Every year, Berkshire Hathaway’s Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett sends a thoughtfully crafted letter to the company’s shareholders from which the investment industry gleans whatever newfound wisdom possible. Given that 2020 was an unusual year by economic, social and financial standards, there is much to glean.
Despite the difficulties the U.S. has experienced in managing the COVID-19 virus, Buffett has one sustaining message: “Never bet against America.” He also is a man who aligns his money with his beliefs. Presently, Berkshire Hathaway owns the highest value of U.S. business assets – comprised of property, plants and equipment – than any other company in the country.1
Berkshire is a conglomerate of disparate companies, and Buffet spends much time in his letter imparting what he’s learned about being a majority shareholder versus running a business. He says that “owning a non-controlling portion of a wonderful business is more profitable, more enjoyable – and far less work.”2
Fortunately, that’s also what it can be like to be an individual investor. While we may not be major shareholders, investors are often rewarded with a slice of the profit pie when we choose a well-run and profitable business. The key, of course, is to pick the right ones. Short-term investors may look to trade high risk for a quick profit, while longer-term investors may seek more reliable performance and give a company plenty of time to deliver. Sometimes it’s a matter of first figuring out what it is you want to accomplish with the money you make and then develop a strategy from there. Let us know if we can help.
One concept Buffett often reiterates is the need to hold a margin of safety when investing. Millions of people who lost their jobs during the pandemic learned just how narrow that margin of safety was within their own households. For those lucky enough to continue working, they may be even better off than before – simply because the pandemic shut down normal spending activities. That means many households are now in a position to reduce their debt and financial risks, and create an emergency fund they may not have had previously.3
Another hallmark move Buffett made in 2020 was an outsized buyback of Berkshire Hathaway’s own shares. The total 2020 tab came to $24.7 billion – compared to the combined total of $6.4 billion from the two prior years. Buffett noted that while he normally shies away from repurchases, the strategy offered “a simple way for investors to own an ever-expanding portion of exceptional businesses.” The strategy proved to be appropriate for an unpredictable year such as 2020.4
And finally, another key component of the shareholder letter was that Buffett admitted to making a big mistake in the past that came to a head in 2020. In 2016, Berkshire purchased aerospace parts manufacturer Precision Castparts for $37 billion. While he still believes the company is the leader of the aerospace industry and will generate solid returns in the future, Buffett cops to an earnings miscalculation that led him to pay too much for the company. 5