Category Archives: Warren Buffett

Two Important Things We Learned from Buffett’s Latest Shareholders Letter

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Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders came out on Saturday morning, and as usual, it gave great insight into Buffett’s outlook on both Berkshire Hathaway, investing, and his view on the prospects for the American economy.

Here’s two important things we learned:

Buffett is Bullish on the American Economy

Through recessions, and even the recent Great Recession, Warren Buffett has remained bullish on the prospects of the American economy. Competition from China, India or the EU, has not dimmed his optimism, and looking back historically, he still believes there is no better time to have been born into the American economy than today.

“This economic creation will deliver increasing wealth to our progeny far into the future. Yes, the build-up of wealth will be interrupted for short periods from time to time. It will not, however, be stopped. I’ll repeat what I’ve both said in the past and expect to say in future years: Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.”

Buffett Believes that Overall, Hedge Funds Have Sold Snake Oil to Wealthy Investors and Pension Funds

Expanding on a presentation he gave at the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting, Buffett again made clear that the high fees charged by Hedge fund managers made it inevitable that overall, they would underperform a simple low-fee S&P 500 index fund. He attributes the siren song that draws the wealthy and pension funds to active management is due to a mistaken belief that you get what you pay for.

“The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive. In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars. This reluctance of the rich normally prevails even though the product at issue is –on an expectancy basis – clearly the best choice. My calculation, admittedly very rough, is that the search by the elite for superior investment advice has caused it, in aggregate, to waste more than $100 billion over the past decade. Figure it out: Even a 1% fee on a few trillion dollars adds up. Of course, not every investor who put money in hedge funds ten years ago lagged S&P returns. But I believe my calculation of the aggregate shortfall is conservative.”

© 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.

Fruit of the Loom Names Melissa Burgess-Taylor New Chairman & CEO

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Berkshire Hathaway’s Fruit of the Loom has announced the appointment of Melissa Burgess-Taylor as the company’s new Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

Ms. Burgess-Taylor is currently the Senior Vice President of Brand Management and Sales for Fruit of the Loom and Vanity Fair Brands. She has been with the company more than 17 years focusing on the interests of Fruit of the Loom employees and customers while delivering meaningful results.

Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, addressed the Fruit of the Loom leadership team today following the unexpected passing of Rick Medlin last week.

“Rick lived and breathed Fruit of the Loom, and he was an inspirational leader to everyone associated with the company. He will be greatly missed. His contributions were significant and his legacy will continue through the success of Fruit of the Loom and the employees.” Mr. Buffett continued, “I am excited to have Melissa take on this important role as CEO. Already an accomplished Fruit of the Loom leader, she is passionate, smart, and cares deeply about Fruit of the Loom customers and employees. She understands the importance of building a great brand, and she’ll add tremendous value to Fruit of the Loom going forward.”

“I’ve been fortunate to be a member of the Fruit of the Loom family and this great company for many years. We have succeeded due to our people, our strong brands and the powerful relationships we have with our customers,” stated Ms. Burgess-Taylor. “I am grateful for Mr. Medlin’s strong leadership and mentorship, and I am deeply committed to continuing to move us forward.”

Ms. Burgess-Taylor has held various leadership roles within the organization. In her current role, she leads Marketing, Merchandising, Sales, Brand Communications and Creative Services for Fruit of the Loom, Vanity Fair, Lily of France, Vassarette and Curvation brands. Prior to joining Fruit of the Loom, Ms. Burgess-Taylor held roles with Hanes Brands and Mercantile Department Stores. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing with a minor in textiles and clothing from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky., and currently resides in Bowling Green with her husband and two children.

© 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.

Warren Buffett’s Greatest Insurance Investment

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What was Warren Buffett’s greatest insurance investment? Was it the purchase of GEICO? How about National Indemnity?

According to Buffett, it was none of those. It was the hiring of Ajit Jain.

In an interview with Best’s Review, Warren Buffett says he made one of his best investments when he chose Ajit Jain to run his reinsurance business nearly 30 years ago. Jain, who is considered one of the front-runners to succeed Buffett as the head of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the insurance leaders profiled in the July issue.

Jain was hired by Buffett in 1986, and at the time he was 35-years-old and had little experience in the reinsurance business.

Today, Jain is one of Buffett’s most trusted managers, having built Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group into a reinsurance insurance powerhouse with $44 billion in float.

In April, he was given additional duties overseeing Gen Re after CEO Tad Montross retired.

Sounds like a good investment indeed.

© 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.

Buffett Warm, Munger Cool on Initiating a Stock Buyback

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 David Mazor

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

Low Interest Rates Cut Value of Berkshire’s Insurance Float

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With the advent of unprecedented negative interest rates in Japan and the Eurozone, the value of Berkshire Hathaway’s insurance float is diminished.

Europe’s central banks have slashed interest rates below zero, and at the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffet noted the moves have rewritten Aesop’s ancient adage that a “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Buffett noted that right now “a bird in the hand is worth 9/10s of a bird in the bush.”

Cheap money has also driven up the costs of Berkshire’s acquisitions, as competitors’ access to capital diminishes one of Berkshire’s key advantages.

Even with Berkshire having just closed on its $32 billion acquisition of aerospace manufacturer Precision Castparts, the company is heading back towards having $40 billion at the ready for acquisitions.

“We have excess cash everywhere at Berkshire,”  Buffett said, as he emphasized that he was ready to put it to work buying more large companies. “We would love to find another three or four types of Precision Castparts.”

With all its cash at the ready for acquisitions, Berkshire still maintains a reserve of $20 billion in case of economic downturns or other needs.

© 2016 David Mazor

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

Berkshire Gives Mixed Signals on AmEx Stake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 David Mazor

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

Buffett Throws Cold Water on Ajit Jain Rumors

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Two weeks ago rumors began flying that perhaps Warren Buffett had just signaled that Ajit Jain would be his successor as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

The rumors started when General Reinsurance Corp. Chairman and CEO Tad Montross announced that he would step down near the end of 2016.

Berkshire quickly announced that Ajit Jain, who already runs a large part of Berkshire’s reinsurance business, would add General Reinsurance to his portfolio.

Buffett watchers jumped on the news, speculating that the odds that Jain would someday take over Berkshire Hathaway had dramatically improved.

Not So Fast Says Buffett

Speaking at the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Buffett threw cold water on the rumors. Buffett watchers, who hoped to divine the future of Berkshire’s leadership, got no help on their visit to the Oracle of Omaha.

Buffett noted that there are “no tea leaves to read in the fact that Ajit is supervising Gen Re from this time forward.”

While Buffett continues to emphasize that the conglomerate has a succession plan, and the Board is fully behind it, he is not going to reveal it to the public.

From his perspective, to do so would be to risk announcing a successor who might not take the job if a personal “situation” comes into play in the interim period. Buffett didn’t define that situation, but health is just one possible factor.

Speaking of health, Buffett, who at age 85 has no problem parrying five hours of questions at the annual meeting, also noted that the exact timing of succession is also an unknown. He doesn’t look to be interested in stepping down as he clearly loves what he is doing, and his recent $32.3 billion acquisition of aerospace manufacturer Precision Castparts shows he can still do it better than anyone else.

Buffett appeared to be in excellent health and spirits, and when asked if he had regrets for anything he wishes he could do over in life, he chuckled.

“I don’t think I would have started with a textile company,” he joked, referring to Berkshire Hathaway’s origins as a failing New England textile mill.

© 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.

Warren Buffett Vigorously Defends Clayton Homes in Annual Shareholder Letter

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“The Best defense is a good offense,” is the old saying, that is exactly the approach Warren Buffett continues to take in defending Berkshire Hathaway’s mobile-home manufacturer Clayton Homes from those who say it preys on low-income home buyers.

It was less than a year ago that the company first came under attack, when with the force of a volcano, a Seattle Times and the Center for Public Integrity investigative report titled “The Mobile Home Trap” accused Clayton Homes of relying on “predatory sales practices, exorbitant fees, and interest rates…trapping many buyers in loans they can’t afford and in homes that are almost impossible to sell or refinance…”

Buffett’s immediately addressed the accusations head on at the 2015 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, when he said, “I make no apologies whatsoever about Clayton’s lending terms.”

Now, in his 2015 annual letter to shareholders, Buffett has a devoted one and a half pages to defending Clayton Homes from its detractors.

In a vigorous defense, Buffett wrote:

“Our retail outlets, employing simple language and large type, consistently inform home buyers of alternative sources for financing – most of it coming from local banks – and always secure acknowledgments from customers that this information has been received and read.”

In an unusual move, Buffett went so far as to include the actual form on page 119 of the 2015 annual report.

In the Same Boat as the Home Buyer

In defending Berkshire’s practices as a home seller and mortgage lender, Buffett points to Berkshire’s holding on to the mortgages it originates rather than selling them off in the broader market. Buffett notes that this adds risk to Berkshire, and that by holding on to the mortgages it is in the same boat as the home buyer. If a home buyer defaults on their mortgage it leaves Berkshire not only with a bad loan, but it also has to eat the costs associated with repossessing a used mobile home.

“At Clayton, our risk retention was, and is, 100%. When we originate a mortgage we keep it (leaving aside the few that qualify for a government guarantee). When we make mistakes in granting credit, we therefore pay a price – a hefty price that dwarfs any profit we realized upon the original sale of the home. Last year we had to foreclose on 8,444 manufactured-housing mortgages at a cost to us of $157 million. The average loan we made in 2015 was only $59,942, small potatoes for traditional mortgage lenders, but a daunting commitment for our many lower-income borrowers. Our buyer acquires a decent home – take a look at the home we will have on display at our annual meeting – requiring monthly principal-and-interest payments that average $522.

Some borrowers, of course, will lose their jobs, and there will be divorces and deaths. Others will get overextended on credit cards and mishandle their finances. We will lose money then, and our borrower will lose his down payment (though his mortgage payments during his time of occupancy may have been well under rental rates for comparable quarters). Nevertheless, despite the low FICO scores and income of our borrowers, their payment behavior during the Great Recession was far better than that prevailing in many mortgage pools populated by people earning multiples of our typical borrower’s income.”

Congress Weighs In

The Seattle Times report did not fall on deaf ears in the halls of Congress. In January, Representatives Maxine Waters, Michael Capuano, Emanuel Cleaver and Keith Ellison wrote a letter to the Justice Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau calling for a probe of the company’s lending practices.

So far, there has been no action by the Justice Department or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and in his annual letter Buffett forcefully touts what he feels is Berkshire’s outstanding record in regards to adhering to the regulations that govern mortgage lending.

“Let me talk about one subject of which I am particularly proud, that having to do with regulation. The Great Recession caused mortgage originators, servicers and packagers to come under intense scrutiny and to be assessed many billions of dollars in fines and penalties.

The scrutiny has certainly extended to Clayton, whose mortgage practices have been continuously reviewed and examined in respect to such items as originations, servicing, collections, advertising, compliance, and internal controls. At the federal level, we answer to the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Dozens of states regulate us as well. During the past two years, indeed, various federal and state authorities (from 25 states) examined and reviewed Clayton and its mortgages on 65 occasions. The result? Our total fines during this period were $38,200 and our refunds to customers $704,678. Furthermore, though we had to foreclose on 2.64% of our manufactured-home mortgages last year, 95.4% of our borrowers were current on their payments at yearend, as they moved toward owning a debt-free home.”

While all has been quiet recently in regards to Clayton Homes, the fact that Buffett has devoted so much space in his annual letter to defending the company may mean that more tremors are coming, and issues related to Clayton Homes could erupt again in the future.

© 2016 David Mazor

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

Berkshire to Live-Stream 2016 Annual Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 David Mazor

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