Tag Archives: Warren Buffett

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.

Nebraska Furniture Mart Celebrates 80th Birthday

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These days when a company lasts a decade everyone pops champagne, but for Berkshire Hathaway’s Nebraska Furniture Mart this August marks the 80th anniversary of the company’s founding in 1937.

Founded in Omaha by Rose Blumkin (affectionately known as Mrs. B.) the company started in the basement of her husband’s pawn shop with $500 borrowed from relatives.

Mrs. B., despite being only 4 feet 10 inches tall, was legendary for her toughness and work ethic.

Her escape from Russian persecution at the dawn of WWI, when as a passport-less, 23-year-old, store clerk from Minsk she crossed the Chinese-Siberian border by promising the guard she would bring back a bottle of fruit brandy, and her six-week voyage on a peanut boat could in itself be a movie.

Unable to speak English, and as an immigrant unable to get a bank loan, she prided herself as over the years she toppled Omaha’s “Big boys.”

As NFM grew to dominate the Omaha furniture market, Warren Buffett took notice and in 1983 Berkshire Hathaway bought the store for $60 million without even doing any formal due diligence. It didn’t stop Mrs. B. from working seven days a week, and she continued to oversee the store until age 103.

Along with NFM, Berkshire owns three other furniture retailers, including Jordan’s Furniture, R. C. Willey Home Furnishings, and the Star Furniture Company.

Today, NFM is the largest home furnishing store in North America selling furniture, flooring, appliances and electronics, doing volumes with only four mega-stores that put furniture retailers to shame. Make that every other furniture retailer to shame.

The chain has four stores in Omaha, Kansas City, Des Moines, and Dallas, and a valuation of well over $1 billion.

Day-to-day operations are overseen by Tony Boldt as the president and chief operating officer, with Ron Blumkin and his brother Irv Blumkin as chairman and CEO respectively.

While all the stores are large, none is larger than the store in the Dallas area, which opened its doors in March 2015.

The newest Nebraska Furniture Mart in The Colony in Dallas, Texas, was an immediate success and adds roughly $600 million a year to the furniture chain’s revenues, which already had the highest per-store volume of any furniture retailer in the United States.

Boasting a 1.9 million-square-foot facility, and featuring a 560,000-square-foot showroom, the new Dallas NFM dwarfs even the chains other megastores.

The Dallas store is the anchor to Berkshire’s $1.5 billion Grandscape development, the first of its kind for Berkshire. The development is a 400+ acres, 3.9 million square-feet mix of retail, entertainment, dining and attractions that won’t be fully built-out for another decade.

The elaborate Grandscape complex will feature a $45 million boardwalk-themed restaurant district, a hotel and spa, a recently announced 16-screen luxury movie theater, and 1.5 million square feet of residential and office space that is billed as the lifestyle center.

It’s all a long way from Mrs. B.’s basement, and the fact that Grandscape will be another decade before its completed just means that it will be done in time for NFM’s 90th anniversary.

© 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.

Buffett Reveals Terms of Failed Unilever Bid

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Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital Partners’ recent unsolicited offer for Unilever may have flopped, but it hasn’t soured Warren Buffett on working with 3G on more acquisitions.

The two entities have worked together on the takeover of Kraft to form Kraft Heinz, and Berkshire provided financing for 3G’s merger of Burger King and Tim Hortons that became Restaurant Brands International. The merger made Berkshire a minority owner of the combined company.

At the annual shareholder’s meeting, Buffett detailed that both Berkshire and 3G were prepared to each put $15 billion into the Unilever transaction.

Some in the press have questioned whether 3G’s extreme cost-cutting made the deal unpalatable for Unilever.

While a shareholder questioned whether 3G’s emphasis on layoffs as part of its cost-cutting strategy was in line with Berkshire’s corporate culture, both Buffett and Charlie Munger noted that improvements in productivity have often lead to layoffs.

Munger noted that he doesn’t long for the days of elevator operators, and “We don’t want to go back to the days of subsistence farming.”

While Munger didn’t see a particular “moral fault” in 3G’s strategy, Buffett was clearly sensitive to the impact on displaced workers.

“If you look at any industry, they are trying to get more productive,” Buffett said. Still he noted that society’s improved living standard as a whole can be of little comfort to an individual that has lost their job, and he wishes there could be another way.

Buffett did term 3G’s severance packages at Kraft Heinz “more than fair.”

© 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.

Buffett Says Wells Fargo “Incentivized the Wrong Type of Behavior”

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Warren Buffett continued to take aim at Wells Fargo during his answers to shareholders’ questions at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting.

He noted that Wells Fargo “incentivized the wrong type of behavior,” and felt that its CEO John Stumpf, was slow in responding to the scandal.

Berkshire Hathaway is Wells Fargo’s largest shareholder at just under ten percent of the company.

The stock has been one of Berkshire’s long term core holdings, and so far it has shown no sign of selling its position.

Still, Buffett emphasized that he was not pleased with the actions Stumpf took.

“If there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. At that moment, that’s the key to everything. The CEO has to act,” Buffett said. “The main problem was they didn’t act when they learned about it.”

Some 5,300 employees were eventually fired for creating over 2 million phony accounts tied to existing customers in order to meet sales goals, and Stumpf ended up resigning.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” Buffett said, noting the old adage. “A pound of cure is worth a ton of cure delayed,” he added.

© 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.

Buffett Unperturbed by Berkshire’s Q1 Earnings

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While much of the media focused on Berkshire Hathaway’s lower first quarter earnings, which fell 27 percent, Warren Buffett reminded shareholders at the conglomerate’s annual meeting that Berkshire has over $90 billion in unrealized capital gains.

Berkshire reported that its net income was $4.06 billion, which translates to $2,469 per Class A share. This was down from $5.59 billion, or $3,401, for the first quarter of 2016.

As of March 31, 2017, Berkshire’s book value had increased by 3.5% since yearend 2016 to $178,073 per Class A equivalent share.

Weather related losses in its insurance businesses were one of the reasons for the earnings shortfall.

Buffett noted that taking some of those capital gains at any time would change the company’s quarterly earnings, and Buffett has always emphasized Berkshire’s intrinsic value, which is harder to quantify.

Buffett did note that Berkshire’s float, which comes from its numerous insurance operations, is up $14 billion.

There’s no doubt that the company is swimming in cash, which is now at a company record $90 billion, and Buffett appeared itchy to put some of that cash to work while keeping Berkshire safe in case of unforeseen hard times.

He noted that the $20 billion he often mentions as held as reserves is in his mind a bare minimum, and that he’s more likely to maintain a reserve closer to $24 billion.

© 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.

Warren Buffett Wishes For Five More Lubrizols

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If there is any one of Berkshire Hathaway’s companies that Warren Buffett would love to find another of it would have to be Lubrizol Corporation.

Berkshire acquired the specialty chemical manufacturer in 2011 for $9.7 billion, and it has played an important role in Berkshire’s profits.

“Lubrizol is the second largest in terms of earnings so it’s a very important asset to Berkshire,” Buffett noted during a recent visit to Lubrizol’s headquarters in Wickliffe, Ohio. “Up until the acquisition of Precision Cast Parts [it was] the largest industrial operation we have.”

Lubrizol’s growth, which since being acquired by Berkshire has included the acquisition of Particle Science, the opening of a chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) compounding plant in Dahej, India, and assuming the Indian government’s stake in Lubrizol India Pvt Ltd., and more.

“It’s a terrific business and it’s big, and only gets bigger,” Buffet said.

With Berkshire size matters, as small acquisitions don’t make much difference in the profits of a company the size that Berkshire has grown to. Over the past decade, Berkshire has added not only Lubrizol, but also BNSF Railway, Precision Castparts, battery-maker Duracell, and a hefty chunk of Kraft Heinz to its portfolio.

While individual Berkshire companies can grow through smaller acquisitions in the millions, tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions, those size acquisitions don’t make sense for Berkshire if they are stand-alone entities. Berkshire has to add companies with billions in market cap in order to make a difference.

Companies of Lubrizol’s size are in the range that Buffett looks for with his famed “elephant gun.”

“It’s a huge advantage to be large too in terms of moving the needle on $400 billion of market cap.” Buffett noted, referring to Berkshire’s overall size.

Buffett’s a willing buyer, but companies such as Lubrizol are not on every corner.

“I wish we had five more and they’re hard, they are very hard to find,” Buffet said. “They take decades and decades to build.”

Buffett’s reputation as a long term owner of companies who keeps key management in place is one the things that makes becoming a Berkshire company attractive. The other is no longer having to be a slave to quarterly earnings reports. Just ask the folks at BNSF Railway how much easier it is to allocate capital now that they have been freed of that burden.

“We want Berkshire to be a wonderful collection of businesses over time, because we’re not going to sell them. It isn’t like we are going to keep culling the herd.”

If you can find Buffett another Lubrizol he’s certainly ready to thank you.

“Find me another Lubrizol, I’ll send flowers to your wife on her birthday,” Buffett adds. And he means it.

© 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: 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.

No Forever, Buffett Says

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In Warren Buffett’s latest annual letter to shareholders, Buffett clarified his view on what are sometimes called his “forever stocks.” These refer to Berkshire’s long-held positions in Coca-Cola and American Express, among others. These represent huge holdings where the cost basis is now so low that the annual dividends in some cases equal or come near the original cost of acquisition. Often, investors assume that Buffett’s love for these stocks means that he would never sell them. That’s not true, says Buffet, and he went out of his way this year to clarify that there is no such thing as a “forever stock.”

“Sometimes the comments of shareholders or media imply that we will own certain stocks “forever.” It is true that we own some stocks that I have no intention of selling for as far as the eye can see (and we’re talking 20/20 vision). But we have made no commitment that Berkshire will hold any of its marketable securities forever.”

© 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.

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.