Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

Warren Buffett Blasts American Corporate Practices

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Monday, September 19, 2011

As the saying goes, “There’s no news like old news.”

And so, that’s the case with this entry.

I have little doubt that you – indeed that very few Americans – have read the 2003 Report to Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway.

However, I have – and I read it when it was published in 2004.

In it, one of the world’s wealthiest men opines about corporate practices that have grieved Americans, the excesses of which have outraged many, if not most.

The report is available here, in its entirety, from the Berkshire Hathaway website.

Excerpted here below, for your convenience, are Warren Buffett’s thoughts from his 2003 Report to Shareholders.

I can understand why the Treasury is now frustrated with Corporate America and prone to outbursts. But it should look to Congress and the Administration for redress, not to Berkshire.

Corporate income taxes in fiscal 2003 accounted for 7.4% of all federal tax receipts, down from a post-war peak of 32% in 1952. With one exception (1983), last year’s percentage is the lowest recorded since data was first published in 1934.

Even so, tax breaks for corporations (and their investors, particularly large ones) were a major part of the Administration’s 2002 and 2003 initiatives. If class warfare is being waged in America, my class is clearly winning. Today, many large corporations – run by CEOs whose fiddle-playing talents make your Chairman look like he is all thumbs – pay nothing close to the stated federal tax rate of 35%.

In 1985, Berkshire paid $132 million in federal income taxes, and all corporations paid $61 billion. The comparable amounts in 1995 were $286 million and $157 billion respectively. And, as mentioned, we will pay about $3.3 billion for 2003, a year when all corporations paid $132 billion. We hope our taxes continue to rise in the future – it will mean we are prospering – but we also hope that the rest of Corporate America antes up along with us. This might be a project for Ms. Olson to work on.

Corporate Governance

In judging whether Corporate America is serious about reforming itself, CEO pay remains the acid test. To date, the results aren’t encouraging. A few CEOs, such as Jeff Immelt of General Electric, have led the way in initiating programs that are fair to managers and shareholders alike. Generally, however, his example has been more admired than followed.

It’s understandable how pay got out of hand. When management hires employees, or when companies bargain with a vendor, the intensity of interest is equal on both sides of the table. One party’s gain is the other party’s loss, and the money involved has real meaning to both. The result is an honest-to- God negotiation.

But when CEOs (or their representatives) have met with compensation committees, too often one side – the CEO’s – has cared far more than the other about what bargain is struck. A CEO, for example, will always regard the difference between receiving options for 100,000 shares or for 500,000 as monumental. To a comp committee, however, the difference may seem unimportant – particularly if, as

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has been the case at most companies, neither grant will have any effect on reported earnings. Under these conditions, the negotiation often has a “play-money” quality.

Overreaching by CEOs greatly accelerated in the 1990s as compensation packages gained by the most avaricious– a title for which there was vigorous competition – were promptly replicated elsewhere. The couriers for this epidemic of greed were usually consultants and human relations departments, which had no trouble perceiving who buttered their bread. As one compensation consultant commented: “There are two classes of clients you don’t want to offend – actual and potential.”

In proposals for reforming this malfunctioning system, the cry has been for “independent” directors. But the question of what truly motivates independence has largely been neglected.

In last year’s report, I took a look at how “independent” directors – as defined by statute – had performed in the mutual fund field. The Investment Company Act of 1940 mandated such directors, and that means we’ve had an extended test of what statutory standards produce. In our examination last year, we looked at the record of fund directors in respect to the two key tasks board members should perform – whether at a mutual fund business or any other. These two all-important functions are, first, to obtain (or retain) an able and honest manager and then to compensate that manager fairly.

Our survey was not encouraging. Year after year, at literally thousands of funds, directors had routinely rehired the incumbent management company, however pathetic its performance had been. Just as routinely, the directors had mindlessly approved fees that in many cases far exceeded those that could have been negotiated. Then, when a management company was sold – invariably at a huge price relative to tangible assets – the directors experienced a “counter-revelation” and immediately signed on with the new manager and accepted its fee schedule. In effect, the directors decided that whoever would pay the most for the old management company was the party that should manage the shareholders’ money in the future.

Despite the lapdog behavior of independent fund directors, we did not conclude that they are bad people. They’re not. But sadly, “boardroom atmosphere” almost invariably sedates their fiduciary genes.

On May 22, 2003, not long after Berkshire’s report appeared, the Chairman of the Investment Company Institute addressed its membership about “The State of our Industry.” Responding to those who have “weighed in about our perceived failings,” he mused, “It makes me wonder what life would be like if we’d actually done something wrong.”

Be careful what you wish for.

Within a few months, the world began to learn that many fund-management companies had followed policies that hurt the owners of the funds they managed, while simultaneously boosting the fees of the managers. Prior to their transgressions, it should be noted, these management companies were earning profit margins and returns on tangible equity that were the envy of Corporate America. Yet to swell profits further, they trampled on the interests of fund shareholders in an appalling manner.

So what are the directors of these looted funds doing? As I write this, I have seen none that have terminated the contract of the offending management company (though naturally that entity has often fired some of its employees). Can you imagine directors who had been personally defrauded taking such a boys- will-be-boys attitude?

To top it all off, at least one miscreant management company has put itself up for sale, undoubtedly hoping to receive a huge sum for “delivering” the mutual funds it has managed to the highest bidder among other managers. This is a travesty. Why in the world don’t the directors of those funds simply select whomever they think is best among the bidding organizations and sign up with that party directly? The winner would consequently be spared a huge “payoff” to the former manager who, having flouted the principles of stewardship, deserves not a dime. Not having to bear that acquisition cost, the winner could surely manage the funds in question for a far lower ongoing fee than would otherwise have been the case. Any truly independent director should insist on this approach to obtaining a new manager.

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The reality is that neither the decades-old rules regulating investment company directors nor the new rules bearing down on Corporate America foster the election of truly independent directors. In both instances, an individual who is receiving 100% of his income from director fees – and who may wish to enhance his income through election to other boards – is deemed independent. That is nonsense. The same rules say that Berkshire director and lawyer Ron Olson, who receives from us perhaps 3% of his very large income, does not qualify as independent because that 3% comes from legal fees Berkshire pays his firm rather than from fees he earns as a Berkshire director. Rest assured, 3% from any source would not torpedo Ron’s independence. But getting 20%, 30% or 50% of their income from director fees might well temper the independence of many individuals, particularly if their overall income is not large. Indeed, I think it’s clear that at mutual funds, it has.

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