Most investors agree with Buffett’s criticism of Kraft’s decision to buy a fairly valued (or overvalued) Cadbury at 22 times earnings (over the past 15 years, its average price-to-earnings ratio has been 21), using Kraft’s undervalued stock. Cadbury runs a global, noncyclical confectionary business that, if properly managed, should have a very high return on capital. Buffett, a shareholder of Kraft, was very public about his dismay – he said he felt poorer when Cadbury accepted Kraft’s increased offer.
But though many agree with Mr. Buffett’s assessment of the Kraft/Cadbury deal, investors and media are completely ignoring Berkshire’s own, $30-billion-plus acquisition of a very cyclical, capital-intensive, not terrifically high-return-on-capital business – Burlington Northern. A railroad for which Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire will lay out 18 times earnings (over last 15 years its average P/E was 15); and to make it even worse, part of the deal will be financed by issuing what Buffett recently called “cheap” Berkshire stock. Burlington stock is not cheap, it is fairly priced at best, and likely overpriced. Also, Buffett owning Burlington Northern will not make the railroad business any more valuable. There is little value to be unlocked in this business, and Buffett will practice his usual hands-off approach.
Though Mr. Buffett said all the right words – “I am betting on the recovery of the US economy” – there are some rays of hypocrisy shining through Buffett’s statements about other companies (e.g., Kraft) and his own actions. He felt “poorer” when Kraft made the acquisition – well, BRK’s shareholders should feel poorer, too.
Vitaliy N. Katsenelson