Category Archives: Charlie Munger

Major Changes Coming With Abel’s and Jain’s New Roles as Vice Chairmen

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With Gregory Abel elevated to Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice Chairman – Non-Insurance Business Operations, and Ajit Jain appointed Vice Chairman – Insurance Operations, Warren Buffett has made clear that major changes are in store in the command structure of Berkshire’s operations.

While Buffett has no interest in stepping down as chairman, he is shifting the responsibility for both the bolt-on acquisitions and the setting of salaries and compensation for Berkshire’s managers to his new vice chairmen.

“They’ll decide the compensation of the people underneath,” Buffett explained in a January 10 interview on CNBC. “I mean, certain people we have compensation arrangements with that we will have in force for their lifetime because we made up at the time of acquisition, but aside from the ones that are fixed, those decisions will be theirs. And smaller bolt on acquisitions will probably be theirs if there’s a large bolt on acquisition, then Charlie and I will get involved.”

Berkshire shareholders apparently should have no fear that Buffett’s famed “elephant gun,” the term he uses for hunting for giant-sized acquisitions, will be silenced any time soon.

2018 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Only One CEO in Berkshire’s Future Says Warren Buffett

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With both Greg Abel and Ajit Jain recently promoted to the positions of vice chairman, the obvious question is will they one day be co-CEOs of Berkshire.

“No” say’s Warren Buffett, who in a January 10 interview on CNBC made it clear that there will only be one CEO.

“When I’m not CEO, there will be another CEO, Buffett explained. “There will be a CEO. And how that CEO will organize things will be up to him in this case. And he will figure out the best way to do it. And it won’t change very much. It will change a little, but it won’t change very much.”

So, will the CEO be Abel or Jain? From Buffett’s remarks it seems clear it will be Abel.

“There’s no horse race at all in these two fellows,” Buffett noted in answer to a question of whether the two are jockeying for position. “They know each other well. They like each other well. They both have their areas of specialty. I mean, Greg would not want to be running insurance and Ajit would not be running the other operations.They are extremely good at what they do. Those are two pretty different businesses. And they’re roughly equal businesses. There are more people on one side, but the insurance business generates over $100 billion of float in addition to having well over $100 billion invested in it in terms of net worth. So, there’s more or less parity of earning power and importance.”

Since according to Buffett “Ajit would not be running the other operations,” and Buffett has expanded Abel’s purview to all of Berkshire’s non-insurance businesses (a new CEO has been appointed to head Berkshire Hathaway Energy), everything points to Abel, 55, being the heir apparent for CEO.

As for other potential CEOs, Mathew Rose, executive chairman of BNSF Railway, no longer seems to be a candidate to take over the helm of Berkshire. Nor does Mark Donegan, CEO of Precision Castparts. The two executives lead two of Berkshire’s largest companies.

Buffett also revealed that Charlie Munger, who already had the title of vice chairman, would not be getting a new title, and was completely on board with sharing the title.

“It was his idea, actually, in terms of the title,” Buffett said. “I got about halfway through the first sentence, which is more than i usually get through with Charlie before he comes up with a better idea, and he just says, let’s just have three vice chairmen.”

2018 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Greg Abel and Ajit Jain Join Berkshire Board

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In a move that clearly foreshadows the next generation of Berkshire Hathaway leadership, Berkshire’s Board of Directors voted to increase the number of directors comprising the entire Board of Directors from twelve to fourteen. After making that move, Gregory E. Abel and Ajit Jain were then elected to serve as Directors to fill the resulting vacancies on the Board of Directors.

In connection with their election to the Board of Directors, Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway’s Chairman and CEO, appointed Mr. Abel to be Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice Chairman – Non-Insurance Business Operations and Mr. Jain to be its Vice Chairman – Insurance Operations.

Mr. Abel joined Berkshire Hathaway Energy Company in 1992 and currently serves as its Chairman and CEO. Mr. Jain joined the Berkshire Hathaway Insurance Group in 1986 and currently serves as Executive Vice President of National Indemnity Company with overall responsibility for leading Berkshire’s reinsurance operations.

In March 2016, Buffett appointed Abel to the Board of Kraft Heinz, a move that showed his confidence in the 55-year-old manager.

For the time being, Buffett and Munger will continue in their existing positions, including being responsible for significant capital allocation decisions and investment activities.

© 2018 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Buffett Reveals Terms of Failed Unilever Bid

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Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital Partners’ recent unsolicited offer for Unilever may have flopped, but it hasn’t soured Warren Buffett on working with 3G on more acquisitions.

The two entities have worked together on the takeover of Kraft to form Kraft Heinz, and Berkshire provided financing for 3G’s merger of Burger King and Tim Hortons that became Restaurant Brands International. The merger made Berkshire a minority owner of the combined company.

At the annual shareholder’s meeting, Buffett detailed that both Berkshire and 3G were prepared to each put $15 billion into the Unilever transaction.

Some in the press have questioned whether 3G’s extreme cost-cutting made the deal unpalatable for Unilever.

While a shareholder questioned whether 3G’s emphasis on layoffs as part of its cost-cutting strategy was in line with Berkshire’s corporate culture, both Buffett and Charlie Munger noted that improvements in productivity have often lead to layoffs.

Munger noted that he doesn’t long for the days of elevator operators, and “We don’t want to go back to the days of subsistence farming.”

While Munger didn’t see a particular “moral fault” in 3G’s strategy, Buffett was clearly sensitive to the impact on displaced workers.

“If you look at any industry, they are trying to get more productive,” Buffett said. Still he noted that society’s improved living standard as a whole can be of little comfort to an individual that has lost their job, and he wishes there could be another way.

Buffett did term 3G’s severance packages at Kraft Heinz “more than fair.”

© 2017 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Buffett Warm, Munger Cool on Initiating a Stock Buyback

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At the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting in April, Warren Buffett expressed enthusiasm for a potential stock buyback of Berkshire stock if the share price fell below 120% of book value. He noted that the company would repurchase “a lot” of stock, especially if the amount of cash the company generates “burns a hole in your pocket” and grows to levels over $100-$120 million with no good candidates for acquisition.

In the past, Buffett has been skeptical of shareholder demands for stock buybacks, noting that it’s foolish if the price is too high. All the way back in 2000, Buffett addressed the logic of stock buybacks, noting:

“There is only one combination of facts that makes it advisable for a company to repurchase its shares: First, the company has available funds — cash plus sensible borrowing capacity — beyond the near-term needs of the business and, second, finds its stock selling in the market below its intrinsic value, conservatively calculated.”

However, also at the 2016 Annual Meeting, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Charlie Munger still seemed less than convinced.

“These buyback plans got a life of their own, Munger noted. “It’s gotten quite common to buy back stock at very high prices that really don’t do the shareholders any good at all. I don’t know why people exactly are doing it and I think it gets to be fashionable.

We’re always behaving a lot like what some might call the Episcopal Prayer. We prayerfully thank the Lord that we’re not like these other religions who are inferior and I’m afraid there’s probably too much of that in Berkshire but we can’t help it.”

© 2016 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Berkshire Gives Mixed Signals on AmEx Stake

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Warren Buffett has long regarded Berkshire Hathaway’s stake in American Express like he views his stake in Coca Cola. It’s one of his “forever stocks.”

With American Express having struggled in recent years, including losing its co-branded relationship with Costco, the question is whether forever is really forever, or just a long time.

Costco’s jump to Visa is expected to take a big bite out of AmEx revenues, as it represented a whopping 8% of total billed credit card charges.

“I personally feel OK about American Express, and I’m happy to own it,” Buffett, said while taking questions at the meeting Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. He did note AmEx’s problems, stating that it “has been under attack for decades — more intensively lately — and it will continue to be under attack. It’s too big a business, and too interesting a business.”

Buffett acknowledges that banking and finance draw a lot of attention and competitors, and there is always someone trying to knock you off your pedestal.

In that regard, Charlie Munger was less sanguine about AmEx.

“Anybody in payments who’s an established long-time player with an old method has more danger than used to exist,” he said.

Buffett is loath to sell Berkshire’s stake in AmEx and Coca Cola, because the cost basis is very low, and the profits from the sales would incur billions in taxes. The positions are both so large that they would also be hard to unload without affecting share prices.

Buffett also noted that Berkshire’s fund managers Ted Weschler and Todd Combs may not be as wedded to holdings in those companies as he has been when the day comes that they take over the entire $100+ billion portfolio. Each currently manages a $9 billion portfolio.

© 2016 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Berkshire to Live-Stream 2016 Annual Meeting

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Until now, if you wanted to hear Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger answer questions at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting you had to make the pilgrimage to Omaha, Nebraska.

Over 40,000 people from all over the world did just that last year and when they got there they heard Buffett and Munger take 5 hours of shareholder and financial reporter questions. Their answers, which contain insight, humor and wisdom, have never been allowed to be audio or video recorded.

Now, Berkshire Hathaway is letting the rest of the world in on the action. The 2016 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, which will be held at the CenturyLink Center on April 30, 2016, will be live-streamed over the internet.

Will the move keep people from travelling to Omaha for Berkshire’s event-filled weekend? Unlikely, as hearing Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger in person is always a treat.

And, besides, you can always get your year’s supply of See’s Candies.

© 2016 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Berkshire Cuts Munich Re Stake, Again

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Berkshire Hathaway continues to see the reinsurance business as a low return business and is pulling back from the sector in its own underwriting and in its ownership stake in other underwriters.

Berkshire has again cut its stake in Munich, Germany-based reinsurer Munich Re, this time from 9.7 percent to 4.6 percent. It previously cut its stake from 12 percent to just over 9 percent earlier in 2015.

Berkshire’s own reinsurance business has been less than stellar this year with Berkshire reporting$155 million in losses from storm damage on Australia’s east coast in the 2nd quarter of 2015.

Charlie Says

“The reinsurance business not as good as it once was and is unlikely to get better,” Charlie Munger said at the 2015 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. “Money has come in, not because they want to be in reinsurance, but because it’s an uncorrelated asset class. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Uncorrelated (also called non-correlated) asset classes are assets that move in the opposite direction of a particular asset class, thus helping investors reduce risk in exchange for lower upside performance.

Munger’s words were echoed by Ajit Jain, who is the head of Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance. “What was a very lucrative business is no longer a very lucrative business going forward” Jain was quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Charlie Munger Cools on Reinsurance Business

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Charlie Munger is less than excited about the reinsurance business these days, as Berkshire Hathaway’s reinsurance business, Gen Re, suffered an aggregate pretax underwriting losses of $14 million in the first quarter of 2015. The loss compares to a $101 million gain during the first quarter of 2014.

The company’s combined ratio deteriorated to 103.0% from 94.6%, and the total underwriting losses included $9 million in workers’ compensation.

Gen Re has $14 billion in capital and $6 billion in premiums.

More Competition Brings Lower Returns

The losses reflect increased competition for reinsurance underwriting.

“It’s a business whose prospects have turned for the worse and there’s not much we can do about it,” Warren Buffett said at the 2015 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.

“The reinsurance business not as good as it once was and is unlikely to get better,” Charlie Munger noted. “Money has come in, not because they want to be in reinsurance, but because it’s an uncorrelated asset class. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Uncorrelated (also called non-correlated) asset classes are assets that move in the opposite direction of a particular asset class, thus helping investors reduce risk in exchange for lower upside performance.

Munger’s words were in line with those of Ajit Jain, who is the head of Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance. “What was a very lucrative business is no longer a very lucrative business going forward” Jain was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

Meyer Shields, managing director at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., is also pessimistic about Gen Re’s near-term prospects.

“We expect Gen Re and (Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group’s) premium volumes and margins to generally decline in the remainder of 2015 and beyond, reflecting enduring reinsurance price competition and some fallout from Berkshire’s increasing pursuit of primary premium volumes at the likely expense of some former cedents.”

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

No Threat of Activist Investors Attacking Berkshire

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Activist investors have been giving companies a hard time lately, accumulating large blocks of stock as a way of forcing their way onto corporate boards, and often forcing companies to “raise shareholder value” through spin-offs and special dividends as their price to go away. Just this week, DuPont defeated activist investor Nelson Peltz, and his Trian Fund Management, L.P.

Some consultants even advise corporations to settle with activist investors early, rather than trying to fight them.

Is Berkshire Hathaway vulnerable to what used to be called “greenmail”?

Not according to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. They both scoffed at the idea while answering questions at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting on May 2, 2015.

As Buffett sees it, at a valuation of over a third of a trillion dollars, Berkshire is too big to be threatened by activist investors.

“The market value of Berkshire is going to be so great that, even if all the activists got together, they couldn’t do much about it,” Buffett explained. He added that he would invite them in, as their attempts to attack Berkshire would merely drive up the stock price.

“We should be a place where people dump their activists, because there not going to get anywhere,” Buffett said wryly.

While activist investors bill themselves as needed financial warriors that shake up hidebound companies to unlock value for all shareholders, Charlie Munger wasn’t having any of it.

“I don’t think it’s a great age, this age of activism,” Munger said. “It’s hard for me to think of many activists I want to marry into the family.”

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.