Warren Buffett on Economic Goodwill and Accounting Goodwill

 

    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.

 

[O]ur intrinsic business value considerably exceeds book value. There are two major reasons:

(1) Standard accounting principles require that common stocks held by our insurance subsidiaries be stated on our books at market value, but that other stocks we own be carried at the lower of aggregate cost or market. At the end of 1983, the market value of this latter group exceeded carrying value by $70 million pre-tax, or about $50 million after tax. This excess belongs in our intrinsic business value, but is not included in the calculation of book value;

(2) More important, we own several businesses that possess economic Goodwill (which is properly includable in intrinsic business value) far larger than the accounting Goodwill that is carried on our balance sheet and reflected in book value.

You can live a full and rewarding life without ever thinking about Goodwill and its amortization. But students of investment and management should understand the nuances of the subject. My own thinking has changed drastically from 35 years ago when I was taught to favor tangible assets and to shun businesses whose value depended largely upon economic Goodwill. This bias caused me to make many important business mistakes of omission, although relatively few of commission.

Keynes identified my problem: "The difficulty lies not in the new ideas but in escaping from the old ones." My escape was long delayed, in part because most of what I had been taught by the same teacher had been (and continues to be) so extraordinarily valuable. Ultimately, business experience, direct and vicarious, produced my present strong preference for businesses that possess large amounts of enduring Goodwill and that utilize a minimum of tangible assets.

I recommend the [following essay] to those who are comfortable with accounting terminology and who have an interest in understanding the business aspects of Goodwill. Whether or not you wish to tackle the [essay] you should be aware that Charlie and I believe that Berkshire possesses very significant economic Goodwill value above that reflected in our book value. [1983 Annual report]

 

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[The following discussion] deals only with economic and accounting Goodwill---not the goodwill of everyday usage. For example, a business may be well liked, even loved, by most of its customers but possess no economic goodwill. (AT&T, before the breakup, was generally well thought of, but possessed not a dime of economic Goodwill.) And, regrettably, a business may be disliked by its customers but possess substantial, and growing economic Goodwill. So, just for the moment, forget emotions and focus only on economics and accounting.

When a business is purchased, accounting principles require that the purchase price first be assigned to the fair value of the identifiable assets that are acquired. Frequently the sum of the fair values put on the assets (after the deduction of liabilities) is less than the total purchase price of the business. In that case, the difference is assigned to an asset entitled "excess of cost over equity in net assets acquired". To avoid constant repetition of this mouthful, we will substitute "Goodwill."

Accounting Goodwill arising from businesses purchased before November 1970 has a special standing. Except under rare circumstances, it can remain an asset on the balance sheet as long as the business bought is retained. That means no amortization charges to gradually extinguish that asset need be made against earnings.

The case is different, however, with purchases made from November 1970 on. When these create Goodwill, it must be amortized over not more than 40 years through charges---of equal amount in every year---to the earnings account. Since 40 years is the maximum period allowed, 40 years is what managements (including us) usually elect.

That's how accounting Goodwill works. To see how it differs from economic reality, let's look at an example close at hand. We'll round some figures, and greatly oversimplify, to make the example easier to follow. We'll also mention some implications for investor and manager.

Blue Chip Stamps bought See's early in 1972 for $25 million, at which time See's had about $8 million of net tangible assets. (Throughout this discussion, accounts receivable will be classified as tangible assets, a definition proper for business analysis.) This level of tangible assets was adequate to conduct the business without use of debt, except for short periods seasonally. See's was earning about $2 million after tax at the time, and such earnings seemed conservatively representative of future earning power in constant 1972 dollars.

Thus our first lesson: businesses logically are worth far more than net tangible assets when they can be expected to produce earnings on such assets considerably in excess of market rates of return. The capitalized value of this excess return is economic Goodwill.

In 1972 (and now) relatively few businesses could be expected to consistently earn the 25% after tax on net tangible assets that was earned by See's---doing it, furthermore, with conservative accounting and no financial leverage. It was not the fair market value of the inventories, receivables or fixed assets that produced the premium rates of return. Rather it was a combination of intangible assets, particularly a pervasive favorable reputation with consumers based upon countless pleasant experiences they have had with both product and personnel.

Such a reputation creates a consumer franchise that allows the value of the product to the purchaser, rather than its production cost, to be the major determinant of selling price. Consumer franchises are a prime source of economic Goodwill. Other sources include governmental franchises not subject to profit regulation, such as television stations, and an enduring position as the low cost producer in an industry.

Let's return to the accounting in the See's example. Blue Chip's purchase of See's at $17 million over net tangible assets required that a Goodwill account of this amount be established as an asset on Blue Chip's books and that $425,000 be charged to income annually for 40 years to amortize that asset. By 1983, after 11 years of such charges, the $17 million had been reduced to about $12.5 million. Berkshire, meanwhile, owned 60% of Blue Chip and, therefore, also 60% of See's. This ownership meant that Berkshire's balance sheet reflected 60% of See's Goodwill, or about $7.5 million.

In 1983 Berkshire acquired the rest of Blue Chip in a merger that required purchase accounting as contrasted to the "pooling" treatment allowed for some mergers. Under purchase accounting, the "fair value" of the shares we gave to (or "paid") Blue Chip holders had to be spread over the net assets acquired from Blue Chip. This "fair value" was measured, as it almost always is when public companies use their shares to make acquisitions, by the market value of the shares given up.

The assets "purchased" consisted of 40% of everything owned by Blue Chip (as noted, Berkshire already owned the other 60%). What Berkshire "paid" was more than the net identifiable assets we received by $51.7 million, and was assigned to two pieces of Goodwill: $28.4 million to See's and $23.3 million to Buffalo Evening News.

After the merger, therefore, Berkshire was left with a Goodwill asset for See's that had two components: the $7.5 million remaining from the 1971 purchase, and $28.4 million newly created by the 40% "purchased" in 1983. Our amortization charge now will be about $1.0 million for the next 28 years, and $.7 million for the following 12 years, 2002 through 2013.

In other words, different purchase dates and prices have given us vastly different asset values and amortization charges for two pieces of the same asset. (We repeat our usual disclaimer: we have no better accounting system to suggest. The problems to be dealt with are mind boggling and require arbitrary rules.)

But what are the economic realities? One reality is that the amortization charges that have been deducted as costs in the earnings statement each year since acquisition of See's were not true economic costs. We know that because See's last year earned $13 million after taxes on about $20 million of net tangible assets---a performance indicating the existence of economic Goodwill far larger than the total original cost of our accounting Goodwill. In other words, while accounting Goodwill regularly decreased from the moment of purchase, economic Goodwill increased in irregular but very substantial fashion.

Another reality is that annual amortization charges in the future will not correspond to economic costs. It is possible, of course, that See's economic Goodwill will disappear. But it won't shrink in even decrements or anything remotely resembling them. What is more likely is that the [economic] Goodwill will increase---in current, if not in constant, dollars---because of inflation.

That probability exists because true economic Goodwill tends to rise in nominal value proportionally with inflation. To illustrate how this works, let's contrast a See's kind of business with a more mundane business. When we purchased See's in 1972, it will be recalled, it was earning about $2 million on $8 million of net tangible assets. Let us assume that our hypothetical mundane business then had $2 million of earnings also, but needed $18 million in net tangible assets for normal operations. Earning only 11% on required tangible assets, that mundane business would possess little or no economic Goodwill.

A business like that, therefore, might well have sold for the value of its net tangible assets, or for $18 million. In contrast, we paid $25 million for See's, even though it had no more in earnings and less than half as much in "honest-to-God" assets. Could less really have been more, as our purchase price implied? The answer is "yes"---even if both businesses were expected to have flat unit volume---as long as you anticipated, as we did in 1972, a world of continuous inflation.

To understand why, imagine the effect that a doubling of the price level would subsequently have on the two businesses. Both would need to double their nominal earnings to $4 million to keep themselves even with inflation. This would seem to be no great trick: just sell the same number of units at double earlier prices and, assuming profit margins remain unchanged, profits also must double.

But, crucially, to bring that about, both businesses probably would have to double their nominal investment in net tangible assets, since that is the kind of economic requirement that inflation usually imposes on businesses, both good and bad. A doubling of dollar sales means correspondingly more dollars must be employed immediately in receivables and inventories. Dollars employed in fixed assets will respond more slowly to inflation, but probably just as surely. And all of this inflation-required investment will produce no improvement in rate of return. The motivation for this investment is the survival of the business, not the prosperity of the owner.

Remember, however, that See's had net tangible assets of only $8 million. So it would only have had to commit an additional $8 million to finance the capital needs imposed by inflation. The mundane business, meanwhile, had a burden over twice as large---a need for $18 million of additional capital.

After the dust had settled, the mundane business, now earning $4 million annually, might still be worth the value of its tangible assets, or $36 million. That means its owners would have gained only a dollar of nominal value for every new dollar invested. (This is the same dollar-for-dollar result they would have achieved if they had added money to a savings account.)

See's, however, also earning $4 million, might be worth $50 million if valued (as it logically would be) on the same basis as it was at the time of our purchase. So it would have gained $25 million in nominal value while the owners were putting up only $8 million in additional capital---over $3 of nominal value gained for each $1 invested.

Remember, even so, that the owners of the See's kind of business were forced by inflation to ante up $8 million in additional capital just to stay even in real profits. Any unleveraged business that requires some net tangible assets to operate (and almost all do) is hurt by inflation. Businesses needing little in the way of tangible assets simply are hurt the least.

And that fact, of course, has been hard for many people to grasp. For years the traditional wisdom---long on tradition, short on wisdom---held that inflation protection was best provided by businesses laden with natural resources, plants and machinery, or other tangible assets ("In Goods We Trust"). It doesn't work that way. Asset-heavy businesses generally earn low rates of return---rates that often barely provide enough capital to fund the inflationary needs of the existing business, with nothing left over for real growth, for distribution to owners, or for acquisition of new businesses.

In contrast, a disproportionate number of the great business fortunes built up during the inflationary years arose from ownership of operations that combined intangibles of lasting value with relatively minor requirements for tangible assets. In such cases earnings have bounded upward in nominal dollars, and these dollars have been largely available for the acquisition of additional businesses. This phenomenon has been particularly evident in the communications business. That business has required little in the way of tangible investment---yet its franchises have endured. During inflation, Goodwill is the gift that keeps giving.

But that statement applies, naturally, only to true economic Goodwill. Spurious accounting Goodwill---and there is plenty of it around---is another matter. When an overexcited management purchases a business at a silly price, the same accounting niceties described earlier are observed. Because it can't go anywhere else, the silliness ends up in the Goodwill account. Considering the lack of managerial discipline that created the account, under such circumstances it might better be labeled "No-Will". Whatever the term, the 40-year ritual typically is observed and the adrenalin so capitalized remains on the books as an "asset" just as if the acquisition had been a sensible one.

 

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If you cling to any belief that accounting treatment of Goodwill is the best measure of economic reality, I suggest one final item to ponder.

Assume a company with $20 per share of net worth, all tangible assets. Further assume the company has internally developed some magnificent consumer franchise, or that it was fortunate enough to obtain some important television stations by original FCC grant. Therefore, it earns a great deal on tangible assets, say $5 per share, or 25%.

With such economics, it might sell for $100 per share or more, and it might well also bring that price in a negotiated sale of the entire business.

Assume an investor buys the stock at $100 per share, paying in effect $80 per share for Goodwill (just as would a corporate purchaser buying the whole company). Should the investor impute a $2 per share amortization charge annually ($80 divided by 40 years) to calculate "true" earnings per share? And, if so, should the new "true" earnings of $3 per share cause him to rethink his purchase price?

 

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We believe managers and investors alike should view intangible assets from two perspectives:

(1) In analysis of operating results---that is, in evaluating the underlying economics of a business unit---amortization charges should be ignored. What a business can be expected to earn on unleveraged net tangible assets, excluding any charges against earnings for amortization of Goodwill, is the best guide to the economic attractiveness of the operation. It is also the best guide to the current value of the operation's economic Goodwill.

(2) In evaluating the wisdom of business acquisitions, amortization charges should be ignored also. They should be deducted neither from earnings nor from the cost of the business. This means forever viewing purchased Goodwill at its full cost, before any amortization. Furthermore, cost should be defined as including the full intrinsic business value---not just the recorded accounting value---of all consideration given, irrespective of market prices of the securities involved at the time of merger and irrespective of whether pooling treatment was allowed. For example, what we truly paid in the Blue Chip merger for 40% of the Goodwill of See's and the News was considerably more than the $51.7 million entered on our books. This disparity exists because the market value of the Berkshire shares given up in the merger was less than their intrinsic business value, which is the value that defines the true cost to us.

Operations that appear to be winners based upon perspective (1) may pale when viewed from perspective (2). A good business is not always a good purchase---although it's a good place to look for one. [1983 Appendix]

 

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When Berkshire buys a business for a premium over the GAAP net worth of the acquiree---as will usually be the case, since most companies we'd want to buy don't come at a discount---that premium has to be entered on the asset side of our balance sheet. There are loads of rules about just how a company should record the premium. But to simplify this discussion, we will focus on "Goodwill," the asset item to which almost all of Berkshire's acquisition premiums have been allocated. For example, when we recently acquired the half of GEICO we didn't previously own, we recorded goodwill of about $1.6 billion.

GAAP requires Goodwill to be amortized---that is, written off-over a period no longer than 40 years. Therefore, to extinguish our $1.6 billion in GEICO Goodwill, we will annually take charges of about $40 million against our earnings.

In an accounting sense, consequently, our GEICO Goodwill will disappear gradually in even-sized bites. But the one thing I can guarantee you is that the economic Goodwill we have purchased at GEICO will not decline in the same measured way. In fact, my best guess is that the economic goodwill assignable to GEICO will not decline at all, but rather will increase---and probably in a very substantial way.

I made a similar statement in our 1983 Annual Report about the Goodwill attributed to See's Candy, when I used that company as an example in a discussion of Goodwill accounting. At that time, our balance sheet carried about $36 million of See's Goodwill. We have since been charging about $1 million against earnings every year in order to amortize the asset, and the See's Goodwill on our balance sheet is now down to about $23 million. In other words, from an accounting standpoint, See's is now presented as having lost a good deal of goodwill since 1983.

The economic facts could not be more different. In 1983, See's earned about $27 million pre-tax on $11 million of net operating assets; in 1995 it earned $50 million on only $5 million of net operating assets. Clearly See's economic Goodwill has increased dramatically during the interval rather than decreased. Just as clearly, See's is worth many hundreds of millions of dollars more than its stated value on our books.

We could, of course, be wrong, but we expect GEICO's gradual loss of accounting value to be paired with increases in its economic value. Certainly that has been the pattern at most of our subsidiaries, not just See's. That is why we regularly present our operating earnings in a way that allows you to ignore all purchase-accounting adjustments.

In the future, also, we will adopt a similar policy for look-through earnings, moving to a form of presentation that rids these earnings of the major purchase-accounting adjustments of investees. We will not apply this policy to companies that have only small amounts of goodwill on their books, such as Coca-Cola or Gillette. We will extend it, however, to Wells Fargo and Disney, which have both recently made huge acquisitions and are consequently dealing with exceptionally large goodwill charges.

Before leaving this subject, we should issue an important warning: Investors are often led astray by CEOs and Wall Street analysts who equate depreciation charges with the amortization charges we have just discussed. In no way are the two the same: With rare exceptions, depreciation is an economic cost every bit as real as wages, materials, or taxes. Certainly that is true at Berkshire and at virtually all the other businesses we have studied. Furthermore, we do not think so-called EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) is a meaningful measure of performance. Managements that dismiss the importance of depreciation---and emphasize "cash flow" or EBITDA---are apt to make faulty decisions, and you should keep that in mind as you make your own investment decisions.

[1996 Owner’s Manual] (p 235-244 , “The Essays of Warren Buffett, Lessons for Corporate America, Third Edition.” )