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The Question of Catalyst's - Price vs. Value at Berkshire

March 03, 2012 | About:

The Science of Hitting

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On February 27th, Whitney Tilson appeared on CBNC to talk about Berkshire Hathaway (link here), which is now his (along with Glenn Tongue, his partner at T2 Partners) largest position. Among the normal back and forth, the conversation turned to the catalysts that will drive Berkshire (BRK.B) stock in the future (as asked, "how do you know you're going to close that gap?"). Here’s what Mr. Tilson had to say on the topic (bold added for emphasis):

“As investors, we like asymmetric risk/reward; up 50% [to reach T2’s estimate of intrinsic value], down 8% [to 1.1x book, where Buffett can repurchase shares in size], I’ll buy that all day long. We have encountered periods where the stock has traded for whatever reason… there’s no obvious catalyst here, we’ll concede that for sure; but we’ve always been rewarded if we are just patient and here we think we’re going to be rewarded sooner rather than later.”

I really think that the idea of a catalyst might explain why so many people don't practice actual investing, or to be more specific (while essentially saying the same thing), value investing. While most people (I think) understand the concept of a divergence between the market value of a company and its intrinsic value (based upon a much less volatile set of future cash flows to the owners), the question always comes back to one of closing that gap, and the catalysts that will cause the price and the value to do so.

The problem is that most people aren’t investors; they are traders, looking to make a small profit on a stock over the next day, week, or month before they abandon ship. Instead of looking at the fundamentals and conservatively estimating a business’s intrinsic value, they watch how Mr. Market yanks the price back and forth to determine the merits of a company at its current valuation; for these people, “intrinsic value” is nothing more than what can be extracted as profit due to market timing (in the majority of cases, it’s called luck).

But for investors, a catalyst is still quite important; if you buy a net-net, for example, the convergence between price and value is critically important: whether it happens over 3 months or 3 years will have a material impact on the investment return, particularly if the value portion of the equation is shrinking over time. For me, this is largely the reason why I have avoided these types of investments in the past; interestingly, Monish Pabrai talked about this back in 2010 (link here):

“One of the things I have found about net-nets and companies which are trading close to net asset values or have a lot of cash is that there’s a seductive element to them that can lead you astray. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I have a company that has a $100 million market cap and let’s say it has $95 million in cash. And let’s say it has a business that generates a million dollars a year.

Well that type of investment is of zero interest to me because the cash is an anchor. The million is going to happen for sure year in and year out in a business like that without cash. Maybe its worth somewhere between $10 and $15 million; let’s say $15 million. So that business has a value of $110 million. And you’re paying a $100 million for it and that’s just not interesting. So I would not have an interest.

In fact you could go to the other end and say it has $110 million of cash and the market cap is $100 million and it’s still not of interest. Even if it’s generating a million a year because now it’s worth $125 million and you’re paying $100 million or so. It’s not that interesting.

Now of course it has a lot of downside protection elements, which is fine. But you can find those types of businesses a dime a dozen in Japan today, for example. I’m more interested in a business where everything is there. Where there is downside protection and there’s an upside pop.[/b]

[b]One of the problems you have with net nets is that you have only one side of it. You have downside protection. You don’t have the upside. I really try to look for ones where I can get both.
And it’s few and far between but that’s what we try to do.”

As Mr. Pabrai notes, the home-run’s come when you have the downside protection IN ADDITION TO upside potential; as Mr. Tilson notes, Berkshire has downside protection of roughly 8-10% due to Warren’s ability to repurchase shares at 1.1x book and $40 billion in excess capital. More importantly in my opinion, Berkshire is roughly 50% below a conservative estimate of intrinsic value AND GROWING; by Mr. Tilson’s estimate, the company can increase intrinsic value by a high single digit rate per annum, closing in on $200,000 per “A” share by the end of fiscal 2012 (more than 70% above Friday's close at $117,400).

At the end of the day, patience is a critical component of investing; luckily for many of us, we are planning for financial events that are years (or even decades) in the future. When you buy great businesses, you are given an extra kicker for your time – an increased margin of safety as the intrinsic value of the businesses grows over time; while you’re waiting, take comfort in Warren’s words of wisdom: “time is the friend of the wonderful company, the enemy of the mediocre”.

About the author:

The Science of Hitting
I'm a value investor, with a focus on patience; I look to buy great companies that are suffering from short term issues, and hope to load up when these opportunities present themselves. As this would suggest, I run a fairly concentrated portfolio by most standards, usually with 8-10 names; from the perspective of a businessman rather than a market participant / stock trader, I believe this is more than sufficient diversification.

I hope to own a collection of great businesses; to ever sell one, I would demand a substantial premium to the average market valuation due to what I believe are the understated benefits to the long term investor of superior fundamentals and time on intrinsic value. I don't have a target when I purchase a stock; my goal is to replicate the underlying returns of the business in question - which if I've done my job properly, should be very attractive over many years.

Rating: 4.4/5 (24 votes)

Comments

AlbertaSunwapta
AlbertaSunwapta - 2 years ago
We need a list of great catalyst free investments. Their beauty is that they provide time for poor people like me to work, save and accumulate. I don't care much at all about my one year returns, and don't mind double digit negative returns as long as I'm saving and buying more.
Cogitator99
Cogitator99 - 2 years ago
I don't disagree -- BRK.B is my largest position. But people may be making too much of the downside protection in the form of the stock buyback. If the market gets really bad, Buffett will not support the stock. He says so in the latest annual letter -- that his bids will fade in particularly weak markets. It is in the company's interest to buy shares as cheaply as it can, so if Buffett can get the stock at 0.9x or 0.8x book instead of 1.1x, he'll do it. Wouldn't you?

Everyone who buys BRK should understand this. It's not a negative at all though, that's the way it should be done to maximize value.
AlbertaSunwapta
AlbertaSunwapta - 2 years ago
Couldn't be said better.

Why support departing shareholders at the possible expense of continuing shareholders.
batbeer2
Batbeer2 premium member - 2 years ago
>> It is in the company's interest to buy shares as cheaply as it can, so if Buffett can get the stock at 0.9x or 0.8x book instead of 1.1x, he'll do it.

It's not. (Re)purchasing shares at high prices may be dumb. This doesn't mean it is in the interest of the company to ripoff shareholders who're selling.

Think like an owner ! Let's say a company has one share. You own it. Management tells you it's in the interest of the company to take that share of your hands at the lowest possible price. What would you do next ?

Buffett understands this. In fact, in one of his letters, he said management is responsible for enabling shareholders to sell at reasonable prices.
marcolanaro
Marcolanaro - 2 years ago
Excellent article, I am an avid reader of your articles!

From my point of view, it is of no interest to W. Buffett a share buyback with the investor in mind, his objective is to allocate capital in the best way and with the interest of the company in his mind. So probably at 1.1 book value he thinks that there are not many better alternatives to allocate capital, and that will, by the way, make the interest of remaining shareholders not departing.
batbeer2
Batbeer2 premium member - 2 years ago
@ marcolanaro

Yes !
The Science of Hitting
The Science of Hitting premium member - 2 years ago
I don't think 1.1x is a hard floor, but I do think that Warren will be buying back in a big way ($5B+) if he gets the opportunity to over time...
Arpan
Arpan - 2 years ago
@Batbeer2

I disagree that it is ethically wrong to buy from departing shareholders at cheap prices. It is the management's responsibility to enhance the intrinsic value of the business and to allocate capital appropriately. It's not their responsibility to provide investment advice to shareholders.

If share buybacks (without proper announcement or otherwise) are unethical, than couldn't the same be said about insider purchases? In both cases, management is buying stock from existing shareholders, because they think the stock is undervalued. In one case it is for the benefit of management themselves, and in the other case it is for the benefit of remaining shareholders. I see no difference, in terms of ethics, between buybacks and insider purchases.

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