Is Berkshire Hathaway Becoming More Private Equity Than Conglomerate Under Buffett?

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Warren Buffett and his team may be gradually making changes to how they operate Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A). The changes have been subtle in recent years, but the way in which Berkshire Hathaway makes acquisitions and takes stakes being taken is becoming rather unique, compared to other conglomerates. It might be easier to argue that Berkshire Hathaway is becoming more like a public private equity shop, rather than being a conglomerate.

The good news here is that Berkshire Hathaway is unlikely to lose its conglomerate status. Still, the influence and dealings with private equity are becoming easier to see. It goes without any rational argument that Buffett is simply able to get a better deal than you, me and his rivals when it comes to transactions of any nature with companies. Buffett even got a better deal than the government did in the bank bailouts. So how does all of this, and the trend of Buffett’s most recent M&A and partnership deals, tie in with Berkshire Hathaway becoming ever more like a public private equity than a conglomerate?

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The trend of better dealings perhaps is most evident with the convertible preferred stakes structured in General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) and more recently Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC). Those were better deals for Berkshire Hathaway than any other investor could have demanded at the time. After all, the companies got to simultaneously say that their businesses were safe enough that Buffett was investing in them.

More recently, Buffett has always said he is open to a whale of a deal — a term he keeps using to refer to deals in the $10 billion to $20 billion range. Most traditional investors just think that this means that Team Buffett will go out and acquire a large company or a large unit and then tuck it under the conglomerate’s umbrella. It turns out that the “whales” are getting harder and harder for investors to harpoon.

Berkshire’s 2014 annual report shows that smaller, bolt-on acquisitions are extremely common now. The 2014 annual report shows that it contracted for 31 bolt-on deals last year alone, at a cost of $7.8 billion in aggregate, with terms ranging from $400,000 to $2.9 billion each.

In dealing with private equity firms, Buffett seems to not be going the traditional route of the past decade, in which private equity firms would, alone or in groups, buy companies on the cheap, leverage the companies to strip out capital, and then sell them back to the public for even more money. In the past two years or so, Berkshire Hathaway joined 3G Capital in the acquisition of Heinz. Buffett’s annual letter said:

My affirmative response was a no-brainer: I knew immediately that this partnership would work well from both a personal and financial standpoint. And it most definitely has.

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