Berkshire Hathaway 2018 Annual Meeting Audience Question # 10

Putting net worth figures in the income statement which affects net income would be “enormously deceptive”

Warren Buffett:

OK, Carol.

Carol Loomis:

… shareholder named Jack Ciesielski . He’s a well-known accounting expert, who for many years has written “The Accounting Observer.”

“Mr. Buffett, in this year’s shareholder letter you have harsh words for the new accounting rule that requires companies to use market value accounting for their investment holdings.”

ʺ‘For analytical purposes,’ you said, ‘Berkshire’s bottom-line will be useless.’”

“I’d like to argue with you about that. Shouldn’t a company’s earnings report cite everything that happened to, and within, a company during an accounting period?”

“Shouldn’t the income statement be like an objectively written newspaper informing shareholders of what happened under the management for that period, showing what management did to increase shareholder value and how outside forces may have affected the firm?”

“If securities increased in value, surely the company and the shareholders are better off. And surely they’re worse off if securities decreased in value.”

“Those changes are most certainly real. In my opinion, ignoring changes in the way that some companies ignore restructuring costs, is censoring the shareholders’ newspaper.”

“So my question is, how would you answer what I say?”

Warren Buffett:

Well, my answer to the question that asks what my answer would be to what he said… the… I would ask Jack, if we’ve got $170 billion of partly-owned companies, which we intend to own for decades, and which we expect to become worth more money over time, and where we reflect the market value in our balance sheet, does it make sense to, every quarter, mark those up and down through the income account, when at the same time we own businesses that have become worth far more money, in most cases, and become, you know, since we bought… you name the company… take GEICO, an extreme case… we bought half the company for $50 million, roughly… do we want to be marking that up every quarter to the value… and having it run through the income account?

That becomes an appraisal process. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, in terms of evaluation. But in terms of… and you can call it gain in net asset value or loss in net asset value… that’s what a closed-end investment fund, or an open-investment fund would do.

But to run that through an income account… if I looked at our 60 or 70 businesses, or whatever number there might be, and every quarter we marked those to market, we would have, obviously, a great many, in certain cases, where over time we’d have them at 10 times what we paid, but how quarter-by-quarter we should mark those up and run it through the income account, where 99 percent of investors probably look at net income as being meaningful, in terms of what has been produced from operations during the year, I think would be… well, I can say it would be enormously deceptive.

I mean, in the first quarter of this year… you saw the figures earlier… where we had the best what I would call operating earnings in our history, and our securities went… were down six billion, or whatever it was, to keep running that through the income account every day you would say that we might have made on Friday, we probably made 2 1/2 billion dollars. Well, if you have investors and commentators and analysts and everybody else working off those net income numbers and trying to project earnings for quarters, and earnings for future years, to the penny, I think you’re doing a great disservice by running those through the income account.

I think it’s fine to have marketable securities on the balance sheet… the information available as to their market value… but we have businesses there… if we… we never would do it… but if we were to sell half, we’ll say, of the BNSF railroad, we would receive more than we carried… carried for them… we would turn… we could turn it into a marketable security and it would look like we made a ton of money overnight. Or if we were to appraise it, you know, appraise it every three months and write it up and down, A, it could lead to all kinds of manipulation, but B, and it would just lead to the average… to any investor- being totally confused.

I don’t want to receive data in that manner and therefore I don’t want to send it out in that manner.

Charlie?

Charlie Munger:

Well, to me it’s obvious that the change in valuation should be noted, and it is and always has been… it goes right into the net worth figures.

So the questioner doesn’t understand his own profession.

I’m not supposed to talk that way but it slips out once in a while.

Warren Buffett:

Sometimes he even gives it a push.

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