Warren Buffett’s Annual Letter to Shareholders Is Packed Full of Wisdom for All of Us

The Oracle of Omaha certainly earns his title with this letter.
  • Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders included some shots at his fellow corporate CEOs.
  • Buffett continued to emphasize waiting to find good value prior to making a big purchase, indicating Berkshire Hathaway’s large cash stockpile could be staying put.
  • He finished with a reminder of American exceptionalism, observing just how far the country has come since its founding.

Investors, rejoice! Warren Buffett’s highly-anticipated annual letter to shareholders hit the internet on Feb. 23, giving everyone a chance to pore over the words of one of the nation’s greatest-ever business minds again, looking for insight into what he’s got planned and where Berkshire Hathaway is headed.

Here’s a look at some of the top quotes and takeaways from Buffett’s annual letter.

Learn: How to Make Your First Million the Warren Buffett Way

1. Warren Buffett Is Really, Really Good at This

The first page of the letter offers a quick reminder of just how astonishing Buffett’s career has been with a look at his returns since 1965 with the S&P 500 — dividends reinvested — for comparison. The final result? Buffett’s annual returns are over double that of the S&P 500, a feat that makes headlines for a single year but absolutely defies reason when you consider it’s sustained over a half-century.

Given that there are virtually no mutual fund managers out there who can beat the S&P 500 for more than a year or two in a row, that stands as a testament to an utterly unique and unlikely career. One other number that can highlight this? The total return is now almost 2.5 million percent.

Find Out: How Rich Was Warren Buffett at Your Age?

2. Buffett’s Success Is About More Than Stocks

Although there are a lot of valuable lessons you can learn from Buffett’s approach to equity investing, it’s important to note that his incredible return on investment doesn’t come just from buying the right stocks.

“[Let] me remind you of our prime goal in the deployment of your capital: to buy ably-managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics. We also need to make these purchases at sensible prices.

“Sometimes we can buy control of companies that meet our tests. Far more often, we find the attributes we seek in publicly traded businesses, in which we normally acquire a 5% to 10% interest. Our two-pronged approach to huge-scale capital allocation is rare in corporate America and, at times, gives us an important advantage.

“Despite our recent additions to marketable equities, the most valuable grove in Berkshire’s forest remains the many dozens of non-insurance businesses that Berkshire controls (usually with 100% ownership and never with less than 80%). Those subsidiaries earned $16.8 billion last year.”

So before you start looking at your own portfolio and wondering where your 18.7 percent annual returns are, remember that Buffett is also working with a lot of smaller companies that they own and manage outright that make up a big chunk of that value.

See: Warren Buffett Now Holds $75.84 Billion in Bank of America and 4 Other Major Banks

3. Buffett Gets an Assist From Honest Abe

Buffett continued to highlight why that $16.8 billion could be much higher if they used some common accounting tricks that are popular on Wall Street and why he doesn’t think that would be right.

“When we say ‘earned,’ moreover, we are describing what remains after all income taxes, interest payments, managerial compensation (whether cash or stock-based), restructuring expenses, depreciation, amortization and home-office overhead.

“That brand of earnings is a far cry from that frequently touted by Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs. Too often, their presentations feature ‘adjusted EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization],’ a measure that redefines ‘earnings’ to exclude a variety of all-too-real costs.

“For example, managements sometimes assert that their company’s stock-based compensation shouldn’t be counted as an expense. (What else could it be – a gift from shareholders?) And restructuring expenses? Well, maybe last year’s exact rearrangement won’t recur. But restructurings of one sort or another are common in business – Berkshire has gone down that road dozens of times, and our shareholders have always borne the costs of doing so.

“Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: ‘If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?’ and then answered his own query: ‘Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.’ Abe would have felt lonely on Wall Street.”

Wow, EBITDA. How does it feel to get burned by two American icons in the same paragraph? However, Buffett’s pointing out something important here: Public companies operate for the benefit for their shareholders above all else, and that’s a trust that should matter.

See: The Most Valuable Public Company in Every State

4. Buffett Bucks the ‘Here and Now’ Approach to Running a Public Company

Buffett also added his voice to the growing chorus of people lamenting the short-term mindset that focusing on quarterly earning reports can create.

“For 54 years our managerial decisions at Berkshire have been made from the viewpoint of the shareholders who are staying, not those who are leaving. Consequently, Charlie [Munger] and I have never focused on current-quarter results.”

Further in the letter, Buffett states, “At Berkshire, our audience is neither analysts nor commentators: Charlie and I are working for our shareholder-partners. The numbers that flow up to us will be the ones we send on to you.”

Proceed With Caution: How to Use Quarterly Earnings From Amazon, Facebook to Your Advantage

5. Buffett Gets Historical to Show Why He’s Always Bet on America

Buffett did offer a very big-picture perspective:

“Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, lies buried within that London church. Near his tomb are posted these words of description (translated from Latin): “If you would seek my monument, look around you.” Those skeptical of America’s economic playbook should heed his message.

“In 1788 — to go back to our starting point — there really wasn’t much here except for a small band of ambitious people and an embryonic governing framework aimed at turning their dreams into reality. Today, the Federal Reserve estimates our household wealth at $108 trillion, an amount almost impossible to comprehend.”

Leave it to the Oracle of Omaha to take a moment in the midst of this truly divisive era to remind us why we’re all better when we come together. For all its flaws, Buffett sees America as a grand success story, above all else.

Keep reading about Warren Buffett’s biggest money mistakes — and what you can learn from them.

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