The Wall Street Journal originally reported the story on Saturday, but cited no sources, so there might be something there or there might not. Overall, though, there may be as many reasons for Buffett to take a pass on this one as to pull the trigger on what would probably be his largest acquisition ever. Berkshire Hathaway paid around $27 billion in 2009 for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad.
The Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) and Airbus are both customers of Precision Castparts, as are engine makers General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), the Pratt & Whitney division of United Technologies Corp. (NYSE: UTX) and Rolls-Royce. GE is the company’s largest customer and generated more than 10% of its revenues in each of the past 6 years according to Aeroweb.
The aerospace division of Precision Castparts generates 70% of the company’s revenue, with the rest coming from energy (17%) and general industrial (13%). The company has two problems: the energy division has struggled as crude oil prices have fallen and Boeing has been squeezing suppliers as it tries to maintain both competitive pricing and margins.
The energy business is unlikely to recover until oil rig counts recover to some total north of about 1,000 or so in the U.S. Last week Baker Hughes counted 884 oil rigs in the U.S. Analysts at Canaccord Genuity reported from the Paris Air Show in early June that Precision Castparts pricing power in the oil and gas markets remains a “challenge as there is too much capacity chasing the softer demand.”
Canaccord also noted that Precision Castparts was looking for merger or acquisition opportunities that would add to the company’s vertical integration.
Here are other cautious observations from the analysts:
- Honeywell said the casting and forging industry is “struggling to meet rising rates on some of its engine programs.”
- Precision Castparts “still faces 2016 headwinds,” largely in the first half of the year.
On the plus side, Canaccord liked other aspects of Precision Castparts:
- It “remains one of the best executing companies and strong [free cash flow] FCF generators.”
- There is upside to margins.
- Precisions Castparts is investing in growth.
For all that, however, Canaccord Genuity rates the stock a Hold with a price target of $230, an implied gain of 18.6% from Friday’s closing price of $193.88. The stock’s 52-week range is 186.17 to $249.12.
If Buffett is indeed considering an acquisition here it’s because he’s bought into the notion of long-term growth of the airplane business. That’s probably a safe bet, even if the outlook is not as rosy as it’s painted by Boeing and Airbus 10-year backlogs.
In its report on Saturday, the WSJ cited an analyst who pointed out, “Precision Castparts appears to lack the pricing power that Mr. Buffett has often sought in deal targets.” That runs contrary to what the Canaccord Genuity analysts concluded, but given that Boeing and Airbus are known to be squeezing suppliers, it certainly makes sense that Buffett would be cautious.
An acquisition of Precision Castparts could be a reasonable play at making some money in the aerospace industry, a goal that has eluded Buffett for years. A 1989 investment in USAir eventually ended with a $358 million write-off, and Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets business has not been a particular success for Buffett. The luxury jet service recently replaced its CEO, its pilots’ union is unhappy, and NetJets has not paid Berkshire Hathaway a dividend since being acquired in 1998.