Berkshire Hathaway’s “Whale” Acquisition; Who Could It Be?

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Stocks to Watch: BRK/A, MRO, TRV, WM, ALL, LEH, CHA, REP, OXY, DOW, VLO, E, MET, BF, DB, SNP

Warren Buffett was noted this weekend as saying he is tempted to find a "Whale" of an acquisition rather than just trying to catch a big fish.  Everyone knows that Buffett has called technology a widget that he wouldn’t buy, so what could this mean?

We screened stocks with some valuations that would entail Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) either selling many stakes it holds in public companies or that would require it to raise capital from the markets.  In order to do this we looked at the balance sheet and decided that the company cut off mark would be somewhere in the vicinity of $35 Billion for the company to still have ample cash to operate without stretching or minimizing activities.  We decided to go up to $80 Billion as the ceiling, thinking that Buffett could probably sell the idea and considering that this amount ‘could’ still occur if he stretched it big time.  He has already said that Geography is not a barrier any longer. 
The companies that trade at $35 billion to $80 billion have price to book value ratios of Less than 2.5, Price-to Earnings ratios of 15.0 or less, forward Price to earnings ratios of under 14.0.  There are many other measures such as discounted cash flows and return on equity that we could have run, but we thought we’d see what comes up. 

Companies that did not have ADR’s were screened out, even though this may not be fair.  He has mostly stayed away from energy companies, but his PetroChina (PTR) stake made us leave this in.  He has stayed away from banks, but since he has been aggressive into insurance we decided to keep this in there.

Here are some of the companies that showed up in the screen:
Marathon Oil (MRO), Travelers (TRV), Washington Mutual (WM), Allstate (ALL), Lehman (LEH), China Telecom (CHA), Repsol (REP), Occidental Petroleum (OXY), Dow Chemical (DOW), Valero (VLO), E N I (E), MetLife (MET), BASF (BF), Deutsche Bank (DB), China Petrolem (SNP). 

Here is the problem in evaluating the companies above: If you don’t think Buffett would take on the huge additional risks in insurance or if you think he’d shy away from a bank or brokerage firm, then Buffett would need to go into the chemical companies or into energy and refining.  Even if you scale down the size to say $20 Billion, you have the same type of companies in the mix, except you bring in some metal and commodity names.

What is the biggest problem in having roughly $40 Billion in cash and equivalents?  It’s obviously trying to put the money to work.  Buffett is not under the same pressure as private equity to put his cash to work.  His track record speaks for itself, but you have to wonder about the company down the road and what its strategy will be.  How far will they diversify?  Will they diversify?  When your holding period you evaluate a business on is "Forever" it makes for some interesting problems to have.

Jon C. Ogg
May 7, 2007

Jon Ogg can be reached at jonogg@247wallst.com; he does not own securities in any of the companies he covers.