Today’s Wall Street Journal contains a front page article that will be widely viewed on Wall Street, I think, as a bit of comic relief.
In times of financial stress, cash-short companies have tended to go to Berkshire Hathaway for financial assistance. If successful, they receive both money and the implicit endorsement of Warren Buffet.
In 2009, it was DOW’s turn. It wanted to acquire Rohm and Haas, another chemical company. The best deal it could find for a needed $3 billion was in Omaha, where Berkshire took a private placement of $3 billion in DOW preferred stock, with an annual dividend yield of 8.5%. The preferred has been convertible for some time now into DOW common (yielding 3.4%), at DOW’s option, provided DOW has traded above $53.72 for a period of at least 20 trading days out of 30.
DOW shares were trading below $20 each when the deal was struck seven years ago.
On July 26th, the shares breached the $53.72 barrier and traded above it for five consecutive days–the final two on extremely heavy volume–before falling back. At the same time, according to the WSJ, short interest in the stock has risen sharply. In other words, someone has been a heavy seller, using stock borrowed from others.
Who could that be?
Although nothing is stated outright, the strong implication of the article is that the shortseller is Berkshire, which stands to lose $150 million+ a year in dividend income on conversion.
Part of the Wall Street humor in the situation is that the playing field isn’t level. It’s perfectly legal for Berkshire to sell DOW short, although it does seem to cut against the homespun image Mr. Buffett has been at pains to cultivate for years. On the other hand, however, DOW would run the risk of being accused of trying to pump up its stock price (and the value of management stock options) if it went out of its way to absorb any unusual selling.