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 and GE, 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 and Amazon (AMZN)

I read a recent comment Warren Buffett made expressing his regret at never having bought AMZN.

As far as I can see–and I’ve never met Mr. Buffett–he’s an urbane, sophisticated, complex individual who chooses a down-home persona to market himself to the world.  I don’t regard anything he says that involves the stock market as being a stray, off-the-cuff remark.  I wonder what he meant.

the top ten

As of March 31st, Berkshire Hathaway’s top ten holdings are, in order:

Kraft Heinz

Wells Fargo

Apple

Coca Cola

American Express

IBM (adjusted down for Buffett’s announced intention to pare his holding by 30%)

Phillips 66

US Bancorp

Charter Communications

Moody’s.

Source:  CNBC (a format that allows easy sorting of the SEC data)

The list comprises 80% of Berkshire’s equities.

 

Yes, despite Buffett’s well-advertised aversion to tech, there are two IT names in the top ten.  But IBM is cutting edge tech circa 1975 and AAPL is a high-end smartphone company looking for a new world to conquer.

the Buffett approach

All these firms do have the signature Buffett look:  they have all spent tons of money developing important consumer-facing brand names.  While that spending has created an enduring consumer franchise, there is no hint of the existence of this key asset on the balance sheet.  Rather, the all-important brand-building expenditure is accounted for as a subtraction from asset value.

The one possible exception to this is Charter, whose cable networks rather than sterling service and extensive advertising give it near-monopoly access to customers.  Here again, however, the ability to gradually write off the cost of constructing those networks through depreciation argues that the balance sheet severely understates their true worth.

The formula, in brief:  the “hidden” value of extensive well-staffed distribution networks plus iconic brands built through extensive spending on advertising and promotion.

limitations

The obvious limitations of this approach are:  that while novel in the 1950s, the whole world has since adopted Buffett’s once-pioneering approach; this would be great if there were no internet undermining the value of traditional brand names and distribution networks.

In other words, a software-driven, internet-based firm like AMZN seems to me to be the last thing that would ever be on the Buffett radar.  It also seems to me that taking AMZN seriously would mean rethinking the the whole Buffett investment approach–not the valuation discipline, but the idea of the value of traditional intangibles–and recasting it in a much techier way.

why not adapt?

Why not do so anyway, instead of kind of limping to the finish line?

Maybe it’s because that doing so would attack the heart of the intangible brand value of Berkshire Hathaway itself–and that attack would come not just from a nobody but from the brand’s most credible spokesperson, the Sage of Omaha himself.

 

Warren Buffett selling Wal-Mart (WMT)

Investment companies are required to file lists of their holdings with the SEC at the end of each quarter.  The latest such 13-F form for Berkshire Hathaway shows a buildup in Apple and airlines   …and the sale of virtually all of Buffett’s long-term holding in WMT.

WMT as icon

A powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s, WMT has been a bad stock for a long time.  It had a moment in the sun during the market meltdown from mid-2007 through early 2009, when it rose by about 1% while the S&P 500 was almost cut in half.  Since the bottom, however, WMT has gained 40% while the S&P is up by 219%.

Wal-Mart isn’t an obviously badly run company.  It isn’t, say, Sears, or the Ackman-run J C Penney.  But it does have a number of impediments to achieving significant growth in earnings.  One is its already gigantic size.  A second is its focus on less affluent rural customers who were disproportionately hard-hit by recession and who have in many instances yet to recover.  There’s increased competition from the dollar stores.   And there’s Amazon, whose competitive threat WMT itself admits it played down for far too long.

My reaction:

old habits die hard.  Mr. Buffett built his career from the 1950s onward on the observation, novel at that time, that traditional Graham/Dodd portfolio investing techniques glossed over the considerable value of investment in intangible assets–brand names, distribution networks, superior business practices.  However, by the time I entered the business in the late 1970s, other people–me included–were beginning to adopt his methods.  So thinking about intangibles became part of the toolkit, rather than something special.  Then, of course, the internet began to erode the power of intangibles to stop newcomers from entering a business.  Mr. Buffett, like any successful incumbent (including WMT), has been slow to adapt.

WMT as metaphor for today.  WMT could become more profitable quickly if its heartland lower-income customer base could earn more money.  One way to do that would be to bar imported goods from the country, with an eye to creating manufacturing jobs in the US.  Of course, that would also destroy the WMT value proposition in the process.  So rolling the clock back to 1950 isn’t the answer, either for the health of WMT or for its customers.

Warren Buffett and Dow Chemical (DOW)

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.

 

Warren Buffett on the US economy

On pages seven and eight of his thirty page-long annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett takes issue with politicians who are emphasizing the supposed weakness of the US economy.

After arguing, reasonably, that even 2% real GDP growth (more than double the growth of the population) is something Americans should be happy about, he says:

“Though the pie to be shared by the next generation will be far larger than today’s, how it will be divided will remain fiercely contentious. Just as is now the case, there will be struggles for the increased output of goods and services between those people in their productive years and retirees, between the healthy and the infirm, between the inheritors and the Horatio Algers, between investors and workers and, in particular, between those with talents that are valued highly by the marketplace and the equally decent hard-working Americans who lack the skills the market prizes…

The good news, however, is that even members of the “losing” sides will almost certainly enjoy – as they should – far more goods and services in the future than they have in the past. The quality of their increased bounty will also dramatically improve…My parents, when young, could not envision a television set, nor did I, in my 50s, think I needed a personal computer. Both products, once people saw what they could do, quickly revolutionized their lives. I now spend ten hours a week playing bridge online. And, as I write this letter, “search” is invaluable to me. (I’m not ready for Tinder, however.) For 240 years it’s been a terrible mistake to bet against America…”

I’m sure this is at least directionally true.  But it’s also a view from the sunny “winning” side of the struggles for a bigger slice of an expanding pie.  From the “losing” side, however, the picture is increasingly nineteenth century Dickens-ugly.  It’s also debatable whether a very poor family with a flat panel TV is that much better off than a generation-ago family with a radio.

The plight of people left behind by rapid structural change may present much more of a political and social problem than Mr. Buffett is able to see.  Whether such issues become stock and bond market problems as well remains to be seen.

More tomorrow.

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.