“Disintermediation” is the business phenomenon of the technology era, when consumers go straight to the source for everything from accommodations to crowdfunding. Yet the greatest exemplar of the practice is the era’s least technologically savvy company, Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire, 50 years old as a conglomerate and now one of America’s largest public companies, almost never uses intermediaries — brokers, lenders, advisers, consultants and other staples of today’s corporate bureaucracies. There are lessons in the model for the rest of corporate America, as well as investors, and it is an honor to be including a full length piece on the broad topic of disintermediation in the Wake Forest U. symposium on the subject hosted by Alan Palmiter and Andrew Verstein.
While American companies borrow heavily, Berkshire shuns debt as costly and constraining, preferring to rely on itself and to use its own money. It generates abundant earnings and retains 100 percent, having not paid a dividend in nearly 50 years. In 2014, Berkshire earned $20 billion — all available for reinvestment. In addition, thanks to its longtime horizon, Berkshire holds many assets acquired decades ago, resulting in deferred taxes now totaling $60 billion. These amount to interest-free government loans without conditions. The principal leverage at Berkshire is insurance float. This refers to funds that arise because Berkshire receives premiums up front but need not pay claims until later, if it all. Provided insurance is underwritten with discipline, float is akin to borrowed money but cheaper. At Berkshire, float now totals $72 billion, which it uses to buy businesses that continue to multiply Berkshire’s value.
American corporations tend to design acquisition programs using strategic plans administrated by an acquisitions department. They rely heavily on intermediaries such as business brokers and investment bankers, who charge fees and have incentives to get deals done; firms also use consultants, accountants and lawyers to conduct due diligence before closing. erkshire has never had any such plans or departments, rarely uses bankers or brokers, and does limited due diligence. In the early days, Berkshire took out a newspaper ad announcing its interest in acquisitions and stating its criteria — which it has reprinted in every annual report. Berkshire now relies on a network of relationships, including previous sellers of businesses.
Today, corporate America’s boards are intermediaries between shareholders and management. Directors are monitors involved in specific strategic decision-making. They meet monthly, using many committees, which in turn hire consultants, accountants and lawyers. American directors are well-paid — averaging $250,000 annually — including considerable stock compensation plus company-purchased liability insurance. Berkshire’s board, in contrast, follows the old-fashioned advisory model. Composed of friends and family, they are directors because they are interested in Berkshire. They do not oversee management but provide support and advice. There are few committees, no hired advisers, and only two or three meetings a year. Berkshire pays its directors essentially nothing and provides no insurance. Berkshire’s directors are significant shareholders and bought the stock with their own cash — which is why they are there.