Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Letters from the Chairman

If you haven't read Warren Buffett's letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway you are missing out on some of the best financial wisdom of our generation. His letters have their own page on the Berkshire website, and are surprisingly easy and entertaining to read.

Here are a couple of excerpts, just from the 2008 report (dated 2-27-09):

"Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails in the past. In the 20th Century alone, we dealth 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 21.5% prime rate in 1980; and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment ranged between 15% and 25% for many years. America has had no shortage of these 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 the record of this period with the dozens of centuries during which humans secured only tine 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."

"Long ago Ben Graham taught me that 'Price is what you pay; value is what you get.' Whether we're talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down."

Here's one more Buffett quote, this one from last month's annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway. Among other things, he spoke about the competitive challenge that China poses going forward as well as the danger of impending inflation, because the ultimate consequences of the stimulus packages is not yet known. But one of his best comments came in response to a question about the economy:

"Our system works. Over time, people will live better and better. We have a system that unleashes human potential, and now China has a system that unleashes human potential. We will have interruptions. We overshoot and undershoot sometimes, but your kids and grandkids will live better than you. Over time, we move ahead at a pretty damn rapid rate."

Warren Buffett isn't always right - he admits mistakes of both commission and omission in his 2008 letter - but his common-sense manner and long-term record of success make his words worth considering more than any Wall Street talking head. (And probably more than all those talking heads combined!)

To mangle an old ad campaign: When Buffett talks, people (should) listen.

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