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Category: Corporate Finance

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Buffett’s Evolution: From Stock-Picking Disciple of Ben Graham to Business-Building Devotee of Tom Murphy

While everyone knows that Warren Buffett modeled himself after Ben Graham for the stock picking that made Buffett famous in the latter 20th century, virtually no one knows a more important point for the 21st century: he has modeled himself after Tom Murphy in assembling a mighty conglomerate.   Murphy, a legendary executive with great skills in the field of acquisitions that resulted in the Capital Cities communications empire, engineered the 1985 $3.5 billion takeover by Capital Cities of ABC before selling it all to to Disney a decade later for $19 billion.  You did not hear that explicitly at Saturday’s Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, but Warren mentioned it to me at brunch on Sunday and, when you think about it, it’s a point implicit deep in the meeting’s themes and many questions.

In fact, Berkshire mBBB COvereetings are wonderful for their predictability.   Few questions surprise informed participants and most seasoned observers can give the correct outlines of answers before hearing Buffett or vice chairman Charlie Munger speak. While exact issues vary year to year and the company and its leaders evolve, the core principles are few, simple, and unwavering.  The meetings reinforce the venerability and durability of Berkshire’s bedrock principles even as they drive important underlying shifts that accumulate over many years.  Three examples and their upshot illustrate, all of which I expand on in a new book due out later this year (pictured; pre-order here).

Permanence versus Size/Break Up. People since the 1980s have argued that as Berkshire grows, it gets more difficult to outperform. Buffett has always agreed that scale is an anchor. And it’s true that these critics have always been right that it gets harder but always wrong that it is impossible to outperform.   People for at least a decade have wondered whether it might be desirable to divide Berkshire’s 50+ direct subsidiaries into multiple corporations or spin-off some businesses.  The answer has always been and remains no.  Berkshire’s most fundamental principle is permanence, always has been, always will be. Divisions and divestitures are antithetical to that proposition.

Trust and Autonomy versus Internal Control. Every time there is a problem at a given subsidiary or with a given person—spotlighted at 2011’s meeting by subsidiary CEO David Sokol’s buying stock in Lubrizol before pitching it as an acquisition target—people want to know whether Berkshire gives its personnel too much autonomy. The answer is Berkshire is totally decentralized and always will be-another distinctive bedrock principle. The rationale has always been the same: yes, tight leashes and controls might help avoid this or that costly embarrassment but the gains from a trust-based culture of autonomy, while less visible, dwarf those costs.

Capital Allocation: Berkshire has always adopted the doubled-barreled approach to capital allocation, buying minority stakes in common stocks as well as entire subsidiaries (and subs of subs).  The significant change at Berkshire in the past two decades is moving from a mix of 80% stocks with 20% subsidiaries to the opposite, now 80% subsidiaries with 20% stocks.  That underscores the unnoticed change: in addition to Munger, Buffett’s most important model is not only Graham but Murphy, who built Capital Cities/ABC in the way that Buffett has consciously emulated in the recent building of Berkshire.

For me, this year’s meeting was a particularly joy because I’ve just completed the manuscript of my next book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values (Columbia University Press, available October 2014). It articulates and consolidates these themes through a close and delightful look at its fifty-plus subsidiaries, based in part on interviews and surveys of many subsidiary CEOs and other Berkshire insiders and shareholders.   The draft jacket copy follows. Read More

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Individuals & Teams, Carrots & Sticks

I promised Victor Fleisher to return to his reflections on team production. Vic raised the issue of team production and the challenge of monitoring individual performance. In Talent Wants to Be Free I discuss some of these challenges in the connection to my argument that much of what firms try to achieve through restrictive covenants could be achieved through positive incentives:

“Stock options, bonuses, and profit-sharing programs induce loyalty and identification with the company without the negative effects of over-surveillance or over-restriction. Performance-based rewards increase employees’ stake in the company and increase their commitment to the success of the firm. These rewards (and the employee’s personal investment in the firm that is generated by them) can also motivate workers to monitor their co-workers. We now have evidence that companies that use such bonus structures and pay employees stock options outperform comparable companies .”

 But I also warn:

 “[W]hile stock options and bonuses reward hard work, these pay structures also present challenges. Measuring employee performance in innovative settings is a difficult task. One of the risks is that compensation schemes may inadvertently emphasize observable over unobservable outputs. Another risk is that when collaborative efforts are crucial, differential pay based on individual contribution will be counterproductive and impede teamwork, as workers will want to shine individually. Individual compensation incentives might lead employees to hoard information, divert their efforts from the team, and reduce team output. In other words, performance-based pay in some settings risks creating perverse incentives, driving individuals to spend too much time on solo inventions and not enough time collaborating. Even more worrisome is the fear that employees competing for bonus awards will have incentives to actively sabotage one another’s efforts.

A related potential pitfall of providing bonuses for performance and innovative activities is the creation of jealousy and a perception of unfairness among employees. Employees, as all of us do in most aspects of our lives, tend to overestimate their own abilities and efforts. When a select few employees are rewarded unevenly in a large workplace setting, employers risk demoralizing others. Such unintended consequences will vary in corporate and industry cultures across time and place, but they may explain why many companies decide to operate under wage compression structures with relatively narrow variance between their employees’ paychecks. For all of these concerns, the highly innovative software company Atlassian recently replaced individual performance bonuses with higher salaries, an organizational bonus, and stock options, believing that too much of a focus on immediate individual rewards depleted team effort.

Still, despite these risks, for many businesses the carrots of performance-based pay and profit sharing schemes have effectively replaced the sticks of controls. But there is a catch! Cleverly, sticks can be disguised as carrots. The infamous “golden handcuffs”- stock options and deferred compensation with punitive early exit trigger – can operate as de facto restrictive contracts….”

 All this is in line with what Vic is saying about the advantages of organizational forms that encourage longer term attachment. But the fundamental point is that stickiness (or what Vic refers to as soft control) is already quite strong through the firm form itself, along with status quo biases, risk aversion, and search lags. The stickiness has benefits but it also has heavy costs when it is compounded and infused with legal threats.

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Should Berkshire Hathaway Stay Public or Go Private?

aaa NYSEPonder this: should Berkshire Hathaway remain a public company or consider going private instead?

Venture entrepreneurs and seasoned executives alike often weigh the pros and cons of a U.S. company being privately held or publicly listed. That goes for start-ups trying to decide to make an initial public offering as it does for listed companies trying to decide whether to go private.  

Everyone considers the transaction costs of such a switch high because IPOs and going private transactions are complicated, requiring paying accountants, appraisers, lawyers and other professionals. They are also time-consuming.

So setting aside transaction costs, let’s highlight the usual pros and cons, to do an IPO or stay public:

Pros:

● access to capital

● liquidity for shareholders

● a currency (stock) to pay managers or make acquisitions

● cache from the sign of business maturity or stature

Cons:

● the public arena invites the threat of hostile takeovers via proxy battles or tender offers

● rigid governance requirements, especially board size, independence and oversight

● Wall Street analyst attention that drives focus on short-term results, not long-term prosperity

● required disclosure, posing direct administrative costs and potential indirect costs as to competitive matters

● exposure to securities lawsuits by disgruntled stockholders

Although disclosure may be a “con” to a company, from a social perspective, watchdogs value the transparency, especially as to matters of stewardship and corporate social responsibility of larger institutions.

Assuming such a list is roughly complete, how should you evaluate the situation for Berkshire Hathaway? Stipulate that it had good reasons for public company status in its early days, the 1970s and 1980s, even the 1990s. Is it still worth it today? Read More

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Berkshire Hathaway’s Unique Permanence

aaa rock of gibralterPermanence is the most distinctive trait of Berkshire Hathaway, the diversified Fortune 10 conglomerate whose unusual features, thanks to iconoclastic chairman Warren Buffett, are legion. Permanence is salient because, unlike any other conglomerate in history or rival in the acquisitions market, Berkshire has never sold a subsidiary it acquired.

Ironically, the experience that led to this unique practice culminated in the reluctant sale of Berkshire’s original business, textile manufacturing, in 1985. That sale was so painful for management, employees and other stakeholders that Berkshire committed to avoid a replay.

Instead, it adopted a policy of up-front screening, rigorous acquisition criteria that cut the chances of owning a business that would be tempting to sell. Berkshire then turned that policy into a huge advantage, assuring prospective sellers of companies a permanent corporate home.

In turn, the assurance of permanence appealed strongly to the kinds of companies that would meet Berkshire’s rigorous acquisition criteria: those owned and loved by families, entrepreneurs and other owner-oriented types. Some fifty acquisitions later, the promise has never been broken.

That is why I found so peculiar the following passage in William Thorndike’s well-selling book, The Outsiders, a profile of select big-name CEOs, including Buffett, whom Thorndike considers to have been similar to each other but different from everybody else. After referencing the 1985 closure of Berkshire’s ailing textile business, he writes: Read More

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Brian Tamanaha’s Straw Men (Part 1): Why we used SIPP data from 1996 to 2011

(Reposted from Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports)

 

BT Claim:  We could have used more historical data without introducing continuity and other methodological problems

BT quote:  “Although SIPP was redesigned in 1996, there are surveys for 1993 and 1992, which allow continuity . . .”

Response:  Using more historical data from SIPP would likely have introduced continuity and other methodological problems

SIPP does indeed go back farther than 1996.  We chose that date because it was the beginning of an updated and revitalized SIPP that continues to this day.  SIPP was substantially redesigned in 1996 to increase sample size and improve data quality.  Combining different versions of SIPP could have introduced methodological problems.  That doesn’t mean one could not do it in the future, but it might raise as many questions as it would answer.

Had we used earlier data, it could be difficult to know to what extent changes to our earnings premiums estimates were caused by changes in the real world, and to what extent they were artifacts caused by changes to the SIPP methodology.

Because SIPP has developed and improved over time, the more recent data is more reliable than older historical data.  All else being equal, a larger sample size and more years of data are preferable.  However, data quality issues suggest focusing on more recent data.

If older data were included, it probably would have been appropriate to weight more recent and higher quality data more heavily than older and lower quality data.  We would likely also have had to make adjustments for differences that might have been caused by changes in survey methodology.  Such adjustments would inevitably have been controversial.

Because the sample size increased dramatically after 1996, including a few years of pre 1996 data would not provide as much new data or have the potential to change our estimates by nearly as much as Professor Tamanaha believes.  There are also gaps in SIPP data from the 1980s because of insufficient funding.

These issues and the 1996 changes are explained at length in the Survey of Income and Program Participation User’s Guide.

Changes to the new 1996 version of SIPP include:

Roughly doubling the sample size

This improves the precision of estimates and shrinks standard errors

Lengthening the panels from 3 years to 4 years

This reduces the severity of the regression to the median problem

Introducing computer assisted interviewing to improve data collection and reduce errors or the need to impute for missing data

Introducing oversampling of low income neighborhoods
This mitigates response bias issues we previously discussed, which are most likely to affect the bottom of the distribution
New income topcoding procedures were instituted with the 1996 Panel
This will affect both means and various points in the distribution
Topcoding is done on a monthly or quarterly basis, and can therefore undercount end of year bonuses, even for those who are not extremely high income year-round

Most government surveys topcode income data—that is, there is a maximum income that they will report.  This is done to protect the privacy of high-income individuals who could more easily be identified from ostensibly confidential survey data if their incomes were revealed.

Because law graduates tend to have higher incomes than bachelor’s, topcoding introduces downward bias to earnings premiums estimates. Midstream changes to topcoding procedures can change this bias and create problems with respect to consistency and continuity.

Without going into more detail, the topcoding procedure that began in 1996 appears to be an improvement over the earlier topcoding procedure.

These are only a subset of the problems extending the SIPP data back past 1996 would have introduced.  For us, the costs of backfilling data appear to outweigh the benefits.  If other parties wish to pursue that course, we’ll be interested in what they find, just as we hope others were interested in our findings.

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Brian Tamanaha’s Straw Men (Overview)

(Cross posted from Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports)

Brian Tamanaha previously told Inside Higher Education that our research only looked at average earnings premiums and did not consider the low end of the distribution.  Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post reported that Professor Tamanaha’s description of our research was “false”. 

In his latest post, Professor Tamanaha combines interesting critiques with some not very interesting errors and claims that are not supported by data.   Responding to his blog post is a little tricky as his ongoing edits rendered it something of a moving target.  While we’re happy with improvements, a PDF of the version to which we are responding is available here just so we all know what page we’re on.

Stephen Diamond explains why Tamanaha apparently changed his post: Ted Seto and Eric Rasmusen expressed concerns about Tamanaha’s use of ad hominem attacks.

Some of Tamanaha’s new errors are surprising, because they come after an email exchange with him in which we addressed them.  For example, Tamanaha’s description of our approach to ability sorting constitutes a gross misreading of our research.  Tamanaha also references the wrong chart for earnings premium trends and misinterprets confidence intervals.  And his description of our present value calculations is way off the mark.

Here are some quick bullet point responses, with details below in subsequent posts:

  • Forecasting and Backfilling
    • Using more historical data from SIPP would likely have introduced continuity and other methodological problems
    • Using more years of data is as likely to increase the historical earnings premium as to reduce it
    • If pre-1996 historical data finds lower earnings premiums, that may suggest a long term upward trend and could mean that our estimates of flat future earnings premiums are too conservative and the premium estimates should be higher
    • The earnings premium in the future is just as likely to be higher as it is to be lower than it was in 1996-2011
    • In the future, the earnings premium would have to be lower by **85 percent** for an investment in law school to destroy economic value at the median
  • Data sufficiency
    • 16 years of data is more than is used in similar studies to establish a baseline.  This includes studies Tamanaha cited and praised in his book.
    • Our data includes both peaks and troughs in the cycle.  Across the cycle, law graduates earn substantially more than bachelor’s.
  • Tamanaha’s errors and misreading
    • We control for ability sorting and selection using extensive controls for socio-economic, academic, and demographic characteristics
    • This substantially reduces our earnings premium estimates
    • Any lingering ability sorting and selection is likely offset by response bias in SIPP, topcoding, and other problems that cut in the opposite direction
    • Tamanaha references the wrong chart for earnings premium trends and misinterprets confidence intervals
    • Tamanaha is confused about present value, opportunity cost, and discounting
    • Our in-school earnings are based on data, but, in any event, “correcting” to zero would not meaningfully change our conclusions
  • Tamanaha’s best line
    • “Let me also confirm that [Simkovic & McIntyre’s] study is far more sophisticated than my admittedly crude efforts.”

Big Rig? Libor & Beyond

BankstersTo inaugurate a series of posts about scandals and crime in the financial sector, I wanted to highlight John Lanchester’s work in the London Review of Books on “banks’ barely believable behaviour.” He mentions the still unwinding Libor scandal up front:

Libor is the single most important number in international financial markets, used as a reference point throughout the global financial system. It is a range of interbank lending rates, set after consultation between the British Bankers’ Association and two hundred and fifty-odd participating banks. During the daily process, each bank is asked the rate at which it could borrow money from other banks, ‘unsecured’ i.e. backed only by its own creditworthiness rather than by specific collateral. The question is, in effect: what would your credit be like today, if you had to ask? . . . .

It seems bizarre that something so central to the global markets – $360 trillion of deals are pinned to Libor – should have such a strong element of invention or guesswork. The potential for abuse is immediately apparent. As Donald MacKenzie prophetically said, ‘the obvious risk to the integrity of the calculation is that a bank on a Libor panel might make a manipulative input, trying to move Libor up or down so as to influence interest rates or the value of its swaps portfolio.’ Surprise! After the crisis, when investigators were taking an energetic interest in Libor, it turned out that that was exactly what had been happening, not just at one or two banks but across an entire swath of the industry.

Lanchester only brings up LIBOR as the opening act for what he considers a far deeper scandal in Britain—PPI. And guess what—it’s not just LIBOR where we’re seeing these concerns about privileged access to information turning into profit. Here are some other “rigging” scandals of recent vintage:
Read More

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Warren Buffett’s Single Bid Rule

Among the many ways that Warren Buffett is unusual is his approach to the role of price in business acquisition negotiations. Other people commonly haggle over price. Tactics include sellers naming an asking price that is higher than warranted or buyers making a low-ball bid. Some people enjoy the give and take and many believe it is a way to produce value in exchange.

Buffett eschews such exercises as a waste of time. One of Berkshire’s acquisition criteria (in addition to size, proven earnings power, quality management in place and relative simplicity of the business) is having a price. Eschewing the games so many negotiators like to play over ranges of values, Buffett wants a single price at which each side can say yes—or walk away. His bid is his bid; when he gives you a bid, what you have is what most people classify as the “best price,” “final offer,” or “highest bid.”

Buffett has repeatedly statesd this policy, along with the other acquisition criteria, in every Berkshire Hathaway annual report since 1983 (and once in a 1986 ad in the Wall Street Journal). Yet I know many people who are skeptical about whether Buffett and Berkshire actually adhere to this policy—doesn’t he engage in price negotiations in at least some cases, they ask? Aren’t there situations in which the value of an exchange is not discovered other than through the dynamic of negotiations, including about appropriate methodology?

To answer such questions, I examined the 16 Berkshire Hathaway acquisitions over the past two decades that involved public company targets. Unlike private company targets, those companies are required by U.S. federal law to publicly disclose the background of the transaction, including negotiation over all material terms, such as price. Read More

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Legal Diversification

I’ve just posted my latest paper, Legal Diversification, on SSRN. The paper starts from the premise that investors derive significant protection from the risks of capital investment by diversifying their holdings. By the same token, it seems to me that investors may be able to realize benefits from the broad diversity of corporate and securities laws governing investment opportunities.

The Essay introduces a new dimension of diversification for investors: legal diversification. Legal diversification of investment means building a portfolio of securities that are governed by a variety of legal rules. Legal diversification protects investors from the risk that a particular method of minimizing agency costs will prove ineffective and allows investors to own securities in a variety of firms, with each security governed by the most efficient set of legal rules given the circumstances of the investment. Diversification of investment by legal rules is possible because of the varied menu of legal rules firms can choose from when organizing and raising capital. The most recent addition to the securities laws, the JOBS Act, may compromise the diversity of legal rules that protects investors by pushing even more firms toward organizing as public corporations, thereby threatening to curtail or eliminate the variety that allows effective diversification.

The Essay makes several contributions to the literature. By introducing legal diversification, it reveals a new understanding of how investors, issuers, and society can benefit from maintaining a variety of legal rules to govern investment in businesses. The corporate law scholarship has long advocated preserving a variety of rules under which firms can organize, but it has yet to consider how investors can take advantage of that variety to protect themselves before market competition has revealed the “best” rules. Legal diversification also complements recent literature emphasizing the importance of diversity in financial regulation by highlighting another reason diversity of legal rules is important to healthy capital markets. Legal diversification fills gaps in the literature advocating regulatory diversity by offering an explanation for why that diversity is a valuable protection for investors and an indispensable mechanism for allowing firms to choose the most efficient legal rules to govern their organization and operation.

I’m still working on editing the draft, so would greatly appreciate any thoughts or comments you may have on the project.