Thursday, August 13, 2015

Berkshire Hathaway's Issues Aren't Its Numbers

Berkshire Hathaway's net income for its fiscal 2nd quarter 2015 declined 37% over the prior year period, which generated some market consternation.  However, in a holding company of this size and breadth, driven by insurance businesses, volatility is a fact of life, as the Chairman himself has often said in his letters.

The big question about this company can be framed in terms of corporate succession, and that is certainly where the press reports traditionally have gone.  The genius of the company so far lies in its structure as a holding company and on distinctive features of its operating model.

"There are essentially no centralized or integrated business functions (such as sales, marketing, purchasing, legal or human resources) and there is minimal involvement by our corporate headquarters in the day-to-day business activities of the operating businesses."

One of the companies I followed as a research analyst was RPM, International, the old Republic Powdered Metals.  Founded by entrepreneur Frank C. Sullivan, the company grew rapidly under his son, Tom Sullivan.  The two corporate leaders were Tom Sullivan and CFO Jim Karman, much like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger.  The paragraph above describing Berkshire applies very well to the RPM I covered. RPM's long-term superior returns and sustained dividend growth have proven out its model, and its market cap today is north of $6 billion, driven by acquisitions, just like Berkshire.

A really key difference highlights the uniqueness of Berkshire's model, which is something I've written about for some time: it is the breadth and spread of the business portfolio.  RPM's portfolio is all in specialty chemicals and coatings worldwide.

Berkshire's portfolio encompasses a huge insurance business, spread over personal lines, commercial lines, and reinsurance.  Beyond that, it owns a leading railroad, a significant manufacturing company portfolio, and significant energy utility business.

In the case of both companies, acquisition of portfolio companies has taken place over a long period of time, with the important factor being the operational acumen and character of the target company founders or executives.  All an investor has to do is to read Berkshire's Chairman's Letters over time to see the repeated reference to portfolio company leadership when calling out outstanding results. Judging character and letting the operators run the companies are common features of both company models.

Going back to the Berkshire 10 Q, we read, "Berkshire's senior corporate management team participates in and is ultimately responsible for significant capital allocation decisions, investment activities, and the selection of the chief executive to head each of the operating companies."

It is the husbanding of corporate cash flows from the operating companies, together with the insurance float and holding company financial capacity by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger and the reallocation of the pool among the different operating companies, investments, and acquisitions that lies at the heart of Berkshire's long-term success.

The operating company executives do their jobs in stellar fashion, and they are in good businesses to start with.  They are extremely well compensated, and they are allowed to act like entrepreneurs, though they are managers.

With this context, let's go back to the question of corporate succession.  Mr. Buffet's son, Howard Buffett as non-executive Chair.  He has written an interesting book, "Forty Chances."  Beyond that, it's frankly hard to see how this succession would give an investor confidence in the future, to be dispassionate about it, as an analyst would have to be.

Next, assume that Berkshire's most successful, adept and widely respected executive in his industry (insurance), Ajit Jain were to be named as Berkshire CEO.  The press talks about him as the leading candidate, whatever that means. Would this be a comforting move for investors?  I would say, "Not necessarily."

First of all, who would succeed Mr. Jain as leader of an insurance empire that contributed $2.3 billion of net earnings over the six months of fiscal 2015 to-date?  Who would have similar insights into the entire panoply of global insurance lines that Mr. Jain possesses?  Without knowing that, it would be foolish to just jump for joy at Mr. Jain's ascension.  Shareholders know nothing about the holding company leadership at the next level in order to make an informed assessment.

Secondly, Mr. Jain's interest in stepping out of an industry he knows like the back of his hand, into a portfolio which goes from box chocolates to railroads and reallocating capital among them might not be very strong.  He probably realizes that this would not be his forte, nor would it be "fun."

CEOs of operating businesses tend to be specialists, which to some extent underlies their success. They know, grew up in, or have a passion for railroads, bending metal, or pricing risk.  I don't know a comparable figure to Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger among all the hundreds of companies I have covered, researched or visited with in my travels.

So, the question really boils down to whether or not the Berkshire Hathaway model and its historical success are inextricably bound up with the business philosophies, characters, and acquired networks of the two current leaders.

Take the next idea bandied about, namely that one of the two new investment executives named to run the liquid investment portfolios were named to lead the company.  Frankly, investors should probably head for the exits.  Their limited experience is in traditional asset management, no matter how sharp they are or how well they are doing with inherited portfolios.

Think about the long-serving operating executives of the holding company subsidiaries.  With a change, would they feel as comfortable and secure with the structure to which they have committed their energies? I don't know, but I suspect that they would have questions and might lose focus for a time.

I suspect the reason why Mr. Buffett has been so coy about the "succession" issue is that he himself knows that (1) too little attention has been paid to it because of the complexity of steering a company this size and growing it through massive acquisition since 2013. And, (2), there is no simple answer in naming two leaders.

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