Every now and then, BRK comes up in conversations with people (and often with people not in the business) and the topic becomes, what to do with BRK post-Buffett. I tell them I own BRK and plan to own it for a long time, and sometimes I wonder why myself.
First of all, it’s really big now so it’s going to be hard to grow the way they used to. With a market cap of more than $500 billion, it’s going to be hard to keep growing at a high pace. This used to be sort of the cap in big company capitalizations; a lot of the bit techs went to $500 billion in 1999/2000 before they all came crashing down. The barrier today seems to be $1 trillion; Maybe these $1 trillion companies hit that wall and come crashing down. Who knows.
In any case, BRK is just too big to get too much alpha going forward.
Buffett is not so young anymore, so the historical performance is getting increasingly less relevant; Buffett created the performance of the last half a century, but he is clearly not going to lead the charge for the 50 years. This doesn’t mean BRK can’t outperform.
Buffett hired some great managers to help manage the equity portfolio, but their historical performance is sort of irrelevant too. Those guys posted great returns with a much, much smaller capital base. They will eventually inherit a $200 billion+ equity portfolio. If they want to stay focused, they will need to invest in companies they can buy $10-20 billion worth of. And there aren’t a lot of those. Their universe will be no bigger than the one Buffett is fishing in now, so it’s hard to imagine they will improve on what Buffett can do with this size.
Returns Not So Great Lately
And people say that BRK hasn’t even been performing all that well lately, underperforming in the past five years. The rolling five-year BPS growth vs. the S&P 500 index total return has been negative for the last five years in a row (through 2017):
People often point to this to show that the era of BRK outperformance is over.
But this sort of misses the fact that back in 2008, the S&P 500 was down -37% while BRK’s BPS declined only -9.6%. So in a sense, the S&P 500 index had a lot of catching up to do compared to BRK. Looking only at the above table of the last five years misses a lot of crucial information.
Having said that, it’s true that the supergrowth of BRK ended back in 1998, but has been a steady grower since then.
Check out the below log chart since 1980. You can see two clearly different eras in terms of performance. 1980-1998 was just amazing, but 1998-2018 has been much more modest (data just happened to be available since 1980 as I was playing with daily data; no cherry-picking start/end points. Good enough for this analysis).
BRK, Log Scale Since 1980
BRK’s BPS grew +28%/year from 1980 through 1998 vs. +18%/year for the S&P 500 index for an outperformance of 11%/year. BRK’s stock price rose +33%/year in that period, beating the index by 15%/year.
Since then, things have flattened out a little, but the returns aren’t that bad at all.
BRK vs. S&P 500
I haven’t updated this table in a while, but let’s take a look at BRK’s performance against the S&P 500 index (total return) in various time periods.
Of course, we know how great the performance has been since 1965. But check out the past five years. On a BPS basis, BRK underperformed the S&P 500 total return, but outperformed based in BRK’s stock price.
If you look at all the time periods, though, BRK has outperformed both on a price and BPS basis in most time periods.
This year, it just so happens that the 2007-2017 is the same as the 10-year comparison so be careful to not double count…
But to me, more interesting than looking at the past 5 and 10 year returns (which are no doubt important), is to look at ‘through-cycle’ performance.
The lower part of the above table shows returns from various market peaks (year-end basis). You will see that on a BPS basis, BRK has outperformed the S&P 500 index since the 1989, 1999 and 2007 market peaks, and also on a price basis in most of those time periods.
The 1998-2018 BRK log price shows a more modest pace of growth than the 1980-1998 period, but you will see that BRK has still grown 10%/year since then, bettering the S&P 500 index (including dividends) by 3%/year on a BPS basis and 2%/year on a price basis. Not like it used to be, but not bad! (How many funds can you name that has done as well?)
So all this talk of Buffett not performing well is not so relevant to me.
It looks funny to have both 1998 and 1999 in there, but 1999 is there as a market peak, and 1998 for sort of a momentary peak in relative performance of BRK, and sort of the end of the high-growth era for BRK.
Despite the size, and the potential risk of a post-Buffett BRK, why do I still like BRK? First of all, the recent performance, I don’t think, is as bad as people make it out to be. They are still outperforming in most time periods, especially from various market peaks.
There is something about BRK that makes me more comfortable than owning the S&P 500 index, even with the post-Buffett risk. The first thing is that BRK will probably not do anything irrational or stupid. This is not an assurance we get when investing in the S&P 500 index. The index committee will add bubble-ish stocks at bubble-ish prices. BRK will not be ‘forced’ to buy stocks just because they are ‘big’. They will only buy stuff when it is high quality and is priced rationally. These are two things that the S&P 500 index committee do not seem to care about too much.
Sure, this inflexibility with regard to price and quality will be a drag on performance during certain time periods (like now, and back in the late 1990s), but I would feel more comfortable when my money manager is not chasing big stocks.
Also, check out the below chart. It’s just the S&P 500 index since 1980 along with the BRK/S&P 500 index ratio. I just wanted to see, visually, how BRK has performed (price-wise) versus the index over time.
And what I see is kind of interesting.
BRK seems to not do too well in late periods of raging bull markets (like the late 1990s) but seems to pick up a lot of relative performance during rocky times. This is kind of important for conservative investors. Whatever you think of the stock market now, there are pockets of bubbliness, and if that pops, it wouldn’t surprise me if BRK has another big step up in relative performance like in the two circled periods above.
This sort of makes sense, right? As BRK doesn’t have a whole lot of exposure to FANG/FAANG stocks. And if the market does decline a lot, that will provide a lot of opportunities for BRK to deploy cash so you are kind of sitting on cash optionality by owning BRK.
Yes, BRK declined 50% during the crisis, no better than the S&P 500 index, but if you look at the above table and charts, you will see that BRK does ratchet up relative performance during tough times. So just comparing peak-to-trough drawdowns sort of misses some important information.
By the way, here are some large declines in BRK stock over their history (from the 2017 Letter to Shareholders):
OK, maybe not. But I just noticed something. Look at the above chart again; BRK price / S&P 500 index ratio. If you look at this chart, you will notice that the uptrend is pretty consistent and linear. OK, I am not going to go back and put a regression line on it (too lazy), but you can sort of imagine a straight line going through it from the mid-90’s even through today.
Here is the chart again with the line I sort of see (this is not a regression line, but one I just drew by hand). The lower chart is the BRK/S&P index ratio:
And, importantly, there is no kink, bend or flattening after 1998!.
What does that mean?! It means the rate of BRK’s outperformance against the index has been pretty consistent and hasn’t tapered off at all!
The ratio will measure the ‘rate’ of outperformance, not the absolute difference.
Here’s what I mean. The above chart is based on prices, but I will look at BPS growth instead as the prices data is a little too spikey (and too sensitive to start/end points). As we saw above, in the period 1980-1998, BRK’s BPS grew at a rate of 28.2%/year versus 17.7%/year for the S&P 500 index (total return), for an outperformance of 10.5%/year. Since then, BRK’s BPS grew 9.5%/year vs. 6.2%/year for the index for an outperformance of 3.3%/year. Looks like big degradation in relative performance.
But the linearity of the above ratio chart made me look at this another way. The 1980-1998 28.2%/year is 1.6x the index return, and the 1998-2017 BPS growth of 9.5%/year is 1.5x the index return!
So, from now on, I am inclined to answer the question, “How do you think BRK will perform vs. the S&P 500 index in the future?” with, “I think it will do 1.5x better!”.
Nonsense? Maybe. But it looks interesting to me. This is the danger with playing with charts.
Optionality at Low Cost
Moving on. This is not a new idea, but we can see all the cash at BRK as optionality (even though I have long said that the cash is matched pretty closely to float so wonder how much of the cash is actually immediately deployable. Some of the float might be ‘fast’, meaning maybe they actually can deploy a lot of that cash and run down the float if necessary).
A lot of funds held a lot of cash since the crisis and have severely underperformed the index. The worst fund managers have actually been net short since the crisis and have catastrophically posted negative returns for years on end. Sure, these guys had plenty of opportunity because they were short; if the market went down, they could profit on the decline and then use the profits to go long and make even more money! But, those guys were neither prudent nor rational, and it is unlikely they will ever be able to make up the damage as it is just too big to overcome.
And yet, here, we have BRK with all that cash and it seems like they haven’t sacrificed all that much in terms of performance. That is really amazing when you think about it.
By the way, BRK has $97 billion of cash/cash equivalents on the balance sheet just looking at the Insurance and Other segment. This makes people say that Buffett is bearish the stock market. Well, it’s true that Buffett has been having trouble finding stuff to buy, but that doesn’t necessarily make him ‘bearish’. There is a difference between not finding things to buy, and being bearish (and expecting a market decline).
One thing that occurred to me when thinking about this huge amount of cash and short term investments on the b/s is how small the investment in fixed maturity securities is: $18 billion.
So first of all, the amount of cash/cash equivalent sort of seems to me like more of a bearishness or unwillingness to buy bonds than stocks. There is only $18 billion worth of bonds in the insurance segment versus, what, $200 billion in stocks? That’s not bearish stocks to me, that’s more like, bearish bonds!
Not to mention BRK has been net purchasers of stocks; not the act of a bear.
Here’s the other thing. When we look at insurance companies, we often look at investment leverage. For me, since I like risk, I look at the percent of shareholders equity invested in stocks. Markel looks at and talks about that, as it’s a big source of their expected BPS growth.
So I think about BRK in the same way. Forget about cash vs. float and all that stuff for now.
Let’s just look at how levered BRK equity is to ‘equity’.
First of all, the portfolio (including KHC) is $219 billion at the end of 3Q 2018. That’s against $379 billion in total shareholders equity (including minority interest). So the ratio of shareholders equity invested in stocks is 58%. That’s a lot higher than any other insurance company, and I think higher than MKL has been recently (maybe they are much higher now; too lazy to check now).
Of course, this is not like the old BRK, but not at all overly conservative either.
Now, keep in mind that BRK has a lot of unlisted businesses. For example, the various businesses in the railroad, utilities and energy used to be listed companies. If these were still listed, they would be included in equities. As far as growth potential is concerned, other than not having to mark to market, these businesses are basically no different than the equity portfolio (ignore the advantages of wholly owned businesses etc.).
So from the ‘leverage’ point of view, we can add this to the equity portfolio. The book value of this segment is $96 billion. With a similar argument for the Finance and Financial Products segment, we can add another $24 billion.
Sum that up and you get ‘equity investments’ of $339 billion. That’s against total shareholders equity of $379 billion. So that’s already like 90% of BRK’s shareholders equity invested in equity of businesses. That’s really not all that bearish!
This, by the way, doesn’t even include the other unlisted businesses, the Manufacturing, Service and Retailing Operations (MSR), which is the ‘other’ in the Insurance and Other segment. BRK doesn’t disclose the balance sheet in detail for this segment, but in 2016, BRK equity in the MSR segment was $92 billion or so. Add this to the above $339 billion and you get $431 billion worth of equity investments at BRK against it’s shareholders equity of $379 billion.
This is why you get equity-like returns on BRK despite BRK having so much cash/cash equivalents on the balance sheet. This is hardly the balance sheet of a bearish CEO.
I haven’t even touched valuation here, but from all of the above, I like BRK a little more now than I have liked it in recent years.
I don’t want to time the market and call a peak or anything. I have made it clear that even though we may enter a bear market or have a severe correction at any time, there doesn’t seem to me to be a strong case to be made for an extended bear market in the U.S. at the moment (famous last words… I know!)
But the more frothy things seem (well, less so now with the October/November corrections), the more interesting BRK becomes for the above reasons.
AND, it is possible that you won’t give up much in terms of performance to buy this ‘optionality’, with, of course, the greatest investor of all time ready to pounce if we have any big disruption in the market. And we can’t forget that BRK has a lot more levers to pull than most conventional funds or even hedge funds; they can buy private businesses too, or do add-on deals to augment the many businesses they already own.
Plus, all that cash on the balance sheet doesn’t mean it’s as much a drag on BRK’s performance as people make it out to be.
As for a post-Buffett world, I think what we need is intense rationality and discipline not to do stupid things. We know BRK is not going to jump into Bitcoin, or buy into bubble stocks (I fear we may find AMZN in the 13-F at an entry price of $3000 some day; that may be a sell signal!), panic and sell out stocks during a crisis or anything like that. And they will not be subject to quarter-to-quarter performance pressure in fear of redemptions. Many of these (and other) advantages are enough to keep me comfortable with BRK for a long time.
Also, even though BRK is not growing the way it used to, and it doesn’t look like they are outperforming as much against the index, it looks like a lot of this is due to lower returns in the market in general as the rate of outperformance has been remarkably consistent even after 1998.
By owning BRK, you sort of get paid at least market performance while you wait for the optionality to be exercised!