a “department of acquisitions” under pressure to buy. And it never relied on advice from “helpers” sure to be prejudiced in favor of transactions. And Buffett held self-delusion at bay as he underclaimed expertise while he knew better than most corporate executives what worked and what didn’t in business, aided by his long experience as a passive investor. And, finally, even when Berkshire was getting much better opportunities than most others, Buffett often displayed almost inhuman patience and seldom bought. For instance, during his first ten years in control of Berkshire, Buffett saw one business (textiles) move close to death and two new businesses come in, for a net gain of one.

What were the big mistakes made by Berkshire under Buffett? Well, while mistakes of commission were common, almost all huge errors were in not making a purchase, including not purchasing Walmart stock when that was sure to work out enormously well. The errors of omission were of much importance. Berkshire’s net worth would now be at least $50 billion higher if it had seized several opportunities it was not quite smart enough to recognize as virtually sure things.

The next to last task on my list was: Predict whether abnormally good results would continue at Berkshire if Buffett were soon to depart.

The answer is yes. Berkshire has in place in its subsidiaries much business momentum grounded in much durable competitive advantage.

Moreover, its railroad and utility subsidiaries now provide much desirable opportunity to invest large sums in new fixed assets. And many subsidiaries are now engaged in making wise “bolt-on” acquisitions.

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.

And I believe neither Jain nor Abel would (1) leave Berkshire, no matter what someone else offered or (2) desire much change in the Berkshire system.

Nor do I think that desirable purchases of new businesses would end with Buffett’s departure. With Berkshire now so large and the age of activism upon us, I think some desirable acquisition opportunities will come and that Berkshire’s $60 billion in cash will constructively decrease.

My final task was to consider whether Berkshire’s great results over the last 50 years have implications that may prove useful elsewhere.

The answer is plainly yes. In its early Buffett years, Berkshire had a big task ahead: turning a tiny stash into a large and useful company. And it solved that problem by avoiding bureaucracy and relying much on one thoughtful leader for a long, long time as he kept improving and brought in more people like himself.

Compare this to a typical big-corporation system with much bureaucracy at headquarters and a long succession of CEOs who come in at about age 59, pause little thereafter for quiet thought, and are soon forced out by a fixed retirement age.

I believe that versions of the Berkshire system should be tried more often elsewhere and that the worst attributes of bureaucracy should much more often be treated like the cancers they so much resemble. A good example of bureaucracy fixing was created by George Marshall when he helped win World War II by getting from Congress the right to ignore seniority in choosing generals.

Sincerely,  
Charles T. Munger

Glossary of Terms from The Essays of Warren Buffett

The following are terms and phrases that have appeared in Berkshire Hathaway's Annual Letters, written by Warren Buffett, over the years.

Cigar Butt Investing
A foolish method of investing akin to taking the last puff on a cigar. It is the purchase of a stock at a sufficiently low price that there will be some short-term profit, though the business' long-term performance is likely to be terrible.

Circle of Competence
The limits of one's ability to judge the economics of businesses. Intelligent investors draw a thick boundary and stick with companies they can understand.

Dividend Test
Retention of earnings is only justified if each dollar retained produces at least a one dollar increase in per share market value.

Double-Barreled Acquisition Style
A sensible acquisition policy of buying either 100% of businesses in negotiated acquisitions or less than 100% of businesses in stock market puchases.

Institutional Imperative
A pervasive force in organizations that leads to irrational business decisions from resistance to change, absorption of corporate funds in suboptimal projects or acquisitions, indulgence of the cravings of senior executives, and mindless imitation of peer companies.

Intrinsic Value
A hard-to-calculate but crucial measure of business value. It is the discounted present value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life.

Look-Through Earnings
An alternative to GAAP rules governing investments in marketable securities of the investee less than 20%. This measures the investor's economic performance based on its percentage interest of the investee's undistributed earnings (after an incremental reduction for income taxes).

Margin-of-Safety
Probably the single most important principle of sound and successful investing. Ben Graham's principle says not to purchase a security unless the price being paid is substantially lower than the value being delivered.

Mr. Market
Ben Graham's allegory for the overall stock marketing. Personified as a mood, manic depressive that causes price and value to diverge — making superior intelligent investing possible.

Owner Earnings
A better measure of economic performance than cash flow or GAAP earnings. Equal to (a) operating earnings *plus* (b) depreciation and other non-cash charges *minus* (c) required reinvestment in the business to maintain present competitive position and unit volume.

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer turned founder and investor. He's led design work at Apple and Square. He is an early investor in Notion, Public.com, and Good Eggs. He's also the founder of Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Dec 10, 2023

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