Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Oracle of Omaha

Once a year, Warren Buffet, the so-called Oracle of Omaha, writes a letter to the shareholders of his company, Berkshire Hathaway. Unlike other corporate executives that often pepper their writing with corporate-speak difficult to decipher, Buffet tells his shareholders the story in straight-forward prose, with quite a few funny gems sprinkled in. Even if you don't own Berkshire Hathaway stock--and given that Class A shares trade at $76,800, while class B shares trade at $2,564, you probably don't--his letter is worth reading. Which brings us to the the one he wrote this year.

As you can imagine, much of the new was pretty grim.

The table on the preceding page, recording both the 44-year performance of Berkshire’s book value
and the S&P 500 index, shows that 2008 was the worst year for each. The period was devastating as well for
corporate and municipal bonds, real estate and commodities. By yearend, investors of all stripes were bloodied
and confused, much as if they were small birds that had strayed into a badminton game.
As the year progressed, a series of life-threatening problems within many of the world’s great financial
institutions was unveiled. This led to a dysfunctional credit market that in important respects soon turned
non-functional. The watchword throughout the country became the creed I saw on restaurant walls when I was
young: “In God we trust; all others pay cash.”
By the fourth quarter, the credit crisis, coupled with tumbling home and stock prices, had produced a
paralyzing fear that engulfed the country. A freefall in business activity ensued, accelerating at a pace that I have
never before witnessed. The U.S. – and much of the world – became trapped in a vicious negative-feedback
cycle. Fear led to business contraction, and that in turn led to even greater fear.


Take a look again at the 44-year table on page 2. In 75% of those years, the S&P stocks recorded a
gain. I would guess that a roughly similar percentage of years will be positive in the next 44. But neither Charlie
Munger, my partner in running Berkshire, nor I can predict the winning and losing years in advance. (In our
usual opinionated view, we don’t think anyone else can either.) We’re certain, for example, that the economy will
be in shambles throughout 2009 – and, for that matter, probably well beyond
– but that conclusion does not tell
us whether the stock market will rise or fall.

That said, Buffet also had some encouraging words for Americans.

Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails in the past. In
the 20th Century alone, we dealt 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 211⁄2% 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
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 tiny 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.

It's good to know that he thinks it, but it will be more important to have people to buy in. Although we're taught that people are always rational actors in Intro to Econ, it's clear that's not really the case. Things are bad, but there's no reason half of American should be worried about losing their job. Whatever your thoughts on fiscal policy, it's clear that we need to do something to make people less fearful so that the downward spiral does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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