Insights on company governance

company governance

In Buffett’s 2002 shareholder letter (all content in italics in this article is from his 2002 shareholder letter), he put forward his views on the company governance. The following is a list of objects, elements, members, and components that must be included in corporate governance for a typical listed company.


CEO is a butterfly

Most CEOs, it should be noted, are men and women you would be happy to have as trustees for your children’s assets or as next-door neighbors. Too many of these people, however, have in recent years behaved badly at the office, fudging numbers and drawing obscene pay for mediocre business achievements. These otherwise decent people simply followed the career path of Mae West: “I was Snow White but I drifted.”

CEO’s self-serving behavior

In our 1992 annual report, discussing the unseemly and self-serving behavior of so many CEOs, I said “the business elite risks losing its credibility on issues of significance to society – about which it may have much of value to say – when it advocates the incredible on issues of significance to itself.”

That loss of credibility has occurred. The job of CEOs is now to regain America’s trust – and for the country’s sake it’s important that they do so. They will not succeed in this endeavor, however, by way of fatuous ads, meaningless policy statements, or structural changes of boards and committees. Instead, CEOs must embrace stewardship as a way of life and treat their owners as partners, not patsies. It’s time for CEOs to walk the walk.

Board of directors

The core of corporate governance

In theory, corporate boards should have prevented this deterioration of conduct. I last wrote about the responsibilities of directors in the 1993 annual report. (We will send you a copy of this discussion on request, or you may read it on the Internet in the Corporate Governance section of the 1993 letter.)

There, I said that directors “should behave as if there was a single absentee owner, whose long-term interest they should try to further in all proper ways.” This means that directors must get rid of a manager who is mediocre or worse, no matter how likable he may be. Directors must react as did the chorus-girl bride of an 85-yearold multimillionaire when he asked whether she would love him if he lost his money. “Of course,” the young beauty replied, “I would miss you, but I would still love you.”

Prevent the scandals of the management

In the 1993 annual report, I also said directors had another job: “If able but greedy managers overreach and try to dip too deeply into the shareholders’ pockets, directors must slap their hands.” Since I wrote that, over-reaching has become common but few hands have been slapped.

Safeguard the interests of shareholders

Why have intelligent and decent directors failed so miserably? The answer lies not in inadequate laws – it’s always been clear that directors are obligated to represent the interests of shareholders – but rather in what I’d call “boardroom atmosphere.”

Board is amicable

It’s almost impossible, for example, in a boardroom populated by well-mannered people, to raise the question of whether the CEO should be replaced. It’s equally awkward to question a proposed acquisition that has been endorsed by the CEO, particularly when his inside staff and outside advisors are present and unanimously support his decision. (They wouldn’t be in the room if they didn’t.)

Finally, when the compensation committee – armed, as always, with support from a high-paid consultant – reports on a megagrant of options to the CEO, it would be like belching at the dinner table for a director to suggest that the committee reconsider.

These “social” difficulties argue for outside directors regularly meeting without the CEO – a reform that is being instituted and that I enthusiastically endorse. I doubt, however, that most of the other new governance rules and recommendations will provide benefits commensurate with the monetary and other costs they impose.

Berkshire’s directors

Buffett stated again in his 2003 shareholder letter, taking Berkshire as an example, use the following three paragraphs to illustrate the roles that directors should have.

What should independent directors do?

“True independence – meaning the willingness to challenge a forceful CEO when something is wrong or foolish – is an enormously valuable trait in a director. It is also rare. The place to look for it is among high-grade people whose interests are in line with those of rank-and-file shareholders – and are in line in a very big way.”


“The bottom line for our directors: You win, they win big; you lose, they lose big. Our approach might be called owner-capitalism. We know of no better way to engender true independence. (This structure does not guarantee perfect behavior, however: I’ve sat on boards of companies in which Berkshire had huge stakes and remained silent as questionable proposals were rubber-stamped.)”

Qualifications required of directors

In addition to being independent,

  • Directors should have business savvy,
  • A shareholder orientation
  • And a genuine interest in the company.

The rarest of these qualities is business savvy – and if it is lacking, the other two are of little help. Many people who are smart, articulate and admired have no real understanding of business. That’s no sin; they may shine elsewhere. But they don’t belong on corporate boards. Similarly, I would be useless on a medical or scientific board (though I would likely be welcomed by a chairman who wanted to run things his way). My name would dress up the list of directors, but I wouldn’t know enough to critically evaluate proposals. Moreover, to cloak my ignorance, I would keep my mouth shut (if you can imagine that). In effect, I could be replaced, without loss, by a potted plant.”

In his 2006 shareholder letter, Buffett repeated his requirements for company directors: “In selecting a new director, we were guided by our long-standing criteria, which are that board members be owner-oriented, business-savvy, interested and truly independent.”

Independent director

Requirements for independent directors

The current cry is for “independent” directors. It is certainly true that it is desirable to have directors who think and speak independently – but they must also be business-savvy, interested and shareholderoriented. In my 1993 commentary, those are the three qualities I described as essential.

Independent directors bow to reality

Over a span of 40 years, I have been on 19 public-company boards (excluding Berkshire’s) and have interacted with perhaps 250 directors. Most of them were “independent” as defined by today’s rules. But the great majority of these directors lacked at least one of the three qualities I value. As a result, their contribution to shareholder well-being was minimal at best and, too often, negative.

These people, decent and intelligent though they were, simply did not know enough about business and/or care enough about shareholders to question foolish acquisitions or egregious compensation. My own behavior, I must ruefully add, frequently fell short as well: Too often I was silent when management made proposals that I judged to be counter to the interests of shareholders. In those cases, collegiality trumped independence.

Regulations are improving

So that we may further see the failings of “independence,” let’s look at a 62-year case study covering thousands of companies. Since 1940, federal law has mandated that a large proportion of the directors of investment companies (most of these mutual funds) be independent. The requirement was originally 40% and now it is 50%. In any case, the typical fund has long operated with a majority of directors who qualify as independent.

Compensation committee

Don’t dare to cut the CEO’s pay

The acid test for reform will be CEO compensation. Managers will cheerfully agree to board “diversity,” attest to SEC filings and adopt meaningless proposals relating to process. What many will fight, however, is a hard look at their own pay and perks.

Buffett stated again in his 2003 shareholder letter:”In judging whether Corporate America is serious about reforming itself, CEO pay remains the acid
test. To date, the results aren’t encouraging.”

“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.”

Tail-wagging puppy dogs

In recent years compensation committees too often have been tail-wagging puppy dogs meekly following recommendations by consultants, a breed not known for allegiance to the faceless shareholders who pay their fees. (If you can’t tell whose side someone is on, they are not on yours.) True, each committee is required by the SEC to state its reasoning about pay in the proxy. But the words are usually boilerplate written by the company’s lawyers or its human-relations department.

Directors seek for their own interests

This costly charade should cease. Directors should not serve on compensation committees unless they are themselves capable of negotiating on behalf of owners. They should explain both how they think about pay and how they measure performance. Dealing with shareholders’ money, moreover, they should behave as they would were it their own.

CEOs are too greedy

In the 1890s, Samuel Gompers described the goal of organized labor as “More!” In the 1990s, America’s CEOs adopted his battle cry. The upshot is that CEOs have often amassed riches while their shareholders have experienced financial disasters.

Board is too weak

Directors should stop such piracy. There’s nothing wrong with paying well for truly exceptional business performance. But, for anything short of that, it’s time for directors to shout “Less!” It would be a travesty if the bloated pay of recent years became a baseline for future compensation. Compensation committees should go back to the drawing boards.

Directors covet their pay

That gets to an often-overlooked point about directors’ compensation, which at public companies averages perhaps $50,000 annually. It baffles me how the many directors who look to these dollars for perhaps 20% or more of their annual income can be considered independent when Ron Olson, for example, who is on our board, may be deemed not independent because he receives a tiny percentage of his very large income from Berkshire legal fees.

As the investment company saga suggests, a director whose moderate income is heavily dependent on directors’ fees – and who hopes mightily to be invited to join other boards in order to earn more fees – is highly unlikely to offend a CEO or fellow directors, who in a major way will determine his reputation in corporate circles. If regulators believe that “significant” money taints independence (and it certainly can), they have overlooked a massive class of possible offenders.

The audit committee

Rely on accountants

Audit committees can’t audit. Only a company’s outside auditor can determine whether the earnings that a management purports to have made are suspect. Reforms that ignore this reality and that instead focus on the structure and charter of the audit committee will accomplish little.

Accountants keep silent

As we’ve discussed, far too many managers have fudged their company’s numbers in recent years, using both accounting and operational techniques that are typically legal but that nevertheless materially mislead investors. Frequently, auditors knew about these deceptions. Too often, however, they remained silent. The key job of the audit committee is simply to get the auditors to divulge what they know.

Accountants dare not offend the management

To do this job, the committee must make sure that the auditors worry more about misleading its members than about offending management. In recent years auditors have not felt that way. They have instead generally viewed the CEO, rather than the shareholders or directors, as their client.

That has been a natural result of day-to-day working relationships and also of the auditors’ understanding that, no matter what the book says, the CEO and CFO pay their fees and determine whether they are retained for both auditing and other work. The rules that have been recently instituted won’t materially change this reality. What will break this cozy relationship is audit committees unequivocally putting auditors on the spot, making them understand they will become liable for major monetary penalties if they don’t come forth with what they know or suspect.

How to review the audit committee?

In my opinion, audit committees can accomplish this goal by asking four questions of auditors, the answers to which should be recorded and reported to shareholders. These questions are:

  1. If the auditor were solely responsible for preparation of the company’s financial statements, would they have in any way been prepared differently from the manner selected by management? This question should cover both material and nonmaterial differences. If the auditor would have done something differently, both management’s argument and the auditor’s response should be disclosed. The audit committee should then evaluate the facts.
  2. If the auditor were an investor, would he have received – in plain English – the information essential to his understanding the company’s financial performance during the reporting period?
  3. Is the company following the same internal audit procedure that would be followed if the auditor himself were CEO? If not, what are the differences and why?
  4. Is the auditor aware of any actions – either accounting or operational – that have had the purpose and effect of moving revenues or expenses from one reporting period to another?

If the audit committee asks these questions, its composition – the focus of most reforms – is of minor importance. In addition, the procedure will save time and expense. When auditors are put on the spot, they will do their duty. If they are not put on the spot . . . well, we have seen the results of that.

Three suggestions for investors

Watch out for questionable accounting

First, beware of companies displaying weak accounting. If a company still does not expense options, or if its pension assumptions are fanciful, watch out. When managements take the low road in aspects that are visible, it is likely they are following a similar path behind the scenes.

There is seldom just one cockroach in the kitchen. Trumpeting EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) is a particularly pernicious practice. Doing so implies that depreciation is not truly an expense, given that it is a “non-cash” charge. That’s nonsense. In truth, depreciation is a particularly unattractive expense because the cash outlay it represents is paid up front, before the asset acquired has delivered any benefits to the business.

Imagine, if you will, that at the beginning of this year a company paid all of its employees for the next ten years of their service (in the way they would lay out cash for a fixed asset to be useful for ten years). In the following nine years, compensation would be a “non-cash” expense – a reduction of a prepaid compensation asset established this year. Would anyone care to argue that the recording of the expense in years two through ten would be simply a bookkeeping formality?

Pay attention to the notes in the report

Second, unintelligible footnotes usually indicate untrustworthy management. If you can’t understand a footnote or other managerial explanation, it’s usually because the CEO doesn’t want you to. Enron’s descriptions of certain transactions still baffle me.

Don’t believe trumpet projections and expectations

Finally, be suspicious of companies that trumpet earnings projections and growth expectations. Businesses seldom operate in a tranquil, no-surprise environment, and earnings simply don’t advance smoothly (except, of course, in the offering books of investment bankers).

Charlie and I not only don’t know today what our businesses will earn next year – we don’t even know what they will earn next quarter. We are suspicious of those CEOs who regularly claim they do know the future – and we become downright incredulous if they consistently reach their declared targets. Managers that always promise to “make the numbers” will at some point be tempted to make up the numbers.

company governance

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