I start almost every column I have ever written about Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A)/ (BRK.B) with the sincere message that, similar to many investors, I worship at the investment altar of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. But that adulation doesn't preclude me, as an investor, from questioning their and the company's direction/strategy nor does it inhibit me from being short Berkshire's stock (which I have been over the last nine months).
- Recent earnings reports at Coca-Cola (KO) and IBM (IBM), two large Berkshire Hathaway investments totaling almost $30 billion, suggest that the companies' moats appear to be vanishing.
- Healthier drink choices and the penetration of the cloud seem to have weakened the previously seen moats and have damaged the profit results at Coca-Cola and IBM.
- In the past Warren Buffett has hunted gazelles (that are undervalued); he is now hunting elephants (that are fairly valued to overvalued).
- I remain short Berkshire's shares.
Question No. 1 -- Size Matters Q: As it is said, Warren, "Size matters!" In the past, Berkshire bought cheap or wholesale -- for instance, Geico, MidAmerican Energy, the initial Coca-Cola purchase and Benjamin Moore. Arguably, your company has shifted to becoming a buyer of pricier and more mature businesses -- for instance, IBM, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Heinz (HNZ) and Lubrizol, which were done at prices to sales, earnings and book value multiples well above the prior acquisitions and after the stock prices rose. Many of the recent buys might be great additions to Berkshire's portfolio of companies, however, the relatively high prices paid for these investments could potentially result in a lower return on invested capital. In the past you hunted gazelles, but now you are hunting elephants. To me, the recent buys look like preparation for your legacy, creating a more mature, slower-growing enterprise. Is Berkshire morphing into a stock that has begun to resemble an index fund that is more appropriate for widows and orphans rather than past investors who sought out differentiated and superior compounded growth? In the past, you have quoted Benjamin Graham, saying "price is what you pay -- value is what you get." Are your recent deals and large investments bringing Berkshire less value than the deals done previously? A: Warren admitted that Berkshire won't grow as rapidly in the future as it has in the past but it will still generate a lot of incremental value. "We think we will do better than the giants of the past," he said. Charlie chimed in and said much of the same. Warren then exclaimed, "Doug, you haven't convinced me to sell the stock, but keep trying!" -- Doug Kass, "My Berkshire Q&A Recap"
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