Thursday, 20 December 2012

Warren Buffett: Intrinsic Value and Capital Allocation

Intrinsic Value and Capital Allocation

     Understanding intrinsic value is as important for managers as it is for investors.  When managers are making capital allocation decisions - including decisions to repurchase shares - it's vital that they act in ways that increase per-share intrinsic value and avoid moves that decrease it.  This principle may seem obvious but we constantly see it violated.  And, when misallocations occur, shareholders are hurt.     

     For example, in contemplating business mergers and acquisitions, many managers tend to focus on whether the transaction is immediately dilutive or anti-dilutive to earnings per share (or, at financial institutions, to per-share book value).  An emphasis of this sort carries great dangers.  Going back to our college-education example, imagine that a 25-year-old first-year MBA student is considering merging his future economic interests with those of a 25-year-old day laborer.  The MBA student, a non-earner, would find that a "share-for-share" merger of his equity interest in himself with that of the day laborer would enhance his near-term earnings (in a big way!).  But what could be sillier for the student than a deal of this kind?

     In corporate transactions, it's equally silly for the would- be purchaser to focus on current earnings when the prospective acquiree has either different prospects, different amounts of non-operating assets, or a different capital structure.  At Berkshire, we have rejected many merger and purchase opportunities that would have boosted current and near-term earnings but that would have reduced per-share intrinsic value.  Our approach, rather, has been to follow Wayne Gretzky's advice:  "Go to where the puck is going to be, not to where it is."  As a result, our shareholders are now many billions of dollars richer than they would have been if we had used the standard catechism.

     The sad fact is that most major acquisitions display an egregious imbalance: They are a bonanza for the shareholders of the acquiree; they increase the income and status of the acquirer's management; and they are a honey pot for the investment bankers and other professionals on both sides.  They usually reduce the wealth of the acquirer's shareholders, often to a substantial extent.  That happens because the acquirer typically gives up more intrinsic value than it receives.  Do that enough, says John Medlin, the retired head of Wachovia Corp., and "you are running a chain letter in reverse."    Over time, the skill with which a company's managers allocate capital has an enormous impact on the enterprise's value.  Almost by definition, a really good business generates far more money (at least after its early years) than it can use internally.  The company could distribute the money to shareholders by way of dividends or share repurchases.  Often the CEO asks a strategic planning staff, consultants or investment bankers whether an acquisition or two might make sense.  That's like asking your interior decorator whether you need a $50,000 rug.

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