Category Archives: Commentary

Commentary: Strong 2017 Sales for Duracell Show the Continued Utility of the Alkaline Battery

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Berkshire Hathaway’s battery-maker Duracell, which it acquired from Procter & Gamble in 2016, is proving the continued value of tried and true alkaline batteries.

While much of the focus in the press these days is on lithium-ion and nickel-metal-hydride batteries, and the search for batteries with more exotic chemistries, the trusty alkaline battery, which was first patented by Union Carbide in 1960, has continued to be a big sales winner.

According to reports, Duracell’s third quarter sales rose 6 percent year-to-year from 2016, as the demand for alkaline batteries continues to grow.

Sales of Duracell batteries in the U.S. alone topped $1 billion in 2016, eclipsing its major competitor brands, Eveready and Rayovac, combined sales.

Alkaline Batteries Essential During Disasters

The 2017 hurricane season that devastated the Caribbean, Florida and Houston, Texas, showed that rechargeable batteries are of limited use when the power grid goes off-line for weeks or months. They also have the downside of energy loss when stored long term. Durable alkaline batteries, which have a storage life of over 10 years, have an important place in helping people prepare for and recover from disasters.

It was a point that Duracell was able to make through its own disaster relief teams.

In Puerto Rico, Duracell’s PowerForward teams have been on the ground across the island. Its emergency response teams have given out tens of thousands of batteries, and provide charging stations through their specially outfitted vehicles. The vehicles are delivering more than $1 million worth of batteries, making this the program’s largest deployment to date.

Duracell’s PowerForward fleet consists of five trucks, custom-designed to handle specific disasters, and strategically stationed to get to any U.S. location within 24 hours. Each one is equipped with mobile charging stations and stocked with thousands of Duracell batteries.

In Puerto Rico, Duracell deployed two of its highest capacity vehicles. The Heavy Haulers pull trailers that help them transport over 100,000 AA batteries – more than any other vehicle in the fleet. Normally, one is stationed in San Francisco, California while another is kept in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. These trucks specialize in handling earthquakes, floods, landslides, wildfires, hurricanes and winter storms.

The Battery for Everyday Use

While natural disasters draw attention to the continued usefulness of alkaline batteries, for most of us it is their continued utility for more mundane needs, such as toys, electronic devices, and smoke detectors where their low cost, long storage life, and durability win out.

And Berkshire’s got the sales revenue to prove it.

© 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.

Commentary: What Does Sale of DaVita Medical Group Mean for Berkshire Hathaway?

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The news that health services company Optum is purchasing DaVita Medical Group, a subsidiary of DaVita Inc., for $4.9 billion may bring a windfall for Berkshire Hathaway.

Berkshire has a $2.27 billion stake in DaVita Inc., which works out to roughly 22.03% of the company’s market cap and approximately 23.57% of the institutional ownership, and news of the sale gave Berkshire an immediate paper profit boost of $230 million.

The longer term prospect is good for Berkshire, as well.

According to DaVita, the company plans to use the proceeds from the transaction for significant stock repurchases over the one to two years following the closing of the transaction, as well as to repay debt and for general corporate purposes.

“Following this transaction, DaVita will continue to be a leader in population health management, with a focus on our U.S. and international kidney care businesses,” DaVita CEO Kent Thiry said. “We also expect to pursue other investments in health care services outside of kidney care.

Berkshire has long been rumored to be interested in acquiring DaVita, and entered into a standstill agreement with Davita in May 2014, pledging not purchase more than 25% of the company.

And while Berkshire doesn’t reveal whether Warren Buffett, or his portfolio managers Ted Weschler and Todd Combs, purchased or sold a particular security, the push to acquire shares in DaVita is generally credited to Ted Weschler.

It looks like he was right on this one.

© 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: Akzo Nobel and Axalta Coatings Merger Would Benefit Berkshire Hathaway

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A possible merger between Akzo Nobel NV and Axalta Coating Systems would give Berkshire Hathaway a major stake in a world-leader in the coatings market.

The Dutch coatings company Akzo Nobel is reportedly in the discussion stage with Philadelphia-based Axalta on a deal that could create a $30 billion coatings behemoth. The discussions have been described as a “merger of equals’ even though Axalta is the smaller of the two companies.

One of the benefits for Akzo Nobel would be to make it too large for takeover by other coasting companies, including PPG Industries.

The potential merger has already benefited Berkshire, as shares in Axalta soared 17% to Friday’s closing price of $33.15 on news of the discussions.

Berkshire currently owns 23,324,000 shares of Axalta, which is approximately 9.59% of the company, and has a value of roughly $745,668,263. 20 million of its stake was purchased in April of 2015 from The Carlyle Group for an aggregate purchase price of $560 million, or $28.00 per share.

Axalta was founded in 1866 as Herberts, the original producer of Standox paint products. Spun off of DuPont Performance Coatings in 2013, it was sold to The Carlyle Group and renamed Axalta Coating Systems. Today the company is a leader in coatings for commercial vehicles.

When Berkshire took its stake in Axalta back in 2015, the company looked like a possible merger candidate with Berkshire’s Lubrizol. However, Berkshire’s never been shy about owning significant minority stakes in companies if they are purchased at favorable prices.

Such is the case with Axalta.

© 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: Could the Door Open Again for a Berkshire Acquisition of Oncor?

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Berkshire Hathaway’s ongoing interest in acquiring Oncor Electric Delivery might still have a chance, if only a faint one.

Sempra Energy, which this August outbid Berkshire for Oncor, is running into some of the same resistance that torpedoed the last two attempts to acquire what is the largest distribution and transmission system in Texas.

Sempra’s $9.45 billion bid won out after Berkshire refused to get into a bidding war and stood firm on its $9 billion all-cash consideration that implied an equity value of approximately $11.25 billion for 100% of Oncor.

Now, San Diego-based Sempra has to gain the approval of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, and Commissioner Ken Anderson is raising concerns on the amount of money Sempra will have to raise in order to finance the deal and the credit rating of the company.

The PUC has to rule on whether the Sepra deal is in the public’s interest, and on October 5, Moody’s Investors Service issued a comment titled “Sempra Energy: Revised structure for EFH/Oncor acquisition reduces complexity but transaction remains credit negative.”

Credit negative is not the case with Berkshire. Certainly, financing a deal is not a problem for Berkshire, as it is sitting on over $100 billion in cash that it has been hard-pressed to invest as of late.

Commissioner Anderson’s concern is a valid one, as Oncor has been mired in the decade long financial morass that found its parent company Energy Future Holdings Corp. in bankruptcy after being loaded with $40 billion in debt from a leveraged buy-out engineered by private equity firms KKR & Co. and TPG.

While it’s a longshot that Berkshire can get another shot at Oncor, perhaps a very long shot, the one thing Texas ratepayers need at this point is financial stability.

© 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: It’s All in the Cards Monday for Berkshire’s Oncor Bid

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Monday’s hearing before Judge Christopher Sontchi in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, could decide the fate of Berkshire Hathaway’s $9 billion bid for Oncor Electric Delivery. It’s the latest round of a high stakes poker game that has seen all the players trying to strengthen their hands.

For Berkshire, the key to whether it wins the right to acquire the utility may not just be whether Warren Buffett can prevail over Paul Singer’s Elliot Management, but also the judge’s response to a third bid offering $9.45 billion, which is said to be coming from Sempra Energy of San Diego.

Paul Singer and Elliot Management’s strong hand comes from its status as the largest owner of every class of impaired debt. The hedge fund recently purchased $60 million of leveraged buyout notes to cement that status. And, while Singer has talked of putting together a bid to top Buffett’s offer, he could just as well side with Sempra’s offer.

Another Player Comes to the Table

Sempra Energy could have a strong hand of its own, as it is a credible bidder. Sempra was created in 1998 by a merger of parent companies of two long-established, and highly respected, investor-owned utilities — Los Angeles-based Pacific Enterprises, the parent company of Southern California Gas Co., and Enova Corporation, the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric by a merger of parent companies of two long-established, and highly respected, investor-owned utilities — Los Angeles-based Pacific Enterprises, the parent company of Southern California Gas Co., and Enova Corporation, the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric. Today it has 16,000 employees and serves 32 million customers worldwide.

Is the Key the Support of the Stakeholders?

Berkshire’s aces come from an approach that has focused on lining up support from the stakeholders that receive power from Oncor. Five key Texas stakeholder groups have all endorsed Berkshire’s bid.

On Friday, Berkshire Hathaway Energy announced that the Staff of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, Office of Public Utility Counsel, Steering Committee of Cities Served by Oncor, the Texas Industrial Energy Consumers and the IBEW Local 69 have entered into a settlement agreement with Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

The agreement resolved all issues in Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s acquisition of Oncor.

By entering into the settlement, the parties agreed that the acquisition is in the public interest, meets the statutory standards and will bring substantial benefits to Oncor and its customers. The parties to the agreement ask the Public Utility Commission of Texas to approve the acquisition consistent with the enhanced commitments in the agreement.

Will Berkshire Raise its Offer?

Both Greg Abel, Berkshire Hathaway Energy chairman and CEO, and Warren Buffett, have stated the company will stand firm on its $9 billion offer to acquire 80% of Oncor and will not be increasing its offer. Berkshire will collect a $270 termination fee if its offer is rejected.

Berkshire is hoping that in the end Judge Sontchi is persuaded by the support of 12 key stakeholder groups across Texas for Berkshire’s bid.

“The strong coalition of stakeholders consistently express the appropriate concerns and necessary protections for Oncor and its customers,” said Abel. “We stand ready to deliver on and exceed the regulatory commitments

In any case, Monday is looking like the decisive day in the fate of Oncor. Like a poker game of Texas Hold ‘Em, all the cards will be on the table.

© 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: Familiar Territory, Berkshire Wins if it Loses

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Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway look to be on the verge of winning Oncor Electric Delivery Co., a Texas-sized prize it has been chasing for the last three years, as the utility struggled under bankruptcy proceedings.

Now, all that stands in its way is a last minute bid by Paul Singer and his hedge fund Elliot Management. The hedge fund is the largest creditor in Oncor’s parent company, Energy Future Holdings Corporation.

Singer scored a recent success when Elliot Management won a delay in finalizing Berkshire’s takeover while it puts together its own offer, reportedly a $9.3 billion bid that would top Berkshire’s $9 billion deal.

The delay moves the bankruptcy court date from August 10 to August 21.

In addition to winning approval from the bankruptcy judge, any deal put together by Berkshire Hathaway or Elliott Management has to pass muster with the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), the agency that regulates the state’s electric and telecommunication utilities, and must rule that any approved acquisition is in the public interest.

The PUC has already rejected two prior takeover bids for Oncor, including last year’s bid from Hunt Consolidated Inc., and April’s bid from NextEra Energy Inc. The failed deals opened the door for Berkshire’s bid.

Berkshire, which entered the energy business in 1999, has built one of the largest utility holding companies, with $85 billion in assets and $17.4 billion in annual operation revenue, as of 2016.

Unlike many failed attempts at merging utilities, Berkshire has repeatedly acquired plum assets, including MidAmerican Energy, PacifiCorp, and NV Energy, and by allowing them to retain their earnings, made them stronger than they were before acquisition.

This is not something that escapes the PUC as it considers who should supply power to 10 million Texas residents, and a host of major manufacturers that need electricity at the lowest possible rates.

As Tony Bennett, president of the Association of Texas Manufacturers, pointed out in a recent editorial, Texas companies in the Oncor service area don’t have a choice of electricity suppliers, so whoever wins the bid has to be focussed on reliable service and low rates, not just the highest return for investors. This is where Berkshire Hathaway Energy excels.

Still, like so many deals that Buffett strikes, he wins even if he loses.

What’s a Hundred or Two Million Between Friends?

Termination fees are familiar territory for Buffett, who walked away with $175 million in 2008 when he refused to get in a bidding war for Constellation Energy. French energy company EDF doubled his offer, but a pile of cash that ran into the hundred millions suited him just fine for his three month pursuit of the Baltimore-based energy wholesaler.

This time, if the Oncor deal falls through, Berkshire will receive a $270 million termination fee.

Not a bad way to lose at all.

But, I wouldn’t bet on Berkshire losing this one.

© 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: Did the KCC Open the Door for Berkshire to Make a Bid for Westar Energy?

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On April 19, the Kansas Corporation Commission torpedoed the planned acquisition of Westar Energy by Great Plains Energy.

Westar is the largest electric utility in Kansas and the combined companies would have served approximately 950,000 Kansas customers.

The KCC rejected the merger as bad for consumers, and noted what they called an excessive purchase price, requiring GPE to take on significant debt. They noted that the $4.9 billion acquisition premium exceeded GPE’s $4.8 billion market capitalization by $100 million.

With the merger dead, the big question is whether it opens the door for Berkshire Hathaway Energy to make another run at Westar Energy. BHE was in the running the last time around.

Westar Energy is a Natural Fit for Berkshire

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.

In addition to just adding to Berkshire’s energy assets, the acquisition makes sense geographically. BHE has already partnered with Westar on Prairie Wind Transmission, LLC, a 108-mile, 345-kilovolt high-capacity electrical transmission line in south-central Kansas that was completed in 2014.

If BHE proves to be interested, it may 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.

Both Ameren and the CPPIB were interested in Westar before the Great Plains merger was signed, and they may again return to the bidding.

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

Unlike Great Plains Energy, BHE’s financial strength may enable it to overcome the KCC’s concerns, and add another valuable energy asset to Berkshire’s portfolio.

© 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: Could Pepsi become a Berkshire Brand?

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It‘s no secret that Warren Buffett is partial to Coca-Cola, after all he not only drinks 5 Cokes a day, but Berkshire Hathaway owns 400 million shares of Coca-Cola stock valued at roughly $16.5 billion.

“I’m one quarter Coca-Cola,” Warren Buffett has joked.

However, with Berkshire and 3G Capital having been rebuffed in their $143 billion bid for Unilever Plc, one important analyst thinks PepsiCo, Inc. might be a logical target for the expansion of Kraft Heinz.

Pablo Zuanic, the Senior Analyst covering the Food, Beverage, and Household/Personal Care sectors for Susquehanna Financial Group, thinks Pepsi might quench Berkshire and 3G’s thirst for acquisitions.

Zuanic’s bona fides as an analyst have seen him recognized by Institutional Investor as the #1 Latin American Food & Beverage analyst for two consecutive years, the #4 US Food Analyst, and the #3 US Food Analyst in their Alpha Poll of Hedge Funds.

PepsiCo, Inc., which has a market capitalization of almost $161 billion, not only has one of the most popular soft drink brands in the world, but also owns snack-maker Frito-Lay and juice company Tropicana.

Zuanic recently raised his Pepsi price target from $118 to $132 on speculation that Kraft Heinz could team with Anheuser-Busch for the bid. The stock is currently just over $112 a share.

It seems logical that a bid for PepsiCo would see the beverages added to Anheuser-Busch, and the snack foods added to Kraft Heinz.

Zuanic notes that in his opinion Pepsi shares trade at a substantial discount when compared to Coca-Cola.

“PEP shares have lost visibility and now trade at a 25% discount to KO on apples-to-apples comps.” writes Zuanic.

While a Berkshire and 3G Capital bid for Pepsi might be a possibility, don’t expect to hear Buffett say “I’m one quarter Pepsi,” anytime soon.

© 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: Not All Rotten Apples for Berkshire in Nevada

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There’s no doubt that the last few years have been a surprisingly rough time for Berkshire Hathaway’s NV Energy in Nevada.

One the one front, it has been in a battle with the roof-top solar industry over the hearts, minds, and wallets of retail customers.

On the other front has been the casino industry and its push for cheaper commercial power for its ubiquitous neon and blazing light bulbs.

Losing customers is not the path to grow a business, and when in October 2016 both MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts paid tens of millions to exit the NV Energy power grid, it looked like the shiny red apple of NV Energy that Berkshire acquired for $5.6 billion in cash in 2013 might have a few worms in it.

So, it’s nice to get some good news that Berkshire has signed a major customer to a new solar power agreement. And that customer is a high-profile customer, Apple.

NV Energy and Apple reached an agreement in January to build 200 megawatts of additional solar energy in Nevada by early 2019.

The projects will support Apple’s renewable energy needs for its Reno data center.

NV Energy is filing an application with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) to enter into a power purchase agreement (PPA) for the solar power plant. The project will bring NV Energy’s total to more than 529 megawatts of new solar resources in construction in Nevada or under review for approval.

This is in addition to the 491 megawatts of universal solar resources in Nevada currently serving NV Energy customers. Apple will also dedicate up to 5 megawatts of power to NV Energy’s future subscription solar program for residential and commercial customers.

“We are proud to play a role in helping Apple meet their energy needs with Nevada’s abundant solar resource,” said Paul Caudill, president and CEO of NV Energy. “In partnership with our customers, we continue to develop a more balanced fuel mix in a way that benefits the local economy by providing hundreds of jobs for Nevadans, particularly those in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 357 and 396, and advances the state’s policy goals.”

“Investing in innovative clean energy sources is vital to Apple’s commitment to reaching, and maintaining, 100 percent renewable energy across all our operations,” said Apple’s vice president for environment, policy and social initiatives Lisa Jackson. “Our partnership with NV Energy helps assure our customers their iMessages, FaceTime video chats and Siri inquiries are powered by clean energy, and supports efforts to offer the choice of green energy to Nevada residents and businesses.”

© 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: Warren Buffett Keeps Getting Valentines from Phillips 66

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“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” wrote poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The same could be said by Warren Buffet when it comes to an energy sector company that is clearly dear to his heart.

If there is one company in the oil and gas sector that Warren Buffett especially loves, it is Houston-based Phillips 66, an energy manufacturing and logistics company with a portfolio of integrated businesses: Midstream, Chemicals, Refining, and Marketing and Specialties.

Back in early 2014, Berkshire swapped a large portion of its previous Phillips 66 position for the company’s chemical business unit, which was added to Berkshire’s specialty chemical maker Lubrizol.

“We were able to do that on a tax-advantage basis. We didn’t trade them because we didn’t like the stock,” Warren Buffett said at the time on CNBC’s Squawk Alley.

“I had always intended on coming back in, assuming that the price was right.”

By mid-2015, Buffett was back in and Berkshire revealed that it had accumulated 58 million shares of stock.

That position Has Only Grown

Buffett’s love of Phillips 66 has continued unabated, as he added to the position throughout 2016.

As of its last filing, Berkshire Hathaway now owns $6.4 billion of Phillips 66 stock, which works out to around 15.67% of the company. Berkshire is the largest institutional owner.

Why does Buffett love Phillips 66?

First of all, the company’s diversified businesses make it a leader in refining (it owns 13 refineries), marketing (it sells fuel In the U.S. under the Phillips 66, Conoco and 76 brands), and Midstream operations. Its Midstream operations gathers, processes, transports and markets natural gas, and transports, fractionates and markets natural gas liquids in the United States. Phillips 66 also manufactures and markets petrochemicals and plastics worldwide.

Phillips 66’s diversified businesses has given it relative stability in the face of recent slumps on crude oil prices, and the stock remained strong between 2014 and 2017.

With a current dividend yield of 3.22%, the stock has been pouring cash into Berkshire, much of it through positions held by its insurance company National Indemnity.

Rising Dividends

Buffett’s love of Phillips 66 is likely to continue. Back in 2015, the company’s dividend yielded between 1.9% and 2.7%. With most of the quarters paying dividends of 56 cents a share. Since May 2016, the dividends have moved up and it has paid 63 cents a quarter for the past four quarters.

A strong stock price and a fat dividend. What’s Warren Buffett not to love?

© 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.