«Note: The following table appears in the printed Annual Report on the facing page of the Chairman's Letter and is referred to in that letter. ...»
I should mention that people who expect to earn 10% annually from equities during this century – envisioning that 2% of that will come from dividends and 8% from price appreciation – are implicitly forecasting a level of about 24,000,000 on the Dow by 2100. If your adviser talks to you about doubledigit returns from equities, explain this math to him – not that it will faze him. Many helpers are apparently direct descendants of the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who said: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Beware the glib helper who fills your head with fantasies while he fills his pockets with fees.
Some companies have pension plans in Europe as well as in the U.S. and, in their accounting,
almost all assume that the U.S. plans will earn more than the non-U.S. plans. This discrepancy is puzzling:
Why should these companies not put their U.S. managers in charge of the non-U.S. pension assets and let them work their magic on these assets as well? I’ve never seen this puzzle explained. But the auditors and actuaries who are charged with vetting the return assumptions seem to have no problem with it.
What is no puzzle, however, is why CEOs opt for a high investment assumption: It lets them report higher earnings. And if they are wrong, as I believe they are, the chickens won’t come home to roost until long after they retire.
After decades of pushing the envelope – or worse – in its attempt to report the highest number possible for current earnings, Corporate America should ease up. It should listen to my partner, Charlie: “If you’ve hit three balls out of bounds to the left, aim a little to the right on the next swing.” ************ Whatever pension-cost surprises are in store for shareholders down the road, these jolts will be surpassed many times over by those experienced by taxpayers. Public pension promises are huge and, in many cases, funding is woefully inadequate. Because the fuse on this time bomb is long, politicians flinch from inflicting tax pain, given that problems will only become apparent long after these officials have departed. Promises involving very early retirement – sometimes to those in their low 40s – and generous cost-of-living adjustments are easy for these officials to make. In a world where people are living longer and inflation is certain, those promises will be anything but easy to keep.
************ Having laid out the failures of an “honor system” in American accounting, I need to point out that this is exactly the system existing at Berkshire for a truly huge balance-sheet item. In every report we make to you, we must guesstimate the loss reserves for our insurance units. If our estimate is wrong, it means that both our balance sheet and our earnings statement will be wrong. So naturally we do our best to make these guesses accurate. Nevertheless, in every report our estimate is sure to be wrong.
At yearend 2007, we show an insurance liability of $56 billion that represents our guess as to what we will eventually pay for all loss events that occurred before yearend (except for about $3 billion of the reserve that has been discounted to present value). We know of many thousands of events and have put a dollar value on each that reflects what we believe we will pay, including the associated costs (such as attorney’s fees) that we will incur in the payment process. In some cases, among them claims for certain serious injuries covered by worker’s compensation, payments will be made for 50 years or more.
We also include a large reserve for losses that occurred before yearend but that we have yet to hear about. Sometimes, the insured itself does not know that a loss has occurred. (Think of an embezzlement that remains undiscovered for years.) We sometimes hear about losses from policies that covered our insured many decades ago.
A story I told you some years back illustrates our problem in accurately estimating our loss liability: A fellow was on an important business trip in Europe when his sister called to tell him that their dad had died. Her brother explained that he couldn’t get back but said to spare nothing on the funeral, whose cost he would cover. When he returned, his sister told him that the service had been beautiful and presented him with bills totaling $8,000. He paid up but a month later received a bill from the mortuary for $10. He paid that, too – and still another $10 charge he received a month later. When a third $10 invoice was sent to him the following month, the perplexed man called his sister to ask what was going on. “Oh,” she replied, “I forgot to tell you. We buried Dad in a rented suit.” At our insurance companies we have an unknown, but most certainly large, number of “rented suits” buried around the world. We try to estimate the bill for them accurately. In ten or twenty years, we will even be able to make a good guess as to how inaccurate our present guess is. But even that guess will be subject to surprises. I personally believe our stated reserves are adequate, but I’ve been wrong several times in the past.
The Annual Meeting
Our meeting this year will be held on Saturday, May 3rd. As always, the doors will open at the Qwest Center at 7 a.m., and a new Berkshire movie will be shown at 8:30. At 9:30 we will go directly to the question-and-answer period, which (with a break for lunch at the Qwest’s stands) will last until 3:00.
Then, after a short recess, Charlie and I will convene the annual meeting at 3:15. If you decide to leave during the day’s question periods, please do so while Charlie is talking.
The best reason to exit, of course is to shop. We will help you do that by filling the 194,300square-foot hall that adjoins the meeting area with the products of Berkshire subsidiaries. Last year, the 27,000 people who came to the meeting did their part, and almost every location racked up record sales.
But you can do better. (If necessary, I’ll lock the doors.) This year we will again showcase a Clayton home (featuring Acme brick, Shaw carpet, Johns Manville insulation, MiTek fasteners, Carefree awnings and NFM furniture). You will find that this 1,550square-foot home, priced at $69,500, delivers exceptional value. And after you purchase the house, consider also acquiring the Forest River RV and pontoon boat on display nearby.
GEICO will have a booth staffed by a number of its top counselors from around the country, all of them ready to supply you with auto insurance quotes. In most cases, GEICO will be able to give you a special shareholder discount (usually 8%). This special offer is permitted by 45 of the 50 jurisdictions in which we operate. (One supplemental point: The discount is not additive if you qualify for another, such as that given certain groups.) Bring the details of your existing insurance and check out whether we can save you money. For at least 50% of you, I believe we can.
On Saturday, at the Omaha airport, we will have the usual array of aircraft from NetJets available for your inspection. Stop by the NetJets booth at the Qwest to learn about viewing these planes. Come to Omaha by bus; leave in your new plane. And take all the hair gel and scissors that you wish on board with you.
Next, if you have any money left, visit the Bookworm, where you will find about 25 books and DVDs – all discounted – led again by Poor Charlie’s Almanack. Without any advertising or bookstore placement, Charlie’s book has now remarkably sold nearly 50,000 copies. For those of you who can’t make the meeting, go to poorcharliesalmanack.com to order a copy.
An attachment to the proxy material that is enclosed with this report explains how you can obtain the credential you will need for admission to the meeting and other events. As for plane, hotel and car reservations, we have again signed up American Express (800-799-6634) to give you special help. Carol Pedersen, who handles these matters, does a terrific job for us each year, and I thank her for it. Hotel rooms can be hard to find, but work with Carol and you will get one.
At Nebraska Furniture Mart, located on a 77-acre site on 72nd Street between Dodge and Pacific, we will again be having “Berkshire Weekend” discount pricing. We initiated this special event at NFM eleven years ago, and sales during the “Weekend” grew from $5.3 million in 1997 to $30.9 million in 2007.
This is more volume than most furniture stores register in a year.
To obtain the Berkshire discount, you must make your purchases between Thursday, May 1st and Monday, May 5th inclusive, and also present your meeting credential. The period’s special pricing will even apply to the products of several prestigious manufacturers that normally have ironclad rules against discounting but which, in the spirit of our shareholder weekend, have made an exception for you. We appreciate their cooperation. NFM is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m.
to 6 p.m. on Sunday. On Saturday this year, from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., NFM is having a Baja Beach Bash featuring beef and chicken tacos.
At Borsheims, we will again have two shareholder-only events. The first will be a cocktail reception from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, May 2nd. The second, the main gala, will be held on Sunday, May 4th, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Saturday, we will be open until 6 p.m.
We will have huge crowds at Borsheims throughout the weekend. For your convenience, therefore, shareholder prices will be available from Monday, April 28th through Saturday, May 10th.
During that period, please identify yourself as a shareholder by presenting your meeting credentials or a brokerage statement that shows you are a Berkshire holder.
On Sunday, in a tent outside of Borsheims, a blindfolded Patrick Wolff, twice U.S. chess champion, will take on all comers – who will have their eyes wide open – in groups of six. Nearby, Norman Beck, a remarkable magician from Dallas, will bewilder onlookers. Additionally, we will have Bob Hamman and Sharon Osberg, two of the world’s top bridge experts, available to play bridge with our shareholders on Sunday afternoon.
Gorat’s will again be open exclusively for Berkshire shareholders on Sunday, May 4th, and will be serving from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. Last year Gorat’s, which seats 240, served 915 dinners on Shareholder Sunday. The three-day total was 2,487 including 656 T-bone steaks, the entrée preferred by the cognoscenti. Please remember that to come to Gorat’s on that day, you must have a reservation. To make one, call 402-551-3733 on April 1st (but not before).
We will again have a reception at 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon for shareholders who have come from outside of North America. Every year our meeting draws many people from around the globe, and Charlie and I want to be sure we personally greet those who have come so far. Last year we enjoyed meeting more than 400 of you from many dozens of countries. Any shareholder who comes from other than the U.S. or Canada will be given a special credential and instructions for attending this function.
************ At 84 and 77, Charlie and I remain lucky beyond our dreams. We were born in America; had terrific parents who saw that we got good educations; have enjoyed wonderful families and great health;
and came equipped with a “business” gene that allows us to prosper in a manner hugely disproportionate to that experienced by many people who contribute as much or more to our society’s well-being. Moreover, we have long had jobs that we love, in which we are helped in countless ways by talented and cheerful associates. Every day is exciting to us; no wonder we tap-dance to work. But nothing is more fun for us than getting together with our shareholder-partners at Berkshire’s annual meeting. So join us on May 3rd at the Qwest for our annual Woodstock for Capitalists. We’ll see you there.