Wednesday, May 13, 2015
the missing manual: Berkshire Hathaway / Warren Buffett
OK, so there isn't really a book with this title. I was just having some fun. Don't waste your time Googling or Amazoning it. It doesn't exist. In this day and age, you can't always believe what you see.
But you know, this is exactly what I was thinking as I was reading through some of the comments coming out of the annual meeting.
There were some tough questions raised this time and some shareholders didn't seem pleased with the answers.
Also, not too long after that, a hedge fund manager criticized Buffett calling him a hypocrite. He apparently backtracked later and said he was only kidding. I think he made these comments because Buffett, at the annual meeting, disapproved of the pretend reinsurance companies; reinsurance was just a 'front' (beard) for what is actually a hedge fund.
I think the criticism against Buffett was a response to that comment.
Anyway, I thought I'd just chime in on what I think about these respective issues that came up. I don't think I have much to add to what has already been said somewhere on either side of each argument; these are just some thoughts that came to mind as I read about them. Plus, it's an excuse to post this fake book cover I made to the public.
One issue was about the lending practices of Clayton Homes. I read the article (that reported on lending abuses at Clayton) and searched online for complaints and there are some horrible stories there. Buffett responded that there have been few complaints to his office, few investigations and fines in a highly regulated business. Clayton sells something like 30,000 homes per year so that says something, how few complaints there are.
I found one Better Business Bureau (BBB) site that shows 172 complaints over three years, but that's only one region. I don't know what that figure is nationally. Other websites have nightmare stories about Clayton too, but that doesn't really tell me anything.
If you Google even your favorite restaurant, there will be a few horror stories. The only problem is that it is a lot more likely for people who had a great meal to write a review on how great their experience was than for people who buy manufactured homes and had a great or normal experience. The review sites for manufactured homes tend to be nightmare sharing sites. For me, I need to know what the total figures are, not how bad the few horror stories are. As far as I'm concerned, Buffett gave those figures. He said he gets no complaints and has had very little regulatory problems. Plus the fact that they keep the loans on their books is pretty important; they retain the risk.
Also, we have to keep in mind the nature of the business. I don't even trust your average real estate agent. I think they are mostly full of it and don't believe what they say; they'll say what they need to say to get the deal done (well, apparently bond traders do that too!). Of course there are good and bad agents, just like anywhere else. I tend to believe that most people are honest, though, and try to do the right thing. A few bad apples won't spoil it for me (e.g., despite all I heard from the financial crisis, I still like and respect Goldman Sachs).
With respect to problems with the product itself (the homes), I was warned a long time ago by a real estate lawyer in NYC to avoid new construction. She has done many real estate deals over her long career and in most new constructions there were problems. It takes a few years for the building to get debugged, and possibly some lawsuits to get the repairs paid for by the developer. She said let others deal with that headache and just find something that has been working fine for a while already.
So it's kind of not surprising reading about Clayton complaints on the product. I hear about problems all the time on just about every other construction/renovation etc. With big projects, there are going to be problems. This is not a business like delivering pizzas, books or CD's.
In any case, for me to worry about Clayton, there would have to be real numbers, not just a few anecdotes here and there. There has to be reason to believe that this is an actual, widespread, systemic problem and not just a few problem situations here and there.
This is not to say that we shouldn't question these things. It's good that this question was raised and Buffett answered them. It seems like a lot of people were not happy with his response, but I don't know. He seems to have brought some facts and figures with him so I'm OK with that.
The other concern was that Buffett is getting involved with 3G Capital, a private equity firm. Buffett has answered this question before, explaining that 3G is not like other private equity firms. Other private equity firms do things for short term profits. They need to maximize value and then realize it in five to seven years, so they don't have the long-term horizon that Buffett likes.
3G Capital buys to hold and to grow, not to flip after a few years. The private equity business model is usually to buy something on leverage, cut costs and boost profits and then sell out (not all private equity firms are the same so I understand not all fit this description). Cynics will say that the idea is to sell out on strong earnings at a high multiple before the drastic cost cuts start to impact the medium to longer term outlook of the business.
3G Capital doesn't do that. They buy to own and build.
One journalist still couldn't get around the fact that 3G boosted earnings so quickly at Heinz. He was confused with operating for the long term while boosting profits in the short term. He thought, apparently, that they were mutually exclusive. This is not the case at all. Just because you boost earnings in the short term doesn't mean you are managing to optimize short term profits and not thinking long term.
If you buy a two-man business that is losing $500,000 / year and notice that you have one guy doing nothing but slurping cup noodles all day long (with no plans to do anything in the future) taking home $1,000,000 / year in salary and fire him, you will improve earnings from a $500,000 loss to a $500,000 profit. Yes, this improves short-term profits, but it doesn't mean it was a bad long-term business decision. It is probably the right long-term thing to do too. (Well, in this case, there would be no long term without firing that guy!).
Buffett used the example of the railroad industry and farming; right-sizing is necessary in capitalism or else we'd all still be living on farms. Munger used Russia as an example as an alternative to right-sizing (Russian laborers pretend to work and the government pretends to pay them).
I have another example, and that is the Japanese economy. Japanese companies too are highly averse to right-sizing and they have paid a heavy price for it. I read a few books a while ago on the growing problem in Japan of the "working poor", an increasing underclass of poor people in Japan.
The scary thing about this class of "working poor" is that many of them are highly educated former employees of large companies or owners of small to mid-size companies.
What happens is that the companies are so averse to right-sizing that when a firm ultimately and inevitably fails, the employees are unable to find work and end up in minimum wage jobs (working in a convenience store like a Seven-Eleven is apparently common). Suddenly, these people who drove Mercedes and BMW's were working the cash register on the night shift at the local Seven-Eleven.
The problem with middle management is that much of the time, the skill set acquired at one company is useless anywhere else. Middle managements often have no skills to bring to other firms. So when you don't right-size, you have a potential disaster in the making. Plus, when nobody down-sizes, there is no active labor market.
Jack Welch used to say that firing people is doing them a favor, and keeping them on the payroll when they shouldn't be is bad for them and for the economy. It sounds mean and harsh, but having seen what's going on in Japan, he is so exactly right. The sooner excess labor is let go so they can go acquire a new skill or new job, the better. If you wait until everyone gets too old and then have to fold up the shop, it's too late; employees will have been doing nothing for too many years/decades to be of use to anyone else.
So anyway, I have no problem with how 3G Capital operates, and I actually think it is good for the economy. This labor fluidity is necessary.
As for Buffett being involved in this sort of thing, he owns large stakes in companies that are highly efficient. His private businesses are businesses he bought because he liked how they are run. There is no inconsistency there. I think Buffett appreciates it when Wells Fargo and American Express (and others) right-size when necessary (so that massive layoffs all at once becomes less likely). And they have been doing that for decades. Again, no inconsistency.
Some people think that Buffett is missing the boat on the trend towards healthier lifestyles. I sort of feel that way too. But Buffett has a good point. We've been here before. He said that there was an article calling for the end of Coke in the 1940's, I think. People were unhappy with his purchase of KO in 1988.
Trends do come and go. We've had these health booms in the past. I remember some of them. At one point, people were avoiding carbs like the plague. And the hottest restaurant concept these days is Chipotle Mexican Grill (burritos and tacos, and yes, for those Atkins holdovers, bowls).
Red meat was evil not too long ago, and now we have a huge hamburger boom, Shake Shack just being the latest in this trend.
There was some discussion about IBM too during the annual meeting. It is interesting that the argument against IBM is that their mainframe business is dead and that they won't be able to catch up with the cloud. Buffett/Munger pointed out that IBM has been through technology cycles before and has come through fine. They used to dominate punch cards, but that business doesn't exist anymore and they evolved to the next thing.
The key is the client base, and Buffett seems confident from his discussions with CEO's that IBM clients are going to stay IBM clients for a while. And he has a pretty good sampling, just within Berkshire Hathaway and the stock holdings.
Also, I haven't done any work, but I rarely hear discussion about IBM's consulting business; somewhere within that beast (or dinosaur) is the old PWC Consulting, and Accenture is a listed company with a 20x P/E ratio. I don't know how that figures into the argument, but it must fit in there somewhere. It's not just about mainframes versus cloud, I don't think.
Buffett Ran a Hedge Fund!
Moving on to the "Buffett the hypocrite" thing. Buffett often criticizes hedge funds (and private equity funds and investment banks too). He criticizes them for their high fees.
Well, yes, Buffett ran a hedge fund too but he didn't take a management fee. He only took incentive fees above 6%, I think, with no catch-up provision. He takes 25% of gains above 6%, so if the fund returned only 6%, he would have gotten nothing.
The standard these days is 2 and 20, which is 2% management fee and 20% incentive fee. With expected return in stocks, at most, of 10%, that's a lot. If a fund returned a gross 10%, the net return to the investor would be 6% (before tax!). So the hedge fund manager would be taking home 40% of the gain. With Buffett's structure, a gross return of 10% would result in a net gain of 9% for the investor. Not a bad deal.
Also, Druckenmiller called people who invest in funds with a 2 and 20 structure "idiots" or something like that. He didn't criticize the funds, but the investors. He said that during his time in the industry, hedge funds with that kind of fee structure were expected to earn 30-40%/year (or something like that; maybe he said 20-30%). And he pointed out that they were expected to do well in good markets and bad markets. He says it's nonsense when managers earn low returns but tout returns on a "risk-adjusted" basis.
But going back, Buffett criticizes the high fees and also the fact that most funds don't perform well. Buffett's record as a hedge fund manager is well-known. He had incredible returns and a much friendlier fee structure.
So as far as I'm concerned, there is no hypocrisy here at all. His fee was fair, and he performed. For the record, I don't have a problem with hedge funds or their fees. I think it's up to investors to vote with their feet. If a manager deserves the high fees, fine. If not, the investors are dumb. So what? Hedge fund investors are presumably either professional institutions or accredited, "sophisticated" investors. I have more of a problem with products marketed to retail, with fees layered upon fees, much of them hidden (annuities) etc... (12b-1 fees, loads, management fees for perpetual underperformance etc.)
Buffett is/was an Activist!
True that, too. He has been involved in some situations, but it seems like they were reluctant situations and he didn't like hostile situations. I think he backed away from things that seemed hostile a long time ago. Otherwise, yes, he will still be involved in situations where he thinks he might be able to help. He was active behind the scenes at Coke not too long ago, for example.
But I think the beef he has with activism these days is that they seem to be too short-term oriented; lobbying companies to make moves that will boost the stock price in the short term so that the activist can sell out at a profit. I think his views of the GM situation earlier this year shows exactly what he didn't like about activism. If Berkshire Hathaway is an example of his activism, it's a great one; he still owns it after all these years! I think he has acknowledged in the past that some activism is good.
I too think it's good to a point. When most shares are held by big mutual fund companies and those mutual fund companies run the 401K plans of the companies they own shares in, I think that might lead to problems. I think someone has to occasionally step up for the shareholders and rattle the cage a little bit. I guess the debate would be more about where you draw the line. Which activist situations were good, and which ones were bad? DuPont recently is a good case study (I have no opinion either way other than to say that it is interesting!).
Buffett Doesn't Pay Taxes but Wants Others to Pay More
This is one thing that keeps coming up over and over again and it's really annoying to me. They say that Buffett is calling for higher taxes for the rich and yet he does all he can to avoid taxes. They say, if he wants the rich to pay higher taxes, why doesn't he just pay more taxes himself? Let him pick a fair rate and then pay that himself to the government.
I never understood that argument. It is ridiculous. Buffett's idea is to raise revenues for the government, and one person like Buffett paying voluntary taxes is not going to move the needle. (well, some will say that taxing the rich won't move the needle either).
Here goes a bad analogy, but it's like saying, hey, if you want the whole country to lose weight and want to implement limits on the size of soft drinks, just limit soft drinks for yourself! Well, great. Limiting soft drinks for yourself might help your own health (possibly, but according to Buffett/Munger, maybe not!) but will do nothing for the country. I don't mean to debate if this would work anyway. But the point is, if you want to make a change for the country and advocate policies, you can't just do something yourself and think that will solve the problem.
Buffett's tax thing is like that. He pays all the taxes that he is required to pay. He has donated most of his wealth to charity and avoided a huge tax bill, but I don't even know if that was his primary motive to give to charity. He was clear from early on that he didn't want to give his kids too much money. The alternative is to give to charity, which happens to be tax free.
For the record (who cares what I think?), I am no advocate of higher taxes. A much better idea would be to have 3G Capital run the government. They don't have to become president; they just need to run the operations; Post Office, Amtrak, and everything else!
So anyway, I know all of these things are big topics of debate and I can't say who is right or wrong. I just posted what I personally think about these things.
Posted by kk at 7:10 PM