FILE - In this May 5, 2019, file photo Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, smiles as he plays bridge following the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha, Neb. Buffett will spend Saturday afternoon fielding questions at Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting, which is being held virtually. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders on May 1, Warren Buffett broke down the performance of his company amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Here is the full text of his letter:
To the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.:
Berkshire earned $42.5 billion in 2020 according to generally accepted accounting principles (commonly called “GAAP"). The four components of that figure are $21.9 billion of operating earnings, $4.9 billion of realized capital gains, a $26.7 billion gain from an increase in the amount of net unrealized capital gains that exist in the stocks we hold and, finally, an $11 billion loss from a write-down in the value of a few subsidiary and affiliate businesses that we own. All items are stated on an after-tax basis.
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Operating earnings are what count most, even during periods when they are not the largest item in our GAAP total. Our focus at Berkshire is both to increase this segment of our income and to acquire large and favourably-situated businesses. Last year, however, we met neither goal: Berkshire made no sizable acquisitions and operating earnings fell 9 percent. We did, though, increase Berkshire’s per-share intrinsic value by both retaining earnings and repurchasing about 5 percent of our shares.
The two GAAP components pertaining to capital gains or losses (whether realized or unrealized) fluctuate capriciously from year to year, reflecting swings in the stock market. Whatever today’s figures, Charlie Munger, my long-time partner, and I firmly believe that, over time, Berkshire’s capital gains from its investment holdings will be substantial.
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As I’ve emphasized many times, Charlie and I view Berkshire’s holdings of marketable stocks – at year end worth $281 billion – as a collection of businesses. We don’t control the operations of those companies, but we do share proportionately in their long-term prosperity. From an accounting standpoint, however, our portion of their earnings is not included in Berkshire’s income. Instead, only what these investees pay us in dividends is recorded on our books. Under GAAP, the huge sums that investees retain on our behalf become invisible.
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What’s out of sight, however, should not be out of mind: Those unrecorded retained earnings are usually building value – lots of value – for Berkshire. Investees use the withheld funds to expand their business, make acquisitions, pay off debt and, often, to repurchase their stock (an act that increases our share of their future earnings). As we pointed out in these pages last year, retained earnings have propelled American business throughout our country’s history. What worked for Carnegie and Rockefeller has, over the years, worked its magic for millions of shareholders as well.
Of course, some of our investees will disappoint, adding little, if anything, to the value of their company by retaining earnings. But others will over-deliver, a few spectacularly. In aggregate, we expect our share of the huge pile of earnings retained by Berkshire’s non-controlled businesses (what others would label our equity portfolio) to eventually deliver us an equal or greater amount of capital gains. Over our 56-year tenure, that expectation has been met.