Warren Buffett on Debt or Leverage

 

All the passages below are taken from the book, The Essays of Warren Buffett, Lessons for Corporate America, Third Edition.  It was selected and arranged by Lawrence A Cunningham and published in 2013.

 

Unquestionably, some people have become very rich through the use of borrowed money. However, that's also been a way to get very poor. When leverage works, it magnifies your gains. Your spouse thinks you're clever, and your neighbors get envious. But leverage is addictive. Once having profited from its wonders, very few people retreat to more conservative practices. And as we all learned in third grade---and some relearned in 2008---any series of positive numbers, however impressive the numbers may be, evaporates when multiplied by a single zero. History tells us that leverage all too often produces zeroes, even when it is employed by very smart people.

Leverage, of course, can be lethal to businesses as well. Companies with large debts often assume that these obligations can be refinanced as they mature. That assumption is usually valid. Occasionally, though, either because of company-specific problems or a worldwide shortage of credit, maturities must actually be met by payment. For that, only cash will do the job.

Borrowers then learn that credit is like oxygen. When either is abundant, its presence goes unnoticed. When either is missing, that's all that is noticed. Even a short absence of credit can bring a company to its knees. In September 2008, in fact, its overnight disappearance in many sectors of the economy came dangerously close to bringing our entire country to its knees.

Charlie and I have no interest in any activity that could pose the slightest threat to Berkshire's wellbeing. (With our having a combined age of 167, starting over is not on our bucket list.) We are forever conscious of the fact that you, our partners, have entrusted us with what in many cases is a major portion of your savings. In addition, important philanthropy is dependent on our prudence. Finally, many disabled victims of accidents caused by our insureds are counting on us to deliver sums payable decades from now. It would be irresponsible for us to risk what all these constituencies need just to pursue a few points of extra return.

 Berkshire, we will hold at least $10 billion of cash, excluding that held at our regulated utility and railroad businesses. Because of that commitment, we customarily keep at least $20 billion on hand so that we can both withstand unprecedented insurance losses (our largest to date having been about $3 billion from Katrina, the insurance industry's most expensive catastrophe) and quickly seize acquisition or investment opportunities, even during times of financial turmoil.

We keep our cash largely in U.S. Treasury bills and avoid other short-term securities yielding a few more basis points, a policy we adhered to long before the frailties of commercial paper and money market funds became apparent in September 2008. We agree with investment writer Ray DeVoe's observation, "More money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun." At Berkshire, we don't rely on bank lines, and we don't enter into contracts that could require postings of collateral except for amounts that are tiny in relation to our liquid assets.

Furthermore, not a dime of cash has left Berkshire for dividends or share repurchases during the past 40 years. Instead, we have retained all of our earnings to strengthen our business, a reinforcement now running about $1 billion per month. Our net worth has thus increased from $48 million to $157 billion during those four decades and our intrinsic value has grown far more. No other American corporation has come close to building up its financial strength in this unrelenting way.

By being so cautious in respect to leverage, we penalize our returns by a minor amount. Having loads of liquidity, though, lets us sleep well. Moreover, during the episodes of financial chaos that occasionally erupt in our economy, we will be equipped both financially and emotionally to play offense while others scramble for survival.

That's what allowed us to invest $15.6 billion in 25 days of panic following the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008. [2010]

 

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Except for token amounts, we shun debt, turning to it for only three purposes: (1) We occasionally use repos as a part of certain short-term investing strategies that incorporate ownership of U.S. government (or agency) securities. Purchases of this kind are highly opportunistic and involve only the most liquid of securities. (2) We borrow money against portfolios of interest-bearing receivables whose risk characteristics we understand. (3) [Subsidiaries, such as Mid-American, may incur debt that appears on Berkshire's consolidated balance sheet, but Berkshire does not guarantee the obligation.]

From a risk standpoint, it is far safer to have earnings from ten diverse and uncorrelated utility operations that cover interest charges by, say, a 2:1 ratio than it is to have far greater coverage provided by a single utility. A catastrophic event can render a single utility insolvent---witness what Katrina did to the local electric utility in New Orleans---no matter how conservative its debt policy. A geographical disaster---say, an earthquake in a Western state can't have the same effect on MidAmerican. And even a worrier like Charlie can't think of an event that would systemically decrease utility earnings in any major way. Because of MidAmerican's ever-widening diversity of regulated earnings, it will always utilize major amounts of debt.

And that's about it. We are not interested in incurring any significant debt at Berkshire for acquisitions or operating purposes. Conventional business wisdom, of course, would argue that we are being too conservative and that there are added profits that could be safely earned if we injected moderate leverage into our balance sheet. Maybe so. But many of Berkshire's hundreds of thousands of investors have a large portion of their net worth in our stock (among them, it should be emphasized, a large number of our board and key managers) and a disaster for the company would be a disaster for them.

Moreover, there are people who have been permanently injured to whom we owe insurance payments that stretch out for fifty years or more. To these and other constituencies we have promised total security, whatever comes: financial panics, stock-exchange closures (an extended one occurred in 1914) or even domestic nuclear, chemical or biological attacks. We are quite willing to accept huge risks. Indeed, more than any other insurer, we write high-limit policies that are tied to single catastrophic events.

We also own a large investment portfolio whose market value could fall dramatically and quickly under certain conditions (as happened on October 19, 1987). Whatever occurs, though, Berkshire will have the net worth, the earnings streams and the liquidity to handle the problem with ease. Any other approach is dangerous. Over the years, a number of very smart people have learned the hard way that a long string of impressive numbers multiplied by a single zero always equals zero. That is not an equation whose effects I would like to experience personally, and I would like even less to be responsible for imposing its penalties upon others. [2005]     (pg 119 - 121)