Commentary: Buffett Affirms Berkshire’s 3 Pillars Stand Strong

Berkshire Hathaway is so diversified that it’s impossible for it not to be impacted adversely by COVID-19. Automobile retailing through its Berkshire Hathaway Automotive network of dealerships, furniture retailing (Nebraska Furniture Mart, Jordan’s, Star Furniture, RC Willey Home Furnishings), and the See’s Candies retail stores, are just a few of its companies that are facing slumping revenues.

At the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting held on May 2, Warren Buffett noted that the swift temporary closure of See’s retail stores in late-March left it with a huge inventory of Easter candy that will go unsold.

“…we were in the midst of our Easter season and Easter is a big sales period for See’s. And I don’t know whether we were halfway through, but we weren’t halfway through in terms of the volume is going to be delivered because it comes toward the end. And essentially we were shut down and we remain shut down. The malls that we’ve got 220 or so retail stores and we’ve got a lot of, Furniture Mart sells our candy. But the Furniture Mart’s closed down. And so See’s business stopped and it’s a very seasonal business to start with. So we have a lot of seasonal workers too that come in, particularly for the Christmas season. But we have a lot Easter candy, and Easter candy is kind of specialized too. So we won’t sell it. And we produced a good bit of it.”

Getting Nervous? Don’t Be

However, amidst the bad news was a key point that Buffett emphasized. The three main pillars of Berkshire Hathaway—its insurance, freight railroad, and energy business, are all strong and will continue to generate cash.

“Our three major businesses of insurance and the BNSF railroad, railroad and our energy business, those are our three largest by some margin. They’re in a reasonably decent position,” Buffett explained. “They will spend more than their depreciation. So some of the earnings will go, along with depreciation, will go toward increasing fixed assets. But basically these businesses will produce cash even though their earnings decline somewhat.”

Berkshire’s businesses are so strong because planning for the worst case scenario is at the heart of Buffett’s philosophy. Buffett explained that they even plan for more than one disaster.

“I mean, for example, in our insurance business, we could have the world’s, or the country’s, number one hurricane that it’s ever had, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that could have the biggest earthquake a month later. So we don’t prepare ourselves for a single problem. We prepare ourselves for problems that sometimes create their own momentum. I mean 2008 and 9, you didn’t see all the problems the first day, when what really kicked it off was when the Freddie and Fannie, the GSEs went into conservatorship in early September. And then when money market funds broke the buck… There are things to trip other things, and we take a very much a worst case scenario into mind that probably is a considerably worse case than most people do.”

And if that’s not enough to reassure you, don’t forget that Berkshire has $137 billion in cash.

© 2020 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway and BYD, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell a 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.

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