What I Learned, Part V: On Expected Returns and Diluting the Berkshire Gene Pool
“What is the expected return on capital from Burlington?” asks the shareholder from Hamburg, Germany. “And if you can’t buy more railroads would you expand into shipping?”
As Warren Buffett launches into his answer, I muse that this is not the first time a German has asked the best question at a Berkshire shareholder meeting.
In “Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett’s Omaha” (McGraw-Hill 2008) I described the one and only question that really challenged Warren Buffett throughout more than five hours on a Saturday morning two years ago—and it was asked by a shareholder from Bonn.
The fact that only one question—out of more than 50 that day—attempted to scratch the surface of the Oracle’s brainy-but-folksy demeanor is not as striking as it might appear to those who have only seen Buffett hold court on CNBC, where he dispatches opinions on everything from the inheritance tax to railcar statistics.
Despite the fact that the centerpiece of the annual “Woodstock for Capitalists” is a five-hour, no-holds-barred question-and-answer session with Warren Buffett and his vice-chairman, Charlie Munger, the fact is that in recent years not many shareholders asked questions even marginally related to Berkshire and its businesses.
All that changed at last year’s meeting, of course, when Buffett eliminated the first-come, first-served lineup at the microphones and instead selected three financial journalists to pose questions submitted in advance by shareholders and anyone else with an internet address.
The new format eliminated the tendency of past meetings to veer towards “What Would Warren Do?”-type queries from awestruck acolytes asking Buffett advice on how to become a great investor, or what issues Buffett would tackle if elected President, or—and I am not making this up—“Do you know and believe in Jesus Christ, and do you have a personal relationship with God?” (The answer to that one is—well, buy the book and find out.)
Indeed, at the May 2008 meeting only one question related to the businesses owned by Berkshire Hathaway. It was also the only question Buffett ducked. (By contrast, he answered the “Jesus Christ” question as he answered most of the rest: straight ahead, with no irony.)
And that was too bad, because it was a great question that indirectly got to the heart of what will likely become the central issue at Berkshire Hathaway: what happens when Warren Buffett—the best capital allocator in the world—is no longer allocating capital at Berkshire.
Using Berkshire’s See’s Candies as an example, the Man from Bonn asked whether Buffett would prefer a slower-growing but higher-margin business, as See’s is, to a global but somewhat lower-margin business, as Swiss chocolate giant Lindt & Sprüngli has become.
It is a an excellent observation: when Buffett and Munger bought See’s for $25 million in 1972, it was a small, west-coast candy company. 37 years and $1.5 billion in profits later, See’s remains a small, west-coast candy company.
While that’s good news for Berkshire shareholders—after all, Warren Buffett reinvested that $1.5 billion of cash from See’s into other high-return opportunities, to the benefit of Berkshire and its shareholders—it’s not necessarily good news for See’s Candies in a world gone global. (To see how Buffett ducked the German’s question, read “The Decline and Fall of the Sainted Seven,” Chapter 36 in “Pilgrimage.”)
The question asked today by the shareholder from Hamburg is equally good: “What is the expected return on capital from Burlington,” he has asked, “And if you can’t buy more railroads would you expand into shipping?”
This time, Buffett does not duck it.
“I think the return will be satisfactory but not mouth-watering,” Buffett says. “It’ll be similar to our energy utilities.” Berkshire’s utilities earn decent, regulated returns on investment—not remotely close to the See’s Candies-kinds of returns that most investors associate with Warren Buffett—but “satisfactory” nonetheless.
The reason “satisfactory but not mouth-watering” returns are appealing to a guy famed for growing Berkshire’s book value at 20% a year for 45 years is simple: the sums involved are so vast ($43 billion, give or take, in total capital for the Burlington Northern deal), that a “satisfactory” return on this elephant-sized investment means a lot of money will be coming in Berkshire’s door every year for many, many years.
And any money manager—Buffett, especially—will tell you it is far more difficult to grow large amounts of money than small. In Burlington Northern, Buffett has found precisely the kind of “elephant” he has been hunting for years.
That does not mean, however, Buffett thinks the Burlington acquisition is without risk.
By comparing the railroad business to Berkshire’s existing utilities businesses, Buffett makes an important point. For unlike See’s Candies, which sells a discretionary consumer product and therefore may raise prices or introduce new products or enter new markets at will, the railroad business is subject to significant oversight from the Feds—less so than in the past, when pricing was regulated, but still significant—much like a regulated utility.
Indeed, at this very moment, Jay Rockefeller’s Senate Commerce Committee is considering new rail legislation to beef up regulatory oversight and put the screws to railroads—legislation that the CEO of Union Pacific, Burlington’s chief rival in the west, complained about on his company’s recent earnings call.
And so it is that Buffett proceeds to discuss the risk this government interference poses:
“We are counting on society to behave well with us in allowing us a reasonable return on capital IF we do our job of behaving reasonably well,” he says.
Asked next what would happen if government regulation got “more intense” on railroads, Buffett says matter-of-factly:
“The governments could strangle our utilities… They have the ultimate authority…they could raise the corporate tax rate to 80% or something…
Our basic position is that if we behave well, they’ll behave well. Our utility customers oughta feel very sure that when they flick a switch the lights’ll go on,” he says, adding, “They’re gonna need the railroads in this country big time.”
Buffett’s age (he’ll be 80 in August) seems to be catching up with him: despite shielding his eyes from the glare of the spotlights, he can’t discern from which microphone in the crowd the next question is coming from. He looks intently at the unused microphone near us while the shareholder asking the question is at the microphone on the other side of the concert hall:
“How would the stock split affect Berkshire’s ability to be in the S&P 500?”
It is a bit unsettling to see Buffett continue to stare at nobody, but the spotlights are bright and what the hell, this is Warren Buffett, who cares where he’s looking?
Besides, this is a question with big dollars at stake. Berkshire is not in the S&P 500 Index, despite the fact that its market value is larger by far than any other company not already in that index—and bigger than most that are in it.
The reasons Berkshire has been excluded up to now are straightforward: two of the Standard & Poor’s Index Committee’s five ‘admitting criteria’ haven’t been in Berkshire’s favor since the day Buffett took control in 1965—one being trading volume and the second being the amount of stock in public hands.
Before the Burlington deal was announced in early November, a less-than-whopping 40,000 shares of Berkshire “B” shares traded on a good day, not adjusted for today’s proposed 50-for-1 stock split. And the volume in “A” shares, through which Buffett controls Berkshire, barely rounded up to a 1,000 a day prior to the announcement.
Answering the question, Buffett observes:
“We’re by far the largest co that’s not in the S&P 500… the A/B situation creates problems for us, but eventually we’ll be in the S&P 500, we’ll be so large.” So far, so clear; but it is in discussing the effects of this dramatic change in his shareholder base (over which Buffett was once so obsessed that he used to keep track of how many shareholders lived in his own zip code) that Buffett exhibits the ability to rationalize any particular stance that makes him so remarkable, and, to some investors, so hypocritical:
“If they put us in the S&P, it’s good for shareholders,” he says, because “if 6-7% of funds are in index funds it’s a block of stock that’s essentially there forever, which is EXACTLY what we’re looking for.”
Thus in one easy, plain-spoken sentence the investor who for fifty years has warned against following the herd; has railed against diversification by serious investors (“ass-backwards,” his business partner, Charlie Munger, calls it); and has refused to split his stock for fear of diluting the intellectual gene pool of the “quality shareholders” in the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder base, now blithely claims that index funds—big, stupid, mechanical, massively diversified index funds—are “Forever.”
If, by “Forever,” Buffett means “So long as Berkshire’s market capitalization stays proportional to the index,” then he’s correct.
If, on the other hand, by “Forever” he means “Whatever happens to Berkshire Hathaway,” he can’t be more wrong.
It is an astonishing piece of rationalization, even for most of the investors seated in this room, yet the prevailing reaction seems to be a shoulder-shrugging ‘Warren-will-be-Warren’.
Buffett then rationalizes the effect on the Berkshire gene pool in an equally offhand way:
“By now our identity is pretty well known. I don’t worry about downgrading the quality of our shareholders.”
He concludes the stock-split discussion with one more remarkable statement:
“We should have done it when we bought Gen Re.”
The final question of the day gets to something that’s been on people’s minds since Buffett first announced the Burlington deal: what kind of hidden assets he sees in the Burlington railroad balance sheet.
To be concluded….
Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up
© 2009 NotMakingThisUp, LLC
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