The More Focused, and More Opaque, Buffett & Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A, BRK-B, BNI, UNP, NSC, GS, GE, TIF, HOG, WMT, COP, XOM, WFC, RSG, DOW, ETN, WBC, MCO, WLP, UNH, GSK, SNY, GCI, WPO)

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This was an important week for investment guru and billionaire watchers to see which gurus were holding which stocks.  The full public equity holdings of Warren Buffett via Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) were particularly of note, particularly with those B shares under “BRK-B” soon to split and giving a chance for even the less astute ranks of Joe Public to own a piece of the Berkshire dream.  Obviously the huge change is via the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (NYSE: BNI) buyout.  As part of this deal, Buffett is exiting Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) and exiting Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) stakes of about $600 million and $100 million, respectively, to avoid duplication and internal competition.  The rail transport play now accounts for about one-quarter of the total Berkshire Hathaway entity upon closing. But the less obvious position in that Warren Buffett in 2009 has made it clear that there will be a simpler and probably less “stock-hound” version of Berkshire Hathaway ahead.

Buffett has gone higher up the food chain and is likely to be a creditor now inside or to large institutions.  We have seen this during the crisis.  Buffett negotiated a better deal for Goldman Sachs Group (NYSE: GS) than the US Government was able to get.  Buffett’s preferred stock in Goldman Sachs has a dividend of 10% and is callable at any time at a 10% premium; but Buffett also got warrants to purchase $5 billion of common stock with a strike price of $115.00 per share, exercisable for a five-year term (4 years now), and Buffett would effectively get to pocket $61 per share if he exercised those all today at the market (and with a $2.6 billion warrant profit alone).

The General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) stake was listed only as 7.77 million shares of common stock (about $125 million now), the same as it has been for quarters.  Yet last year Buffett came to the rescue with a $3 billion of perpetual preferred stock in a private offering with a dividend of 10% and warrants to purchase $3 billion of common stock.  The preferred is callable after 3-years (2 years now) at a 10% premium; the warrants have a strike price of $22.25 and are exercisable for a five-year term (4 years now).

Two other investments in preferred or note offerings made in the last year during the financial crunch were in Tiffany & Co. (NYSE: TIF) in February via 10% senior notes and in Harley-Davidson, Inc. (NYSE: HOG) with a 15% rate.  Neither of these are in the Buffett equity holdings.

Buffett increased his holdings in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) to 37.8 million shares versus 19.9 million shares.  This could easily be hiked from about $1.9 billion today to almost infinity with its $208 billion market cap.  With over 10% officially unemployed in the U.S., Wal-Mart has become the shopping destination of millions more of Americans and that value and thrift trend is not likely to end any time soon.

Then there is the ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) bet that Buffett got his timing very wrong on.  He cut his stake again here to 57.4 million shares versus almost 62.5 million shares and still has the tax benefit for selling.  He added Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) with a 1.27 million share stake.  As Exxon is the largest company by market cap at $357 billion, this is much easier for Buffett to invest into rather than $79 billion market cap today in ConocoPhillips.

The Wells Fargo & Company (NYSE: WFC) stake which he grew yet again is worth over $8.7 billion, and Buffett could probably insert more money there through time if it gets cheap again.  Then there is the new Republic Services Inc. (NYSE: RSG) position of 3.625 million shares ($100 million today) where Buffett is just investing alongside buddy Bill Gates now that Gates’ entity has a board seat there and a huge stake.

Then there are the overseas bets, and these are just some:

  • $2.5 billion into diversified Swiss Reinsurance Co. Ltd.
  • $4 billion to buy control of Iscar Metalworking in Israel
  • $230 million for a 10% stake in BYD for electric batteries in China
  • $144 million or so stake in Nestle

Buffett lent $4.4 billion to Mars for the Wrigley buyout.  He also lent Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW) $3 billion for part of the Rohm & Haas deal. As noted earlier, Buffett is going higher up the food chain.  In fact, he is almost becoming the default alternative investment bank.  And he has cut down and exiting equity positions as well.

Eaton Corp. (NYSE: ETN), in power management, and WABCO Holdings (NYSE: WBC), in parts and systems for mostly commercial vehicles, were dropped entirely this last quarter.  It seems as though Buffett is also systematically exiting the Moody’s Corp. (NYSE: MCO) position now that the business model has changed.  He still holds too much there, but maybe better late than never.

Buffett is also not betting against the Obama health care plan as he cut his stakes in both Wellpoint Inc. (NYSE: WLP) and UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH). It will be interesting to see if Buffett hangs on to those drug company stakes in GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK), at 1.51 million shares, and Sanofi Aventis (NYSE: SNY), of more than 3.9 million shares.

Then when considering Buffett’s comments about the poor future of print media, you have to wonder if the Oracle of Omaha just won’t take his licks in Gannett Co. Inc. (NYSE: GCI) worth only about $39 million today and Washington Post Co. (NYSE: WPO) worth $730 million today.

It still seems obvious that Buffett would like to hold a large utility as a wholly owned subsidiary.  That may be his next ‘whale of a deal’ after he builds his cash back up over $20 billion.  Buffett got burned on his dollar bet before, but he is active internationally.  The BNSF deal is arguably a China-coal bet rather than an “all-in bet on the future of America,” assuming that is not symbiotic.  This now makes Berkshire Hathaway even more of a financial and transport operation, with far less emphasis on public common stock bets.  And he is going higher on the food chain. It will alsways be interesting to see how Buffett invests the Berkshire Hathaway fortune.  But what is obvious is that he is starting to get out of the way of some bets and make more concentrated bets elsewhere.  The new Berkshire Hathaway is more of a financial and transportation operator now… more than ever… that is also acting as private investment banker.  The investment changes over the last year are showing more of a penchant for debt and being higher up the food chain than just common stock in the U.S.

This all acts to make Berkshire Hathaway more predictable in operations and even more of a true conglomerate.  And it makes the passive investments a bit more opaque.

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Again, here is the full list of Buffett & Berkshire Hathaway US public stock holdings.

JON C. OGG
November 19, 2009