gains for Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) on GE and BofA

Every investment company has to make public filings with the SEC that disclose its quarter-end investment positions.  Comparing the changes between filings allows anyone to see the investment moves of high-level professionals, even though this comes with a lag.

Recently, the press has picked up on the results of two investments made by Warren Buffett/BRK during the financial crisis.  He provided finance to Bank of America (BAC) and to General Electric (GE), two companies whose operations were under great stress because of recession.  As he has done in other instances, Buffett demanded, and received, a long-running option to convert what were essentially commercial loans into the companies’ common stock at 2008 prices, in the case of GE, and 2011 prices, in the case of BAC.


BRK has recently cashed out of its position in GE completely and has converted the BAC preferred stock it bought into common.  Back of the envelope, here’s how Mr. Buffett made out:

–BRK lent GE $3 billion and received a total of $4 billion back, including the sale of all the stock bought through warrant exercise;  a gain of 33.3% over nine years, during which time the S&P 500 gained 250%+.

–BRK lent BAC $5 billion.  It has received about $2 billion in dividend payments and has a gain of about $11 billion on the BAC stock it now owns.  That’s a gain of 260% over six years, during which time the S&P 500 gained about 110%.

Together:  BRK lost $6.5 billion by its investment in GE vs. holding an S&P 500 index fund;  it has gained $8 billion vs the index so far on holding BAC.

evaluating results

A more interesting question:  did BRK do well or badly?

On GE, the answer is clear.  The investment did very poorly.

On BAC, the answer is also clear.  The investment gave BRK more downside protection, and higher income, than the common during a time when BAC was in hot water.  And it came just before BAC began its long run of outperformance against the S&P 500.   So this was a home run.

Regular readers will know that my overall view on Mr. Buffett is that he persists in using a manual typewriter in a Word (or Google docs) world.  You have to hand it to him on BAC.  But GE’s salad days were long gone when he put BRK’s money into it.

Warren Buffett’s bid for Unilever (ULVR)

(Note:  ULVR is an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate with what is for Americans a very unusual corporate structure.  I’m using the London ticker.)

Late last week word leaked of a takeover offer Kraft Heinz (KHZ)–controlled by Warren Buffett and private equity investor 3G Capital–made for Unilever.  Within a day, KHZ withdrew its offer, supposedly because of a frosty reception from the UK government.  Not much further information is available.  In fact, when I checked on Monday evening as I was writing this, there’s no mention of the offer or its retraction among the investor releases on the KHZ website.  Press reports don’t even seem to acknowledge that Unilever is one set of assets controlled by two publicly traded companies.

In any event, two aspects of this situation seem clear to me:

–Buffett’s initial foray with 3G was Heinz, where the Brazilian private equity group quickly established that something like one out of every four people on the Heinz payroll did absolutely no productive work.  Profits rose enormously as the workforce was trimmed to fit the actual needs of the company.

Buffett subsequently joined with 3G in the same rationalization process with Kraft.

For some time, achieving stock market outperformance through portfolio investing has proved difficult for Berkshire Hathaway.  Tech companies are basically excluded from the investment universe; everyone nowadays understands the value of intangibles, the area where Buffett made his reputation.

The bid for ULVR shows, I think, the Sage of Omaha’s new strategy–acquire and rationalize long-established, now-bloated firms in the food and consumer products industries.

Expect a lot more of this, with any needed extra financing likely coming from Berkshire Hathaway.

–the sitting pro-Brexit UK government is showing itself to be extremely sensitive to evidence that contradicts its (questionable) narrative that Brexit is good for the UK.  That seems to me to not be true in the case of UVLR.

Sterling has fallen by 15% or so since the Brexit vote, creating problems for firms, like UVLR, which have revenues in sterling + euros but costs in dollars.  Since the Brexit vote, and before the revelation of the bid, UVLR ADRs in the US had underperformed the S&P 500 since last June by about 20 percentage points.  Yes, UVLR has been a serial laggard, but most of the recent stock price decline can be attributed, I think, to the currency decline brought about by Brexit.

The idea that a venerable British firm would fall into American hands, with layoffs following close behind, appears to have been more than #10 Downing Street could tolerate.

That attitude is probably also going to remain, meaning that weak management teams in the UK need not fear being replaced–and that Buffett will likely have to look elsewhere for his next conquest.



Berkshire Hathaway and Kraft

A little less than a month ago, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Heinz (controlled by Brazilian investment firm 3G) jointly announced a takeover offer for Kraft.  The Associated Press quoted Mr. Buffett as asserting “This is my kind of transaction.”  I looked for the press release containing the quote on the Berkshire website before starting to write this, but found nothing.   The News Releases link on the home page was last updated two weeks before the Kraft announcement.  Given the kindergarten look of the website, I’m not so surprised   …and I’m willing to believe the quote is genuine.  If not, there goes the intro to my post.


As to the “my kind” idea, it is and it isn’t.

On the one hand, Buffett has routinely been willing to be a lender to what he considers high-quality franchises, notably financial companies, in need of large amounts of money quickly–often during times of financial and economic turmoil.  The price of a Berkshire Hathaway loan typically includes at least a contingent equity component.  The Kraft case, a large-size private equity deal, is a simple extension of this past activity.

On the other, this is not the kind of equity transaction that made Mr. Buffett’s reputation–that is, buying a large position in a temporarily underperforming firm with a strong brand name and distribution network, perhaps making a few tweaks to corporate management, but basically leaving the company alone and waiting for the ship to right itself.  In the case of 3G’s latest packaged goods success, Heinz, profitability did skyrocket–but only after a liberal dose of financial leverage and the slash-and-burn laying off of a quarter of the workforce!  This is certainly not vintage Buffett.

Why should the tiger be changing its stripes?

Two reasons:

the opportunity.

I think many mature companies are wildly overstaffed, even today.

Their architects patterned their creation on the hierarchical structure they learned in the armed forces during the World War II era.  A basic principle was that a manager could effectively control at most seven subordinates, necessitating cascading levels of middle managers between the CEO and ordinary workers.  A corollary was that you could gauge a person’s importance by the number of people who, directly or indirectly, reported to him.

Sounds crazy, but at the time this design was being implemented, there was no internet, no cellphones, no personal computers, no fax machines, no copiers.  The ballpoint pen had still not been perfected.  Yes, there were electric lights and paper clips.  So personal contact was the key transmission mechanism for corporate communication.

Old habits die hard.  It’s difficult to conceive of making radical changes if you’ve been brought up in a certain system–especially if the company in question is steadily profitable.  And, of course, the manager who decided to cut headcount risked a loss of status.

Hence, 3G’s success.

plan A isn’t working  

One of the first, and most important, marketing lessons I have learned is that you don’t introduce strawberry as a flavor until sales of vanilla have stopped growing.  Why complicate your life?

Buffett’s direct equity participation in Kraft is a substantial departure from the type of investing that made him famous.  I’ve been arguing for some time that traditional value investing no longer works in the internet era.  That’s because the internet has quickly broken down traditional barriers to entry in very many industries.  It seems to me that Buffet’s move shows he thinks so too.





Warren Buffett’s latest portfolio moves: the 4Q14 13-f

Investment managers subject to SEC regulation (meaning basically everyone other than hedge funds) must file a quarterly report with the agency detailing significant changes in their portfolios.  It’s called a 13-f.  Today Berkshire Hathaway filed its 13-f for 4Q14.  I can’t find it yet on the Edgar website, but there has been plenty of media coverage.

Mr. Buffett has built up his media and industrial holdings, as well as adding to his IBM.  The more interesting aspect of the report is that it shows him selling off major energy holdings–ExxonMobil, which he had acquired about two years ago, and ConocoPhillips, which he had been selling for some time.  Neither has worked out well.

There’s also a smaller sale of shares in oilfield services firm National Oilwell Varco and a buy of tar sands miner Suncor–both presumably moves made by one of the two prospective heirs working as portfolio managers at the firm (whose portfolios are much smaller than Buffett’s.  Buffett has told investors to figure smaller buys and sells are theirs.)

Three observations:

–the Buffett moves would have been exciting–maybe even daring–in 1980.  Today, they seem more like changing exhibits in a museum.

–if I were interested in Energy and thought it more likely that oil prices would rise than fall, I’d be selling XOM, too.  After all, it’s one of the lowest beta (that is, least sensitive to oil price changes) members of the sector.

But I’d be buying shale oil and tar sands companies that have solid operations and that have been trampled on Wall Street in the rush to the door of the past half-year or so.  That doesn’t appear to be Mr. Buffett’s strategy, however.  His idea seems to be to cut his losses and shift to areas like Consumer discretionary. (A more aggressive stance would be to increase energy holdings by buying the high beta stocks now, with the intention of paring back later by selling things like XOM as prices begin to rise.)  NOTE:  I’m not recommending that anyone actually do this stuff.  I’m just commenting on what the holdings changes imply about what Mr. Buffett’s strategy must be.

–early in my career, I interviewed for a job (which I didn’t get) with a CIO who was building a research department for a new venture.  I was a candidate because I was, at the time, an expert on natural resources.   The CIO said the thought there were three key positions any research department must fill:  technology, finance and natural resources.  All require specialized knowledge.    I’d toss healthcare into the ring, as well.  I’d also observe that stock performance in these more technical areas is influenced much less by the companies’ financial statements than is the case with standard industrial or consumer names.

Mr. Buffett is an expert on financials–he runs a gigantic insurance company, after all.  On tech and resources, not so much, in my opinion.  Financials are the second-largest sector in the S&P 500, making up 16% of the total.  Tech makes up 19.5%; Energy is 8.3%; Healthcare 14.9%.  The latter three total 42.7% of the index.  As a portfolio manager, it’s hard enough to beat the index in the first place.  Being weak in two-fifths of it makes the task even harder.

Buffett, Duracell and Proctor and Gamble (PG)

Warren Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRK), is buying Duracell from PG for $2.9 billion.

The deal is a little more complex than that, though:

structure:  PG will inject $1.8 billion in cash into Duracell prior to the sale.  It will then swap the enlarged company for BRK’s 52.8 million share holding in PG.  This makes the headline number for the deal $4.7 billion.

a win-win

PG has been interested for years in offloading Duracell, which it acquired through its purchase of Gillette in 2005.  Duracell has gone ex growth, as today’s mobile devices like smartphones use rechargeable batteries, not disposables.  Complicating the issue is the fact that Duracell is on the books at the price Gillette paid for it in the 1980s.  So a sale for cash would presumably trigger a big capital gains tax.

With this deal, PG gets rid of a no-growth brand that no trade buyers were beating down the door to get.  It avoids taxes.  It accomplishes a share buyback at the same time and takes out a large seller whose activity would depress the stock price, to boot.  So, for PG the deal is a big winner.

BRK offloads its entire holding in PG at once.  I estimate the task would take three months in the open market, during which time PG shares would doubtless be depressed as the news hit Wall Street’s trading floors.  BRK also avoids taxes on a position that’s on its books at the cost of Gillette convertible bonds it bought in 1989.

On the surface, it appears that BRK doesn’t make out so well.  It has aguably swapped a slow-growth dog for money plus a no-growth cat.  But let’s look at the numbers.

Let’s say sale of the PG shares in the open market would bring in $4.7 billion but trigger taxes due of $1.2 billion (a number I just made up).  So the net to it is $3.5 billion.  By doing this deal instead, BRK gets $1.8 million in cash plus 100% ownership of a company that generated $400 million+ in cash over the past year.  This means BRK only needs Duracell to stay afloat for four more years to recover the price it’s paying.  In addition, PG disappears from the portfolio everyone watches (as a 100% holding, Duracell never makes it in). Looks like a good deal.

what catches my eye

I hadn’t realized before, but I’ve read in the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal that this is the third such deal BRK has done in the past year.  This looks a lot to me like portfolio housecleaning.

Warren Buffett’s trademark has long been to buy consumer-oriented stocks with strong brand names, superior products and excellent distribution networks.  All are “moats” that defend against competition.  However, all these competitive advantages are being steadily eroded by generational and technological change.

It looks to me like a big (and overdue) strategy shift may be underway at BRK–one that the company, understandably, wants to keep under wraps for as long as possible.



Warren Buffett and IBM + Intel

Warren Buffett on TV

Warren Buffett, an iconic stock market investor, announced two days ago on television that he has acquired a 5.5% interest in IBM, now worth about $12 billion.  He apparently began accumulating the stock–the 65 million or so shares he holds amounts to about two weeks’ trading volume–in March.

why the buy is notable

The announcement is notable in a few respects–two small ones and one large.

Let’s get the small fry out of the way first:

1.  No one in his right mind goes on TV and announces he owns a ton of a given stock unless he’s finished buying.  The implicit message is “Feel free to ride on my coattails (and raise the value of my stock) if you wish.”

2.  Portfolio investors are required to disclose their holdings in a public filing (a 13-f) with the SEC each quarter.  According to Dealbook in the New York Times, a portfolio manager can request that the SEC keep secret the names of stocks the manager is continuing to buy.   (I didn’t know about this provision, despite being in the business for over a quarter-century.  Shame on me.  I bet I’m not alone, though.)  Dealbook says that’s what Buffett did in March and the SEC said okay

Now the BIG one:

3.  The purchase represents Buffett’s first significant foray into the technology industry, a place he had previously shunned for lack of little investment appeal.  His explanation for the about-face?  …the world has changed, so he’s changing with it.

Actually, though, I don’t think IBM shows that he’s changed that much.  Buffett has also acquired a relatively small stake in INTC, which I think IS an eye-opener.  He isn’t trying to keep that one out of his 13-f filings, however.  I think this means one of his assistants really wanted to buy it and Buffett is simply watching to see how the stock turns out.  So I think it’s more a test of the assistant than a vote of confidence in INTC.

Buffett as icon

Buffett has an important place in portfolio investment history.  It comes from his being the first, a half-century ago, to understand the implications of an accounting paradox.

Long before anyone else, he realized that continuous spending on advertising to establish a brand name had an enduring positive value, even though this activity appeared in the firm’s financial statements only as a negative–as expense.  (Pick a consumer-oriented company and look at the advertising expense.  It’s mind-bogglingly high today–and it used to be a lot higher.)  Similarly, developing a strong distribution network of competent sales and delivery people also has an enduring value, even though the only reflection of this in financial statements is in (higher than normal) salary expense.

Together, a strong brand name and a top-notch distribution system form a powerful–if invisible–barrier to competitors entering a market.  They also offer the opportunity for operating leverage if the firm can push a wider variety of branded products through its network.

So while his Graham and Dodd competitors were looking for nameless/faceless companies that were piling up lots of working capital and had tons of plant and equipment, Buffett was snapping up branded firms that served recurring needs in service areas like newspapers and insurance, and strong brands like Coca-Cola…at bargain basement prices.  Geico is probably his most famous current holding.

As everyone knows, he made a fortune, both for himself and for his clients.

my (more or less random) thoughts

IBM has a powerful brand name and distribution network.  The industry it operates in aside, the purchase looks to me like vintage Buffett.

I don’t think the Buffett magic works as well as it once did, for two reasons:

–once the investment industry became aware of Buffett’s superior results, everyone studied his methods carefully and began to imitate them.  By the time I entered the business in the late 1970s the value of intangibles and of service firms was already beginning to become conventional wisdom. So Buffett’s edge gradually disappeared.

–the internet happened.  Getting distribution no longer requires years of heavy advertising expenditure; it takes good public relations and web design.

Buffett has transformed himself, consciously or not, into his own brand name.  For the performance of Berkshire Hathaway stock, the mystique of the “Sage of Omaha” is at least as important as perceived investment results.

Why IBM and not AAPL?

To my mind, INTC is the much more uncharacteristic purchase.  It’s still very cheap, I think (remember, I own the stock).  But it’s a capital intensive, research and development dependent, manufacturer of (arguably) business cycle sensitive, high-priced stuff.  It faces substantial competition from ARMH.  In other words, it’s just about everything Buffett has not wanted in a company.




the curious case of David Sokol and Berkshire Hathaway

The case of David Sokol, late of Berkshire Hathaway, has been widely reported over recent days.  The facts, as I understand them, are as follows:

Sokol’s behavior…

1.  One of Warren Buffett’s chief lieutenants and touted as a potential successor to the Sage of Omaha, Mr. Sokol had the task of finding a suitable target for the merger and acquisition “elephant gun” Mr. Buffett proclaimed last year he had primed to fire.  There may have been others looking as well, but Mr. Sokol certainly was one.

2.  Mr. Sokol decided to recommend Lubrizol to Mr. Buffett as a company that Berkshire should purchase.

3.  Prior to approaching his boss, Mr. Sokol bought $9+ million in Lubrizol stock for himself.

4.  In his presentation to Mr. Buffett, Mr. Sokol mentioned his own holding, but only in passing.  He apparently did so in a way that it didn’t highlight the relevant points of how recent or how large his purchase had been.

5.  Buffett decided to buy Lubrizol.  Sokol sold his stock for a $3 million personal profit.

6.  After this became know, Sokol resigned from Berkshire.  Buffett maintains that Sokol did nothing wrong and that the resignation has nothing to do with his Lubrizol stock purchase.

7.  The SEC is now investigating Sokol, with the focus of the inquiry on whether there are other instances of the same buy-for-yourself-then-recommend behavior.

…isn’t the issue on Wall Street.  Buffett’s is.

People buy Berkshire Hathaway stock because they regard Warren Buffett as a master investor and a person of absolute integrity.  His public appearances draw immense media attention for the same reasons.  Other investors parse each sentence he pens or utters for sophisticated investment insights.  Why, then, would such a hero defend a subordinate who appears to have taken advantage of Mr. Buffett’s trust and used his corporate position for personal gain?   …especially when this conduct appears to fly in the face of the fair-play rules every investment company must follow.

why do this?

No one outside Berkshire Hathaway knows for sure.  I have two observations:

1.  Imagine what Mr. Sokol’s defense against charges of failing in his fiduciary duty to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders might be.  If it were me, I’d argue along three lines:

a) First, I would say that Sokol is an industrialist working for a conglomerate, not a portfolio manager working for a regulated securities company.  Therefore, he’s not subject to the severe controls on the latter’s activities.

b)  I’d then say that Berkshire doesn’t have adequate compliance procedures that establish and monitor standards of conduct.  As as result of this corporate failure, he was ignorant of proper procedures.

c) Then I’d try to argue that his behavior was common practice at Berkshire.

In fact, it appears Sokol is already asserting that what he did is just the same as Charlie Munger (Buffett’s long-time associate and vice-chairman of Berkshire) holding shares of Chinese battery company BYD prior to Berkshire taking a large stake.

In the press, there has been no discussion of Berkshire compliance procedures.  Yes, Buffett wrote a letter on the subject all newly hired executives are required to state that they have read–but nothing else.  No one I’m aware of has written that Berkshire implemented the kind of strict controls over, and intense scrutiny of, personal trading that is mandatory for investment companies.  Nor is there talk of periodic compliance training that is also required for professional investors.  My guess is that, while these procedures may exist in the company’s insurance subsidiaries, there’s no company-wide effort.

Also, if it is correct that the thrust of an SEC investigation of Sokol is on a pattern of behavior rather than this one incident, this suggests that points a) and b) above have merit.

To sum up, at least in the very narrow sense of “can he be convicted?”, Mr. Sokol may actually have done nothing wrong.  Unethical, maybe, but illegal, no.  So there’s little Mr. Buffett can do other than to ask for Mr. Sokol’s resignation.

Ironically, if Berkshire were a regulated investment company, it may well be that Mr. Buffett’s supervisory failure to publicize and enforce the rules would be the main actionable offense.

2.  There could be a second reason for Berkshire wanting to put this incident behind it as quickly as possible.

The shock and outrage in the investment community over the Sokol affair illustrates Wall Street’s belief about what Berkshire is:  the investment company run by one of the greatest American investors of the twentieth century.

To defend itself, Berkshire would likely have to emphasize that Berkshire is a financial services/industrial conglomerate (Geico is its best-known brand), not a regulated investment firm.

What’s so bad about that?  The stock doesn’t trade at the discount to asset value that’s characteristic of multi-industry companies, insurance firms in particular.  Berkshire trades at a substantial, though slowly shrinking, premium to book.   Defense of Berkshire’s behavior regarding Sokol might well end up being an attack on that premium as well, and accelerate its decline.