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Alex Morris
Alex Morris

March Value Idea Contest: Berkshire Hathaway

In 1962, stock in Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.A, BRK.B), a textile mill in New England, fell to $8.12/share; for value investors like Warren Buffett, the price looked attractive considering the books had $16.50/share in working capital, so he bought a stake for his partnership (comparable to a hedge fund today). In 1964, upon meeting with management (who was looking to buy back shares), Warren agreed to tender his stake (which was sizeable by this point) at $11.50/share. However, when the tender offer surfaced, it was at $11.375; essentially, they were trying to stiff him an eighth of a point. As recounted by Warren last year, “This made me mad, so I went out and started buying the stock, and I bought control of the company.” To this day, the Oracle of Omaha still concludes that it was “the dumbest stock I ever bought.”


Berkshire Hathaway of 2011 is a very different beast than the textile mill business of half a century ago. The operations of the holding company are split up into three distinct units: investments, insurance, and non-insurance companies. The investment portfolio is the most well known part of Berkshire Hathaway, and includes sizable stakes in some of the best companies in the world, including American Express (12.6% ownership), Procter & Gamble (2.6%), and of course, The Coca-Cola Company(8.6%). As of yearend 2010, investments were worth $158 billion at market value.

While Warren Buffett is known in the general public for his investing, the other two pieces of the pie are also fundamentally important to Berkshire. The insurance business accounts for nearly $66 billion in float (included in the $158B above), which is “free” money as long as insurance underwriting breaks even. For clarification, Berkshire has operated at an underwriting profit for the past eight years, with a total underwriting gain of $17 billion during that period. In essence, float has been better than “free” during that time period. As noted by Warren in the 2010 shareholder letter, there is no reason for this to change anytime soon: “I believe it likely that we will continue to underwrite profitably in most – though certainly not all – future years.”

The non-insurance companies are also any important part of Berkshire Hathaway. As noted in the annual letter, “During the past two decades we’ve increasingly emphasized the development of earnings from non-insurance businesses, a practice that will continue.” Some of the well known names in this 68 company category include Fruit of the Loom, Business Wire, NetJets, and Dairy Queen (my personal favorite). In 2010, the non-insurance businesses accounted for $5,926.04/share in pretax earnings, which compounded at a rate of 20.5% over the last decade (compared to 21% over the last 40 years). The continued increase in earnings at the non-insurance businesses are a testament to the diversification across sectors, the competitive advantages of the individual firms, and the business quality of the acquired companies that have become a part of Berkshire Hathaway over the past 46 years.

Increasing per-share earnings of the non-insurance business at a decent rate over the coming years will be largely dependent on new additions to the Berkshire family. As noted in the annual letter, “We will need both good performance from our current businesses and more major acquisitions. We’re prepared. Our elephant gun has been reloaded, and my trigger finger is itchy.” The big acquisition from last year was the railroad company Burlington Northern (BNSF), which brought questions in regards to both price and an uncharacteristic purchase of a capital intensive business. However, the results to date have left all concerns in the dust. Based on 2010 pretax earnings of nearly $4B, Buffett paid roughly 8x for BNSF; on top of that, as pointed out in the shareholder letter, the earnings from BNSF increased normal earning power by nearly 40% pretax, and well over 30% after tax.

Considering how quickly Buffett replenished the cash from the BNSF acquisition, he was ready to shoot when the next opportunity appeared, which happened earlier this week. On Monday, March 14th, Berkshire Hathaway announced that they would acquire Lubrizol ( LZ), a specialty chemical company in the global transportation, industrial, and consumer markets, for $135/share in an all-cash deal ($9 billion for the company). Based on consensus 2011 estimates of $11.35/share, the price tag on LZ comes in at less than 12x earnings, and is equal to an earnings yield of 8.4%; this is for a company that has increased EPS by more than 25% per annum over the past five years. Again, it appears that Warren has found a strong addition to the non-insurance business portfolio.

The success of each of these three pieces has been the driving force behind consistently strong gains in book value year after year. From 1965 to 2010, book value per share at Berkshire increased 20.2% per annum (from $46 to $95,453), compared to 9.4% for the S&P 500; over 46 years, that works out to a 6,262% increase for the S&P 500, compared to 490,409% gain for Berkshire Hathaway. Much of this success is attributed to superior capital allocation by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, who are no doubt well deserving of the praise they have received. However, it is important to realize that the tradition and people they have built around them are essential to both the current and future success of Berkshire Hathaway. As an investor in Berkshire, one must realize that the story doesn’t end with Warren Buffett.


Most discussions about the future of Berkshire only ask one thing: what will life be like without Warren and Charlie? Despite the calls for a clear succession plan, the majority of the future leaders of Berkshire are already in place. The first are the operating managers of Berkshire’s insurance and non-insurance businesses. As Warren Buffett has always said, he has interest in acquisitions without the incumbent management team, and keeps his hands out of other people’s business; managers like Ajit Jain (Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group), Matt Rose (BNSF), and Tad Montross (General Re) run their own operations at Berkshire, and their business results will not be affected by who they send their excess capital to at the end of the year. The Board of Directors is another star studded cast, with names like Bill Gates (Microsoft founder ( MSFT)), Tom Murphy (former CEO, Cap Cities/ABC), and Don Keough (former COO, Coca-Cola ( KO)) filing the ranks. Much like with the operating managers, these gentlemen have proven their merit outside of Berkshire, and will step up to make sure things run smoothly when change does happen.

Two people that will play key roles in the future of Berkshire Hathaway are David Sokol and Todd Combs. Mr. Sokol, who runs Berkshire subsidiary MidAmerican with Greg Abel, was moved to the leadership position at NetJets, the leading provider of fractional ownership of jet airplanes, in August 2009. NetJets was acquired by Berkshire in 1998, and had accumulated an aggregate pre-tax loss of $157 million in the 11 years prior to Mr. Sokol’s rein. Like magic, David spun the business around to a pre-tax profit of $207 million in 2010, compared to a loss of $711 million in 2009. As noted by Warren in the annual letter, “I can’t overstate the breadth and importance of Dave Sokol’s achievements at this company.” Many people expect that Mr. Sokol will likely become the next CEO of Berkshire Hathaway; based on his past operating success, shareholders should be more than happy to have him.

Todd Combs, who appeared to drop out of the sky, was hired to handle a “significant portion of Berkshire’s investment portfolio” in October 2010. Mr. Combs was the portfolio manager of Castle Point Capital Management, which gained 28% since its inception in 2005, compared to a 49% decline against the benchmark. While I could talk about Mr. Combs and what I think it means for the future of Berkshire Hathaway, I would rather let Warren: “When Charlie and I met Todd Combs, we knew he fit our requirements. Todd, as was the case with Lou [Simpson], will be paid a salary plus a contingent payment based on his performance relative to the S&P. We have arrangements in place for deferrals and carry forwards that will prevent see-saw performance being met by undeserved payments… Todd initially will manage funds in the range of one to three billion dollars, an amount he can reset annually. His focus will be equities but he is not restricted to that form of investment. Over time, we may add one or two investment managers if we find the right individuals. Should we do that, we will probably have 80% of each manager’s performance compensation be dependent on his or her own portfolio and 20% on that of the other manager(s). We want a compensation system that pays off big for individual success but that also fosters cooperation, not competition.”

In the future, power will be split between the CEO, CIO, and the board of directors: “When Charlie and I are no longer around, our investment manager(s) will have responsibility for the entire portfolio in a manner then set by the CEO and Board of Directors. Because good investors bring a useful perspective to the purchase of businesses, we would expect them to be consulted – but not to have a vote – on the wisdom of possible acquisitions. In the end, of course, the Board will make the call on any major acquisition.”

As usual, Warren has the best analogies to explain his logic: “One footnote: When we issued a press release about Todd’s joining us, a number of commentators pointed out that he was “little-known” and expressed puzzlement that we didn’t seek a “big-name.” I wonder how many of them would have known of Lou in 1979, Ajit in 1985, or, for that matter, Charlie in 1959. Our goal was to find a 2-year-old Secretariat, not a 10-year-old Seabiscuit.”

So what does that all mean? There is no way of knowing what the future will bring. But I have seen the success of Warren’s investments in Lou, Ajit, and David; and I have no doubt that Warren has found people who are capable of picking up where he will leave off in Todd Combs, David Sokol, and all the other people that have made Berkshire Hathaway what it is today.


For Berkshire Hathaway, I think the best way to estimate intrinsic value is by splitting up the respective business segments. As noted above, the investment portfolio is worth $158 billion, or $94,730/share; since these are market values and are essentially liquid, they are valued at face.

The second component of this value is from the earnings in the non-insurance businesses, which was equal to $5,926/share in 2010. Considering an increase in per share earnings of 20.5% per annum over the past decade, I think a multiple in the high teens is justified. However, as noted by Warren above, these growth rates are harder to attain as size increases, and will likely decrease over time. In order to be conservative, I will use multiples of 8-12x pretax earnings, which are equal to a range between $47,408/share and $71,112/share.

In aggregate, my calculation of intrinsic value for Berkshire Hathaway is from $142,138 (B share equivalent = $94.76) to $165,842 ($110.56) per share. Based on a current stock price of $126,400/share, I believe that BRK.A is undervalued by anywhere between 12-31%.


The financial strength of Berkshire is a testament to Warren’s focus on creating shareholder value over time. As noted in the annual report, “Charlie and I have no interest in any activity that could pose the slightest threat to Berkshire’s wellbeing. (With our having a combined age of 167, starting over is not on our bucket list.) We are forever conscious of the fact that you, our partners, have entrusted us with what in many cases is a major portion of your savings.” This strategy also presents another advantage: cash when everyone else is running dry. The investments made in Swiss Re notes, along with General Electric ( GE) and Goldman Sachs ( GS) preferred are an example of this strategy, and a key tenet of Buffett’s investment philosophy: “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”


For years, Berkshire Hathaway was said to carry a “Buffett Premium”, the price to pay in order to be in business with one of the greatest investors and businessmen in history. As noted by Alice Schroder in a recent article, the market is concerned with the future at Berkshire, and has turned the “Buffett premium” into a “Buffett discount”. On top of this, investors caught up on short term mark-to-market accounting on derivative positions are missing the bigger picture. For long term investors who trust Warren’s ability to find businesses and managers that will maintain the legacy of Berkshire Hathaway, now is a great time to acquire shares of BRK.B.

About the author:

Alex Morris
I am a recent graduate from the University of Florida; I received a finance degree as well as a real estate minor during my time at UF. I will be sitting for Level 1 of the CFA Exam in December 2011, as well as for my series 65 exam. I am a value investor, plain and simple.

Rating: 3.8/5 (26 votes)


Pooky - 6 years ago    Report SPAM
What about the third element Buffett laid out in the most recent shareholder letter?:

“There is a third, more subjective, element to an intrinsic value calculation that can be either positive or negative: the efficacy with which retained earnings will be deployed in the future. We, as well as many other businesses, are likely to retain earnings over the next decade that will equal, or even exceed, the capital we presently employ. Some companies will turn these retained dollars into fifty-cent pieces, others into two-dollar bills.”

In my opinion, this is one of the most significant parts of the letter. I believe Buffett is coyly communicating that Berkshire is significantly undervalued.

The question is how to calculate the value of the retained earnings. Would it be crazy to suggest assigning a multiple to Berkshire’s cash pile (less the 20 billion he’s already said is the bare minimum)?

Alex Morris
Alex Morris - 6 years ago    Report SPAM

Thanks for the comment. As you noted, Would it be crazy to suggest assigning a multiple to Berkshire's cash pile?" When I calculated the multiple for the non-insurance business value (8-12x pretax earnings), I essentially put the growth factor in there; whether or not that is the correct multiple for a segment that has grown 20.5% per annum over the past decade is up to the reader to decide. I personally think this shortchanges the value of the future growth, but chose that figure to err on the side of caution.

On top of that, the cash in investments is valued at market value. The question I was considering is, does this have additional value beyond 1:1 because of who is managing the investments? In essence, if someone with a great track record (has outperformed the S&P 500 on any 5 year period since taking control of Berkshire) has $158B in equity holdings, is that worth $158B based on the idea of discounting the future cash flows? If you believe that this manager is way beyond average and will continually outperform (which I most definitely do), I think the argument can be made that it is worth more than 1:1; for the sake of being conservative, I simply took the value as indicated by market prices.

Thanks again for the comment Pooky. Let me know if there are any additional questions.
Bill Smith
Bill Smith - 6 years ago    Report SPAM

Good article, Alex. I agree with your undervaluation assessment. FWIW, I remember reading in his Owner's Manual for Berkshire shareholders years ago that he preferred if the stock price traded in a tight range near the book value of the company--and of course as we know, book value growth is his yardstick. He also acknowledges that book value tends to understate the intrinsic value of BRK. He also stated when the baby Berks came out that they should trade at 1/30 the price of an A-share. With the 50:1 split from last year, that ratio should now be 1/1500. I ballpark BRK's valuation by either: (1) comparing BRK-A price to book value; or (2) comparing BRK-B price to book value/1500. This would mean BRK is undervalued by about 20%, the middle of your range.

I had to sell my BRK last summer...but now I think I'm going to buy it back :-) Thanks!
Alex Morris
Alex Morris - 6 years ago    Report SPAM

Thank you for the informative comment; considering both of our conclusions, seems like the perfect time to load back up again in some baby Berks (unfortunately my net worth is a long way from a Class A share haha).
Hschacht - 6 years ago    Report SPAM

You've just won the contest again! Congratulations!

Quality of business: 5 stars.

Quality of management: 5 stars.

I prefer Loews (especially after the acquisition of Lubrizol and BNI).

But rather than write it up, I know when I'm beat.

That said, I am disappointed to see you pass on DPS this month!

Alex Morris
Alex Morris - 6 years ago    Report SPAM

Thanks for the comment. I don't know as much about Loews, and would be interested to see your write up on it (maybe next contest?) if you do it.

In regards to DPS: The night is still young! Have three hours to submit, who knows what will happen? :)

Hschacht - 6 years ago    Report SPAM
I feel a first and second place entry coming on for Alex.

When you win for DPS, I just want a "shout out" to post on my website... something like "My inspiration for this work was Henry's brilliant work on Dr Pepper. I could not have done it without him"... or not.
Alex Morris
Alex Morris - 6 years ago    Report SPAM
Haha sounds good to me!
Dan Dellegrotti
Dan Dellegrotti - 6 years ago    Report SPAM


The 2010 other non-current liabilities reflects non-current deferred revenue of $1,515 million due to the receipt of separate one-time nonrefundable cash payments from PepsiCo and Coca-Cola recorded as deferred revenue.
Hschacht - 6 years ago    Report SPAM
Not sure what Dan is trying to say, but the $1.6 billion in cash payments from KO and PEP in 2010 was like a gift from heaven for DPS shareholders. As one-time events go, I can think of a lot worse things. So happy that KO decided to by CCE North American and Pepsi wanted to own some of its bottlers.

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