Warren Buffett on Productivity and Prosperity
All the passages below are taken from Berkshire Hathaway 2015 Annual report.
Earlier, I told you how our partners at Kraft Heinz root out inefficiencies, thereby increasing output per hour of employment. That kind of improvement has been the secret sauce of America’s remarkable gains in living standards since the nation’s founding in 1776. Unfortunately, the label of “secret” is appropriate: Too few Americans fully grasp the linkage between productivity and prosperity. To see that connection, let’s look first at the country’s most dramatic example – farming – and later examine three Berkshire-specific areas.
In 1900, America’s civilian work force numbered 28 million. Of these, 11 million, a staggering 40% of the total, worked in farming. The leading crop then, as now, was corn. About 90 million acres were devoted to its production and the yield per acre was 30 bushels, for a total output of 2.7 billion bushels annually.
Then came the tractor and one innovation after another that revolutionized such keys to farm productivity as planting, harvesting, irrigation, fertilization and seed quality. Today, we devote about 85 million acres to corn. Productivity, however, has improved yields to more than 150 bushels per acre, for an annual output of 13-14 billion bushels. Farmers have made similar gains with other products.
Increased yields, though, are only half the story: The huge increases in physical output have been accompanied by a dramatic reduction in the number of farm laborers (“human input”). Today about three million people work on farms, a tiny 2% of our 158-million-person work force. Thus, improved farming methods have allowed tens of millions of present-day workers to utilize their time and talents in other endeavors, a reallocation of human resources that enables Americans of today to enjoy huge quantities of non-farm goods and services they would otherwise lack.
It’s easy to look back over the 115-year span and realize how extraordinarily beneficial agricultural innovations have been – not just for farmers but, more broadly, for our entire society. We would not have anything close to the America we now know had we stifled those improvements in productivity. (It was fortunate that horses couldn’t vote.) On a day-to-day basis, however, talk of the “greater good” must have rung hollow to farm hands who lost their jobs to machines that performed routine tasks far more efficiently than humans ever could. We will examine this flip-side to productivity gains later in this section.
For the moment, however, let’s move on to three stories of efficiencies that have had major consequences for Berkshire subsidiaries. Similar transformations have been commonplace throughout American business.
By 2014, Class I railroads carried 1.85 trillion ton-miles, an increase of 182%, while employing only 187,000 workers, a reduction of 86% since 1947. (Some of this change involved passenger-related employees, but most of the workforce reduction came on the freight side.) As a result of this staggering improvement in productivity, the inflation-adjusted price for moving a ton-mile of freight has fallen by 55% since 1947, a drop saving shippers about $90 billion annually in current dollars.
Another startling statistic: If it took as many people now to move freight as it did in 1947, we would need well over three million railroad workers to handle present volumes. (Of course, that level of employment would raise freight charges by a lot; consequently, nothing close to today’s volume would actually move.)
Our own BNSF was formed in 1995 by a merger between Burlington Northern and Santa Fe. In 1996, the merged company’s first full year of operation, 411 million ton-miles of freight were transported by 45,000 employees. Last year the comparable figures were 702 million ton-miles (plus 71%) and 47,000 employees (plus only 4%). That dramatic gain in productivity benefits both owners and shippers. Safety at BNSF has improved as well: Reportable injuries were 2.04 per 200,000 man-hours in 1996 and have since fallen more than 50% to 0.95.
And then some American ingenuity came into play: G. J. Mecherle, a farmer from Merna, Illinois, came up with the idea of a captive sales force that would sell the insurance products of only a single company. His baby was christened State Farm Mutual. The company cut commissions and expenses – moves that permitted lower prices – and soon became a powerhouse. For many decades, State Farm has been the runaway volume leader in both auto and homeowner’s insurance. Allstate, which also operated with a direct distribution model, was long the runner-up. Both State Farm and Allstate have had underwriting expenses of about 25%.
In the early 1930s, another contender, United Services Auto Association (“USAA”), a mutual-like company, was writing auto insurance for military officers on a direct-to-the-customer basis. This marketing innovation rose from a need that military personnel had to buy insurance that would stay with them as they moved from base to base. That was business of little interest to local insurance agencies, which wanted the steady renewals that came from permanent residents.
The direct distribution method of USAA, as it happened, incurred lower costs than those enjoyed by State Farm and Allstate and therefore delivered an even greater bargain to customers. That made Leo and Lillian Goodwin, employees of USAA, dream of broadening the target market for its direct distribution model beyond military officers. In 1936, starting with $100,000 of capital, they incorporated Government Employees Insurance Co. (later compressing this mouthful to GEICO).
Their fledgling did $238,000 of auto insurance business in 1937, its first full year. Last year GEICO did $22.6 billion, more than double the volume of USAA. (Though the early bird gets the worm, the second mouse gets the cheese.) GEICO’s underwriting expenses in 2015 were 14.7% of premiums, with USAA being the only large company to achieve a lower percentage. (GEICO is fully as efficient as USAA but spends considerably more on advertising aimed at promoting growth.)
With the price advantage GEICO’s low costs allow, it’s not surprising that several years ago the company seized the number two spot in auto insurance from Allstate. GEICO is also gaining ground on State Farm, though it is still far ahead of us in volume. On August 30, 2030 – my 100th birthday – I plan to announce that GEICO has taken over the top spot. Mark your calendar.
GEICO employs about 34,000 people to serve its 14 million policyholders. I can only guess at the workforce it would require to serve a similar number of policyholders under the agency system. I believe, however, that the number would be at least 60,000, a combination of what the insurer would need in direct employment and the personnel required at supporting agencies.
That’s because utilities were usually the sole supplier of a needed product and were allowed to price at a level that gave them a prescribed return upon the capital they employed. The joke in the industry was that a utility was the only business that would automatically earn more money by redecorating the boss’s office. And some CEOs ran things accordingly.
That’s all changing. Today, society has decided that federally-subsidized wind and solar generation is in our country’s long-term interest. Federal tax credits are used to implement this policy, support that makes renewables price-competitive in certain geographies. Those tax credits, or other government-mandated help for renewables, may eventually erode the economics of the incumbent utility, particularly if it is a high-cost operator. BHE’s long-established emphasis on efficiency – even when the company didn’t need it to attain authorized earnings – leaves us particularly competitive in today’s market (and, more important, in tomorrow’s as well).
BHE acquired its Iowa utility in 1999. In the year before, that utility employed 3,700 people and produced 19 million megawatt-hours of electricity. Now we employ 3,500 people and produce 29 million megawatt-hours. That major increase in efficiency allowed us to operate without a rate increase for 16 years, a period during which industry rates increased 44%.
The safety record of our Iowa utility is also outstanding. It had .79 injuries per 100 employees in 2015 compared to the rate of 7.0 experienced by the previous owner in the year before we bought the operation.
In 2006 BHE purchased PacifiCorp, which operated primarily in Oregon and Utah. The year before our purchase PacifiCorp employed 6,750 people and produced 52.6 million megawatt-hours. Last year the numbers were 5,700 employees and 56.3 million megawatt-hours. Here, too, safety improved dramatically, with the accident-rate-per-100-employees falling from 3.4 in 2005 to .85 in 2015. In safety, BHE now ranks in the industry’s top decile.
Those outstanding performances explain why BHE is welcomed by regulators when it proposes to buy a utility in their jurisdiction. The regulators know the company will run an efficient, safe and reliable operation and also arrive with unlimited capital to fund whatever projects make sense. (BHE has never paid a dividend to Berkshire since we assumed ownership. No investor-owned utility in America comes close to matching BHE’s enthusiasm for reinvestment.)
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The productivity gains that I’ve just spelled out – and countless others that have been achieved in America – have delivered awesome benefits to society. That’s the reason our citizens, as a whole, have enjoyed – and will continue to enjoy – major gains in the goods and services they receive.
To this thought there are offsets. First, the productivity gains achieved in recent years have largely benefitted the wealthy. Second, productivity gains frequently cause upheaval: Both capital and labor can pay a terrible price when innovation or new efficiencies upend their worlds.
We need shed no tears for the capitalists (whether they be private owners or an army of public shareholders). It’s their job to take care of themselves. When large rewards can flow to investors from good decisions, these parties should not be spared the losses produced by wrong choices. Moreover, investors who diversify widely and simply sit tight with their holdings are certain to prosper: In America, gains from winning investments have always far more than offset the losses from clunkers. (During the 20th Century, the Dow Jones Industrial Average – an index fund of sorts – soared from 66 to 11,497, with its component companies all the while paying ever-increasing dividends.)
A long-employed worker faces a different equation. When innovation and the market system interact to produce efficiencies, many workers may be rendered unnecessary, their talents obsolete. Some can find decent employment elsewhere; for others, that is not an option.
When low-cost competition drove shoe production to Asia, our once-prosperous Dexter operation folded, putting 1,600 employees in a small Maine town out of work. Many were past the point in life at which they could learn another trade. We lost our entire investment, which we could afford, but many workers lost a livelihood they could not replace. The same scenario unfolded in slow-motion at our original New England textile operation, which struggled for 20 years before expiring. Many older workers at our New Bedford plant, as a poignant example, spoke Portuguese and knew little, if any, English. They had no Plan B.
The answer in such disruptions is not the restraining or outlawing of actions that increase productivity. Americans would not be living nearly as well as we do if we had mandated that 11 million people should forever be employed in farming.
The solution, rather, is a variety of safety nets aimed at providing a decent life for those who are willing to work but find their specific talents judged of small value because of market forces. (I personally favor a reformed and expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that would try to make sure America works for those willing to work.) The price of achieving ever-increasing prosperity for the great majority of Americans should not be penury for the unfortunate.
We, like all public companies, are required by the SEC to annually catalog “risk factors” in our 10-K. I can’t remember, however, an instance when reading a 10-K’s “risk” section has helped me in evaluating a business. That’s not because the identified risks aren’t real. The truly important risks, however, are usually well known. Beyond that, a 10-K’s catalog of risks is seldom of aid in assessing: (1) the probability of the threatening event actually occurring; (2) the range of costs if it does occur; and (3) the timing of the possible loss. A threat that will only surface 50 years from now may be a problem for society, but it is not a financial problem for today’s investor.
Berkshire operates in more industries than any company I know of. Each of our pursuits has its own array of possible problems and opportunities. Those are easy to list but hard to evaluate: Charlie, I and our various CEOs often differ in a very major way in our calculation of the likelihood, the timing and the cost (or benefit) that may result from these possibilities.
Let me mention just a few examples. To begin with an obvious threat, BNSF, along with other railroads, is certain to lose significant coal volume over the next decade. At some point in the future – though not, in my view, for a long time – GEICO’s premium volume may shrink because of driverless cars. This development could hurt our auto dealerships as well. Circulation of our print newspapers will continue to fall, a certainty we allowed for when purchasing them. To date, renewables have helped our utility operation but that could change, particularly if storage capabilities for electricity materially improve. Online retailing threatens the business model of our retailers and certain of our consumer brands. These potentialities are just a few of the negative possibilities facing us – but even the most casual follower of business news has long been aware of them.
None of these problems, however, is crucial to Berkshire’s long-term well-being. When we took over the company in 1965, its risks could have been encapsulated in a single sentence: “The northern textile business in which all of our capital resides is destined for recurring losses and will eventually disappear.” That development, however, was no death knell. We simply adapted. And we will continue to do so.
Every day Berkshire managers are thinking about how they can better compete in an always-changing world. Just as vigorously, Charlie and I focus on where a steady stream of funds should be deployed. In that respect, we possess a major advantage over one-industry companies, whose options are far more limited. I firmly believe that Berkshire has the money, talent and culture to plow through the sort of adversities I’ve itemized above – and many more – and to emerge with ever-greater earning power.
There is, however, one clear, present and enduring danger to Berkshire against which Charlie and I are powerless. That threat to Berkshire is also the major threat our citizenry faces: a “successful” (as defined by the aggressor) cyber, biological, nuclear or chemical attack on the United States. That is a risk Berkshire shares with all of American business.
The probability of such mass destruction in any given year is likely very small. It’s been more than 70 years since I delivered a Washington Post newspaper headlining the fact that the United States had dropped the first atomic bomb. Subsequently, we’ve had a few close calls but avoided catastrophic destruction. We can thank our government – and luck! – for this result.
Nevertheless, what’s a small probability in a short period approaches certainty in the longer run. (If there is only one chance in thirty of an event occurring in a given year, the likelihood of it occurring at least once in a century is 96.6%.) The added bad news is that there will forever be people and organizations and perhaps even nations that would like to inflict maximum damage on our country. Their means of doing so have increased exponentially during my lifetime. “Innovation” has its dark side.
There is no way for American corporations or their investors to shed this risk. If an event occurs in the U.S. that leads to mass devastation, the value of all equity investments will almost certainly be decimated.
No one knows what “the day after” will look like. I think, however, that Einstein’s 1949 appraisal remains apt: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
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I am writing this section because we have a proxy proposal regarding climate change to consider at this year’s annual meeting. The sponsor would like us to provide a report on the dangers that this change might present to our insurance operation and explain how we are responding to these threats.
It seems highly likely to me that climate change poses a major problem for the planet. I say “highly likely” rather than “certain” because I have no scientific aptitude and remember well the dire predictions of most “experts” about Y2K. It would be foolish, however, for me or anyone to demand 100% proof of huge forthcoming damage to the world if that outcome seemed at all possible and if prompt action had even a small chance of thwarting the danger.
This issue bears a similarity to Pascal’s Wager on the Existence of God. Pascal, it may be recalled, argued that if there were only a tiny probability that God truly existed, it made sense to behave as if He did because the rewards could be infinite whereas the lack of belief risked eternal misery. Likewise, if there is only a 1% chance the planet is heading toward a truly major disaster and delay means passing a point of no return, inaction now is foolhardy. Call this Noah’s Law: If an ark may be essential for survival, begin building it today, no matter how cloudless the skies appear.
It’s understandable that the sponsor of the proxy proposal believes Berkshire is especially threatened by climate change because we are a huge insurer, covering all sorts of risks. The sponsor may worry that property losses will skyrocket because of weather changes. And such worries might, in fact, be warranted if we wrote ten- or twenty-year policies at fixed prices. But insurance policies are customarily written for one year and repriced annually to reflect changing exposures. Increased possibilities of loss translate promptly into increased premiums.
Think back to 1951 when I first became enthused about GEICO. The company’s average loss-per-policy was then about $30 annually. Imagine your reaction if I had predicted then that in 2015 the loss costs would increase to about $1,000 per policy. Wouldn’t such skyrocketing losses prove disastrous, you might ask? Well, no.
Over the years, inflation has caused a huge increase in the cost of repairing both the cars and the humans involved in accidents. But these increased costs have been promptly matched by increased premiums. So, paradoxically, the upward march in loss costs has made insurance companies far more valuable. If costs had remained unchanged, Berkshire would now own an auto insurer doing $600 million of business annually rather than one doing $23 billion.
Up to now, climate change has not produced more frequent nor more costly hurricanes nor other weather related events covered by insurance. As a consequence, U.S. super-cat rates have fallen steadily in recent years, which is why we have backed away from that business. If super-cats become costlier and more frequent, the likely – though far from certain – effect on Berkshire’s insurance business would be to make it larger and more profitable.
As a citizen, you may understandably find climate change keeping you up nights. As a homeowner in a low-lying area, you may wish to consider moving. But when you are thinking only as a shareholder of a major insurer, climate change should not be on your list of worries. [Pg 21-26]
February 27, 2016
Warren E. Buffett
Chairman of the Board