Berkshire Hathaway - The $44 Billion Dollar Train Set

Investment Manager's Letter November 2009

Berkshire Hathaway’s 3rd Quarter

Berkshire Hathaway’s earnings in the third quarter came in at $3.2 billion, up 300% from the third quarter of 2008, largely as predicted, although the gain on their derivative contracts was about $400 million short of our guess.

Price action currently is being influenced by merger arbitrage, the hedges are buying Burlington Northern and selling Berkshire Hathaway short to lock in the small premium that still remains between the Market price of BNSF and the $100 per share that Berkshire Hathaway will pay when the merger is complete.

The current market price of Berkshire Hathaway is very cheap with the company selling at 1.2 times its market value plus float this is about the same level of value that existed in 2000 when Buffett offered to by the stock at $45,000 per share.

Bruce Berkowitz of Fairhome fund who has been buying Berkshire Hathaway back after selling it in early 2008, was quoted in a recent interview as saying the reason he is buying now is because of the credit melt down and that because of this he feels the money Buffett has committed in the last year and a half may turn out to be the best investments of his career.

The $44 Billion Dollar Train Set

“You know, when I was six, I wanted a railroad set and my dad didn’t get it.” Warren Buffett at the Columbia Business School Town Meeting.

Newly arrived in Omaha, 73 years late, but just in time for Christmas a shiny, but not exactly new train set. There may be a bit of a problem placing this package under the Christmas tree because it comes complete with 6,500 locomotives 83,000 freight cars and approximately $2.1 billion in net income.

In some ways this is a typical Berkshire Hathaway acquisition, but it some ways it is different. Some analysts have considered it more expensive than Buffett’s usual purchase, and at 16.7 times 2008 earnings it is not cheap, but from 2004 to 2008 Burlington has increased its’ earnings from $805 million to $2,115 million an annual rate of increase of 27.3%, so it may be that this more of a growth situation than is normal with a Berkshire Hathaway purchase.

Interesting aspects of this purchase are:

1. Size

At $44 billion, if you include the value of BNI’s debt, this is the biggest deal that Berkshire Hathaway has done. The next biggest was Gen Re for $16 billion in 1998.

2. Cash Flow

Berkshire Hathaway expects to pay $16 billion in cash. They will borrow $8 billion and use $8 billion from pretty cash.

Buffett says this will leave with about $20 billion in cash. This is about the same level of cash as the company had at the end of the second quarter, and would seem to indicate that cash is flowing into Omaha at a rate of about $4 billion quarter.

Doug Kass says that this will be Buffett’s last big deal, but I doubt it. In view of the fact that Berkshire Hathaway’s cash flow will pay for this acquisition in about a year and half, and with further economic pain and suffering likely in a couple years, Buffett’s next big deal may not be all that far into the future. Berkshire Hathaway’s current cash flow will increase with addition of Burlington Northern and the improvement in the economy, and it is possible that instead of being Buffett’s last deal, this will the first in a series of new, larger acquisitions.

3. Stock split

Berkshire Hathaway’s stock split is another indication that the company has entered into a new era. For years, Buffett sought to limit membership to the club by keeping the entry fee high, but his gifts to the Gates Foundation have ended that era. It is now necessary to increase the liquidity of the stock to the point that the sales by the Foundation will not disrupt the market.

The stock split will increase the number of “B” shares from 14,500,000 to 725,000,000. The issuance of new stock to Burlington Northern shareholders, if they all take “B” shares (and they won’t), would add another 123,000,000 shares. I am not sure that this will relieve all pressure from the sales by the Gates Foundation, but it certainly will help to increase the stock’s trading volume. It also will make it more likely that Berkshire Hathaway will be added to the S&P 500, and that would definitely soak up all the stock sold by the Foundation.

Estimates by Standard and Poor’s are that 10% of stock of each member of the index is held by index funds. In Berkshire Hathaway’s case this would require that index funds purchase approximately $16 billion worth of Berkshire Hathaway’s stock. My estimate of sales by the Gates Foundation would be something like $2.5 billion per year.

4. Economic Implications

Buffett is better than most at understanding macro economic trends, and this purchase has some interesting implications. It is a play on a weaker dollar, on rising energy costs and inflation in general. Buffett has said that the best hedge against inflation is a well run business with the ability to raise its’ prices. A monopoly transporter of basic commodities would seem to be in about as good a position to fit his criteria as any business.

The purchase is also, as Buffett said, a play on American business. A weaker dollar will make American businesses more competitive both in their domestic market and in international markets. It may even put more money in the pockets of American workers and help to revive our consumer economy.

In a way BNSF reminds me of the purchase of Coke. There was a lot of skepticism at the time Buffett bought the stock. Why Coke? It was big, slow growing and largely unloved on Wall Street. No one could figure out what Buffett saw in the company. Ten years later in 1998 everyone agreed that it was a great purchase because now it was obvious what he saw in 1988. It was ability of large American brands to expand their sales in rapidly growing overseas markets.

I suspect that this too, is case were those of us without Buffett’s macro insight will have to wait a few years to understand what he sees now, and that it is likely that his judgment will look better and better as time passes.

5. Style of purchase

Recent acquisitions have mostly happened after Buffett received an interesting phone call. This one is different, because Buffett made the call. Buffett made the call, dropped a hint, and 15 minutes later (so he says), he had the deal he wanted. No, it probably was not that simple, but it is an interesting story. We are left with the impression that Buffett can have pretty much any deal he wants, all he has to do is pick up the phone. Maybe Buffett is just bragging. But there is no one else on the planet with the reputation that would allow him to pull off anything like this kind of a deal. Berkshire is big and getting bigger, and it is going to take bigger and bigger deals to move the needle, but in this particular game it looks to me as though Buffett’s reputation for integrity leave him with little competition.

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