The 2018 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter — authored by legendary super-investor Warren Buffett — is always a must-read. However, this year his comments on "The American Tailwind" are some of his best ever.
The American Tailwind
On March 11th, it will be 77 years since I first invested in an American business. The year was 1942, I was 11, and I went all in, investing $114.75 I had begun accumulating at age six. What I bought was three shares of Cities Service preferred stock. I had become a capitalist, and it felt good.
Let’s now travel back through the two 77-year periods that preceded my purchase. That leaves us starting in 1788, a year prior to George Washington’s installation as our first president. Could anyone then have imagined what their new country would accomplish in only three 77-year lifetimes?
During the two 77-year periods prior to 1942, the United States had grown from four million people – about 1/2 of 1% of the world’s population – into the most powerful country on earth. In that spring of 1942, though, it faced a crisis: The U.S. and its allies were suffering heavy losses in a war that we had entered only three months earlier. Bad news arrived daily.
Despite the alarming headlines, almost all Americans believed on that March 11th that the war would be won. Nor was their optimism limited to that victory. Leaving aside congenital pessimists, Americans believed that their children and generations beyond would live far better lives than they themselves had led.
The nation’s citizens understood, of course, that the road ahead would not be a smooth ride. It never had been. Early in its history our country was tested by a Civil War that killed 4% of all American males and led President Lincoln to openly ponder whether “a nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.” In the 1930s, America suffered through the Great Depression, a punishing period of massive unemployment.
Nevertheless, in 1942, when I made my purchase, the nation expected post-war growth, a belief that proved to be well-founded. In fact, the nation’s achievements can best be described as breathtaking.
Let’s put numbers to that claim: If my $114.75 had been invested in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, my stake would have grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019 (the latest data available before the printing of this letter). That is a gain of 5,288 for 1. Meanwhile, a $1 million investment by a tax-free institution of that time – say, a pension fund or college endowment – would have grown to about $5.3 billion.
Those who regularly preach doom because of government budget deficits (as I regularly did myself for many years) might note that our country’s national debt has increased roughly 400-fold during the last of my 77-year periods. That’s 40,000%!
Our country’s almost unbelievable prosperity has been gained in a bipartisan manner. Since 1942, we have had seven Republican presidents and seven Democrats. In the years they served, the country contended at various times with a long period of viral inflation, a 21% prime rate, several controversial and costly wars, the resignation of a president, a pervasive collapse in home values, a paralyzing financial panic and a host of other problems. All engendered scary headlines; all are now history.
Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, lies buried within that London church. Near his tomb are posted these words of description (translated from Latin): “If you would seek my monument, look around you.” Those skeptical of America’s economic playbook should heed his message.
In 1788 – to go back to our starting point – there really wasn’t much here except for a small band of ambitious people and an embryonic governing framework aimed at turning their dreams into reality. Today, the Federal Reserve estimates our household wealth at $108 trillion, an amount almost impossible to comprehend.
Remember, earlier in this letter, how I described retained earnings as having been the key to Berkshire’s prosperity? So it has been with America. In the nation’s accounting, the comparable item is labeled “savings.” And save we have. If our forefathers had instead consumed all they produced, there would have been no investment, no productivity gains and no leap in living standards.
Charlie [Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice Chairman and Buffett’s long-time investment partner] and I happily acknowledge that much of Berkshire’s success has simply been a product of what I think should be called The American Tailwind. It is beyond arrogance for American businesses or individuals to boast that they have “done it alone.” The tidy rows of simple white crosses at Normandy should shame those who make such claims.
There are also many other countries around the world that have bright futures. About that, we should rejoice: Americans will be both more prosperous and safer if all nations thrive. At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders.
Over the next 77 years, however, the major source of our gains will almost certainly be provided by The American Tailwind. We are lucky – gloriously lucky – to have that force at our back.
From our perch, we could not agree more with Buffett: free market capitalism expressed through American businesses in a democratic society works, and works well. American businesses are the brains, heart and body of America’s success.
We remain long-term bullish on America.
Contact Russell Moenich to learn more about this topic.