Take-aways from Buffett’s latest letter
On the Subprime Crisis
Mortgage-origination practices are of great importance to both the borrower and to society. There is no question that reckless practices in home lending played a major role in bringing on the financial panic of 2008, which in turn led to the Great Recession. In the years preceding the meltdown, a destructive and often corrupt pattern of mortgage creation flourished whereby (1) an originator in, say, California would make loans and (2) promptly sell them to an investment or commercial bank in, say, New York, which would package many mortgages to serve as collateral for a dizzyingly complicated array of mortgage-backed securities to be (3) sold to unwitting institutions around the world.
As if these sins weren’t sufficient to create an unholy mess, imaginative investment bankers sometimes concocted a second layer of sliced-up financing whose value depended on the junkier portions of primary offerings. (When Wall Street gets “innovative,” watch out!) While that was going on, I described this “doubling-up” practice as requiring an investor to read tens of thousands of pages of mind-numbing prose to evaluate a single security being offered.
Both the originator and the packager of these financings had no skin in the game and were driven by volume and markups. Many housing borrowers joined the party as well, blatantly lying on their loan applications while mortgage originators looked the other way. Naturally, the gamiest credits generated the most profits. Smooth Wall Street salesmen garnered millions annually by manufacturing products that their customers were unable to understand. (It’s also questionable as to whether the major rating agencies were capable of evaluating the more complex structures. But rate them they did.)
On the outlook for the American economy
Many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do. That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history. American GDP per capita is now about $56,000. As I mentioned last year that – in real terms – is a staggering six times the amount in 1930, the year I was born, a leap far beyond the wildest dreams of my parents or their contemporaries. U.S. citizens are not intrinsically more intelligent today, nor do they work harder than did Americans in 1930. Rather, they work far more efficiently and thereby produce far more. This all-powerful trend is certain to continue: America’s economic magic remains alive and well. Some commentators bemoan our current 2% per year growth in real GDP – and, yes, we would all like to see a higher rate. But let’s do some simple math using the much-lamented 2% figure. That rate, we will see, delivers astounding gains.
America’s population is growing about .8% per year (.5% from births minus deaths and .3% from net migration). Thus, 2% of overall growth produces about 1.2% of per capita growth. That may not sound impressive. But in a single generation of, say, 25 years, that rate of growth leads to a gain of 34.4% in real GDP per capita. (Compounding’s effects produce the excess over the percentage that would result from simply multiplying 25 x 1.2%.) In turn, that 34.4% gain will produce a staggering $19,000 increase in real GDP per capita for the next generation. Were that to be distributed equally, the gain would be $76,000 annually for a family of four. Today’s politicians need not shed tears for tomorrow’s children.
On improving productivity
[Heinz management’s] method, at which they have been extraordinarily successful, is to buy companies that offer an opportunity for eliminating many unnecessary costs and then – very promptly – to make the moves that will get the job done. Their actions significantly boost productivity, the all-important factor in America’s economic growth over the past 240 years. Without more output of desired goods and services per working hour – that’s the measure of productivity gains – an economy inevitably stagnates. At much of corporate America, truly major gains in productivity are possible.
See the full letter here on the Berkshire Hathaway website: (VIEW LINK)