Warren Buffett on How Public Companies Juice Earnings with Fanciful Figures
All the passages below are taken from Berkshire Hathaway 2007 Annual report.
Former Senator Alan Simpson famously said: “Those who travel the high road in Washington need not fear heavy traffic.” If he had sought truly deserted streets, however, the Senator should have looked to Corporate America’s accounting.
An important referendum on which road businesses prefer occurred in 1994. America’s CEOs had just strong-armed the U.S. Senate into ordering the Financial Accounting Standards Board to shut up, by a vote that was 88-9. Before that rebuke the FASB had shown the audacity – by unanimous agreement, no less – to tell corporate chieftains that the stock options they were being awarded represented a form of compensation and that their value should be recorded as an expense.
After the senators voted, the FASB – now educated on accounting principles by the Senate’s 88 closet CPAs – decreed that companies could choose between two methods of reporting on options. The preferred treatment would be to expense their value, but it would also be allowable for companies to ignore the expense as long as their options were issued at market value.
A moment of truth had now arrived for America’s CEOs, and their reaction was not a pretty sight. During the next six years, exactly two of the 500 companies in the S&P chose the preferred route. CEOs of the rest opted for the low road, thereby ignoring a large and obvious expense in order to report higher “earnings.” I’m sure some of them also felt that if they opted for expensing, their directors might in future years think twice before approving the mega-grants the managers longed for.
It turned out that for many CEOs even the low road wasn’t good enough. Under the weakened rule, there remained earnings consequences if options were issued with a strike price below market value. No problem. To avoid that bothersome rule, a number of companies surreptitiously backdated options to falsely indicate that they were granted at current market prices, when in fact they were dished out at prices well below market.
Decades of option-accounting nonsense have now been put to rest, but other accounting choices remain – important among these the investment-return assumption a company uses in calculating pension expense. It will come as no surprise that many companies continue to choose an assumption that allows them to report less-than-solid “earnings.” For the 363 companies in the S&P that have pension plans, this assumption in 2006 averaged 8%. Let’s look at the chances of that being achieved.
The average holdings of bonds and cash for all pension funds is about 28%, and on these assets returns can be expected to be no more than 5%. Higher yields, of course, are obtainable but they carry with them a risk of commensurate (or greater) loss.
This means that the remaining 72% of assets – which are mostly in equities, either held directly or through vehicles such as hedge funds or private-equity investments – must earn 9.2% in order for the fund overall to achieve the postulated 8%. And that return must be delivered after all fees, which are now far higher than they have ever been.
How realistic is this expectation? Let’s revisit some data I mentioned two years ago: During the 20th Century, the Dow advanced from 66 to 11,497. This gain, though it appears huge, shrinks to 5.3% when compounded annually. An investor who owned the Dow throughout the century would also have received generous dividends for much of the period, but only about 2% or so in the final years. It was a wonderful century.
Think now about this century. For investors to merely match that 5.3% market-value gain, the Dow – recently below 13,000 – would need to close at about 2,000,000 on December 31, 2099. We are now eight years into this century, and we have racked up less than 2,000 of the 1,988,000 Dow points the market needed to travel in this hundred years to equal the 5.3% of the last.
It’s amusing that commentators regularly hyperventilate at the prospect of the Dow crossing an even number of thousands, such as 14,000 or 15,000. If they keep reacting that way, a 5.3% annual gain for the century will mean they experience at least 1,986 seizures during the next 92 years. While anything is possible, does anyone really believe this is the most likely outcome?
Dividends continue to run about 2%. Even if stocks were to average the 5.3% annual appreciation of the 1900s, the equity portion of plan assets – allowing for expenses of .5% – would produce no more than 7% or so. And .5% may well understate costs, given the presence of layers of consultants and high priced managers (“helpers”).
Naturally, everyone expects to be above average. And those helpers – bless their hearts – will certainly encourage their clients in this belief. But, as a class, the helper-aided group must be below average. The reason is simple: 1) Investors, overall, will necessarily earn an average return, minus costs they incur; 2) Passive and index investors, through their very inactivity, will earn that average minus costs that are very low; 3) With that group earning average returns, so must the remaining group – the active investors. But this group will incur high transaction, management, and advisory costs. Therefore, the active investors will have their returns diminished by a far greater percentage than will their inactive brethren. That means that the passive group – the “know-nothings” – must win.
I should mention that people who expect to earn 10% annually from equities during this century – envisioning that 2% of that will come from dividends and 8% from price appreciation – are implicitly forecasting a level of about 24,000,000 on the Dow by 2100. If your adviser talks to you about double digit returns from equities, explain this math to him – not that it will faze him. Many helpers are apparently direct descendants of the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who said: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Beware the glib helper who fills your head with fantasies while he fills his pockets with fees.
Some companies have pension plans in Europe as well as in the U.S. and, in their accounting, almost all assume that the U.S. plans will earn more than the non-U.S. plans. This discrepancy is puzzling: Why should these companies not put their U.S. managers in charge of the non-U.S. pension assets and let them work their magic on these assets as well? I’ve never seen this puzzle explained. But the auditors and actuaries who are charged with vetting the return assumptions seem to have no problem with it.
What is no puzzle, however, is why CEOs opt for a high investment assumption: It lets them report higher earnings. And if they are wrong, as I believe they are, the chickens won’t come home to roost until long after they retire.
After decades of pushing the envelope – or worse – in its attempt to report the highest number possible for current earnings, Corporate America should ease up. It should listen to my partner, Charlie: “If you’ve hit three balls out of bounds to the left, aim a little to the right on the next swing.”
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Whatever pension-cost surprises are in store for shareholders down the road, these jolts will be surpassed many times over by those experienced by taxpayers. Public pension promises are huge and, in many cases, funding is woefully inadequate. Because the fuse on this time bomb is long, politicians flinch from inflicting tax pain, given that problems will only become apparent long after these officials have departed. Promises involving very early retirement – sometimes to those in their low 40s – and generous cost-of-living adjustments are easy for these officials to make. In a world where people are living longer and inflation is certain, those promises will be anything but easy to keep.
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Having laid out the failures of an “honor system” in American accounting, I need to point out that this is exactly the system existing at Berkshire for a truly huge balance-sheet item. In every report we make to you, we must guesstimate the loss reserves for our insurance units. If our estimate is wrong, it means that both our balance sheet and our earnings statement will be wrong. So naturally we do our best to make these guesses accurate. Nevertheless, in every report our estimate is sure to be wrong.
At yearend 2007, we show an insurance liability of $56 billion that represents our guess as to what we will eventually pay for all loss events that occurred before yearend (except for about $3 billion of the reserve that has been discounted to present value). We know of many thousands of events and have put a dollar value on each that reflects what we believe we will pay, including the associated costs (such as attorney’s fees) that we will incur in the payment process. In some cases, among them claims for certain serious injuries covered by worker’s compensation, payments will be made for 50 years or more.
We also include a large reserve for losses that occurred before yearend but that we have yet to hear about. Sometimes, the insured itself does not know that a loss has occurred. (Think of an embezzlement that remains undiscovered for years.) We sometimes hear about losses from policies that covered our insured many decades ago.
A story I told you some years back illustrates our problem in accurately estimating our loss liability: A fellow was on an important business trip in Europe when his sister called to tell him that their dad had died. Her brother explained that he couldn’t get back but said to spare nothing on the funeral, whose cost he would cover. When he returned, his sister told him that the service had been beautiful and presented him with bills totaling $8,000. He paid up but a month later received a bill from the mortuary for $10. He paid that, too – and still another $10 charge he received a month later. When a third $10 invoice was sent to him the following month, the perplexed man called his sister to ask what was going on. “Oh,” she replied, “I forgot to tell you. We buried Dad in a rented suit.”
At our insurance companies we have an unknown, but most certainly large, number of “rented suits” buried around the world. We try to estimate the bill for them accurately. In ten or twenty years, we will even be able to make a good guess as to how inaccurate our present guess is. But even that guess will be subject to surprises. I personally believe our stated reserves are adequate, but I’ve been wrong several times in the past. [Pg 18-20]
Warren E. Buffett
Chairman of the Board