Will Warren Buffett Exit Like John Elway … or Brett Favre?

by Will Ashworth | January 30, 2014 1:32 pm

Will Warren Buffett Exit Like John Elway … or Brett Favre?

We’re all but certainly about to see an amazing record come to an end. Warren Buffett has a self-imposed goal — increase Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRK.B[1]) net worth per Class A share by more than the S&P 500 over a rolling five-year period — is sure to come to an end. The index’s cumulative total return at the end of September was 48 percentage points higher than Warren Buffett’s $292 billion company.

warren buffett 630 headshot 300x226 Will Warren Buffett Exit Like John Elway ... or Brett Favre?
Source: Flickr[2]

At age 83, every financial media outlet has riffed on when Warren Buffett is going to hang up his investment tool belt and ride off into the sunset. And of course, he will exit the game eventually.

But the question is increasingly looking to be whether he’s going to go out like John Elway (a champion) or go out fighting till the bitter end when is skills are clearly diminished, a la Brett Favre.

Everyone has an opinion on this subject. Here’s mine:

Go to a Beach?

That’s not Warren Buffett’s style.

Buffett appeared on The Dan Patrick Show on Jan. 22 to discuss his $1 billion bonanza[3] for anyone that create a perfect March Madness bracket, and he told Patrick that as a kid he dreamed about owning the Washington Redskins.

Countless Redskin fans — myself a fanatic since 1973 when Joe Theismann left my hometown Toronto Argonauts to sign with Washington as a third-string QB and occasional kick returner — gasped with anticipatory glee only to be brought back to reality by Buffett’s comments that some rich people buy art, houses, boats, etc., but he buys investments.

That’s not likely to change. A well-known quote of Warren Buffett tell us as much:

“I do what I do because I love to do it, not because I need the money. It’s fun and I surround myself with people I enjoy seeing every day.”

It’s this philosophy that longtime friend and Fortune editor Carol Loomis elaborated on in her 2012 book Tap Dancing to Work, a collection of Fortune articles culled from 46 years of material. In Berkshire Hathaway’s 2004 shareholders letter, Warren Buffett clearly states that the primary job of its directors is to find a successor should he die, become disabled or lose his mind.

That doesn’t leave much of a mystery. He’s in this till the end.

Is Warren Buffett Losing His Touch?

A quick Google search of the phrase “Warren Buffett losing his touch” produces 4,690 results. That’s an incredibly large number of results on a single, mundane subject. Many will view his miss of the five-year rolling return as further evidence that his skills are slipping, or alternatively, that the behemoth of a holding company has become too big to outperform in essence becoming index-like.

Either way, calls for his retirement will likely continue to be heard. But is that fair?

Warren Buffett reminds shareholders that the book value per share figure is an after-tax number while the S&P 500 return is pre-tax. Apply a 20% tax to the index’s gains, and the percentage beat drops to 22 points — still significant, but not nearly as big a deal.

Furthermore, when you read page 13 in the 2012 shareholders letter[4], you will see that a huge gap of almost $5 billion exists between the intrinsic value of Berkshire’s 91.7% interest in Marmon Holdings (will go to 100% by March 2014) and the book value. GAAP accounting rules require that the company record its additional share purchases at far less than what it paid, creating a substantially lower book value than is reality.

While there aren’t too many cases like Marmon in the Berkshire cupboard, it simply illustrates that there are too many moving parts to definitively answer this question.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jan. 17 article pointing out that Berkshire investment managers Todd Combs and Ted Weschler have both beaten Warren Buffett[5] as well as the S&P 500 the past two years should be taken with a grain of salt. The duo were managing about $14 billion compared to $86 billion for Warren Buffett. While they were buying less than $1 billion per stock, he was busy maintaining or building huge positions in companies like IBM (IBM[6]).

The ability to buy in a stealth-like fashion is much easier when the dollar amounts are in the millions rather than billions.

I’d dare say Warren Buffett has done as well as the average large-cap money manager … and with a much more unwieldy portfolio.

The End of the Line

John Elway retired in 1999 on the back of two consecutive Super Bowl wins, erasing the pain of three previous losses in the big game (including a 42-10 drubbing at the hands of my beloved Redskins). He went out a big-time winner. Brett Favre, on the other hand, took a great career and almost ruined his legacy by staying on long after his god-given talent abandoned him. He’s a Hall of Famer for sure, but stops with the Jets and Vikings tarnished that image on and off the field.

The legacy of Warren Buffett is cemented in history along with his mentor, Ben Graham. He’s John Elway multiplied by 10. His long-term investment performance is second to none. He’s operating at an extremely high level of competence at an age at which many people are lucky if they can make it out for a game of golf every so often. Still looking to bag the elephant much like Bud Fox in the original Wall Street, Burlington Northern might turn out to be his last big hurrah.

But don’t think for a minute he has stopped trying.

In my opinion, the only way his greatness can truly be measured is if the entire company is sold off bit by bit in a controlled, measurable fashion. It’s at this point that the ultimate value of Berkshire Hathaway will be realized — far in excess of what anyone believes is its intrinsic value. By then, of course, Warren Buffett will be long gone — but never forgotten.

Go out like Favre? Not in a million years.

If anything, he’ll go out like Gehrig, a humble champion.

As of this writing, Will Ashworth did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Endnotes:
  1. BRK.B: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=BRK.B
  2. Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trackrecord/
  3. $1 billion bonanza: http://investorplace.com/2014/01/warren-buffett-march-madness/
  4. 2012 shareholders letter: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2012ltr.pdf
  5. both beaten Warren Buffett: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303819704579320874278531400
  6. IBM: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=IBM

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