Highlights from the Fairfax Financial annual letter to shareholders

Emphasis mine:

“In 2012, we earned a total investment return of only 4.5% (versus an average of 8.7% over the past five years and 9.4% over our 27 year history) mainly because of our 100% hedge of our common stock portfolios. If we had not hedged, our total return would have been 8.5%. We realized significant appreciation on our treasury bonds as we sold approximately 50% of our position – offset by some losses on our Greek bonds. Our muni portfolio, predominantly guaranteed by Berkshire Hathaway, also did very well.”

 “In 2012, we helped two companies go private – Arbor Memorial and The Brick…In both the Arbor Memorial and The Brick transactions,we used no investment bankers, relying on Paul Rivett and our small team at head office who did a great job.”

“Markets fluctuate – and very often in extreme directions. Remember the tech boom, when companies with no sales were valued at tens of billions of dollars…Well, last year the opposite happened to Research in Motion (now known as BlackBerry). At its low of approximately $6.5 per share, it sold at 1/3 of book value per share and a little above cash per share (it has no debt)…What is striking, even for a person like me who has seen many bull and bear markets, is that at $6.5 per share, all the Wall Street and Bay Street analysts were uniformly negative – just as they were uniformly positive only a few years ago at prices north of $100 per share. John Templeton’s advice to us: “Buy at the point of maximum pessimism”, still rings in our ears!”

“On average [our insurance companies] are writing at about 0.7 times net premiums written to surplus. In the hard markets of 2002 – 2005 we wrote, on average, at 1.5 times. We have huge unused capacity currently and our strategy during the times of soft pricing is to be patient and stand ready for the hard markets to come.”

“Our common stock gains in 2012 were once again substantially offset or eliminated by our hedging program. While this is disappointing, we continue to be comfortable maintaining our hedges because of all the uncertainties we see in front of us. In 2007, a major U.S. bank CEO famously said “as long as the music is playing you have to get up and dance”. After the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008, this same bank needed $45 billion from the U.S. government to continue in business. Expensive dance! We prefer to wait for the music to stop and not depend on the kindness of strangers to be in business.

“As we said last year, if commodity prices come down after their parabolic increase, Canada will not be spared. Also, Canadian house prices have gone up significantly, driven by lax policies at CMHC (Canada’s equivalent to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). Canadians have accessed their increasing real estate wealth through lines of credit easily available from the Canadian banks. This has begun to reverse and we are watching cautiously from the sidelines. The condo boom in Toronto (you cannot miss it when you drive into the city) continues to slow down and we believe that prices will fall, as they have in past condo booms.”

“While we are concerned about Canada, it is heartening to see how quickly California has solved its budget problems. In 2013, California is expected to have a surplus – due to significant reductions in government spending and increases in income taxes. S&P recently upgraded California to an A. Our Brian Bradstreet purchased $1 billion in California state government bonds in 2009, most of this position directly from the government at a 7.25% yield when California was considered to be on the verge of being non-investment grade. Those bonds are yielding 4.55% today!

“In 2008/2009, we made four investments in Canada which have turned out very well…Our cumulative gains from these investments were $379.5 million. The key to making these investments is to be liquid, i.e., having lots of cash to take advantage of opportunities. In 2008, we had 70% of our portfolio in cash and government bonds. Currently, we have 31% in cash and cash equivalents – earning us very little money. While we suffer from short term pain by having so much cash, it gives us great options for long term gain whenever the opportunity becomes available.”

Disclosure: Long FRFHF

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