Category Archives: Commentary

Commentary: Should Berkshire Pay a Dividend?

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

Like the sparrows returning to Capistrano, or geese flying south for the winter, some things are annual events. Such, is the case with the seemingly annual articles calling for Berkshire Hathaway to pay a dividend or do share buybacks. After all, Berkshire builds up free cash at the rate of roughly $1.5 billion a month, and Omaha being the small place that it is must be running out of places to put it.

It’s a situation that just seems to be getting bigger and bigger, and it has been for decades.

In 2007, Buffett plunked down $4 billion to buy 60% of the holding company the Marmon Group from the Pritzker family.  At the time, Berkshire was sitting on a record $40 billion in cash, and the purchase of Marmon’s 63 companies was a good use of some of that money as it greatly expanded the breadth of Berkshire’s manufacturing companies.

Here we are a decade later and Berkshire has over twice the cash it had at that time despite having acquired much larger companies in the interim period, including BNSF Railway and Precision Castparts.

At times, Berkshire reminds me of the fairy tale “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where the magician’s apprentice cuts a broom in half only to find it turn into two brooms. Each broom he cuts becomes another pair of brooms until he is surrounded by brooms. While not every investment Berkshire has made has worked out, many of them have worked out so well that the cash used to purchased them has been returned to Berkshire and the acquired company then produces even more cash.

Currently, Berkshire is again sitting on over $91 billion in cash. Even deducting the $20 billion Warren Buffett likes to keep on hand in his rainy day fund for protection against recessions, great recessions, or great depressions, there is a lot of spare cash piling up, Surely, as some ask, they won’t miss $5 billion or so a year if they kick it out as a dividend?

Just this month, Bloomberg News published “The Case for a Berkshire Dividend,” which trod this familiar ground. In their defense, this is certainly one of the top questions I’m asked whenever I discuss Berkshire with anyone. “Don’t Berkshire shareholders deserve a dividend?” After all, the company has an ever growing cash hoard.

I will save the suspense and get right to my answer. In my opinion, shareholders may deserve it, but they should not want it.

Now that you have my answer, let’s look at why I say no.

Warren Buffett doesn’t like the idea

Going against the wisdom of the world’s greatest investor has been a losing strategy for decades, and in this case, Warren Buffett doesn’t believe a dividend is the right thing to do. When it comes to Berkshire, Buffett applies the same standard as he does with evaluating any other company, and looks at the “’what-will-they-do-with-the-money’ factor.” In Buffett’s view, Berkshire is better off holding on to cash in order to have it available not just for security in economic down times, but to make clever financing deals and to fund acquisitions big and small.

Buffett uses Berkshire’s cash to make the company better

If you liked the old Berkshire Hathaway you probably love the new and improved Berkshire. Over the last decade, Buffett has used Berkshire’s cash to acquire “elephants” such as BNSF Railway ($35 billion) and Precision Castparts ($37.2 billion), which have strengthened and diversified Berkshire’s earning power. He has also used the cash to purchase sizeable but smaller companies, such as the Van Tuyl Group auto dealerships ($4.1 billion), electric utility NV Energy ($5.6 billion), and Altalink ($2.9 billion). What’s more, Berkshire’s cash ($12.25 billion) enabled it to become the majority shareholder in Heinz, which through another mega-acquisition made Berkshire the largest shareholder in Kraft-Heinz.

In addition to all these large and medium-sized acquisitions, Berkshire has plenty of money for “bolt-on” acquisitions that strengthen its existing businesses. On average, Berkshire spends roughly $3 billion a year acquiring companies that its managers believe will strengthen their various businesses.

For example, in 2012, Berkshire’s McLane Company, a $33+ billion dollar supply chain services company that provides grocery and foodservice supply chain solutions for convenience stores, mass merchants, drug stores, and chain restaurants throughout the United States, acquired Meadowbrook Meat Company, one of the nation’s largest customized foodservice distributors for national restaurant chains. The acquisition boosted McLane’s revenues by roughly 20 percent.

Year after year, Berkshire’s stable of companies get stronger and own more market-share as Buffett allocates capital among the existing businesses.

Many of these acquisitions are small relative to Berkshire’s size but meaningful to growing Berkshire’s individual businesses. MiTek Industries, for example, acquired M&M Manufacturing in 2015, and three more companies, Sales Simplicity Software, Wrightsoft, and DIY Technologies in 2017.

Stock buybacks only make sense when the stock price is below its intrinsic value

As for stock buy backs, trading a dollar for anything less than a dollar doesn’t make a lot of sense. Still, many companies do it to satisfy investors hungry for short term boosts to stock prices, and quite frankly, to keep up with what has become Wall Street’s latest fad.

Warren Buffett noted in his 2011 letter to shareholders, “Charlie and I favor repurchases when two conditions are met: first, a company has ample funds to take care of the operational and liquidity needs of its business; second, its stock is selling at a material discount to the company’s intrinsic business value, conservatively calculated. We have witnessed many bouts of repurchasing that failed our second test.”

Dividends are a one size fits all solution seeking a problem

Don’t need cash? Well, you are getting it anyway. As Warren Buffett noted in his 2013 shareholder’s letter, “dividends impose a specific cash-out policy upon all shareholders.”  Rather than you deciding when to cash-out, the decision is made for you, whether you want it or not. This is like having a neighbor decide to sell a small parcel of land to finance his daughter’s wedding, and requiring you to do the same even though no one in your family is getting married.

Warren Buffett is a better investor than you are, way better

By letting Berkshire maximize the amount of cash it has available for investing, it is able to make deals that you can only dream about. Here is just one example. In 2014, Berkshire provided provided $3 billion in financing so that Burger King could acquire Canadian restaurant chain Tim Hortons. The deal gave Berkshire preferred stock paying a sweet 9% return on its money. In a low interest rate environment, 9% was a very nice return, beating at that time any CD you wanted to put your dividend check into. But wait, there’s more. Berkshire also received warrants enabling it to buy 8,438,225 common shares of the newly christened Restaurant Brands International for a penny a share. How has that $84,438 investment worked out? As of January 20, 2017, Berkshire’s $84,438 has turned into $410,182,117. Think you can do better?

What happens when Buffett is no longer at the helm?

Granted, it will be hard for any future CEO to match Buffett’s legendary mix of investing savvy, patience, and creativity, but wouldn’t you want the next Berkshire CEO to have the full resources available for investing that Buffett had? Why handicap future CEOs with less free cash to invest? Starting a dividend now, would only create a situation that Buffett’s successors would be unable to discontinue.

In Conclusion

Last, but not least, you have to ask yourself what you would do with the money you received from your dividend. If you have someplace better to invest it than in Berkshire then why didn’t you invest it there in the first place? Just look at 2016’s results. Berkshire’s stock rose 24.36% as compared to the S&P 500’s $11.24% increase. Money invested in Berkshire was the winning bet.

If you are a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder, you already own a portion of one the world’s strongest, most diversified companies. It’s a conglomerate that is managed by the most successful investor of all time.

Perhaps someday Berkshire will run out of elephants to acquire, or will not need to make bolt-on acquisitions that help its existing companies grow, but until that time, I want to leave my money invested right where it is.

© 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.

 

Commentary: Legalization of Marijuana Means “Gold Rush” for Berkshire Hathaway

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Marijuana may make its users relaxed and sluggish, but it will be a booming high time for one of Berkshire Hathaway’s companies.

Based in New Berlin, Wisconsin, Cubic Designs builds prefabricated custom mezzanine systems, standard steel platforms, pipe racks and canopies that add space to facilities.

It’s the kind of space that is needed for marijuana growing operations.

With California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine all having just legalized the growing and sale of pot within their borders, Berkshire Hathaway’s Cubic Designs, a unit of MiTek, now has plenty of opportunities to market its wide variety of special platforms that maximize floor space in warehouses.

In addition, Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota all just legalized the medical use of marijuana, which means that growing and distribution operations will begin in those states, as well.

For Cubic Designs, the marketing plan is ready and tested. When marijuana was legalized in Colorado, the company mailed fliers to marijuana dispensaries touting that they could double their growing space and improve their profits using Cubic Designs’ systems.

With the U.S. Cannabis Spot Index price currently at $1,393 per pound, as of November 4, 2016, maximizing growing and storage space can make millions of dollars of difference for a grower.

The New Gold Rush

Unlike most commodities that get grown in one region and shipped for sale in another, there is inherent duplication within the marijuana industry that benefits equipment suppliers. With marijuana still illegal on the Federal level, the harvested plants can’t cross interstate lines, so all the growing, processing and distribution operations need to be established separately in each state. These redundant operations offer business opportunities for establishing every phase of the infrastructure needed to support.

Much like the California Gold Rush in 1849 made big money for people supplying the panning equipment, this new “Marijuana Gold Rush” means lots of money to be made for equipment suppliers for growers and retailers.

With twenty-five percent of the U.S. population suddenly having access to legal marijuana, the growth opportunities for Cubic Designs will have a lot of upside ahead of 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.

Commentary: Is Now the Time for Kraft Heinz to Make a Play For Mondelez?

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When Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital put together Kraft Heinz in 2015, the talk in the street was all about whether adding Mondelez International would be the next step. After all, Mondelez used to be part of Kraft before it was spun-off in 2012.

At the time, Warren Buffett downplayed the idea, noting that the newly formed Kraft Heinz had much to do in order integrate the two companies.

“At Kraft Heinz, we have our work cut out for us for a couple of years,” Buffett told CNBC. “Frankly, most of the food companies sell at prices that it would be very hard for us to make a deal even if we had done all the work needed at Kraft Heinz.”

Is Now the Time?

Here we are a year later and the fate of Mondelez in the rapidly consolidating food industry is still not clear. The company just dropped its proposed takeover of chocolate king Hershey, and the question of whether it’s an acquirer or acquiree is back in play.

As far as size goes, Mondelez has a market cap of roughly $67 billion, as compared to Kraft Heinz’s $109 billion, and combined they would put Kraft Heinz ahead of Unilever, which has a market cap of $143.4 billion, and move it closer to Nestle, which has a market cap of over $246 billion.

Berkshire and 3G Capital

Warren Buffett has clearly been pleased with his dealings with Jorge Paulo Lemann, Alex Behring and Bernardo Hees of 3G Capital. Partnering with 3G has brought a tough, tight-fisted management style that seeks to ring inefficiencies out of large-scale legacy companies, and Berkshire has benefited by gaining equity and putting large chunks of cash to work financing the deals.

Much of Berkshire’s financing takes the form of preferred stock, which has paid high interest rates in a low interest rate world. It’s a deal that Buffett loves, and one that he also used to help shore up companies such as Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Dow Chemical during the Great Recession.

However, the high interest dominoes have been falling one after another as companies became healthy enough to get cheaper financing.

Similarly, when Berkshire and 3G went in on Kraft Heinz in 2013, Berkshire received $8 billion in preferred shares that paid it $720 million annually. Those shares were redeemed this summer as Kraft Heinz moved to lower its borrowing costs. It was a move that Buffett lamented in his annual letter to shareholders “…will be good news for Kraft Heinz and bad news for Berkshire.”

In addition, Berkshire’s $3 billion in preferred stock in Dow Chemical, which currently pays Berkshire $255 million a year, looks likely to end this year unless the market slumps, keeping the price of Dow Chemical shares below $53.72. .

Now that those deals have been coming to an end, a large chunk of preferred stock from a combined Kraft Heinz and Mondelez merger would be a fitting substitute.

Placing Their Bets

In August 2015, activist investor Bill Ackman took a $5.6 billion stake in Mondelez, a bet that clearly signaled he thought the snack maker would be acquired.

Among the other potential buyers could be Pepsi, which already owns Frito-Lay, and is facing declining sales in the traditional soda business, as consumers look for healthier options.

A Prize Worth Winning?

While a merger of Kraft Heinz and Mondelez has made sense to Wall Street, does it ultimately make sense in the world of consumer preferences in the 21st century?

When Mondelez was spun-off from Kraft, it was supposed to be the more exciting, high-flying of the two companies. However, its stock promptly slumped, and today it’s barely higher than it was five years ago. Many of Mondelez’s brands, which include Triscuit, Ritz, and Chips Ahoy!, reflect the consumer tastes from the 1930s-1960s, and its Oreo cookie goes back even further, first hitting store shelves in 1912. These brands are still popular, but will they be in another fifty years?

So, is Mondelez even a prize worth winning? That depends on whether there are similar savings that can be wrung out of Mondelez as there has been with Kraft and Heinz. If Berkshire and 3G think there are, there could be the next global food giant ready to take the stage.

One thing that is clear, in the 21st century world of food manufacturing and distribution companies, the assumption is that size matters in order to have global reach that can take advantage of growing markets in South America, India and China.

© 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.

Commentary: Supersonic Business Jets Will Boost Fractional Jet Ownership

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It’s no secret that the fractional jet ownership business has struggled in recent years, with several competitors leaving the market, and the merger of Flexjet and Flight Options. While Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets is healthy, NetJets Executive Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Patrick Gallagher, noted on AINonline that “We’re growing our market share of a shrinking pie.”

All that may soon change with the coming of a new generation of supersonic business jets, produced by companies such as the Aerion Corporation. The planes will cruise at Mach 1.4, cutting three hours off New York City to Europe, and six hours or more off long Pacific routes.

The planes will give corporate leaders and other high-end travelers a compelling reason to consider fractional ownership.

Even cross-country travel, which draws additional concerns about sonic booms, will be faster. Aerion claims that its Boomless Cruise(sm) flight is feasible at speeds up to Mach 1.2, depending on atmospheric conditions, principally temperature and wind.

The company hopes that the U.S. will adopt International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards, permitting supersonic speeds over the U.S. Supersonic flights are currently prohibited.

Aerion claims that at speeds around Mach 1.2 a “sonic boom would, essentially, dissipate before reaching the ground.”

Another fledgling supersonic business jet manufacturer, Boston-based Spike Aerospace, calls no sonic booms the “holy grail of the next generation of aircraft.” It hopes to have its 18-passenger jets in the market by the early 2020s.

Even before these jets debut, NetJets is focusing on the growth potential of its long-haul business.

NetJets is looking to expand its long-haul business by offering new pricing incentive programs developed for Challenger 350 and Global shareowners.

NetJets hopes to capture a portion of the business that is currently going on commercial airlines or ad hoc charter by providing operational savings on 3.5-plus-hour flights for Challenger 350 shareholders who have purchased a minimum of 50-plus hours (1/16th of a share).

NetJets’ cross-country program is aimed at flyers travelling cross-country or to Europe on a super-midsize airplane like the Challenger 350. Currently, the average NetJets flight time is two hours, and the goal is to increase the number of hours of flight time.

NetJets and the Supersonic Market

The new supersonic business jets will fall into an interesting category of jets that will have a decided advantage over other private jets, but will be too expensive for most people to own outright.

While the supersonic business jet market offers opportunity, it also comes at a high cost, with the price of each jet at over $100 million.

That’s the perfect opening for fractional ownership companies to plot their growth.

Currently, Flexjet is the only company to place a firm order for the jets. In 2015, they ordered twenty of Aerion’s AS2 aircraft.

The Aerion AS2 is a three-engine jet and is larger than the originally conceived Aerion supersonic business jet. Fuselage length is 160 feet and maximum takeoff weight is 115,000 pounds. Minimum projected range is 4,750 nautical miles with the intention to achieve a range of more than 5,000 nautical miles.

The aircraft will have a 30-foot cabin in a two-lounge layout plus galley and both forward and aft lavatories, plus a baggage compartment that is accessible in-flight. Cabin dimensions widen from entryway to the aft seating area where height is six feet, two inches and cabin width is seven feet, three inches.

Carrying eight to 12 passengers, the AS2 has an intercontinental-capable range of 4,750 nautical miles at supersonic speed.

While, NetJets has yet to announce any orders, it’s clear that only the strongest of the fractional ownership companies will be able to compete in this market, giving them a clear advantage over smaller charter companies, and a major capability advantage over commercial airlines.

© 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.

Commentary: Self-Driving Auto Fatality Highlights New Era’s Need for Old Fashioned Insurance

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The first death caused by a self-driving car not only showed the current limits of the new technology, and also highlighted the continued need for traditional liability insurance.

While some have questioned whether self-driving cars will need to carry the traditional package of coverages, the accident shows that while self-driving cars will likely make our roads much safer, they will probably never be accident free. There are just too many variables.

Tesla Motors has stated that the May 7 accident in Williston, Florida, occurred because the Tesla Model S’s autopilot sensors did not pick up a white tractor-trailer that drove across the highway perpendicular to the vehicle.

In a statement from Tesla the company stated that, “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

Killed in the accident was Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio.

In addition to Tesla, a number of automobile manufacturers, including Mercedes, BMW, and Audi are moving ever closer to self-driving cars with a host of collision avoidance features that aim to respond quicker and more precisely than a human operator can.

However, Tesla’s statement stressed the limits of its current technology.

“It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot ‘is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,’ and that ‘you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to ‘Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.’ The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.”

The End of the Driver as We Know It?

Bryan Reimer, a research scientist in the MIT AgeLab and the Associate Director of The New England University Transportation Center, doesn’t think the driver is headed for extinction just yet, or even in the near future.

“These technologies show a lot of promise, however, you are not going to get into a black box and say ‘take me somewhere’ at the consumer level,” Professor Reimer said in 2015. “New technologies will reduce fatalities and accidents, but it won’t eliminate them.”

There’s Still a Need for the Human Operator

“Higher levels of automation in the vehicle will still have humans in a supervisory role,” Reimer adds, noting that the sophisticated auto-pilot in planes still has human operators even with planes separated by thousands of feet of airspace. “The more automation, the more skill and training you need,” professor Reimer explains, pointing out the extensive training that pilots undergo. In the case of cars, “we have no equivalent educational structure in place.”

He also adds that with the close spacing of cars, which can be in fractions of a meter, and the variability of road conditions, it make roadways “a much more dynamic environment and harder to predict.” With the enormous number of cars on the road, often coming from different directions, it makes “the speed of decision-making much tougher.”

Accidents Happen

In addition, any self-driving technology will have to coexist with human drivers for a long time to come. “If everything was automated, it would be much easier,” Reimer adds, noting that we a tendency to both “over-trust and under-trust technology.”

A Wide Variety of Insurable Risks

Self-driving cars won’t mean the elimination of hazards. For example, there were 250,000 flood damaged cars from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and in 2013 there were 699,594 cars reported stolen. Add to the mix everything from trees falling on cars, to vandalism, and there are not going to be many people that want to drive their new car without fire, theft and collision insurance.

There certainly will be changes in insurance needs, as changes in the ownership structures mean more car-sharing and ride-sharing scenarios.

The popularity of Uber and Lyft has already seen GEICO respond with ride-sharing insurance, and you can expect more policy innovations as insurers meet new consumer demands.

A Safer World that Still Needs Insurance

We live in a lot safer world than we did a hundred years ago. Commercial buildings have automated sprinkler systems and fire alarms, and homes have smoke detectors and burglar alarms, yet they both still have fires and break-ins, and they still need insurance.

It’s likely that in 2030 your car will still need insurance too.

© 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.

Commentary: Is a Vote Against Bill Gates’s Berkshire Board Membership Getting Closer?

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Having Bill Gates on your board of directors would seem to be a plum thing for any corporation, and for Berkshire Hathaway it’s something they have enjoyed for the last twelve years since he was elected to the board in 2004.

However, according to a report in the Financial Times, UK-based asset management companies Legal & General Investment Management and Aberdeen Asset Management have announced they will vote against board members that have been serving more than fifteen years.

The move is no threat to Bill Gates at this time, but would impact three of Berkshire’s board members that have been serving for more than fifteen years.

Paul Lee, head of corporate governance at Aberdeen, feels that board members “go a bit stale” if they serve for an extended period.

The view that long-term board membership makes a board of directors to compliant and lacking in independence is at the heart of the move to create more turnover. Another issue that often cited is to foster more board diversity, which at most U.S. corporations is overwhelmingly male and white.

Berkshire Hathaway’s thirteen member board has three women, with the most recent one to join being Meryl Witmer, an investment fund manager for Eagle Capital Partners.

So, should you toss Bill Gates off your board after fifteen or twenty years because you have an arbitrary policy on the length of board membership?

Doesn’t make much sense to me.

Corporations should be looking for board members that provides the best advice and oversight. Berkshire’s board will play a key role in the selection and oversight of Warren Buffett’s successor. A deep knowledge and belief in Berkshire Hathaway’s corporate culture is one of the key things they can contribute. They also need to weigh the value of having stability, and in the case of Bill Gates, having a high-profile board member that gets listened to every time he comments, whether it is in the boardroom, or in the press.

© 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.

Commentary: Is Westar Energy the Next Acquisition for Berkshire Hathaway?

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

Kansas’s biggest utility, Westar Energy Inc., is looking for a buyer and Berkshire Hathaway Energy is rumored to be among the companies interested in the acquisition.

With a market cap of roughly $7 billion, Westar is in the same price range as NV Energy, which Berkshire acquired in December 2013 for $5.6 billion.

If Berkshire Hathaway Energy proves to be interested, it will reportedly face competing bids from Ameren Corporation, as well as an investor consortium that includes Borealis Infrastructure Management Inc. and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Ameren Corporation was created December 31, 1997 by the merger of Missouri’s Union Electric Company and the neighboring Central Illinois Public Service Company.

As for Berkshire Hathaway Energy, it has already partnered with Westar Energy on Prairie Wind Transmission, LLC, a 108-mile, 345-kilovolt high-capacity electrical transmission line in south-central Kansas that was completed in 2014.

Westar Energy would be a natural fit for both Berkshire Hathaway Energy and for Ameren.

Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican Energy Company currently serves customers in a 10,600 square miles area composed of Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Ameren’s service area in neighboring Missouri also fits well with Westar Energy, which provides power for approximately 687,000 customers in much of east and east-central Kansas.

© 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.

Commentary: Will Berkshire Ever Seal the Deal on USG?

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If ever there was a company that looks like the perfect fit for Berkshire Hathaway it would have to be USG–the leading manufacturer of gypsum wallboard. After all, Berkshire already owns insulation manufacturer Johns Manville, Acme Brick, and presently has a 41.91% stake in USG.

USG and Berkshire

Berkshire has a minority stake in USG that goes back to 2000, when it purchased 6.5 million shares, and later increased its holding during the nadir of the Great Recession.

In 2008, with the housing market imploding and lending all but frozen, Berkshire came to USG’s rescue with $300 million of convertible notes that paid Berkshire 10-percent interest. At the time, the boost in confidence that USG received from Warren Buffett’s financing helped the company avoid bankruptcy. Boost investor confidence it certainly did, and the day of the transaction USG’s stock soared 22-percent to $6.89 a share.

Five years later, in December 2013, Berkshire exchanged $243.8 million of the convertible notes for common stock, and with additional purchases, its stake in USG now makes it the company’s single largest shareholder.

USG is a solid earner with a Price/Book of 2.16, a P/E of only 3.73, and EPS of $6.72. The stock currently pays no dividend and USG has stated they have no plans to do so. USG does carry a substantial amount of debt, which as of December 31, 2014, totaled $2.209 billion.

Wallboard Numbers Are Up

So, is now the time for Berkshire to fully bring USG into the Berkshire family of companies? Demand for gypsum wallboard is up. According to the Gypsum Association, a not-for-profit trade association, roughly 21.8 billion square feet of gypsum board were shipped in 2014. This was an increase of approximately 4% from 20.9 billion square feet in 2013. USG’s share of the gypsum board market in the U.S was approximately 26% in 2014, basically unchanged from 2013.

The Chinese Drywall Scandal

As an American manufacturer, USG has been a beneficiary of the Chinese drywall scandal that came to a head in 2009. Imported wallboard from China that had high sulfur content brought reports of fumes that created upper respiratory problems, and the market for wallboard from China was hit hard. Thousands of homes in Florida and other states needed to have their wallboard ripped out and replaced.

About USG

In 1902, 30 independent gypsum rock and plaster manufacturing companies merged to form the United States Gypsum Company. Over more than a century, USG has been issued 1,100 patents for its products. In addition to wallboard, the company is a leading manufacturer of acoustical panel and specialty ceiling systems. The company has 34 manufacturing plants in the U.S., and has roughly 9,000 employees in more than 30 countries.

USG’s a true market leader with a 26% market share of the U.S. gypsum wallboard market. It is followed by National Gypsum at 21%, and Georgia-Pacific at 16%. It has an even more commanding 50% share of the joint compounds market.

Time to Pull the Trigger?

The Chicago-based company has seen its ups and downs, including three bankruptcies. The last bankruptcy was in July 25, 2001 under Chapter 11 in order to deal with a mountain of asbestos litigation costs related to asbestos containing joint compounds. The establishment of the The United States Gypsum Asbestos Personal Injury Settlement Trust put the company’s asbestos woes in the rear-view mirror, and its stock price reflects it.

Also on the upside is the extensive cost cutting the company has done over the past decade. USG has closed high-cost manufacturing plants, and used salaried workforce reductions and other cost reductions to trim an additional $22 million to $28 million annually. In all, its cost reductions have totaled $500 million.

With a market cap of just over $3.66 billion ($1.46 billion of which is already owned by Berkshire), USG is a great fit for Berkshire if it wants to gobble up the whole thing. USG would fit nicely into the Marmon Group of companies, which include a host of companies that supply the construction industry.

So, will Berkshire pull the trigger? A two billion dollar deal is not a big one for Berkshire these days, and with new housing starts hitting a nine-year high, and slowly heading back towards the historical levels of 1.5 million starts a year, USG looks like a solid company worth adding to the Berkshire 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.

Commentary: Never Mind the Stock Price, Berkshire’s Booming!

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

With Berkshire Hathaway’s stock price down roughly -12% in 2015, you would think that the conglomerate was suffering a series of major setbacks. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Berkshire just reported record year that brought a 6.4% gain in book value, and saw profits skyrocket 32% in the fourth quarter.

Earnings per share in Q4 were $3,333 (up from $2,529 for the same period in 2014), which beat Wall Street estimates by a hair.

Nervous shareholders may be feeling a little bit better these days, as Berkshire’s stock price year-to-date has been steady (if flat) while the S&P 500 is down -4.59%, and they should rest assured that better days are ahead.

You want to be nervous? Just look at Chesapeake Energy (CHK), and its plunging stock price in 2015, if you want to see a stock really worth panicking about. Chesapeake saw its stock down a precipitous -77.5%, which was related to a very real drop in energy prices that is bringing bankruptcies to a number of players in the sector.

Berkshire on the other hand is flourishing, and it’s only getting stronger with the newly completed acquisitions of aerospace manufacturer Precision Castparts, and battery-maker Duracell.

The stock market is just that, a market, and it is not always logical—at least not in the short term.

While the disconnect between Berkshire’s profits and its languishing stock price draws lots of sniping from pundits, it should be remembered that a stock can’t wander too far from its fundamentals forever. Eventually, it’s going to move up or down based on the actual value of the company.

As Benjamin Graham famously said, “’In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”

© 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.

Commentary: For Berkshire Hathaway, Precision Castparts is Easy as One, Two, Three

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

Now that Berkshire Hathaway has acquired aerospace manufacturer Precision Castparts, exactly what has Berkshire got for all its billions?

One: Berkshire gets a fast-growing company. Precision Castparts’ annual growth rate has been 23% over the past ten years.

Two: Berkshire gets a company with a wide moat, as the costs associated with the aerospace industry create high barriers to entry.

Three: Berkshire gets a company that will benefit from the explosive growth in commercial air travel in India and China over the next two decades.

About Precision Castparts

Precision Castparts manufactures structural investment castings, forged components, and airfoil castings for aircraft engines and industrial gas turbines. It is a world-leading producer of complex forgings and high-performance alloys for aerospace, power generation, and general industrial applications, and its customers include Airbus, Boeing, GE, and Rolls-Royce, among others.

With annual revenues of approximately $10 billion, the company reported $2.412 billion of revenue in the second quarter of 2015. Of that revenue, 72% came from aerospace, 15 % came from power, and 13% came from general industrial and other sales. Operating margins in the last quarter were a healthy 25.7%. The company has a 15% return-on-equity.

The company has 29,350 employees at 157 manufacturing plants.

Strong Management in Place

Unlike both Heinz and Kraft, where 3G Capital took on the duties of replacing senior management, Berkshire is lokking to leave Precision Castparts’ management in place. After all, traditionally that has been one of Berkshire’s acquisition criteria, stating, “Management in place (we can’t supply it).”

In the case Precision Castparts, the company has a strong leader in CEO Mark Donegan, who during his thirteen years at the helm, has led the company to an 11-fold return. Among his strengths, Donegan has a keen eye for the type of “bolt-on” acquisitions that Buffett likes.

An Area Growth for Berkshire

With the Great Recession now in the rear view mirror, airlines are placing large orders to replace aging fleets. These orders, which are primarily to Airbus and Boeing, benefit Precision Castparts as it supplies key components to both the A320neo and 737 MAX.

Doubling the Market

While Precision Castparts manufactures everything high-pressure blades for power generators to medical prosthetics, it is complex metal components for the aerospace industry that not only brings in the majority of its revenues, but also offers solid opportunities for growth.

As large as the commercial market for jets already is, it is expected to double by 2030 due to strong demand from India and China. By 2030, the Asia-Pacific market is expected to grow to 30% of all world-wide passenger mileage.

Boeing predicts that 38,050 new aircraft with a total value of $5.6 trillion will be needed in the next two decades. Roughly 10,500 commercial jets are needed just to replace fleets of old, fuel-guzzling aircraft that are aging out of service.

Locking in a Customer

With the needs of the aerospace market highly specialized, whether its engine turbine blades, or the large wing ribs for the Airbus’s giant A380, there is very little company switching among airplane manufacturers. Witness its relationships with both engine makers Pratt & Whitney and GE that go back over 45 years.

As Berkshire plots its course in the 21st century, it is assured of solid growth in an industry that is highly technical, needs manufacturing on a mammoth scale, and has high cost barriers to entry for potential competitors.

© 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.