February 27, 2020

Warren Buffett: “Hey GAAP, Get Off My Lawn!”

Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders came out last Saturday. It attracted the usual avalanche of media attention, but I recommend that you check out Kevin LaCroix’s particularly good write-up about it over on the “D&O Diary.” The letter contained its customary mix of insight & folksy charm, but it also once again featured a lot of griping about the Oracle of Omaha’s favorite hobby-horse, generally accepted accounting principles – specifically ASC Topic 321.

The fact that ASC 321 requires Berkshire Hathaway to mark many of its minority investments to market really frosts Buffett. He’s spilled a lot of ink on the topic – and its impact on the company’s bottom line – in each of his last 3 annual letters. Here’s an excerpt from the latest:

The adoption of the rule by the accounting profession, in fact, was a monumental shift in its own thinking. Before 2018, GAAP insisted – with an exception for companies whose business was to trade securities – that unrealized gains within a portfolio of stocks were never to be included in earnings and unrealized losses were to be included only if they were deemed “other than temporary.” Now, Berkshire must enshrine in each quarter’s bottom line – a key item of news for many investors, analysts and commentators – every up and down movement of the stocks it owns, however capricious those fluctuations may be.

Berkshire’s 2018 and 2019 years glaringly illustrate the argument we have with the new rule. In 2018, a down year for the stock market, our net unrealized gains decreased by $20.6 billion, and we therefore reported GAAP earnings of only $4 billion. In 2019, rising stock prices increased net unrealized gains by the aforementioned $53.7 billion, pushing GAAP earnings to the $81.4 billion reported at the beginning of this letter. Those market gyrations led to a crazy 1,900% increase in GAAP earnings!

Buffett’s position is that Berkshire’s a buy & hold investor, and he doesn’t think fluctuations in the value of its enormous stakes in Apple, Coca-Cola and other companies should run through its income statement. He says that just doesn’t reflect business reality for a company like his.

If GAAP Doesn’t Reflect Reality, Then Why You Mad, Bro?

It’s easy to understand Buffett’s beef with GAAP, because mark-to-market fluctuations in Berkshire’s investments add a huge amount of volatility to its bottom line. But here’s the thing – Berkshire made a business decision to take multi-billion dollar minority stakes in enormous companies. What if it had to sell one or more of those positions? That’s what ASC 321 is getting at – it shows users of the financial statements what that would look like.

That fire-sale mentality reflects GAAP’s conservative bias, and yes, it doesn’t necessarily reflect current business reality for a company sitting on a pile of cash that could fund the federal deficit, but Buffett’s allowed to tell people that – and he does, constantly. The fact that Buffett points this out doesn’t bother me, but the fact that he trashes GAAP to do it kind of does.

Of course, GAAP has its limitations, but GAAP disclosures usually provide insights into a business that shouldn’t be ignored. I’ve been practicing law long enough to know that when people constantly harp on the dirty deeds that GAAP’s doing to their company’s financial statements, it’s usually a sign that those financials are highlighting something that makes them uncomfortable.

In Buffett’s case, that “something” is likely the magnitude of the investments that Berkshire’s size compels it to make in order to move the needle – as well as the magnitude of the market risks to which those investments expose it. ASC 321 gives Berkshire no place to hide on this issue & highlights an even more fundamental question: does the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate make sense anymore?

Restatements: A Quick Reference

When you’re as old as I am, you really develop a fondness for anything that you can quickly grab to remind you of all the things you’ve forgotten about stuff that any corporate lawyer should know. That’s why I really like this 12-page BDO guide on the fundamentals of restatements. There’s definitely enough in there on accounting changes, error corrections & reclassifications to let you fake your way through a conference call or two. Check it out!

John Jenkins