Category Archives: Special Report

Special Report: Oil Volatility and the NTSB

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Shipments of Bakken Formation crude oil have brought billions in revenues to BNSF Railway, and new opportunities to Berkshire Hathaway’s tank car manufacturer UTLX. It has also put Berkshire and BNSF in the middle of disputes over the safety of these shipments and the source of various hazards.

On one side are environmentalists and communities along rail lines that have cited volatility concerns as to the flash point of Bakken Formation crude oil, claiming it is a special hazard as compared to the transportation of other crude oils. On the other side is the AFPM, a trade association representing 400 refining and petrochemical companies, which is suing over BNSF Railway’s $1,000 per tank car surcharge in a battle to keep costs low in producing crude oil from the Bakken Formation.

BNSF’s surcharge is designed to incentivize shippers to move to tank cars that meet new Department of Transportation standards. Technically, BNSF is not calling its $1,000 per tank car charge a surcharge, rather it says it has raised its rates and is discounting rates for shippers using new DOT 117/TC-117 tank cars. A court will decide whether that holds up and certainly key to that may be whether Bakken crude is more hazardous than other cargo.

The AFPM has disputed that Bakken crude oil is more hazardous a cargo than other crude oil, or other chemicals hauled by railroads. AFPM’s position is that the surcharge on tank cars ignores the root cause of derailments, which they assert is tied to poor track conditions and human error.

Will the Surcharge Stand Up?

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, AFPM stated that “Any effort to enhance rail safety must begin with addressing track integrity and human factors, which account for sixty percent of derailments. Investment in accident prevention would result in the greatest reduction in the risk of rail incidents.”

Now, the head of the National Transit Safety Board has weighed in on the issue.

NTSB’s Christopher Hart Dismisses Volatility Concerns

Concerns that the oil from the Bakken Formation are of higher volatility and create a greater risk in the case of accidents were downplayed in recent statements by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Christopher Hart.

Hart, in a radio appearance on radio station KFGO-AM in Fargo, North Dakota, stated that the NTSB’s accident investigations of rail accidents found that Bakken crude volatility isn’t a significant issue.

“The biggest contributor to a large explosion or fire is how much product is released, rather than the volatility of the product,” Hart said.

The Department of Transportation is working to reduce the amount of product of all types released in a rail accident by mandating new tank car standards that  require jacketed and thermally insulated shells of 9/16-inch steel, full-height half-inch-thick head shields, and re-closeable pressure relief valves and rollover protection for top fittings.

The Department of Energy Report

A U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report in March 2015 looked at the volatility of light sweet crude from the Bakken Formation in comparison to other crude oils in the same category. The report was prepared by Sandia National Laboratories with the assistance of a technical team that included the University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center.

In its report, the DOE found no link between crude oil properties and the chance or severity of a fire caused by a derailment. Instead, the report found that the kinetic energy created by the derailment was a larger factor in the size of a fire than the volatility of the crude being transported, the researchers said.

Is Bakken Crude More Volatile?

As for the volatility of crude oil from the Bakken Formation, Turner, Mason & Company conducted a study in 2014 for the North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC) which found that Bakken crude “appears to be generally similar in vapor pressure and light ends content to most light crude oils, and there are certainly crudes, particularly those produced from tight oil formations, which are higher in those parameters.”

Congress Looks at Bakken Crude

The U.S. Congress took up the issue of the safety of transporting crude oil from the Bakken Formation last year.

In September 2014, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held an energy and oversight hearing with experts from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Department of Energy, ND Petroleum Council, Turner, Mason & Company, and the Syracuse Fire Department. The hearing examined the characteristics and behavior of crude oil from the Bakken region.

At the hearing, officials testified that the increased risk of an incident has to do with the increased volume of product being transported and not the volatility characteristics of Bakken crude.

BNSF’s Role as a Common Carrier

As a common carrier, BNSF Railway can’t refuse under most circumstances to carry cargo, despite the potential loss or damage presented by the cargo.

And, while BNSF’s growing role as a mobile crude oil pipeline has meant billions in new revenue, it also has presented new risks in regards to fire in the event of derailment, collision, or other accidents.

BNSF has responded by pushing for safer tank cars, and has boosted training for both its crews and emergency responders in communities along its routes.

New Tank Cars and Retrofitting Existing Fleets

Under Enhanced Standards for New and Existing Tank Cars for use in an HHFT—New tank cars constructed after October 1, 2015, are required to meet the new DOT Specification 117 design or performance criteria.

The standards will require replacing the entire fleet of DOT-111 tank cars for Packing Group I, which covers most crude shipped by rail, within three years and all non-jacketed CPC-1232s, in the same service, within approximately five years.

An HHFT (high-hazard flammable trains) is defined as a train carrying 20 or more tank carloads of flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol.

The need for replacement and retrofitted tank cars impacts a wide-range of shippers that transport by rail. Those shippers include shippers of LPG, oil producers and refiners, and ethanol producers that own their own tank cars or lease them from leasing companies. It also impacts BNSF Railway’s own fleet of tank cars.

Retrofitting existing tank cars is an important bridge to safer shipping of flammable liquids, as the current backlog of new tank car orders sits at a record 52,000 units.

A Significant Portion of BNSF’s Revenue

One thing that’s not in dispute is how significant the transportation of volatile liquids is to BNSF. Petroleum, Ethanol and LPG make up roughly 7-percent of BNSF’s freight hauling. In 2014, BNSF moved enough petroleum to fill the gas tanks of 350 million vehicles.

Another thing that’s not in dispute is that the move for safer tank cars benefits Berkshire’s UTLX, a manufacturer and retrofitter of tank cars that has been hiring and opening new facilities due to the unprecedented demand.

Berkshire has also been expanding the number of tank cars that it owns.

Berkshire’s Marmon Holdings, Inc., the unit of Berkshire Hathaway that owns UTLX, acquired substantially all of GE Railcar Services’ owned fleet of railroad tank cars as of September 30, 2015. Roughly 25,000 full-service and net-leased tank cars are covered by the transaction.

Still One More Dispute in the Wings

With NTSB’s Christopher Hart dismissing the volatility issue of Bakken crude as an extraordinary hazard, BNSF’s dispute with the AFPM may mean it is now in a weaker position to justify its tank car surcharge, which is something that could potentially cost Berkshire and BNSF millions down the road.

© 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.

Special Report: Breakthrough Aims to Change the Way You Drink Milk

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Go into any quick service restaurant and you will find machines dispensing soda and noncarbonated beverages, such as lemonade or fruit punch, but don’t expect them to be dispensing milk. The problem is that milk ships in bulky cartons, must be kept refrigerated, and has a limited shelf-life. It’s a problem that has vexed dairy producers and retailers alike.

That’s All About to Change

Cornelius, Inc. and Dairyvative Technologies, a Wisconsin-based developer of a patented process that allows pasteurized milk to be concentrated to a liquid that has one seventh of its original volume, are looking to change the way milk is shipped, stored, and dispensed.

Cornelius has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Dairyvative that makes Cornelius the exclusive provider of equipment to hold and dispense the concentrated milk provided by dairies using Dairyvative’s patented SEVENx technology.

One of the newest members of the Berkshire Hathaway family, Cornelius was acquired for $1.1 billion on January 2, 2014, by Berkshire’s wholly owned Marmon Group.

With 4,500 employees, and manufacturing facilities in seven countries, spanning North America, Europe, and China, Cornelius provides beverage dispensing technology to leading food service and retail companies, including PepsiCo, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Yum, Starbucks, and Burger King.

All of these companies and more are potential customers for Dairyvative’s new technology.

A Whole New Way to Store Milk

Dairyvative claims its SEVENx technology “allows pasteurized milk to be concentrated to a liquid that has one seventh of its original volume. The lactose-free end product is shelf-stable without refrigeration for up to 6 months. The process also keeps milk proteins intact, maintaining nutrient and flavor profiles.”

Unlike milk treated with Ultra-high temperature processing (UHT), SEVENx technology has relatively minimal thermal treatment by comparison.

“I have been working on this process for 28 years,” said Dr. Charles E. Sizer, founder and CEO of Dairyvative Technologies. “There have been a lot of hurdles in maintaining the functionality and freshness of the product.”

One of the first markets for the SEVENx technology will be in quick service restaurants, where using Cornelius’s dispensing technology, the new dispenser will allow individual consumers the choice of adding several different flavors to the milk. Cornelius’ technology also enables the milk to be carbonated during dispensing.

Looking for a World Leader

“We knew Cornelius is the leader in dispensing products, so we approached them and signed an exclusive deal,” Dr. Sizer explained.

While Dairyvative touts the concentrated milk as having the “natural fresh taste of milk,” it does note that it is slightly sweeter due to the conversion of lactose into the sugars glucose and galactose.

Dairyvative also says that the cost for dairy processors to produce the concentrated milk is low, as much of the equipment that processors need they already have in place. They also note that the long shelf-life means less spoilage and returns, lower transportation costs, and environmental benefits such as less electricity needed for milk storage.

Reducing the Carbon Footprint

Reducing the carbon footprint is very important to Dr. Sizer. He notes that currently it takes 2.05 kilos of carbon to bring 1 kilo (1 liter) of milk to the consumer.

“We can reduce that by 20%-30% right out of the gate,” Dr. Sizer said. “And by locating in close proximity to the dairy, we can reduce it even further.”

Expect to see the U.S. rollout of the new milk product in 2016, and Dairyvative is already in discussion with multi-national dairies for international markets.

© 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.

Special Report: What is Berkshire Getting With Duracell?

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On July 29, 2015, leading battery maker Duracell, which has been a unit of Procter & Gamble, will become wholly owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

The deal will bring Berkshire both a top consumer brand and a mountain of tax-free cash.

While Berkshire had announced that Duracell would become part of its Marmon Group of companies, a Marmon spokesman assured me that it will be an independent company that will report directly to Berkshire management.

What Kind of Company is Duracell?

Berkshire is acquiring the market leader in batteries for the home and workplace. In fact, despite P&G having planned to sell-off the unit, Duracell’s market share has grown from 48% in 2012 to 56% in 2014.

The company has highly recognizable brands that consumers in home and work settings are willing to pay more for than private label store brands. According to the company, Duracell’s CopperTop® and Quantum® command the highest average percent of spend among battery brands with 33% and 16%, respectively.

Combined, the two product lines account for close to 50% of the market.

Duracell’s growth has come at the expense of competitors Energizer and Rayovac.

Energizer has seen its market share shrink from 40% in 2012 to 36% in 2014, and Rayovac, which is a much smaller player, has seen its market share drop from 8% in 2012 to just 5% in 2014.

The total alkaline battery market in the U.S. alone is roughly $2.2 billion a year, with Duracell just over $858 million in alkaline batteries sales a year, or roughly 43% of the market.

Of the away-from-home market, healthcare/medical uses $70 million worth of batteries annually, followed closely by manufacturing, which consumes approximately $61 million worth of batteries annually.

A Changing Market

Offices and other workplaces use batteries more than ever. For decades, flashlights where the primary drivers of battery usage in away-from-home settings, but that has changed greatly in just the past few years. According to a report by Kline & Company, wireless devices, including computer mice and keyboards, topped the list in 2014 in the demand for batteries. Wireless mice were the number one use for batteries followed by clocks and remote controls. The traditional flashlight has fallen to number seven, just above smoke alarms.

A Growing Market

At the time of the announcement of Berkshire’s acquisition of Duracell, many analysts downplayed the battery market’s potential for growth. I believe that view is short-sighted, as the away-from-home battery market has not only grown 2% from 2012 to 2014, but Duracell’s share of that market has continued to grow. Batteries are more relevant than ever with the number of wireless devices proliferating.

A Proven Name, A Trusted Brand

Warren Buffett loves quality brands, be they Coca-Cola, Heinz, or Kraft. He knows that consumer brand loyalty is essential for retaining market share in commodity businesses. In Duracell, Berkshire’s getting the most trusted name in batteries.

The 2015 BrandSpark Most Trusted Awards winners for Consumer Packaged Goods brands, which were voted by more than 80,000 American consumers, chose Duracell as the most trusted battery brand.

But Wait, There’s More!

Berkshire’s not only acquiring the market leader for batteries, it’s also receiving a Mount Everest-sized bundle of tax-free cash.

Berkshire’s $4.7 billion stake in Procter & Gamble came from an original investment in Gillette of only $600 million. In cashing out its position, Berkshire not only gets control of Duracell, but Duracell has been recapitalized by P&G with $1.7 billion in cash. This allows Berkshire a transfer of cash that is three times its original investment in Gillette, and the entire $4.7 billion transaction incurs no capital gains taxes.

For Berkshire, Duracell shines brightly indeed.

© 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.

Special Report: BYD, Berkshire’s Tesla

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While Tesla has grabbed major headlines the past few years, China’s BYD Company Limited has grown from just 20 employees in 1995 to over 190,000 today, and in the process become the world’s largest rechargeable battery supplier.

The company has some 16,000 R&D engineers.

In 2015, BYD jumped to number one in worldwide EV sales thanks to the popularity of its Qin sedan and Tang SUV, beating Nissan, Tesla, Volkswagen and Toyota.

The growth directly benefits Berkshire Hathaway. In 2008, Berkshire Hathaway bet on BYD’s potential and purchased 225 million shares for $230 million, and now owns roughly 9.1% of the company.

Today Berkshire’s stake in BYD is worth roughly $1.77 billion.

Like Tesla, BYD is both an automaker and a battery maker. The company purchased Xi’an Tsinchuan Auto Co., Ltd. in 2003 and has aggressively pursued both the auto and bus businesses.

BYD sold 437,725 autos in 2014 in China alone, and became the first Chinese company to successfully enter the Japanese bus market. Its sales goals for 2015 were 15,000 electric cars and 6,000 electric buses, and in 2016, the company plans to enter the electric truck market.

Unlike Tesla, BYD manufactures both gasoline-powered and electric cars, including traditional fuel cars, dual mode electric cars, and electric-only cars and buses. BYD has jumped into the EV market with a broad range of vehicle types, including the bus, coach, taxi, private car, urban logistics truck, sanitation truck and construction truck (concrete mixer); and 4 specific off-road vehicles for use in the warehouse, airports, ports and mining.

Pure Electric Buses

It is in the bus market that BYD is making rapid progress. BYD’s zero-emission pure electric buses have already been deployed in Brazil, China, Columbia, England, India, Malaysia and Thailand.

Air pollution and carbon emissions are the key drivers of the move to pure electric buses. In China, diesel buses make up just 10% of the vehicles on the road but contribute over 30% of city air pollution and GHG emissions.

In April 2016, BYD achieved its 10,000 pure electric bus milestone, an achievement six years in the making.

BYD’s C9, is a two-axle, 40′ coach with the seating capacity to carry 47 people at highway speeds for over 190 miles. The buses use an iron-phosphate battery that after 10,000 charge cycles will still retains 70% of its capacity.

Its largest bus, the K10A, is a 15-meter bus that seats 95 passengers, and is now in service in São Paulo, Brazil.

London saw its first pure electric zero emission double decker bus debut in October 2015, and a fleet of 51 single-deckers debuting in the fall of 2016.

As BYD looks to pure electric bus sales across Europe, it has announced a €20 million investment in a bus assembly plant in the northern Hungarian city of Komárom. The Hungarian plant will begin production in the first quarter of 2017, and will have its own R&D center and battery test facility.

In the U.S. market, BYD has primarily focused on bus sales,becoming the dominant player in the electric bus market. It built a massive 450,000 sq. ft. assembly plant in Lancaster, California.

BYD’s e-buses operate in transit agencies, universities and airports across North America, with more than 40 customers including LA Metro, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Stanford University, UCLA, UC San Francisco, UC Irvine, Anaheim Resort Transportation, Long Beach Transit, Denver Regional Transportation District, City of Albuquerque, SolTrans, SunLine Transit, Link Transit, COMO Connect, Antelope Valley Transit Authority, and many others.

In the spring of 2015, it also announced a pilot program with Uber in Chicago that uses BYDs E6 sedan. The car is a cross between a sedan and SUV, and currently gets roughly 186 miles (300 km) of driving range per charge. The 2016 E6 will reportedly get a range increase to 250 miles (400 km).

BYD’s biggest breakthrough in the U.S. market came in September 2015, when it won a contract with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for up to 800 heavy duty buses from all different propulsion types that includes 12 different categories for all-electric buses. The buses will serve public transportation systems in the states of Washington and Oregon.

The Explosive Growth of Pure Electric Vehicles in China

In China, it took ten years to go from zero electric vehicles to the current 1%, but it may take only another five years to reach 10%.

And, even more amazing is that sales of new energy vehicles in China are projected to hit a whopping 30% by 2025.

BYD notes that the production and sales of new energy vehicles exceeded 300,000 units in China in 2015, representing a three-fold growth year-on-year, and accounting for a 1.3% share of overall vehicle sales.

Strength Around the Globe

While Tesla has struggled in China, laying off 30-percent of its workforce in March 2015, and has its goal of manufacturing in China still on the drawing board, BYD is already a major player. BYD not only has a factory in Shenzhen, but has captured half of the electric car market. Its home field advantage has it selling over 6,000 of its popular stylish QINs per month.

BYD is also having an easier time in emerging markets. It is opening a factory in Brazil by the end of 2015, and is using its strength in pure electric buses as its way to enter the market. What’s more, it beat all U.S. car manufacturers to the Cuba market. In July 2015, the company inked a deal with the Cuban government for the purchase of 719 vehicles to be the first fleet of tourist rental cars. The cars will be traditional fuel vehicles but will give BYD a major foothold in the country, and they are already planning to introduce electric vehicles, and move beyond tourist car rentals to government official vehicles and the nascent private car market.

In September 2015, BYD had its first substantial sale in Africa, signing a deal to sell 10,000 vehicles to Sudan’s state-run company GIAD Motor Co Ltd.

The 7+4 Strategy in Australia

BYD’s comprehensive “7+4” electrification strategy in the Australia region aims at electrification of all forms of ground transportation: urban bus, coach, taxi, passenger car, urban logistics trucks, construction trucks, and urban sanitation trucks (7), as well as vehicles for warehousing, mining, airports and ports (4).

In 2016, the BYD e6 taxi got the green light to access the Australian market becoming the first Chinese made electric vehicle to be certified by the Australian Design Rules (ADRs), the country’s stringent technical standards for emissions, vehicle safety and theft resistance.

The company was already in the Australian market with its pure electric buses in a shuttle service tested for Sidney Airport between December 2014 and May 2015, and it has also sold its pure electric forklifts in Sydney and Melbourne.

A Willing Partner

BYD’s technology makes it an excellent partner with other manufacturers, as cities around the world race to meet ambitious climate change and pollution goals.

In July 2015, BYD signed a deal worth $29.6 million deal with British bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) to build 51 single-deck zero-emission buses for London. The buses utilize BYD’s chassis and electric drivetrain with the bodies supplied by ADL. The first 51 buses went into service in September 2016, following a three-year trial that proved the buses could consistently run a 16-hour shift without a recharge. The partnership helps London move towards its goal of having all single-deck buses totally emission-free by 2020.

“Our deep experience of not only battery technology but the critical battery management systems and driveline components necessary to deliver unequaled range and reliability are matched to ADL’s strong track record in building low weight, attractive and durable buses,” said Isbrand Ho, managing director of BYD Europe.

Innovative Mass Transit Solutions

While Elon Musk touts the future prospects of hyperloops in dealing with future transportation needs, Chinese competitor BYD Co. LTD. is looking towards an existing mass transit technology, the monorail, as part of its answer to urban congestion issues. In October 2016, the company debuted its “SkyRail” monorail system in Shenzhen, China.

With a capacity of between 10,000 to 30,000 passengers an hour (each way) and a high speed of up to 80km/h, SkyRail is part of BYD’s focus on the development of layered rail transport that meshes with metro and bus systems. BYD refers to “three-dimensional green traffic” as part of its green mobility platform.

Dramatic Cost Savings Compared to Subways

The electric monorail is a kind of traffic network which interconnects multiple transit backbones in the city at one sixth of the cost of a subway system.

According to BYD, the total market for monorails just in China is in the range of 3 trillion yuan ($450 billion).

BYD’s 4.4 kilometer monorail line at its Shenzhen Headquarters alleviates the traffic problems of 50,000 factory and management employees.

The first commercial sale of BYD’s SkyRail will be to S. Korea.

BYD’s B-Boxes and Vehicle Emergency Power Supply

Like Tesla, BYD has jumped into the home power storage business. The battery maker’s B-Boxes consist of fire-safe, long-cycle Iron-Phosphate rechargeable batteries that perform the same function as the Tesla PowerWall Battery. BYD’s B-Boxes are already on sale in many European countries including Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, as well as in Australia and Africa.

In a move that puts it ahead of Tesla, BYD’s Qin EV300 and e5 cars are equipped with BYD’s signature VtoL function, in which the vehicle serves as a massive mobile electricity supply to power appliances like cookers, refrigerators, power tools and many others, so that users can rely on the vehicle to plan outdoor activities that depend on electricity, or in case of emergencies like power cuts or blackouts.

Berkshire’s BYD Investment

Despite Berkshire Hathaway’s reputation for avoiding high-tech investments, its stake in BYD, like its more recent stake in eVolution Networks, shows Berkshire is not going to be left out of companies on the cutting edge of technology.

(This article contains updated information from when it was first published.)

© 2015-2017 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.

Special Report: Is the Driverless Car a Threat to Auto Insurers?

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“Self-driving cars are a real threat to auto insurance business,” Warren Buffett said at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. It was a comment that didn’t get a lot of attention at the time, but suddenly now everyone seems to be talking about self-driving cars and driverless cars.

With Google testing self-driving cars on public roads, some have touted this as a bellwether for a quickly approaching age of automation that has the driver taking the back seat.

Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Tesla are just some of the companies that are moving ever closer to self-driving cars with a host of collision avoidance features that respond quicker and more precisely than a human operator can.

As for actually being self-driving, Mercedes-Benz wowed consumers at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January with its self-driving car prototype, the F 015. Mercedes even created a video of its Blade Runner-esque vehicle driving itself to the trade show.

So, if this world is approaching, what does it mean for Berkshire Hathaway’s GEICO, or other auto insurers? Are they really dinosaurs unaware that a mega-asteroid is approaching to wipe them out?

Not So Fast

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,” notes Professor Reimer. “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.”

Google has conceded that during its test phase it has had 14 accidents over a span of six years and 1.9 million miles, but that enviable record didn’t come in the real world conditions of New York City rush hour traffic.

As self-driving cars move into the unpredictable world of everyday traffic, accidents happen. One of those accidents happened on July 1, 2015, when one of Google’s Lexus SUV prototypes was rear-ended in Mountain View, California. The crash sent three Google employees to the hospital with symptoms of whiplash.

Eleven of the fourteen accidents Google has had were rear-end collisions brought about by non-self-driving cars, highlighting the same potential danger for self-driving and non-self-driving vehicles.

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, which launched this past February, 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 cars and trucks will too.

(This article has been updated since it was published.)

© 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.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Biggest Question

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Who will succeed Warren Buffett, who turns 85 in August, as the head of Berkshire Hathaway? This would seem to be the biggest question hanging over the shareholders of the massive conglomerate. Will it be Greg Abel, the head of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, or Ajit Jain, who heads up Berkshire’s reinsurance business? Both are frontrunners, especially since Vice-chairman Charlie Munger, who is himself 91 this year, specifically dropped their names in his shareholder letter included in the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway annual report. Yet while people speculate on Buffett’s successor, I would suggest there’s a far more important question. After all, CEOs come and go, and whoever follows Buffett and Munger will eventually be succeeded by others.

So, the biggest question is not who will succeed Buffett; it’s how will they be compensated. In other words, how will they participate in the growth of the company as compared to how has Buffett participated?

Can a unique situation be replicated?

Berkshire Hathaway may be unique in the sheer number of companies that operate under its umbrella. It’s not only a conglomerate; it’s a conglomerate of conglomerates. For example, Berkshire’s Marmon Group has 160 independent manufacturing and service businesses, and Berkshire’s Scott Fetzer Group oversees 21 diverse companies. But even this is not what is most unique about Berkshire. What’s most unique is that Warren Buffett is participating first and foremost just as you do, as a shareholder.

The most underpaid CEO in the Fortune 500

For a man overseeing a conglomerate with a market value of roughly $347 billion, you would think that Buffett receives sky high compensation, especially since that conglomerate’s share value has risen 1,826,163% (yes, that’s not a misprint) from 1966 to 2014. However, Buffett (and Charlie Munger) have annual salaries of only $100,000. What’s more, there are no stock options and no bonuses. Buffett and Munger’s rock bottom salaries mean that they are participating in Berkshire just like you are, as long-term shareholders that care more about increasing the underlying intrinsic value of the company than any short-term trick to boost the stock price.

Think that doesn’t matter?

“The more CEOs are paid, the worse the firm does over the next three years, as far as stock performance and even accounting performance,” notes Michael Cooper of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. Prof. Cooper co-authored a paper that proved just that.

Just look at David Zaslav, CEO of pay-TV channel Discovery Communications. Zaslav had a total compensation package of $156.1 million in 2014, yet the same year the stock lost a quarter of its value, even as the broader market boomed. The shareholders felt the pain, while Zaslav got the gain. That’s not exactly participating on the same basis.

At the 2015 Berkshire annual meeting, Buffett acknowledged that when CEO incentives get out of line with a company’s goals bad things can happen.

“Charlie and I believe in incentives, Buffett said. “But we have seen decent people get into trouble with incentives. The CEO promises a certain number, and his executives don’t want to make the CEO look bad. Egos get involved. You have to be careful in the messages you send as CEO. If you don’t want to disappoint Wall Street, your managers will react.”

A Hedge without the 2 and 20

Hedge fund managers built their fortunes on the 2% annual management fee and a 20% of the profits, but that’s not necessarily the same for the hedge fund’s investors, who don’t get that management fee to cushion any tumble in profits. Remember in 2008 when Buffett bet hedge fund manager Ted Seides that a low-priced index fund tracking the S&P 500 would beat the average of any 5 hedge funds over a 10-year period that Seides picked? Well, the “Million-Dollar Bet” is looking more and more like a sure bet for Buffett, because he knew the high friction costs would hurt the hedge funds’ returns.

In fact, Berkshire’s a conglomerate that operates as hedge fund without the management fee structure. Like a hedge fund, it can buy 100% of a company (unlike a mutual fund), it uses derivatives to increase its leverage and hedge its risk, and because its leadership is in lock step with its investors, all that benefit goes right to each shareholder.

Whose side will they be on?

In 2011, David Sokol, who once looked like the heir apparent to Buffett, abruptly resigned after it turned out that he had accumulated over 96,000 shares of Lubrizol before bringing the company to Buffett’s attention as a potential acquisition. Buffett later called Sokol’s actions “inexplicable” and “inexcusable,” and while the SEC dropped its probe, the Sokol fiasco showed that’s it’s not automatic that Berkshire’s leadership will align with its shareholders interests.

Or, as Charlie Munger has said, “Trustworthiness is more important than brains.”

Berkshire’s Future Leadership

Berkshire’s future generations of leadership may be great stock pickers, able to build portfolios that equal the $100 billion portfolio that Buffett built. They may be great capital allocators like Buffett, able to use the profits from one company to by other companies with even greater growth potential. They might even be as savvy opportunists, unleashing Berkshire’s mountains of cash just when others credit has dried up. However, the big question is whether they do it on the same basis as Buffett and Munger, on behalf of all the shareholders.

© 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.

Special Report: CORT Furniture Courts Academic Institutions

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

With formerly generous relocation dollars in short supply in the aftermath of the 2009 recession, CORT Furniture has been aggressively seeking new markets. While relocation dollars still exist, “companies are no longer giving them out like candy,” says George Bertrand, CORT’s Regional Vice President for Operations and Sales.

Founded in 1972, and acquired by Berkshire Hathaway in January 2000, CORT’s primary business is providing rental furniture for homes, businesses and events (including trade shows), and providing relocation services. The company’s service area is the U.S. and the U.K., and annual revenues for all CORT operations exceeds $420 million.

Earnings in 2014 were roughly $36 million.

Seeking New Markets

With its core business hit hard by the 2009 recession, CORT expanded into the party rental business with the 2011 acquisition of the Seattle-based ABC Special Event Rentals, and the 2014 acquisition of another Seattle-area party rental business, AA Party Rentals. Party rentals now make up roughly $12 million in CORT’s annual revenues.

Academic Institutions Offer Opportunities for Growth

Another market CORT sees great potential in is providing furniture leasing to academic institutions.

Traditionally, academic institutions maintain huge inventories of furniture for dorm rooms that requires a high degree of maintenance and upkeep. These days, colleges and universities are increasingly aware that the on-campus quality of life is a major selling point to prospective students. They have upgraded athletic facilities with rock-climbing walls and rows of treadmills, and they have upgraded food services with gourmet entrees that are a far cry from the bland foods of yesteryear. They have also upgraded the dormitory experience, and in this area CORT is providing solutions that include furniture delivery service and ongoing maintenance.

Currently, only 14.3 percent of academic institutions are outsourcing their furnishing services, offering CORT a huge potential market for expansion.

According to CORT’s own survey, which they conducted with University Business Magazine, “budget restrictions” were the biggest impediments respondents cited in providing up-to-date and top condition furniture for students’ dorm rooms.

According to the survey results:

87 percent of respondents stated that budget and personnel restrictions are the biggest challenges facing their institution.

95 percent said the appearance and condition of their furnishings is important or very important to the maintaining the college’s image and integrity.

However, 37 percent described their furnishings as “outdated” and almost 20 percent said it’s “showing its age.

Out-sourcing their furniture needs to CORT is one way for institutions to keep their focus on academics, rather than on running a used furniture empire. CORT puts it simply. “Furniture leasing is a simple and affordable solution, especially as many colleges and universities are trying to meet increasing expectations with less available resources.”

© 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.

Special Report: Is the Tesla Battery a Threat to Berkshire Hathaway?

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

Elon Musk’s recent announcement of Tesla’s new home and industry battery business, which will enable the storage of solar and wind energy, would seem to directly threaten Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s role as one of the world’s largest energy producers.

But not so fast.

Let’s Look at the Big Picture

First, Tesla’s leading-edge automobiles have done a lot to popularize plug-in electric vehicles. These vehicles draw their power primarily from electric utilities, and as the technology takes hold with more mainstream automobile producers, such as Toyota, GM, and Ford, the total demand for electric power will skyrocket. Sure, some of the power may come from home-based electric generation through solar panels, but the total demand for electric power will rise as consumers switch from gas and diesel powered vehicles.

Secondly, for home and industry battery applications, Berkshire may benefit in multiple ways. Its minority ownership in Chinese battery maker BYD Co Ltd could prove a very wise investment, as the company adds 6 gigawatts per year of battery production capability over the next 3 years.

The End of the Utility?

Will solar panels linked to a Tesla Powerwall mean that the centralized distribution offered by utilities will be irrelevant? Maybe for someone living in the backwoods, or far out in the desert, but not for anyone still hooked up to the grid.

Net metering, which feeds excess electricity consumers produce back into the grid, and creates a billing mechanism that credits consumers, makes the batteries irrelevant, as they produce no cost-saving or other advantage.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s CEO Greg Abel thinks that Tesla’s storage technology would have to drop greatly in price for it to be applicable to BHE’s transmission business.

Abel called the technology, “not game-changing, and it’s because of the cost structure,” during a panel discussion put on by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. “Is there an opportunity to now implement that into our systems, into our transmission and distribution systems? Absolutely. And is it completely cost-effective, no. It’s got to get cheaper.”

Don’t Forget Duracell

Berkshire’s acquisition of P&G’s Duracell unit, may shake things up if it can get Duracell to transition from the alkaline battery business to newer battery technologies, the company might be in just the right place to market products similar to Tesla. It certainly has the resources to do it, as the P&G deal includes $1.8 billion in cash.

Lastly, large-scale battery storage is just what Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s solar and wind farms need, be it the 550-megawatt photovoltaic Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, California, or the just announced 400-megawatt Grande Prairie Wind Farm in Holt County, Nebraska. The ability to store energy for the times that the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing is just what utilities need to fully pull away from fossil fuel based energy generation.

In summary, new home and industry storage battery technology will give Berkshire Hathaway new competition for its existing companies, but it will also bring new opportunities.

(This article contains updated information)

© 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.

Special Report: Passenger Service Little Known Part of BNSF

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

With the founding of Amtrak in 1971, most people have assumed that the major class 1 railroads, which include Berkshire Hathaway’s wholly-owned BNSF, got out of the passenger rail business.

The exodus was logical, as post WWII passenger service had become a tremendous money drain with the advent of jet air travel and the building of the interstate highway system. That one-two punch sent ridership plunging.

But Not So Fast

While it is true that long distance passenger rail service is now the purview of Amtrak, BNSF still moves over 27 million passengers a year in regional passenger rail service that includes Chicago, Seattle, and Minneapolis. Chicago alone has more than 25 million passengers annually served by 106 BNSF trains.

BNSF’s role in each region is different. For example, in Minneapolis, BNSF provides the locomotives, and the Metropolitan Council, the regional governmental agency, owns the rolling stock and provides train crews.

In Chicago, BNSF operates the trains and leases the equipment under a purchase of service agreement to METRA, the commuter rail division of the Regional Transportation Authority of the Chicago metropolitan area.

In Seattle, Sounder commuter rail is operated by BNSF on behalf of Sound Transit.

In all these cities, commuter rail helps reduce congestion on local highways. A single bi-level commuter rail car can carry as many passengers as 120 automobiles, and a train produces less emissions than an equivalent number of automobiles.

Ensuring a Profitable Business Model

What all the commuter lines have in common is they are all profitable for BNSF. Commuter rail is still just a small part of BNSF’s overall business, but BNSF has laid out a list of Commuter Rail Principles that keep it profitably in the commuter rail business:

• Any commuter operation cannot degrade BNSF’s freight service, or negatively affect BNSF’s freight customers or BNSF’s ability to provide them with service.

• BNSF must be compensated for any and all costs incurred in providing commuter service and must make a reasonable return for providing the service.

• Capital investments necessary for commuter service are the responsibility of the public, including investments for future capacity.

• BNSF will not incur any liability for commuter operations that it would not have but for those operations. These operations are provided by BNSF primarily as a public service.

• Studies of how commuter service might be provided must take into account not only the current freight traffic levels, but also projected freight traffic growth.

•Investments made for commuter projects must not result in BNSF incurring a higher tax burden.

• BNSF must retain operating control of rail facilities used for commuter service. All dispatching, maintenance and construction must be done under the control of BNSF.

• Studies must reflect BNSF’s actual operating conditions and cost structures.

• BNSF will limit commuter operations to the commuter schedules initially agreed upon. Future expansions will have to undergo the same analysis and provide any required capital improvements.

•Improvements must include grade-crossing protection and intertrack fencing as required to minimize the risk of accidents.

Commuter rail is not BNSF’s only connection to passenger service. In addition to the passenger service provided directly by BNSF, some 64 Amtrak trains operate daily on over 6,500 miles of BNSF host track.

© 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.

Special Report: Can Berkshire’s Nebraska Furniture Mart go for $2 billion with Dallas store?

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

A furniture chain that produces over a billion dollars in annual revenue is a big deal, and it’s an even bigger deal when the chain has only three stores.

This is the case with Berkshire Hathaway’s Nebraska Furniture Mart (NFM), which with only 3 stores located in Omaha, Nebraska; Kansas City, Kansas; and Des Moines, Iowa, generates almost $1.04 billion in annual revenue.

That’s enough business to land NFM on the National retail federation’s “Hot 100” for 2014 despite its limited number of outlets.

The big question is whether NFM can reach $2 billion in annual sales when it opens its fourth store in the spring of 2015 at The Colony of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Dallas-Fort Worth is the 4th largest metropolitan area in the United States.

Bigger is Best

NFM is known for its mega-sized stores, which include its flagship 420,000 square-feet facility in Omaha.

The new Dallas-Fort Worth store will up the ante, boasting a 1.9 million-square-foot facility featuring a 560,000-square-foot showroom that is expected to generate over $600 million in revenue annually.

A New Real Estate Play

Flying in the face of the adage that the era of the mall is dead, with retail migrating more and more to the internet, NFM is crafting a powerful regional draw that takes up lots of actual physical space rather than just cyberspace.

NFM stores have traditionally been stand-alone facilities, but with the new Dallas store NFM is developing a 400+ acres, 3.9 million square-feet mix of retail, entertainment, dining and attractions that is going by the name of Grandscape.

In addition to retail, the facility will include a hotel and amphitheater, office space, and ±300 multi-family units. NFM is betting that 18 million visitors will come to Grandscape each year, with 8 million of those visitors hopefully shopping at Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Excitement is running high even among the retailers that will be outside of the actual Grandscape footprint, and some are planning to build duplicate stores on either side of the highway to take advantage of Grandscape’s anticipated drawing power.

Average household income in the 12 county area is $57,431 with a total population in North Texas of 6.5 million. In addition, NFM believes it can draw from a huge four-state area with people traveling from as far as 300 miles away.

Revenue Projections

Is $2 billion in annual revenue realistic for four stores? Even four mega-stores? NFM is projecting that sales will grow 7% annually for the first decade with 3% growth thereafter. While 7% annual growth sounds optimistic, it is less than half of NFM’s 15.4% growth in sales in 2014.

Perhaps the bigger question is who says you have to stop at four stores?

© 2014 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