1976 Buffett Letter About Geico

July 22nd, 1976

Mr. George D. Young,
National Indemnity Company,
3024 Harney Street,
Omaha, Nebraska. 68131.

Dear George:

Thanks very much for your memo of July 19th regarding GEICO which I believe summarizes well the problems attendant to the specific property treaty we are discussing, as well as the general problems associated with reinsurance of any type at GEICO. I still am willing to explore further the GEICO property treaty—if they subsequently decide that it fits their needs—and today committed to Jack Byrne that we would take a 1% quota share of their entire book. This increase from .8 of 1% was pursuant to his request in order to help him attain the 25% mark by the shareholders meeting tomorrow.

I consider the overall quota share to be an acceptable—but not exciting—piece of business. Under normal conditions we would take nothing like 1%, obviously, since that makes it by far the largest reinsurance treaty on our books, and involves substantial risks along with a limited prospect of profit. I also do not like the feature that provides for a credit to GEICO for interest earnings on funds held by us. In effect, we are making this contract number one in size for the reinsurance department, whereas the contractual terms make it less attractive than most of our other contracts.

However, I have three reasons for taking this unusually large portion of the quota share arrangement, and these same reasons also apply to my interest in the property treaty.

  1. I hope it is not a governing factor in any way, but I do have some sentimental reasons for wishing GEICO to survive. GEICO has enumerated all of the hard headed reasons, such as the State Financial Guaranty funds, etc. I just have pulled out of the bottom drawer of my desk a statement of my net worth at the end of 1951 when I was 21 years old. I showed net assets of $19,737, of which $13,125 was in GEICO stock. That was the year when I first started selling securities, and I told everyone who would listen to me that they should put every cent they could scrape together into GEICO. A number of friends and relatives did so, and enjoyed a significant change in their financial fortunes because of this. It provided the first big boost to my own small savings, as well as an even more important boost to my reputation in the Omaha investment community.

    During those early years, when I followed the company, the people involved couldn’t have been nicer. Leo Goodwin was running things then and was helpful. Even moreso was L. A. Davidson. He was personally encouraging and forthcoming with information regarding the business, which enabled me to develop a depth of conviction which I have felt few times since about any security.

  2. At that time I felt that GEICO possessed an extraordinary business advantage in a very large industry that was going to continue to grow. Since that time they never have lost that advantage—the ability to give the policyholder back in losses a greater percentage of the premium dollar than any other auto insurance company in the country, while still providing a profit to the company. I always have been attracted to the low cost operator in any business and, when you can find a combination of (i) an extremely large business, (ii) a more or less homogenous product, and (iii) a very large gap in operating costs between the low cost operator and all of the other companies in the industry, you have a really attractive investment situation. That situation prevailed twenty-five years ago when I first became interested in the company, and it still prevails.

    The company managed to nullify this advantage—and even more than nullify it—by inadequate recognition of loss costs through poor techniques of loss reserving. This led to improper pricing of product with the result that a product which *could* have been sold at a profit *was* sold at a loss.But the important point to note is that the company had not lost its position as a low cost operator; they merely had mismanaged their loss information which caused the product to be priced inadequately. I believe the advantages of a 13% acquisition cost ratio are as important as ever. I also believe that practically no other companies are going to achieve costs near that figure in the future. Therefore, GEICO, properly managed, should prosper if they can pull themselves back from the financial precipice.

    I like very much what Jack Byrne says about reducing policies in force. It seems to me that such an approach a rather than an obsession with growth is very likely to reconstruct the situation whereby they can give the policyholder an unusually high percentage of the dollar back in losses and still make good profits for themselves.

  3. The crucial factor, then, becomes whether they can get past their present financial difficulties. Much of the press –witness Time last week—assumes that they can’t. Until recently, I was unclear myself as to their possibilities in this regard. If they had been at all wishy-washy in obtaining rate increases or biting the bullet generally, I don’t think they would have made it. However, the size of the rate increases they have instituted, along with the underwriting results they have published for April and May, have convinced me that their combined ratio will come down to tolerable limits within a fairly short time.

    Even this would not have been enough if Mr. Wallach were inclined to put them into receivership because of the unwillingness of the industry to accept his 40% plan. When he did not move to do so after the June 23rd deadline, it convinced me that he was not going to act precipitously to terminate a business that fundamental economic logic still dictated had a bright future ahead of it. When he did not bow his back over the non-subscription to his 40% plan, I believe the company’s future became assured. I decided then to buy stock, which is the most tangible evidence I can give you as to my assessment of the Company’s chances for survival.

Therefore, George, I will take the responsibility for making the decision that GEICO survives as a business entity. You should make any underwriting judgments that you wish, with this as the premise—if I am wrong about their survival, it will be my fault and not yours. I do not want to go overboard because of sentiment, but I certainly want us to make every effort to come up with proposals that make business sense to us and are useful to them. I do not want mare of the overall quota share because I consider the terms too disadvantageous to the reinsurer, all things considered. But, if a property treaty can be put together with a prospect of gain that more than balances the risk of loss, let’s proceed.

Sincerely,

Warren E. Buffett

WEB/glk

Book Notes: Benjamin Graham

As with my other book notes, some passages are direct quotes and others are my own paraphrasing/summaries. Any footnotes or [brackets] are my personal comments.

The Intelligent Investor (1973) + Security Analysis (1934), by Benjamin Graham

Benjamin GrahamTo invest intelligently in securities one should be forearmed with an adequate knowledge of how the various types of bonds and stocks have actually behaved under varying conditions—some of which, at least, one is likely to meet again in one’s own experience.

An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis promises safety of principle and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative. An investment operation is one that can be justified on both qualitative and quantitative grounds.

We speak of an investment operation rather than an issue or a purchase, for several reasons. An investment might be justified in a group of issues, which would not be sufficiently safe if made in any one of them singly. In our view it is also proper to consider as investment operations certain types of arbitrage and hedging commitments which involve the sale of one security against the purchase of another. The safety sought in investment is not absolute or complete; the word means, rather, protection against loss under all normal or reasonably likely conditions or variations. A safe stock is one which holds every prospect of being worth the price paid except under quite unlikely contingencies.

Outright speculation is neither illegal, immoral, nor (for most people) fattening to the pocketbook. There is intelligent speculation as there is intelligent investing. But there are many ways in which speculation may be unintelligent. Of these the foremost are: (1) speculating when you think you are investing; (2) speculating seriously instead of as a pastime, when you lack proper knowledge and skill for it; and (3) risking more money in speculation than you can afford to lose.

The defensive (or passive) investor will place his chief emphasis on the avoidance of serious mistakes or losses. His second aim will be freedom from effort, annoyance, and the need for making frequent decisions. The determining trait of the enterprising (or active, aggressive) investor is his willingness to devote time and care to the selection of securities that are both sound and more attractive than average.

Obvious prospects for physical growth in a business do not translate into obvious profits for investors. The future of security prices is never predictable.

In his endeavor to select the most promising stocks wither for the near term or the longer future, the investor faces obstacles of two kinds—the first stemming from human fallibility and the second from the nature of his competition. He may be wrong in his estimate of the future; or even if he is right, the current market price may already fully reflect what he is anticipating. In the area of near-term selectivity, the current year’s results of the company are generally common property on Wall Street; the next year’s results, to the extent they are predictable, are already being carefully considered. Hence the investor who selects issues chiefly on the basis of this year’s superior results, or on what he is told he may expect for next year, is likely to find that others have done the same thing for the same reason. To enjoy a reasonable chance for continued better than average results, the investor must follow policies which are (1) inherently sound and promising, and (2) not popular on Wall Street. Continue reading “Book Notes: Benjamin Graham”

Warren Buffett on Pensions (1975)

This is the full text letter from Warren Buffett to Katherine Graham discussing pensions, as released by Fortune. I find this easier to read on things like Instapaper than the PDF version.

PENSIONS

There are two aspects of the pension cost problem upon which management can have a significant impact: (1) maintaining rational control over pension plan promises to employees and (2) increasing investment returns on pension plan assets.

The Irreversible Nature of Pension Promises

To control promises rationally, it is necessary to understand the basic arithmetic and practical rules governing pension plans.

The first thing to recognize, with every pension benefit decision, is that you almost certainly are playing for keeps and won’t be able to reverse your decision subsequently if it produces subnormal profitability.

As a practical matter, it is next to impossible to decrease pension benefits in a large profitable company—or even a large marginal one. The plan may embody language unequivocally declaring the company’s right to terminate at any time and providing that contributions shall be solely at the option of the company. But the law has eroded much of the significance such “out” clauses were presumed to have, and operating practicalities render any residual rights to terminate moot.

So, rule number one regarding pension costs has to be to know what you are getting into before signing up. Look before you leap. There probably is more managerial ignorance on pension costs than any other cost item of remotely similar magnitude. And, as will become so expensively clear to citizens in future decades, there has been even greater electorate ignorance of governmental pension costs. Actuarial thinking simply is not intuitive to most minds. The lexicon is arcane, the numbers seem unreal, and making promises never quite triggers the visceral response evoked by writing a check.

In no other managerial area can such huge aggregate liabilities—which will be reflected in progressively increasing annual costs and cash requirements—be created so quickly and with so little immediate financial pain. Like pressroom labor practices, small errors will compound. Care and caution are in order. Continue reading “Warren Buffett on Pensions (1975)”

Why Buffett Didn’t Buy the Post

There have been many speculations about why Warren Buffett — a long time shareholder, admirer, and one-time delivery boy of the Washington Post — opted not to purchase the company. Berkshire Hathaway has over $35 billion in cash and they’ve been purchasing local papers recently, so passing on the Post is curious at first glance.

Followers of Buffett have pointed to the fact that he has a policy of not buying into money-losing businesses in a shrinking industry.

But I think the real reason is that Buffett believes the Post will be better off in the hands of Bezos. For the Post to stop losing money, it needs some serious changes — changes that would be difficult for Berkshire to provide. The company would be only a tiny part of the massive conglomerate, and there wouldn’t be a figurehead leader to guide the paper during such a turnaround.

Buffett admires and respects Jeff Bezos.* He also loves the Washington Post enough to look past his own desires so it can have a brighter future. Don Graham no doubt sought Buffett’s advice before making this decision, and I’d like to believe this is what he told him.

* It’s also worth noting that the admiration is mutual. One of the major aspects of Buffett’s success is his ability to realize talent in others. It’s easy to see that talent in someone who knows strategy, history, product, and capital allocation so well.

Dear Mrs. Graham

In 1973, the Washington Post Company couldn’t have been a more widely revered media company. The Watergate scandal, which Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein begun reporting on in mid-1972, came to a spectacular end with President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. But the reverence of the publication didn’t match the company’s popularity on Wall Street. The Post—along with many other stocks at that time—was trading at historic lows.

Below is the letter that Warren Buffett wrote to Katharine Graham in June 1973 after he had acquired over 5% of the stock. By the end of the year his stake had increased to 10%. The letter gives a lot of insight into how Buffett viewed the Post—not only as an investment, but as a business with noble purposes that brings out his sentimental side.

This purchase represents a sizable commit ment to us—and an explicitly quantified compliment to the Post as a business enterprise and to you as its chief executive. Writing a check separates conviction from conversation. I recognize that the Post is Graham-controlled and Graham-managed. And that suits me fine.

Some years back, a partnership which I managed made a significant investment in the stock of Walt Disney Productions. The stock was ridiculously cheap based upon earnings, asset values and capability of management. That alone was enough to make my pulse quicken (and pocketbook open), but there was also an important extra dimension to the investment. In its field, Disney simply was the finest—hands down. Anything that didn’t reflect his best efforts—anything that might leave the customer feeling short-changed—just wasn’t acceptable to Walt Disney. He melded energetic creativity with a discipline regarding profitability, and achieved something unique in entertainment.

I feel the same way about The Washington Post. The stock is dramatically undervalued relative to the intrinsic worth of its constituent properties, although that is true of many securities in today’s markets. But, the twin attraction to the undervaluation is an enterprise that has become synonymous for quality in communications. How much more satisfying it is going to be to watch an investment in the Post grow over the years than it would be to own stock in some garden variety company which, though cheap, had no sense of purpose.

I am additionally impressed by the sense of stewardship projected by your communications to fellow shareholders. They are factual, complete and interesting as you bring your established newspaper standards for integrity to the newer field of corporate reporting.

You may remember that I was in your office about two years ago with Charles Munger, discussing the New Yorker. At the time I mentioned to you that I had received my financial start delivering the Post while attending Woodrow Wilson High in the mid 1940’s. Although I delivered about 400 Posts per day, my record of loyalty is slightly tarnished in that I also had the Times-Herald route (much smaller—my customers were discriminating) in the Westchester. This was perhaps the first faint sign to keenly perceptive Washingtonians that the two organizations eventually would get together.

I should mention that Berkshire Hathaway has no radio or television properties, so that we will not be a complicating factor with the FCC. Our only communications property is the ownership of Sun Newspapers of Omaha, a group of financially (but not editorially) insignificant weekly newspapers in the metropolitan Omaha area. Last month our whole organization, seventy people counting printing, went into orbit when we won a Pulitzer for our reporting on Boys Town’s undisclosed wealth. Incidentally, Newsweek and Time used approximately equal space in covering the story last year, but Newsweek’s reporting job was far superior.

You can see that the Post has a rather fervent fan out in Omaha. I have hopes that, as funds become available, we will add to our holdings, at which time I will send along amended 13-D filings.

Cordially,
Warren E. Buffett

This letter was taken from Katharine Graham’s wonderful autobiography, Personal History.

Mental Model: Fitness Landscapes

Fitness Landscapes are used to visualize the relationship between genetic makeup (genotype) and evolutionary fitness (the ability to survive and reproduce). A fitness landscape is a vast landscape divided into a grid of billions of squares. Each square represents a genotype—some squares represent birds; some fish; some humans; with the majority being all the variations of genetic possibility that couldn’t survive in reality. Each square is very similar to its neighbors: two of the same species with a small variation, or two different but related species. The closer the squares, the more similar the genotype, and the further the squares, the more different. The fitness of each genotype is represented by its height on the landscape. Valleys represent low fitness, mountain peaks high fitness.

Fitness Landscape

Over time, species tend to move up the landscape to the nearest peak (A), where all future paths of variation lead downward. The peak that a genotype “settles” on is most likely to be a local optimum, which is not necessarily the highest peak in the landscape (a global optimum). This is because selection pushes fitness towards nearby peaks (what is called a basis of attraction), but lacks the foresight to select the highest peak.

To get to a higher peak, a species may have to reduce its fitness in the near term (C) as it slowly traverses across a valley in order to improve fitness in the long term. In order to make this shift, there has to be sufficient instability or challenge; otherwise, an organism will not opt to leave the intermediate peak and suffer the unknown prospects of the valley. If the valley is too low or the higher peak too far away, it may be unreachable as the low fitness hurdle can’t be overcome. (An example is the lack of wheeled animals, which although beneficial is inaccessible due to the valley of low fitness genotypes around it.)

Evolution usually moves in small steps, but occasionally it takes wild leaps—a single mutation might give a creature an extra pair of legs or another radically different feature. Most of the time these leaps result in much lower fitness (B), and therefore don’t last. But other times it allows the genotype to jump to a higher peak without the slow process of going down before going up.

Every landscape has different terrain that can be on a scale from flat to rugged. A rugged or coarse landscape has many local peaks and deep valleys, while a flat landscape has only very small hills (all genotypes have about the same success rates).

Landscapes don’t remain static—they shift over time due to either environmental changes or adjustments as organisms move across it. The movement can vary from being stable (relatively flat and slow to change) to roiling (likely rugged and changing quickly). Given the likelihood of ever-shifting landscapes, the evolutionary mix of small steps and occasional wild leaps is the best possible way to adapt to the environment.

Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders

Berkshire Letters CoverI’m excited to announce the release of a book I’ve been working on for about 6 months now, and first started in 2010.

It’s a compilation of every letter Warren Buffett wrote to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. I first created it a few years ago for myself and friends. Last year I got Buffett’s endorsement — plus a few non-public letters — to publish the book for the benefit of fans and shareholders of Berkshire.

Here is the official page with all the details. There you can find a more detailed description, plus some sample pages and a chart detailing the performance of Berkshire’s insurance operations. (For any programmers out there, the chart was created with D3. You can check out the development version on GitHub.)

Features of the book:

  • Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder letters from 1965 to 2012 (706 pages), including the 11 earliest letters not available on Berkshire’s website
  • Tabulated letter years so you can easily flip to the desired letter
  • Topics index
  • Company index
  • Person index
  • Charts of:
    • The growth in Berkshire’s book value and market price relative to benchmarks
    • Insurance float and performance
    • The operating businesses of Berkshire

The entire book is paginated, and has easy-to-flip-to labels for each letter’s year.

It is available for pre-order now. The first batch will be sold at the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting on May 4 in the convention center. The rest of the copies will be available on Amazon on May 7.

Future projects

  • The obvious next step is to publish a digital version, easily readable on iPads or potentially Kindles. This is normally an easy transfer, but that’s not the case with this book due to the many tables that have to be converted. So no timeline on this but it will be forthcoming.
  • A book of letters to the partners of Buffett Partnership, Ltd., Buffett’s hedge fund he ran from 1957 to 1970. This will be a similar format to the Berkshire book, with indexes, page numbers, etc.

How to separate luck and skill

These are some of my notes from the book “The Success Equation” by Michael Mauboussin. This book was spotted on Warren Buffett’s desk in this tour of his office. There’s lots more interesting stuff in the book, but these notes in particular answer the question “How do you separate luck and skill?” We’ll start off with some definitions:

Luck is a chance occurrence that affects a person or a group (e.g., a sports team or a company). Luck can be good or bad. Furthermore, if it is reasonable to assume that another outcome was possible, then a certain amount of luck is involved. In this sense, luck is out of one’s control and unpredictable. Randomness and luck are related, but there is a useful distinction between the two. You can think of randomness as operating at the level of a system and luck operating at the level of the individual. Luck is a residual: it’s what is left over after you’ve subtracted skill from an outcome.

The definition of skill depends on how much luck there is in the activity. In activities allowing little luck, you acquire skill through practice of physical or cognitive tasks. In activities incorporating a large dose of luck, skill is best defined as a process of making decisions. Here, a good process will have a good outcome but only over time. Patience, persistence, and resilience are all elements of skill.

Separating luck and skill

Luck-Skill Continuum
At the heart of making this distinction lays the issue of feedback. On the skill side, feedback is clear and accurate, because there is a close relationship between cause and effect. Feedback on the luck side is often misleading because cause and effect are poorly correlated in the short run.

In most cases, characterizing what’s going on at the extremes is not too hard. As an example, you can’t predict the outcome of a specific fair coin toss or payoff from a slot machine. They are entirely dependent on chance. On the other hand, the fastest swimmer will almost always win the race. The outcome is determined by skill, with luck playing only a vanishingly small role.

Continue reading “How to separate luck and skill”

Instacart: analysis of a startup

InstacartInstacart is a seed-stage startup that delivers groceries and other basic items in a very short timeframe. They are the “Amazon.com with a 1 hour delivery.” At the moment their current market is only San Francisco and the Silicon Valley area. Customers can place either a 3-hour order ($3.99) or a 1-hour order ($14.99).  Orders are routed to shoppers who work for Instacart, who then pick up the items at a local store and deliver them within the timeframe.

In October they raised $2.3 million from Canaan Partners and Khosla Ventures. Below is a  a very brief analysis if I were considering a potential investment in Instacart.

Quick analysis

So basically Instacart uses software (algorithms & data analysis on the back-end, with good UI design on the front-end) to connect “deliverers” in need of cash with “buyers” who need quick delivery of basic items.

Opportunity: arbitraging the demand for instant satisfaction and convenience, using software + crowdsourcing. This will be disrupting convenience stores on the low-end, and potentially grocery stores in the future. It is taking advantage of the trends in mobile computing, data analysis, and e-commerce (willingness to trust online vendors).

Potential moatsbrand habit developed through repeated purchases. Learning curve — should remain ahead of competition on the learning curve because of technology (software) advantage. This is a business where it pays to have lots of data on: customer habits, traffic, prices, store traffic, etc. It is a virtuous circle: the learning curve reinforces customer experience, which improves the brand. These advantages are all geographically local, so it will be best to roll out to new cities as quickly as possible once the kinks are worked out.

Management: with only doing minimal due diligence with public information on the founders, I didn’t see any red flags. Apoorva Mehta has worked on the Amazon supply chain, so he has some experience in the business. All founders on the surface seem to be very talented. What am I looking for? Amar Bhide found that the most important traits for the founders of a typical startup are the dichotomies of: (1) seeking uncertainty while being risk averse; and (2) persevering while being adaptable.

What could go wrong: (1) other cities are not as receptive to the concept; (2) Amazon or other grocery company catches on and preempts their growth in new cities.

Investment edge: structural (not very many participants at this early stage) and psychological (grocery delivery has failed many times in the past, sometimes spectacularly — Webvan — investors are turned off by the concept because of these past failures).

Final note

This seems like a company with a good future ahead of it. That usually makes it a good investment, especially at this stage. I’m not sure what the valuation of the company is at the moment. But for a startup at this stage, the precise valuation you invest at isn’t usually as important as how well the company does (within limits, of course — refer to the internet bubble).

Disclosure: I have no ownership in Instacart.

References:

Crunchbase: Instacart
Mobile first, desktop second…
I Trusted a Total Stranger to Buy My Groceries…
Instacart Bags $2.3M To Become Amazon of Groceries
How Instacart Hacked YC

Groupon Revisited

I never purchased shares in Groupon as it was obviously overvalued at first, and as the price fell I became more skeptical of the ability of anyone to predict future cash flows with any margin of safety.

The accounting troubles were unfortunate — I think this was a result of bad internal controls combined with extremely aggressive private market owners pushing to sell out to the public at high prices.

As I mentioned in my first post about Groupon’s competitive advantages, I still think it is very possible to have barriers to entry in this business, and to maintain high market share. People who claimed that the market was too commoditized turned out to be wrong in the end: so far, Groupon and LivingSocial have roughly maintained their market shares.

WSJ: “Groupon’s Growth Slows”:

Groupon has faced a series of hiccups since going public, including financial revisions and questions from regulators, as well as concerns that consumers are tiring of the daily discounted offers that it provides from merchants.

I think the last reason was the real downfall — not competitive pressure. I admitted the concept was faddish in my first post but clearly overestimated the sustainability of the online “group coupon” model in terms of popularity (Groupon, LivingSocial, Travelzoo, etc.).

I think it was originally a great idea — and it will continue to be a good product for certain businesses and consumers. But the incredible growth of the idea was short-lived. It turned out the be the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” in the Gartner Hype Cycle:

The idea itself became a fad among consumers (myself included) and as time went on people became either bored or sick of the idea. Small businesses that used the service also found out quickly that issuing a mass amount of hugely discounted coupons isn’t right for every type of business. It works for some, but not all.

At a price of $2.82, current enterprise value is around $750 million or $1.3 billion if you include the float from merchants payable. Will this price turn out to be cheap in hindsight? I still think it’s too hard to tell. But it very well might be if Groupon can right-size its business and reach the “Plateau of Productivity”. There is a certain level of volume that makes sense for this model, they just need to find it without losing too much money along the way.