Warren Buffett’s annual Letter to Shareholders is always worth reading even if you didn’t own any shares in Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A, NYSE:BRK.B). Here are some of the highlights from 2010 letter to shareholders released over the weekend and available on the Berkshire Hathaway website:
- Conventional wisdom has it that America’s best days are behind it and economic might is going to inevitably shift eastward. Buffett, however, is optimistic about America’s prospects. He says that the country’s best days lie ahead because America’s system for unleashing the human potential is the same it has been in the past. (Pages 3-4).
- If you invest is stocks, you have to have confidence that management will invest retained earnings sensibly. Buffett points out that a dollar of earnings in the hands of Sears Roebuck’s CEO had a far different story than a dollar entrusted with Sam Walton. (Pages 7-8).
- Next, Buffett explains the business results in Insurance (Pages 8-11), Berkshire’s vast empire selling everything from candies to underwear (Pages 12-14), Railroads and utilities (Pages 14-15) and stock holdings. (Pages 17-18).
- Buffett warns investors against putting too much stock in net earnings, which can be gamed by management. Instead, he counsels investors to pay close attention to changes in book value and a company’s operating earnings. (Pages 20-21).
- Buffett counsels investors to eschew leverage, which can magnify gains but can turn lethal to a portfolio. Instead, he explains why despite very low interest rates investors Berkshire keeps plenty of cash around just in case things go horribly wrong as they did in September 2008. If there is only one thing you can read in this year’s letter, it should be Pages 22 to 25.
On Leverage: “And as we all learned in third grade – and some relearned in 2008 – any series of positive numbers, however impressive the numbers may be, evaporates when multiplied by a single zero. History tells us that leverage all too often produces zeroes, even when it is employed by very smart people.”
On reaching for yield: “We agree with investment writer Ray DeVoe’s observation, “More money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun.””
On availability of credit: “Borrowers then learn that credit is like oxygen. When either is abundant, its presence goes unnoticed. When either is missing, that’s all that is noticed. Even a short absence of credit can bring a company to its knees.”
On market volatility: “As one investor said in 2009: “This is worse than divorce. I’ve lost half my net worth – and I still have my wife.””
On homeownership: “But a house can be a nightmare if the buyer’s eyes are bigger than his wallet and if a lender – often protected by a government guarantee – facilitates his fantasy. Our country’s social goal should not be to put families into the house of their dreams, but rather to put them into a house they can afford.”