Over the last 44 years (that is, since present management took over), the book value of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. has grown from $19 to $70,530, a rate of 20.3 percent compounded annually. But 2008 was the worst of those 44 years for both Berkshire's book value and the S&P 500 index. The period was devastating as well for corporate and municipal bonds, real estate and commodities. By year-end, investors of all stripes were bloodied and confused, much as if they were small birds that had strayed into a badminton game.
As the year progressed, a series of life-threatening problems within many of the world's great financial institutions was unveiled. This led to a dysfunctional credit market that in important respects soon turned non-functional. The watchword throughout the country became the creed I saw on restaurant walls when I was young: "In God we trust; all others pay cash."
By the fourth quarter, the credit crisis, coupled with tumbling home and stock prices, had produced a paralyzing fear that engulfed the country. A freefall in business activity ensued, accelerating at a pace that I have never before witnessed. The U.S.—and much of the world—became trapped in a vicious negative-feedback cycle. Fear led to business contraction, and that in turn led to even greater fear.
This debilitating spiral has spurred our government to take massive action. In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone "all in." Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome after-effects. Their precise nature is anyone's guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation. Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won't leave willingly.
Whatever the downsides may be, strong and immediate action by government was essential if the financial system was to avoid a total breakdown. Had that occurred, the consequences for every area of our economy would have been cataclysmic. Like it or not, the inhabitants of Wall Street, Main Street and the various Side Streets of America were all in the same boat.
Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails. In the 20th century alone, we dealt with two great wars (one of which we initially appeared to be losing); a dozen or so panics and recessions; virulent inflation that led to a 21 percent prime rate in 1980; and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment ranged between 15 percent and 25 percent for many years. America has had no shortage of challenges.
Without fail, however, we've overcome them. In the face of those obstacles—and many others—the real standard of living for Americans improved nearly seven-fold during the 1900s, while the Dow Jones Industrials rose from 66 to 11,497. Compare this with the dozens of centuries during which humans secured only tiny gains, if any, in how they lived. Though the path has not been smooth, our economic system has worked extraordinarily well over time. It has unleashed human potential as no other system has, and it will continue to do so. America's best days lie ahead.
Smart Lenders Didn't Bet On Rising Home Prices
One of Berkshire Hathaway's businesses is Clayton Homes, the largest company in the manufactured-home industry. Its recent experience may be useful in the public policy debate about housing and mortgages.
[During the 1990s] much of the manufactured-home industry employed sales practices that were atrocious. The need for meaningful down payments was frequently ignored. Sometimes fakery was involved. Moreover, impossible-to-meet monthly payments were being agreed to by borrowers who signed up because they had nothing to lose. The resulting mortgages were usually packaged ("securitized") and sold by Wall Street firms to unsuspecting investors. This chain of folly had to end badly, and it did.
Clayton, it should be emphasized, followed far more sensible practices in its own lending. Indeed, no purchaser of the mortgages it originated and then securitized has ever lost a dime of principal or interest. But Clayton was the exception; industry losses were staggering. And the hangover continues to this day.
This 1997–2000 fiasco should have served as a canary-in-the-coal-mine warning for the far-larger conventional housing market. But investors, government and rating agencies learned exactly nothing from the manufactured-home debacle. Instead, in an eerie rerun of that disaster, the same mistakes were repeated with conventional homes in the 2004–07 period: Lenders happily made loans that borrowers couldn't repay out of their incomes, and borrowers just as happily signed up to meet those payments. Both parties counted on "house-price appreciation" to make this otherwise impossible arrangement work. It was Scarlett O'Hara all over again: "I'll think about that tomorrow." The consequences of this behavior are now reverberating through every corner of our economy.
Clayton's 198,888 borrowers, however, have continued to pay normally throughout the housing crash. Why are our borrowers—characteristically people with modest incomes and far-from-great credit scores—performing so well? The answer is elementary, going right back to Lending 101. Our borrowers simply looked at how full-bore mortgage payments would compare with their actual—not hoped-for—income and then decided whether they could live with that commitment. Simply put, they took out a mortgage with the intention of paying it off, whatever the course of home prices.
Just as important is what our borrowers did not do. They did not count on making their loan payments by refinancing. They did not sign up for "teaser" rates that upon reset were outsized relative to their income. And they did not assume that they could always sell their home at a profit if their mortgage payments became onerous. Jimmy Stewart would have loved these folks.
Of course, a number of our borrowers will run into trouble. They generally have no more than minor savings to tide them over if adversity hits. The major cause of delinquency or foreclosure is the loss of a job, but death, divorce and medical expenses all cause problems. If unemployment rates rise—as they surely will in 2009—more of Clayton's borrowers will have troubles, and we will have larger, though still manageable, losses. But our problems will not be driven to any extent by the trend of home prices.
Commentary about the current housing crisis often ignores the crucial fact that most foreclosures do not occur because a house is worth less than its mortgage (so-called "upside-down" loans). Rather, foreclosures take place because borrowers can't pay the monthly payment. Homeowners who have made a meaningful down payment—derived from savings and not from other borrowing—seldom walk away from a primary residence simply because its value today is less than the mortgage. Instead, they walk when they can't make the monthly payments.
Homeownership is a wonderful thing. My family and I have enjoyed my present home for 50 years, with more to come. But enjoyment and utility should be the primary motives for purchase, not profit or refi possibilities. And the home purchased ought to fit the income of the purchaser.
The present housing debacle should teach homebuyers, lenders, brokers and government some simple lessons that will ensure stability in the future. Home purchases should involve an honest-to-God down payment of at least 10 percent and monthly payments that can be comfortably handled by the borrower's income. That income should be carefully verified. Putting people into homes, though a desirable goal, shouldn't be our country's primary objective. Keeping them in their homes should be the ambition.
The Latest Bubble: Treasury Bonds
Last year I made a major mistake of commission (and maybe more; this one sticks out). I bought a large amount of ConocoPhillips stock when oil and gas prices were near their peak. I in no way anticipated the dramatic fall in energy prices that occurred in the last half of the year. I still believe the odds are good that oil sells far higher in the future than the current $40–$50 price. But so far I have been dead wrong. Even if prices should rise, moreover, the terrible timing of my purchase has cost Berkshire several billion dollars …
On the plus side last year, we made purchases totaling $14.6 billion in fixed-income securities issued by Wrigley, Goldman Sachs and General Electric. We very much like these commitments, which carry high current yields that, in themselves, make the investments more than satisfactory. But in each of these three purchases, we also acquired substantial equity participation as a bonus. To fund these large purchases, I had to sell portions of some holdings that I would have preferred to keep (primarily Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and ConocoPhillips). However, I have pledged—to you, the rating agencies and myself—to always run Berkshire with more than ample cash. We never want to count on the kindness of strangers in order to meet tomorrow's obligations. When forced to choose, I will not trade even a night's sleep for the chance of extra profits.
The investment world has gone from underpricing risk to overpricing it. This change has not been minor; the pendulum has covered an extraordinary arc. A few years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that yields like today's could have been obtained on good-grade municipal or corporate bonds even while risk-free governments offered near-zero returns on short-term bonds and no better than a pittance on long-terms. When the financial history of this decade is written, it will surely speak of the Internet bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble of the early 2000s. But the U.S. Treasury bond bubble of late 2008 may be regarded as almost equally extraordinary.
Clinging to cash equivalents or long-term government bonds at present yields is almost certainly a terrible policy if continued for long. Holders of these instruments, of course, have felt increasingly comfortable—in fact, almost smug—in following this policy as financial turmoil has mounted. They regard their judgment confirmed when they hear commentators proclaim "cash is king," even though that wonderful cash is earning close to nothing and will surely find its purchasing power eroded over time.
Approval, though, is not the goal of investing. In fact, approval is often counter-productive because it sedates the brain and makes it less receptive to new facts or a re-examination of conclusions formed earlier. Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns.