A Graham of Sense

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A Graham of Sense

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Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Report 1990:
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A Graham of Sense

      The term "earnings" has a precise ring to it. And when an earnings figure is accompanied by an unqualified auditor's certificate, a naive reader might think it comparable in certitude to pi, calculated to dozens of decimal places.

      In reality, however, earnings can be as pliable as putty when a charlatan heads the company reporting them. Eventually truth will surface, but in the meantime a lot of money can change hands. Indeed, some important American fortunes have been created by the monetization of accounting mirages.

      Funny business in accounting is not new. For connoisseurs of chicanery, I have attached as Appendix A on page 22 a previously unpublished satire on accounting practices written by Ben Graham in 1936. Alas, excesses similar to those he then lampooned have many times since found their way into the financial statements of major American corporations and been duly certified by big-name auditors. Clearly, investors must always keep their guard up and use accounting numbers as a beginning, not an end, in their attempts to calculate true "economic earnings" accruing to them.

      Berkshire's own reported earnings are misleading in a different, but important, way: We have huge investments in companies ("investees") whose earnings far exceed their dividends and in which we record our share of earnings only to the extent of the dividends we receive. The extreme case is Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. Our 17% share of the company's earnings amounted to more than $83 million last year. Yet only about $530,000 ($600,000 of dividends it paid us less some $70,000 of tax) is counted in Berkshire's GAAP earnings. The residual $82 million-plus stayed with Cap Cities as retained earnings, which work for our benefit but go unrecorded on our books.

U. S. STEEL ANNOUNCES SWEEPING MODERNIZATION SCHEME*


* An unpublished satire by Ben Graham, written in 1936 and given by the author to Warren Buffett in 1954.

           Myron C. Taylor, Chairman of U. S. Steel Corporation, today announced the long awaited plan for completely modernizing the world's largest industrial enterprise. Contrary to expectations, no changes will be made in the company's manufacturing or selling policies. Instead, the bookkeeping system is to be entirely revamped. By adopting and further improving a number of modern accounting and financial devices the corporation's earning power will be amazingly transformed. Even under the subnormal conditions of 1935, it is estimated that the new bookkeeping methods would have yielded a reported profit of close to $50 per share on the common stock. The scheme of improvement is the result of a comprehensive survey made by Messrs. Price, Bacon, Guthrie & Colpitts; it includes the following six points:

      1. Writing down of Plant Account to Minus $1,000,000,000.

      2. Par value of common stock to be reduced to 1.

      3. Payment of all wages and salaries in option warrants.

      4. Inventories to be carried at $1.

      5. Preferred Stock to be replaced by non-interest bearing bonds redeemable at 50% discount.

      6. A $1,000,000,000 Contingency Reserve to be established.

      The official statement of this extraordinary Modernization Plan follows in full:

      The Board of Directors of U. S. Steel Corporation is pleased to announce that after intensive study of the problems arising from changed conditions in the industry, it has approved a comprehensive plan for remodeling the Corporation's accounting methods. A survey by a Special Committee, aided and abetted by Messrs. Price, Bacon, Guthrie & Colpitts, revealed that our company has lagged somewhat behind other American business enterprises in utilizing certain advanced bookkeeping methods, by means of which the earning power may be phenomenally enhanced without requiring any cash outlay or any changes in operating or sales conditions. It has been decided not only to adopt these newer methods, but to develop them to a still higher stage of perfection. The changes adopted by the Board may be summarized under six heads, as follows:

1. Fixed Assets to be written down to Minus $1,000,000,000.

      Many representative companies have relieved their income accounts of all charges for depreciation by writing down their plant account to $1. The Special Committee points out that if their plants are worth only $1, the fixed assets of U. S. Steel Corporation are worth a good deal less than that sum. It is now a well-recognized fact that many plants are in reality a liability rather than an asset, entailing not only depreciation charges, but taxes, maintenance, and other expenditures. Accordingly, the Board has decided to extend the write-down policy initiated in the 1935 report, and to mark down the Fixed Assets from $1,338,522,858.96 to a round Minus $1,000,000,000.

      The advantages of this move should be evident. As the plant wears out, the liability becomes correspondingly reduced. Hence, instead of the present depreciation charge of some $47,000,000 yearly there will be an annual appreciation credit of 5%, or $50,000,000. This will increase earnings by no less than $97,000,000 per annum.

2. Reduction of Par Value of Common Stock to 1, and

3. Payment of Salaries and Wages in Option Warrants.

      Many corporations have been able to reduce their overhead expenses substantially by paying a large part of their executive salaries in the form of options to buy stock, which carry no charge against earnings. The full possibilities of this modern device have apparently not been adequately realized. The Board of Directors has adopted the following advanced form of this idea:

      The entire personnel of the Corporation are to receive their compensation in the form of rights to buy common stock at $50 per share, at the rate of one purchase right for each $50 of salary and/or wages in their present amounts. The par value of the common stock is to be reduced to 1.

      The almost incredible advantages of this new plan are evident from the following:

      A. The payroll of the Corporation will be entirely eliminated, a saving of $250,000,000 per annum, based on 1935 operations.

      B. At the same time, the effective compensation of all our employees will be increased severalfold. Because of the large earnings per share to be shown on our common stock under the new methods, it is certain that the shares will command a price in the market far above the option level of $50 per share, making the readily realizable value of these option warrants greatly in excess of the present cash wages that they will replace.

      C. The Corporation will realize an additional large annual profit through the exercise of these warrants. Since the par value of the common stock will be fixed at 1, there will be a gain of $49.99 on each share subscribed for. In the interest of conservative accounting, however, this profit will not be included in the income account, but will be shown separately as a credit to Capital Surplus.

      D. The Corporation's cash position will be enormously strengthened. In place of the present annual cash outgo of $250,000,000 for wages (1935 basis), there will be annual cash inflow of $250,000,000 through exercise of the subscription warrants for 5,000,000 shares of common stock. The Company's large earnings and strong cash position will permit the payment of a liberal dividend which, in turn, will result in the exercise of these option warrants immediately after issuance which, in turn, will further improve the cash position which, in turn, will permit a higher dividend rate -- and so on, indefinitely.

4. Inventories to be carried at $1.

      Serious losses have been taken during the depression due to the necessity of adjusting inventory value to market. Various enterprises -- notably in the metal and cotton-textile fields -- have successfully dealt with this problem by carrying all or part of their inventories at extremely low unit prices. The U. S. Steel Corporation has decided to adopt a still more progressive policy, and to carry its entire inventory at $1. This will be effected by an appropriate write-down at the end of each year, the amount of said write-down to be charged to the Contingency Reserve hereinafter referred to.

      The benefits to be derived from this new method are very great. Not only will it obviate all possibility of inventory depreciation, but it will substantially enhance the annual earnings of the Corporation. The inventory on hand at the beginning of the year, valued at $1, will be sold during the year at an excellent profit. It is estimated that our income will be increased by means of this method to the extent of at least $150,000,000 per annum which, by a coincidence, will about equal the amount of the write-down to be made each year against Contingency Reserve.

      A minority report of the Special Committee recommends that Accounts Receivable and Cash also be written down to $1, in the interest of consistency and to gain additional advantages similar to those just discussed. This proposal has been rejected for the time being because our auditors still require that any recoveries of receivables and cash so charged off be credited to surplus instead of to the year's income. It is expected, however, that this auditing rule -- which is rather reminiscent of the horse-and-buggy days -- will soon be changed in line with modern tendencies. Should this occur, the minority report will be given further and favorable consideration.

5. Replacement of Preferred Stock by Non-Interest-Bearing Bonds Redeemable at 50% Discount.

      During the recent depression many companies have been able to offset their operating losses by including in income profits arising from repurchases of their own bonds at a substantial discount from par. Unfortunately the credit of U. S. Steel Corporation has always stood so high that this lucrative source of revenue has not hitherto been available to it. The Modernization Scheme will remedy this condition.

      It is proposed that each share of preferred stock be exchanged for $300 face value of non-interest-bearing sinking-fund notes, redeemable by lot at 50% of face value in 10 equal annual installments. This will require the issuance of $1,080,000,000 of new notes, of which $108,000,000 will be retired each year at a cost to the Corporation of only $54,000,000, thus creating an annual profit of the same amount.

      Like the wage-and/or-salary plan described under 3. above, this arrangement will benefit both the Corporation and its preferred stockholders. The latter are assured payment for their present shares at 150% of par value over an average period of five years. Since short-term securities yield practically no return at present, the non-interest-bearing feature is of no real importance. The Corporation will convert its present annual charge of $25,000,000 for preferred dividends into an annual bond-retirement profit of $54,000,000 -- an aggregate yearly gain of $79,000,000.

6. Establishment of a Contingency Reserve of $1,000,000,000.

      The Directors are confident that the improvements hereinbefore described will assure the Corporation of a satisfactory earning power under all conditions in the future. Under modern accounting methods, however, it is unnecessary to incur the slightest risk of loss through adverse business developments of any sort, since all these may be provided for in advance by means of a Contingency Reserve.

      The Special Committee has recommended that the Corporation create such a Contingency Reserve in the fairly substantial amount of $1,000,000,000. As previously set forth, the annual write-down of inventory to $1 will be absorbed by this reserve. To prevent eventual exhaustion of the Contingency Reserve, it has been further decided that it be replenished each year by transfer of an appropriate sum from Capital Surplus. Since the latter is expected to increase each year by not less than $250,000,000 through the exercise of the Stock Option Warrants (see 3. above), it will readily make good any drains on the Contingency Reserve.

      In setting up this arrangement, the Board of Directors must confess regretfully that they have been unable to improve upon the devices already employed by important corporations in transferring large sums between Capital, Capital Surplus, Contingency Reserves and other Balance Sheet Accounts. In fact, it must be admitted that our entries will be somewhat too simple, and will lack that element of extreme mystification that characterizes the most advanced procedure in this field. The Board of Directors, however, have insisted upon clarity and simplicity in framing their Modernization Plan, even at the sacrifice of possible advantage to the Corporation's earning power.

      In order to show the combined effect of the new proposals upon the Corporation's earning power, we submit herewith a condensed Income Account for 1935 on two bases, viz:

 

 

B. Pro-Forma
Giving Effect to
Changes Proposed
Herewith

 

 

 

A. As Reported

Gross Receipts from all Sources (Including Inter-Company)

$765,000,000

$765,000,000

Salaries and Wages . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

251,000,000

--

Other Operating Expenses and Taxes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

461,000,000

311,000,000

Depreciation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

47,000,000

(50,000,000)

Interest . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

5,000,000

5,000,000

Discount on Bonds Retired . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

--

(54,000,000)

Preferred Dividends . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

25,000,000

--

Balance for Common . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

(24,000,000)

553,000,000

Average Shares Outstanding . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

8,703,252

11,203,252

Earned Per Share . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

($2.76)

$49.80

      In accordance with a somewhat antiquated custom there is appended herewith a condensed pro-forma Balance Sheet of the U. S. Steel Corporation as of December 31, 1935, after giving effect to proposed changes in asset and liability accounts.

ASSETS

Fixed Assets, net . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

($1,000,000,000)

Cash Assets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

142,000,000

Receivables . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

56,000,000

Inventory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

1

Miscellaneous Assets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

27,000,000

Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

($774,999,999)

LIABILITIES

Common Stock Par 1 (Par Value $87,032.52) Stated Value*

($3,500,000,000)

Subsidiaries' Bonds and Stocks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

113,000,000

New Sinking Fund Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

1,080,000,000

Current Liabilities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

69,000,000

Contingency Reserve . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

1,000,000,000

Other Reserves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

74,000,000

Initial Surplus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

389,000,001

Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

($774,999,999)

*Given a Stated Value differing from Par Value, in accordance with the laws of the State of Virginia, where the company will be re-incorporated.

      It is perhaps unnecessary to point out to our stockholders that modern accounting methods give rise to balance sheets differing somewhat in appearance from those of a less advanced period. In view of the very large earning power that will result from these changes in the Corporation's Balance Sheet, it is not expected that undue attention will be paid to the details of assets and liabilities.

      In conclusion, the Board desires to point out that the combined procedure, whereby plant will be carried at a minus figure, our wage bill will be eliminated, and inventory will stand on our books at virtually nothing, will give U. S. Steel Corporation an enormous competitive advantage in the industry. We shall be able to sell our products at exceedingly low prices and still show a handsome margin of profit. It is the considered view of the Board of Directors that under the Modernization Scheme we shall be able to undersell all competitors to such a point that the anti-trust laws will constitute the only barrier to 100% domination of the industry.

      In making this statement, the Board is not unmindful of the possibility that some of our competitors may seek to offset our new advantages by adopting similar accounting improvements. We are confident, however, that U. S. Steel will be able to retain the loyalty of its customers, old and new, through the unique prestige that will accrue to it as the originator and pioneer in these new fields of service to the user of steel. Should necessity arise, moreover, we believe we shall be able to maintain our deserved superiority by introducing still more advanced bookkeeping methods, which are even now under development in our Experimental Accounting Laboratory.

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