Sunday, March 1, 2009

Berkshire Hathaway's 2008 Annual Letter

Every year, Warren Buffett issues a fun, easy-to-read letter to his shareholders. Here are this year's highlights:

Cash is King: As the year progressed, a series of life-threatening problems within many of the world’s great financial institutions was unveiled. This led to a dysfunctional credit market that in important respects soon turned non-functional. The watchword throughout the country became the creed I saw on restaurant walls when I was young: “In God we trust; all others pay cash.”

Government will get bigger without a firm hand: Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind-boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly.

The government's interference in credit markets is causing some disruptions: Though Berkshire’s credit is pristine – we are one of only seven AAA corporations in the country – our cost of borrowing is now far higher than competitors with shaky balance sheets but government backing. At the moment, it is much better to be a financial cripple with a government guarantee than a Gibraltar without one.

On bond insurers: By yearend 2007, the half dozen or so companies that had been the major players in this business had all fallen into big trouble. The cause of their problems was captured long ago by Mae West: “I was Snow White, but I drifted.” [Mae West, of course, was the rebel Hollywood sex symbol known for her wit.]

Public pensions are still a major concern: Local governments are going to face far tougher fiscal problems in the future than they have to date. The pension liabilities I talked about in last year’s report will be a huge contributor to these woes. Many cities and states were surely horrified when they inspected the status of their funding at yearend 2008. The gap between assets and a realistic actuarial valuation of present liabilities is simply staggering.

For more on this important topic, see my previous posts, here, here, here, here, and here.

On buying ConocoPhillips (COP) and the future of oil prices: I in no way anticipated the dramatic fall in energy prices that occurred in the last half of the year. I still believe the odds are good that oil sells far higher in the future than the current $40-$50 price. [Looks like investors who want to get a better deal than Mr. Buffett may want to consider buying COP.]

Just darn good writing and advice: Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns.

On derivative contracts: Receivables and payables by the billions become concentrated in the hands of a few large dealers who are apt to be highly-leveraged in other ways as well. Participants seeking to dodge troubles face the same problem as someone seeking to avoid venereal disease: It’s not just whom you sleep with, but also whom they are sleeping with.

Questions at this year's annual meeting will be handled differently--various journalists will sort through the questions and pick which ones to ask: The journalists and their e-mail addresses are: Carol Loomis, of Fortune, who may be emailed at; Becky Quick, of CNBC, at, and Andrew Ross Sorkin, of The New York Times, at From the questions submitted, each journalist will choose the dozen or so he or she decides are the most interesting and important. (In your e-mail, let the journalist know if you would like your name mentioned if your question is selected.)

Disclosure: I am bullish on
ConocoPhillips (COP).

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