In it, the world’s greatest investor shares details about his company’s performance over the past year, but also shoots the breeze with a few quirky musing of his own.
Being an investor in the stock market requires at least an opinion on where the future will take us, and in this year’s letter, Uncle Warren had a fair amount of that.
Warren Buffett’s ‘businesses of the future’
Berkshire Hathaway have a large portfolio of businesses, but are always looking towards the future trying to estimate what will be profitable in years to come.
A new purchase:
‘The newcomer will be Precision Castparts Corp. (“PCC”), a business that we purchased a month ago for more than $32 billion of cash.’
Under CEO Mark Donegan, PCC has become the world’s premier supplier of aerospace components (most of them destined to be original equipment, though spares are important to the company as well). Mark’s accomplishments remind me of the magic regularly performed by Jacob Harpaz at IMC, our remarkable Israeli manufacturer of cutting tools. The two men transform very ordinary raw materials into extraordinary products that are used by major manufacturers worldwide. Each is the da Vinci of his craft.’
…and the business growing well into the future:
‘Berkshire Hathaway Energy (“BHE”) is a similar story. That company has invested $16 billion in renewables and now owns 7% of the country’s wind generation and 6% of its solar generation.
Indeed, the 4,423 megawatts of wind generation owned and operated by our regulated utilities is six times the generation of the runner-up utility. We’re not done. Last year, BHE made major commitments to the future development of renewables in support of the Paris Climate Change Conference. Our fulfilling those promises will make great sense, both for the environment and for Berkshire’s economics.’
Warren Buffett’s ‘future of the USA’
‘It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.
That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.
American GDP per capita is now about $56,000. As I mentioned last year that – in real terms – is a staggering six times the amount in 1930, the year I was born, a leap far beyond the wildest dreams of my parents or their contemporaries. U.S. citizens are not intrinsically more intelligent today, nor do they work harder than did Americans in 1930. Rather, they work far more efficiently and thereby produce far more. This all-powerful trend is certain to continue: America’s economic magic remains alive and well.
Indeed, most of today’s children are doing well. All families in my upper middle-class neighborhood regularly enjoy a living standard better than that achieved by John D. Rockefeller Sr. at the time of my birth. His unparalleled fortune couldn’t buy what we now take for granted, whether the field is – to name just a few – transportation, entertainment, communication or medical services. Rockefeller certainly had power and fame; he could not, however, live as well as my neighbors now do.
‘Though the pie to be shared by the next generation will be far larger than today’s, how it will be divided will remain fiercely contentious. Just as is now the case, there will be struggles for the increased output of goods and services between those people in their productive years and retirees, between the healthy and the infirm, between the inheritors and the Horatio Algers, between investors and workers and, in particular, between those with talents that are valued highly by the marketplace and the equally decent hard-working Americans who lack the skills the market prizes. Clashes of that sort have forever been with us – and will forever continue.
Congress will be the battlefield; money and votes will be the weapons. Lobbying will remain a growth industry.
The good news, however, is that even members of the “losing” sides will almost certainly enjoy – as they should – far more goods and services in the future than they have in the past. The quality of their increased bounty will also dramatically improve. Nothing rivals the market system in producing what people want – nor, even more so, in delivering what people don’t yet know they want. My parents, when young, could not envision a television set, nor did I, in my 50s, think I needed a personal computer. Both products, once people saw what they could do, quickly revolutionized their lives. I now spend ten hours a week playing bridge online. And, as I write this letter, “search” is invaluable to me. (I’m not ready for Tinder, however.)’
Warren’s biggest threat to the future:
‘There is, however, one clear, present and enduring danger to Berkshire against which Charlie and I are powerless. That threat to Berkshire is also the major threat our citizenry faces: a “successful” (as defined by the aggressor) cyber, biological, nuclear or chemical attack on the United States. That is a risk Berkshire shares with all of American business.
The probability of such mass destruction in any given year is likely very small. It’s been more than 70 years since I delivered a Washington Post newspaper headlining the fact that the United States had dropped the first atomic bomb. Subsequently, we’ve had a few close calls but avoided catastrophic destruction. We can thank our government – and luck! – for this result. Nevertheless, what’s a small probability in a short period approaches certainty in the longer run. (If there is only one chance in thirty of an event occurring in a given year, the likelihood of it occurring at least once in a century is 96.6%.)
The added bad news is that there will forever be people and organizations and perhaps even nations that would like to inflict maximum damage on our country. Their means of doing so have increased exponentially during my lifetime. “Innovation” has its dark side. There is no way for American corporations or their investors to shed this risk. If an event occurs in the U.S. that leads to mass devastation, the value of all equity investments will almost certainly be decimated.
No one knows what “the day after” will look like. I think, however, that Einstein’s 1949 appraisal remains apt: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Warren Buffett letter is full of insights regarding disruptive innovation and the need for business to continue to study emerging future horizons.
He is obviously not always on the money with his analysis, but he has always been optimist about the future and the power of human ingenuity.
You can download and study the rest of his commentary right here.