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  • AUGUST 9, 2007

Lessons from Warren Buffett - VII

While corporate excesses and the concept of economic earnings, different from accounting earnings remained the focal points in the master's 1982 letter to shareholders, let us see what he has to offer in his 1983 letter.

In this another enlightening letter, Warren Buffett, probably for the first time discussed at length the concept of 'goodwill' and believed it to be of great importance in understanding businesses. Further, he blames the discrepancies between the 'actual intrinsic value' and the 'accounting book value' of Berkshire Hathaway to have arisen because of the concept of 'goodwill'. This is what he has to say on the subject.

"You can live a full and rewarding life without ever thinking about goodwill and its amortization. But students of investment and management should understand the nuances of the subject. My own thinking has changed drastically from 35 years ago when I was taught to favor tangible assets and to shun businesses whose value depended largely upon economic goodwill. This bias caused me to make many important business mistakes of omission, although relatively few of commission."

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From the above quote, it is clear that the master's investment philosophy had undergone a sea change from when he first started investing. Further, with his company becoming too big, he could no longer afford to churn his portfolio as frequently as before. In other words, he wanted businesses where he could invest for the long haul and what better investments here than companies, where the economic goodwill is huge. The master had been kind enough in explaining this concept at length through an appendix laid out at the end of the letter. Since we feel that we couldn't have explained it better than the master himself, we have reproduced the relevant extracts below verbatim.

"True economic goodwill tends to rise in nominal value proportionally with inflation. To illustrate how this works, let's contrast a See's kind of business with a more mundane business. When we purchased See's in 1972, it will be recalled, it was earning about US$ 2 m on US$ 8 m of net tangible assets (book value). Let us assume that our hypothetical mundane business then had US$ 2 m of earnings also, but needed US$ 18 m in net tangible assets for normal operations. Earning only 11% on required tangible assets, that mundane business would possess little or no economic goodwill.

A business like that, therefore, might well have sold for the value of its net tangible assets, or for US$ 18 m. In contrast, we paid US$ 25 m for See's, even though it had no more in earnings and less than half as much in "honest-to-God" assets. Could less really have been more, as our purchase price implied? The answer is "yes" - even if both businesses were expected to have flat unit volume - as long as you anticipated, as we did in 1972, a world of continuous inflation.

To understand why, imagine the effect that a doubling of the price level would subsequently have on the two businesses. Both would need to double their nominal earnings to $4 million to keep themselves even with inflation. This would seem to be no great trick: just sell the same number of units at double earlier prices and, assuming profit margins remain unchanged, profits also must double.

But, crucially, to bring that about, both businesses probably would have to double their nominal investment in net tangible assets, since that is the kind of economic requirement that inflation usually imposes on businesses, both good and bad. A doubling of dollar sales means correspondingly more dollars must be employed immediately in receivables and inventories. Dollars employed in fixed assets will respond more slowly to inflation, but probably just as surely. And all of this inflation-required investment will produce no improvement in rate of return. The motivation for this investment is the survival of the business, not the prosperity of the owner.

Remember, however, that See's had net tangible assets of only $8 million. So it would only have had to commit an additional $8 million to finance the capital needs imposed by inflation. The mundane business, meanwhile, had a burden over twice as large - a need for $18 million of additional capital.

After the dust had settled, the mundane business, now earning $4 m annually, might still be worth the value of its tangible assets, or US $36 m. That means its owners would have gained only a dollar of nominal value for every new dollar invested. (This is the same dollar-for-dollar result they would have achieved if they had added money to a savings account.)

See's, however, also earning US$ 4 m, might be worth US$ 50 m if valued (as it logically would be) on the same basis as it was at the time of our purchase. So it would have gained US$ 25 m in nominal value while the owners were putting up only US$ 8 m in additional capital - over US$ 3 of nominal value gained for each US$ 1 invested.

Remember, even so, that the owners of the See's kind of business were forced by inflation to ante up US$ 8 m in additional capital just to stay even in real profits. Any unleveraged business that requires some net tangible assets to operate (and almost all do) is hurt by inflation. Businesses needing little in the way of tangible assets simply are hurt the least.

And that fact, of course, has been hard for many people to grasp. For years the traditional wisdom - long on tradition, short on wisdom - held that inflation protection was best provided by businesses laden with natural resources, plants and machinery, or other tangible assets. It doesn't work that way. Asset-heavy businesses generally earn low rates of return - rates that often barely provide enough capital to fund the inflationary needs of the existing business, with nothing left over for real growth, for distribution to owners, or for acquisition of new businesses.

In contrast, a disproportionate number of the great business fortunes built up during the inflationary years arose from ownership of operations that combined intangibles of lasting value with relatively minor requirements for tangible assets. In such cases earnings have bounded upward in nominal dollars, and these dollars have been largely available for the acquisition of additional businesses. This phenomenon has been particularly evident in the communications business. That business has required little in the way of tangible investment - yet its franchises have endured. During inflation, goodwill is the gift that keeps giving.

But that statement applies, naturally, only to true economic goodwill. Spurious accounting goodwill - and there is plenty of it around - is another matter. When an overexcited management purchases a business at a silly price, the same accounting niceties described earlier are observed. Because it can't go anywhere else, the silliness ends up in the goodwill account. Considering the lack of managerial discipline that created the account, under such circumstances it might better be labeled 'No-Will'. Whatever the term, the 40-year ritual typically is observed and the adrenalin so capitalized remains on the books as an 'asset' just as if the acquisition had been a sensible one."

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