A new report from consulting firm Avalere Health and the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute finds that the pandemic accelerated the rise in physician employment, with nearly 70 percent of doctors now employed by a hospital, insurer or investor-owned entity.
Researchers evaluated shifts to employment in the two-year period between January 2019 and January 2021, finding that 48,400 additional doctors left independent practice to join a health system or other company, with the majority of the change occurring during the pandemic. While 38 percent chose employment by a hospital or health system,the majority of newly employed doctors are now employed by a “corporate entity”, including insurers, disruptors and investor-owned companies.
(Researchers said they were unable to accurately break down corporate employers by entity, and that the study likely undercounts the number of physician practices owned by private equity firms, given the lack of transparency in that segment.) Growth rates in the corporate sector dwarfed health system employment, increasing a whopping 38 percent over the past two years, in comparison to a 5 percent increase for hospitals.
We expect this pace will continue throughout this year and beyond, as practices seek ongoing stability and look to manage the exit of retiring partners, enticed by the outsized offers put on the table by investors and payers.
As we reported recently, healthcare M&A hit record highs in the first quarter of 2021—with deal activity in the physician practice space surging 87 percent. The graphic above highlights private equity firms’ increasing investment in the sector over the last five years. Both the number and size of PE-backed healthcare deals have increased substantially from 2015 to 2020, up 39 and 45 percent respectively.
In 2020, physician practices and services comprised nearly a fifth of all transactions, with PE firms driving the majority. One in five physician transactions involvedprimary care practices—a signal that investors are banking on profits to be made in the shift to value-based care models.
Meanwhile, PE firms are still rolling up high-margin specialty practices, with ophthalmology, orthopedics, dermatology, and anesthesiology groups all receiving significant funding in 2020. PE investment in physician practices will likely continue to accelerate, as investors view healthcare as a promising place to deploy readily available capital.
But we remain convinced that private equity investors have little interest in being long-term owners of practices,and will ultimately look for an exit by selling “rolled-up” physician entities to health systems or insurers.
Medicare Advantage (MA) focused companies, like Oak Street Health (14x revenues), Cano Health (11x revenues), and Iora Health (announced sale to One Medical at 7x revenues), reflect valuation multiples that appear irrational to many market observers. Multiples may be exuberant, but they are not necessarily irrational.
One reason for high valuations across the healthcare sector is the large pools of capital from institutional public investors, retail investors and private equity that are seeking returns higher than the low single digit bond yields currently available. Private equity alone has hundreds of billions in investable funds seeking opportunities in healthcare. As a result of this abundance of capital chasing deals, there is a premium attached to the scarcity of available companies with proven business models and strong growth prospects.
Valuations of companies that rely on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement have traditionally been discounted for the risk associated with a change in government reimbursement policy. This “bop the mole” risk reflects the market’s assessment that when a particular healthcare sector becomes “too profitable,” the risk increases that CMS will adjust policy and reimbursement rates in that sector to drive down profitability.
However, there appears to be consensus among both political parties that MA is the right policy to help manage the rise in overall Medicare costs and, thus, incentives for MA growth can be expected to continue. This factor combined with strong demographic growth in the overall senior population means investors apply premiums to companies in the MA space compared to traditional providers.
Large pools of available capital, scarcity value, lower perceived sector risk and overall growth in the senior population are all factors that drive higher valuations for the MA disrupters.However, these factors pale in comparison the underlying economic driver for these companies. Taking full risk for MA enrollees and dramatically reducing hospital utilization, while improving health status, is core to their business model. These companies target and often achieve reduced hospital utilization by 30% or more for their assigned MA enrollees.
In 2019, the average Medicare days per 1,000 in the U.S. was 1,190. With about $14,700 per Medicare discharge and a 4.5 ALOS, the average cost per Medicare day is approximately $3,200. At the U.S. average 1,190 Medicare hospital days per thousand, if MA hospital utilization is decreased by 25%, the net hospital revenue per 1,000 MA
enrollees is reduced by about $960,000. If one of the MA disrupters has, for example, 50,000 MA lives in a market, the decrease in hospital revenues for that MA population would be about $48 million. This does not include the associated physician fees and other costs in the care continuum. That same $48 million + in the coffers of the risk-taking MA disrupters allows them deliver comprehensive array of supportive services including addressing social determinants of health. These services then further reduce utilization and improves overall health status, creating a virtuous circle. This is very profitable.
MA is only the beginning. When successful MA businesses expand beyond MA, and they will, disruption across the healthcare economy will be profound and painful for the incumbents. The market is rationally exuberant about that prospect.
We are better served by a system that seeks to keep people healthy, not wait until they get sick.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a much better way to keep people healthy while reducing stress on our health care system at the same time. This will not only help mitigate risks from any future public health crisis, but also improve the well being and health of people in our community.
Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare, along with our community and health care colleagues, are leading a movement to do just that.
We greatly value and appreciate all our government, community and health care partners that coordinate closely with us to address the pandemic and provide care for our communities. It’s been a statewide team effort and will continue to be a team effort.
The roots of a deeply flawed national health care model that had taken hold long ago proved to create both systemic and personal health risks. According to a recent study, the U.S. had far more people hospitalized, more people with chronic conditions, double the obesity rates and the highest rate of preventable deaths among comparable nations. This was before the pandemic ever started. Our national health system was perfectly designed to be overwhelmed under the COVID-19 stress.
Moreover, many people who have died from COVID-19 were in poor health to begin with or were managing preventable chronic conditions.The flawed national health care system was never designed to support their goal to stay healthy. Instead, it was designed to wait until they got sick and then treat them.
Utah has one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in the nation. It’s at least partly true that this can be attributed to the superb care by medical providers in the state. But the data show a more interesting story. People in our state are in better health compared to those in other states.
We play outside more, drink less and smoke less than people in other states. Our rate of obesity is far lower than most other states. It’s no surprise that our recorded COVID-19 death rate is among the lowest in the nation. In fact, three of the top five healthiest states also have the three of the top six lowest recordable death rates from COVID-19. We don’t believe that’s a coincidence.
Over the last several years, Intermountain has focused more resources on keeping people healthy and out of hospitals. Vaccines have long been a critical part of this strategy. And while that garners most of the immediate headlines, we’ve geared our entire system’s strategy to focus on keeping people and communities well.
For example, Intermountain is a world leader in precision genomics medicine that aims to better treat and prevent genetic diseases. The opportunity to participate in the biggest, voluntary research of its kind is available for anyone in our community at no cost. With our community’s help, we can eventually share what we learn with others across the country and the world to help keep everyone healthier.
We are investing in addressing social determinants of health to keep people out of emergency rooms or other clinical settings for unneeded visits. Social determinants of health are influences that affect people’s long-term health, such as stable housing, joblessness, hunger, unsafe neighborhoods and access to transportation.
We’ve been working with and providing funding to multiple local nonprofit agencies that address these issues, and have provided financial support for a three-year pilot in Utah to see how community partnerships can address those influences in low-income ZIP codes. Often, simple and affordable changes can help prevent unnecessary health issues.
We’ve integrated mental health care with primary care because we know that mental health is essential to a person’s overall health. Long before the pandemic hit our shores, we deployed telehealth services that helps care for people closer to their homes and families. It’s not simply a matter of convenience for those we serve, but can lead to better health outcomes for less money.
All of us can’t wait to get back to some sense of normal. But for the nation’s health system, going back to normal shouldn’t be an option. We must do better. And Intermountain is determined to partner with Utahns and do what we all do best – lead the nation and the world by setting a better example.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of artificial intelligence adoption, and healthcare leaders are confident AI can help solve some of today’s toughest challenges, including COVID-19 tracking and vaccines.
The majority of healthcare and life sciences executives (82%) want to see their organizations more aggressively adopt AI technology, according to a new survey from KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory services firm.
Healthcare and life sciences (56%) business leaders report that AI initiatives have delivered more value than expected for their organizations. However, life sciences companies seem to be struggling to select the best AI technologies, according to 73% of executives.
As the U.S. continues to navigate the pandemic, life sciences business leaders are overwhelmingly confident in AI’s ability to monitor the spread of COVID-19 cases (94%), help with vaccine development (90%) and aid vaccine distribution (90%).
KPMG’s AI survey is based on feedback from 950 business or IT decision-makers across seven industries, with 100 respondents each from healthcare and life sciences companies.
Despite the optimism about the potential for AI, executives across industries believe more controls are needed and overwhelmingly believe the government has a role to play in regulating AI technology. The majority of life sciences (86%) and healthcare (84%) executives say the government should be involved in regulating AI technology.
And executives across industries are optimistic about the new administration in Washington, D.C., with the majority believing the Biden administration will do more to help advance the adoption of AI in the enterprise.
“We are seeing very high levels of support this year across all industries for more AI regulation. One reason for this may be that, as the technology advances very quickly, insiders want to avoid AI becoming the ‘Wild Wild West.’ Additionally, a more robust regulatory environment may help facilitate commerce. It can help remove unintended barriers that may be the result of other laws or regulations, or due to lack of maturity of legal and technical standards,” said Rob Dwyer, principal, advisory at KPMG, specializing in technology in government.
Healthcare and pharma companies seem to be more bullish on AI than other industries are.
The survey found half of business leaders in industrial manufacturing, retail and tech say AI is moving faster than it should in their industry. Concerns about the speed of AI adoption are particularly pronounced among small companies (63%), business leaders with high AI knowledge (51%) and Gen Z and millennial business leaders (51%).
“Leaders are experiencing COVID-19 whiplash, with AI adoption skyrocketing as a result of the pandemic. But many say it’s moving too fast. That’s probably because of current debate surrounding the ethics, governance and regulation of AI. Many business leaders do not have a view into what their organizations are doing to control and govern AI and may fear risks are developing,” Traci Gusher, principal of artificial intelligence at KPMG, said in a statement.
Future AI investment
Healthcare organizations are ramping up their investments in AI in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a Deloitte survey, nearly 3 in 4 healthcare organizations said they expect to increase their AI funding, with executives citing making processes more efficient as the top outcome they are trying to achieve with AI.
Healthcare executives say current AI investments at their organizations have focused on electronic health record (EHR) management and diagnosis.
To date, the technology has proved its value in reducing errors and improving medical outcomes for patients, according to executives. Around 40% of healthcare executives said AI technology has helped with patient engagement and also to improve clinical quality. About a third of executives said AI has improved administrative efficiency. Only 18% said the technology helped uncover new revenue opportunities.
But AI investments will shift over the next two years to prioritize telemedicine (38%), robotic tasks such as process automation (37%) and delivery of patient care (36%), the survey found. Clinical trials and diagnosis rounded out the top five investment areas.
At life sciences companies, AI is primarily deployed during the drug development process to improve record-keeping and the application process, the survey found. Companies also have leveraged AI to help with clinical trial site selection.
Moving forward, pharmaceutical companies will likely focus their AI investments on discovering new revenue opportunities in the next two years, a pivot from their current strategy focusing on increasing profitability of existing products, according to the survey. About half of life sciences executives say their organizations plan to leverage AI to reduce administrative costs, analyze patient data and accelerate clinical trials.
Industry stakeholders are taking steps to advance the use of AI and machine learning in healthcare.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) created a working group two years ago to develop some standardization on definitions and characteristics of healthcare AI. Last year, the CTA working group developed a standard that creates a common language so industry stakeholders can better understand AI technologies. A group also recently developed a new standard to advance trust in AI solutions.
On the regulatory front, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month released its first AI and machine learning action plan, a multistep approach designed to advance the agency’s management of advanced medical software. The action plan aims to force manufacturers to be more rigorous in their evaluations, according to the FDA.
Even though signs point to a post-COVID spike in health system mergers, retailers, insurers, and other healthcare industry players already far exceed health system scale. Even the largest of the “mega health systems” pale in comparison to other healthcare companies up and down the value chain, as shown in the graphic above. And with the exception of pharma, these other industry players have seen revenues surge during the pandemic, while health system growth has stagnated.
According to a recent report from Kaufman Hall, hospitals saw a three percent reduction in annual total gross revenue in 2020.The majority of the decrease stemmed from a six percent decline in outpatient revenue, as volumes plummeted during the pandemic.
The largest companies listed here, including Walmart, Amazon, CVS, and UnitedHealth Group, continue to double down on vertical integration strategies, configuring an array of healthcare assets into platform businesses focused on delivering value to consumers.
To remain relevant, health systems will need to increase their focus on this strategy as well, assembling the right capabilities for a marketplace driven by value, at a scale that enables rapid innovation and sustainability.
Fourteen of the nation’s largest health systems announced this week that they have joined together to form a new, for-profit data company aimed at aggregating and mining their clinical data. Called Truveta, the company will draw on the de-identified health records of millions of patients from thousands of care sites across 40 states, allowing researchers, physicians, biopharma companies, and others to draw insights aimed at “improving the lives of those they serve.”
Health system participants include the multi-state Catholic systems CommonSpirit Health, Trinity Health, Providence, and Bon Secours Mercy, the for-profit system Tenet Healthcare, and a number of regional systems. The new company will be led by former Microsoft executive Terry Myerson, who has been working on the project since March of last year. As large technology companies like Amazon and Google continue to build out healthcare offerings, and national insurers like UnitedHealth Group and Aetna continue to grow their analytical capabilities based on physician, hospital, and pharmacy encounters, it’s surprising that hospital systems are only now mobilizing in a concerted way to monetize the clinical data they generate.
Like Civica, an earlier health system collaboration around pharmaceutical manufacturing, Truveta’s launch signals that large national and regional systems are waking up to the value of scale they’ve amassed over time, moving beyond pricing leverage to capture other benefits from the size of their clinical operations—and exploring non-merger partnerships to create value from collaboration. There will inevitably be questions about how patient data is used by Truveta and its eventual customers, but we believe the venture holds real promise for harnessing the power of massive clinical datasets to drive improvement in how care is delivered.
Haven began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, the people said.
One key issue facing Haven was that each of the three founding companies executed their own projects separately with their own employees, obviating the need for the joint venture to begin with, according to the people, who declined to be identified speaking about the matter.
Haven, the joint venture formed by three of America’s most powerful companies to lower costs and improve outcomes in health care, is disbanding after three years, CNBC has learned exclusively.
The company began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, and the three companies are still expected to collaborate informally on health-care projects, the people said.
The announcement three years ago that the CEOs of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase had teamed up to tackle one of the biggest problems facing corporate America – high and rising costs for employee health care – sent shock waves throughout the world of medicine. Shares of health-care companies tumbled on fears about how the combined might of leaders in technology and finance could wring costs out of the system.
The move to shutter Haven may be a sign of how difficult it is to radically improve American health care, a complicated and entrenched system of doctors, insurers, drugmakers and middlemen that costs the country $3.5 trillion every year. Last year, Berkshire CEO Warren Buffett seemed to indicate as much, saying that were was no guarantee that Haven would succeed in improving health care.
One key issue facing Haven was that while the firm came up with ideas, each of the three founding companies executed their own projects separately with their own employees, obviating the need for the joint venture to begin with, according to the people, who declined to be identified speaking about the matter.
Coming just three years after the initial rush of fanfare about the possibilities for what Haven could accomplish, its closure is a disappointment to some. But insiders claim that it will allow the founding companies to implement ideas from the project on their own, tailoring them to the specific needs of their employees, who are mostly concentrated in different cities.
The move comes after Haven’s CEO, Dr. Atul Gawande, stepped down from day-to-day management of the nonprofit in May, a change that sparked a search for his successor.
Brooke Thurston, a spokeswoman for Haven, confirmed the company’s plans to close and gave this statement:
″The Haven team made good progress exploring a wide range of healthcare solutions, as well as piloting new ways to make primary care easier to access, insurance benefits simpler to understand and easier to use, and prescription drugs more affordable,” Thurston said in an email.
“Moving forward, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. will leverage these insights and continue to collaborate informally to design programs tailored to address the specific needs of our individual employee populations and locations,” she said.
President-elect Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda: building on the ACA, value-based care, and bringing down drug prices.
In many ways, Joe Biden is promising a return to the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare:
Building on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through incremental expansions in government-subsidized coverage
Continuing CMS’ progress toward value-based care
Bringing down drug prices
Supporting modernization of the FDA
Bolder ideas, such as developing a public option, resolving “surprise billing,” allowing for negotiation of drug prices by Medicare, handing power to a third party to help set prices for some life sciences products, and raising the corporate tax rate, could be more challenging to achieve without overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate.
Biden is likely to mount an intensified federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enlisting the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce large quantities of tests and personal protective equipment as well as supporting ongoing deregulation around telehealth. The Biden administration also will likely return to global partnerships and groups such as the World Health Organization, especially in the area of vaccine development, production and distribution.
What can health industry executives expect from Biden’s healthcare proposals?
Broadly, healthcare executives can expect an administration with an expansionary agenda, looking to patch gaps in coverage for Americans, scrutinize proposed healthcare mergers and acquisitions more aggressively and use more of the government’s power to address the pandemic. Executives also can expect, in the event the ACA is struck down, moves by the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers to develop a replacement. Healthcare executives should scenario plan for this unlikely yet potentially highly disruptive event, and plan for an administration marked by more certainty and continuity with the Obama years.
All healthcare organizations should prepare for the possibility that millions more Americans could gain insurance under Biden. His proposals, if enacted, would mean coverage for 97% of Americans, according to his campaign website. This could mean millions of new ACA customers for payers selling plans on the exchanges, millions of new Medicaid beneficiaries for managed care organizations, millions of newly insured patients for providers, and millions of covered customers for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. The surge in insured consumers could mirror the swift uptake in the years following the passage of the ACA.
Biden’s plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic
Biden is expected to draw on his experience from H1N1 and the Ebola outbreaks to address the COVID-19 pandemic with a more active role for the federal government, which many Americans support. These actions could shore up the nation’s response in which the federal government largely served in a support role to local, state and private efforts.
Three notable exceptions have been the substantial federal funding for development of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Congress’ aid packages and the rapid deregulatory actions taken by the FDA and CMS to clear a path for medical products to be enlisted for the pandemic and for providers, in particular, to be able to respond to it.
Implications of Biden’s 2020 health agenda on healthcare payers, providers and pharmaceutical and life sciences companies
The US health system has been slowly transforming for years into a New Health Economy that is more consumer-oriented, digital, virtual, open to new players from outside the industry and focused on wellness and prevention. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of those trends. Once the dust from the election settles, companies that have invested in capabilities for growth and are moving forcefully toward the New Health Economy stand to gain disproportionately.
Shortages of clinicians and foreign medical students may continue to be an issue for a while
The Trump administration made limiting the flow of immigrants to the US a priority. The associated policy changes have the potential to exacerbate shortages of physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers, including medical students. These consequences have been aggravated by the pandemic, which dramatically curtailed travel into the US.
Healthcare organizations, especially rural ones heavily dependent on foreign-born employees, may find themselves competing fiercely for workers, paying higher salaries and having to rethink the structure of their workforces.
Providers should consider reengineering primary care teams to reflect the patients’ health status and preferences, along with the realities of the workforce on the ground and new opportunities in remote care.
Focus on modernizing the supply chain
Biden and lawmakers from both parties have been raising questions about life sciences’ supply chains. This focus has only intensified because of the pandemic and resulting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tests and other medical products.
Investment in advanced analytics and cybersecurity could allow manufacturers to avoid disruptive stockouts and shortages, and deliver on the promise of the right treatment to the right patient at the right time in the right place.
Drug pricing needs a long-term strategy
Presidents and lawmakers have been talking about drug prices for decades; few truly meaningful actions have been implemented. Biden has made drug pricing reform a priority.
Drug manufacturers may need to start looking past the next quarter to create a new pricing strategy that maximizes access in local markets through the use of data and analytics to engage in more value-based pricing arrangements.
New financing models may help patients get access to drugs, such as subscription models that provide unlimited access to a therapy at a flat rate.
Companies that prepare now to establish performance metrics and data analytics tools to track patient outcomes will be well prepared to offer payers more sustainable payment models, such as mortgage or payment over time contracts, avoiding the sticker shock that comes with these treatments and improving uptake at launch.
Pharmaceutical and life sciences companies will likely have to continue to offer tools for consumers like co-pay calculators and use the contracting process where possible to minimize out-of-pocket costs, which can improve adherence rates and health outcomes.
View interoperability as an opportunity to embrace, not a threat to avoid or ignore
While the pandemic delayed many of the federal interoperability rule deadlines, payers and providers should use the extra time to plan strategically for an interoperable future.
Payers should review business partnerships in this new regulatory environment.
Digital health companies and new entrants may help organizations take advantage of the opportunities that achieving interoperability may present.
Companies should consider the legal risks and take steps to protect their reputations and relationships with customers by thinking through issues of consent and data privacy.
Health organizations should review their policies and consider whether they offer protections for customers under the new processes and what data security risks may emerge. They should also consider whether business associate agreements are due in more situations.
Plan for revitalized ACA exchanges and a booming Medicare Advantage market
The pandemic has thrown millions out of work, generating many new customers for ACA plans just as the incoming Biden administration plans to enrich subsidies, making more generous plans within reach of more Americans.
Payers in this market should consider how and where to expand their membership and appeal to those newly eligible for Medicare. Payers not in this market should consider partnerships or acquisitions as a quick way to enter the market, with the creation of a new Medicare Advantage plan as a slower but possibly less capital-intensive entry into this market.
Payers and health systems should use this opportunity to design more tailored plan options and consumer experiences to enhance margins and improve health outcomes.
Payers with cash from deferred care and low utilization due to the pandemic could turn to vertical integration with providers as a means of investing that cash in a manner that helps struggling providers in the short term while positioning payers to improve care and reduce its cost in the long term.
Under the Trump administration, the FDA has approved historic numbers of generic drugs, with the aim of making more affordable pharmaceuticals available to consumers. Despite increased FDA generics approvals, generics dispensed remain high but flat, according to HRI analysis of FDA data.
Pharmaceutical company stocks, on average, have climbed under the Trump administration, with a few notable dips due to presidential speeches criticizing the industry and the pandemic.
Providers have faced some revenue cuts, particularly in the 340B program, and many entered the pandemic in a relatively weak liquidity position. The pandemic has led to layoffs, pay cuts and even closures. HRI expects consolidation as the pandemic continues to curb the flow of patients seeking care in emergency departments, orthopedic surgeons’ offices, dermatology suites and more.
Lawmakers and politicians often use bold language, and propose bold solutions to problems, but the government and the industry itself resists sudden, dramatic change, even in the face of sudden, dramatic events such as a global pandemic. One notable exception to this would be a decision by the US Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, an event that would generate a great deal of uncertainty and disruption for Americans, the US health industry and employers.
As Warren Buffett turns 90, the story of one of America’s most influential and wealthy business leaders is a study in the logic and discipline of understanding future value.
Patience, caution, and consistency. In volatile times such as these, it may be difficult for executives to keep those attributes in mind when making decisions. But there are immense advantages to doing so. For proof, just look at the steady genius of now-nonagenarian Warren Buffett. The legendary investor and Berkshire Hathaway founder and CEO has earned millions of dollars for investors over several decades (exhibit). But very few of Buffett’s investment decisions have been reactionary; instead, his choices and communications have been—and remain—grounded in logic and value.
Buffett learned his craft from “the father of value investing,” Columbia University professor and British economist Benjamin Graham. Perhaps as a result, Buffett typically doesn’t invest in opportunities in which he can’t reasonably estimate future value—there are no social-media companies, for instance, or cryptocurrency ventures in his portfolio. Instead, he banks on businesses that have steady cash flows and will generate high returns and low risk. And he lets those businesses stick to their knitting. Ever since Buffett bought See’s Candy Shops in 1972, for instance, the company has generated an ROI of more than 160 percent per year —and not because of significant changes to operations, target customer base, or product mix. The company didn’t stop doing what it did well just so it could grow faster. Instead, it sends excess cash flows back to the parent company for reinvestment—which points to a lesson for many listed companies: it’s OK to grow in line with your product markets if you aren’t confident that you can redeploy the cash flows you’re generating any better than your investor can.
As Peter Kunhardt, director of the HBO documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, said in a 2017 interview, Buffett understands that “you don’t have to trade things all the time; you can sit on things, too. You don’t have to make many decisions in life to make a lot of money.” And Buffett’s theory (roughly paraphrased) that the quality of a company’s senior leadership can signal whether the business would be a good investment or not has been proved time and time again. “See how [managers] treat themselves versus how they treat the shareholders .…The poor managers also turn out to be the ones that really don’t think that much about the shareholders. The two often go hand in hand,” Buffett explains.
Every few years or so, critics will poke holes in Buffett’s approach to investing. It’s outdated, they say, not proactive enough in a world in which digital business and economic uncertainty reign. For instance, during the 2008 credit crisis, pundits suggested that his portfolio moves were mistimed, he held on to some assets for far too long, and he released others too early, not getting enough in return. And it’s true that Buffett has made some mistakes; his decision making is not infallible. His approach to technology investments works for him, but that doesn’t mean other investors shouldn’t seize opportunities to back digital tools, platforms, and start-ups—particularly now that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated global companies’ digital transformations.
Still, many of Buffett’s theories continue to win the day. A good number of the so-called inadvisable deals he pursued in the wake of the 2008 downturn ended paying off in the longer term. And press reports suggest that Berkshire Hathaway’s profits are rebounding in the midst of the current economic downturn prompted by the global pandemic.
At age 90, Buffett is still waging campaigns—for instance, speaking out against eliminating the estate tax and against the release of quarterly earnings guidance. Of the latter, he has said that it promotes an unhealthy focus on short-term profitsat the expense of long-term performance.
“Clear communication of a company’s strategic goals—along with metrics that can be evaluated over time—will always be critical to shareholders. But this information … should be provided on a timeline deemed appropriate for the needs of each specific company and its investors, whether annual or otherwise,” he and Jamie Dimon wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Yes, volatile times call for quick responses and fast action. But as Warren Buffett has shown, there are also significant advantages to keeping the long term in mind, as well. Specifically, there is value in consistency, caution, and patience and in simply trusting the math—in good times and bad.