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Robert Huebscher
Robert Huebscher
Articles (5983)  | Author's Website |

Bruce Greenwald On First Eagle’s Funds, Microsoft Inc., American Express, and Berkshire Hathaway's Burlington Northern Santa Fe Purchase

Bruce Greenwald: Berkshire Buys Burlington -- It Is a Crazy Deal, It is a Insane Deal

Bruce Greenwald is a recognized expert on value investing. A professor of finance at Columbia University and Director of Research at First Eagle Funds, he is the author of the books “Value Investing: from Graham to Buffett and Beyond,” “Competition Demystified: A Radically Simplified Approach to Business Strategy,” and “Globalization: The Irrational Fear that Someone in China will Take Your Job.” His latest book, “The Curse of the Mogul: What's Wrong with the World's Leading Media Companies,” is available via the link below.

We spoke with Greenwald on November 4. This is part two of that interview. In part one, which we published last week, we spoke with Greenwald about his views on the structural problems in the economy and his forecast for higher unemployment rates.

Has the way you practice value investing changed as a result of the financial crisis?

We changed our focus on risk management. Many other value managers did as well, because they were blindsided.

There are three principles that I believe good risk managers and value managers should pursue to protect themselves from permanent impairment of capital and variance.

The first principle is that the quickest way to permanently impair your capital is to overpay for something. So you always want to have a margin of safety.

The second issue is that, you go wrong with your margin of safety because your intrinsic value is wrong. Something happens that surprises you. That is almost always – if it’s a permanent impairment of capital – a company problem, where a product doesn’t work or a competitor comes in, or an industry problem, like newspapers, where they get destroyed. Sometimes it’s a particular national problem, like in Venezuela. But those risks tend to be diversifiable. So the value investors who had always been very concentrated, like Glen Greenberg, who is a wonderful investor, got burned. He had five to seven positions.

For the sake of risk management, you’ve got to have at least 20 to 30 globally diversified positions. This second lesson of diversification applies because the risk of permanent impairment of capital tends to be unsystematic and specific to impairment of capital management and to variance management. We were very diversified.

The third rule is that, even within a diversified portfolio, if you have if you have a total loss that affects 3% to 4% of your portfolio, you are asking for trouble. The thing that will convert temporary impairments, which are the macro fluctuations, to permanent impairments is leverage. We’ve always been extremely careful when it comes to leverage.

I think the value community has learned this lesson. The guys like Marty Whitman who got burned were in financial services, where there were enormous amounts of leverage. We’ve learned that if you want to do a stub, which is a highly leveraged position, you want a five- to six-times upside, because the downside is zero. You’ve got to start thinking in those terms. People have learned to think about leverage differently and to be warier of leverage, and only be willing to do it in a restricted part of a diversified portfolio.

The fourth thing we’ve learned is that when you build your portfolio you have to think about macro risks in terms of scenarios. Basically it comes down to two scenarios: You can have stagnation and deflation and a recession for extended periods with inadequate demand, or you can have inflation. You have to know, holding by holding, what your vulnerability is. For example, real assets – real estate, natural resources, and things like that – are going to do very well in an inflationary environment but are going to get killed in a deflationary environment. Fixed income is going to do very well in a deflationary environment and is going to get killed in an inflationary environment.

Which assets give you the best overall protection?

The assets that are most attractive are the franchise businesses that have pricing power, because you can pass along inflationary price increases and you are not subject to competition from excess capacity, the way you are in industries like autos and steel. You have much more control on the downside.

When you have a set of positions, you are looking for a discount to intrinsic value, but after you’ve built that portfolio you want to know that it is reasonably balanced. Fortunately, at the moment, the best bargains are in franchise businesses. You are getting 8% to 11% and in some cases 13% to 14% sustainable earnings returns. With no growth at all, you have a safe asset with really attractive returns in selective areas.

People have learned to look at their portfolios with this degree of balance as a result of this experience. Realistically, I don’t believe in inflation in this environment, but nobody can be absolutely confident of what will happen with respect to price expectations and inflation.

We’ve learned about diversification, the cost of leverage, looking at our portfolios from a macro perspective, and looking for balance in our exposure. The other thing we did inadvertently, when our macro exposure looks to be too much for the balance of our portfolio, is to think about buying hedges. The hedge that we’ve had is gold, which has protected us. The attractive thing about gold is that it has no industrial uses. It’s strictly something that, when everything goes wrong, it’s going to do really well. I think people have learned to appreciate that.

The other great way to hedge is to recognize that when the risks are the biggest is when nobody thinks there are any risks at all. When that’s the case, the implied volatilities in derivatives are going up, and you get really good prices on deep out-of-the money puts on overvalued indices like the Russell in the summer of 2007, and you get really good prices on credit default swaps. You can buy credit default swaps that are trading at four basis points, which implies one default in 2,500 years – in the most volatile region on Earth or on the most volatile commodity. Mutual funds really can’t use this strategy, but good value funds are thinking about hedges, which are really forms of insurance. For the last several months, hedges have been extremely expensive, but they are finally coming down in price.

In our mutual fund, gold is the primary hedge. We have some cash, which is clearly a safe asset carrying a low yield. Most of our risk management is that we are consciously moving our portfolio – because that’s where the bargains are – to the areas where we believe the macro risks are considerably more attenuated.

What surprised you in this environment?

The biggest surprise, in a funny way, is the way that franchise companies, like Deere, have weathered this period in terms of their profit performance. The auto companies got slaughtered, but Deere, which typically would have gone from making money to losing money, is maybe down 35% in earnings.

These companies increasingly make their money on services. The part of the package you need from Deere, if you own a Deere tractor, is service. If it breaks down, you need it fixed. Deere has a dense network of dealers with lots of parts availability and lots of capacity. You’re going to get much better service and you are going to get a higher price for that. That’s a competitive advantage that protects them against price competition. As the package of what these manufacturers offers moves in the direction of service, they are going to have more local monopoly power in different areas, because the services are locally produced and consumed.

Some of the stocks you own, like Microsoft and American Express, don’t fit the traditional mold of value stocks – ugly, cheap, beaten-down, and boring. What makes these stocks attractive?

American Express (NYSE:AXP) is unbelievable. It has sustainable earnings of a minimum of $3/share. If they manage their costs at all – and that could happen if Ken Chenault leaves the company – they could easily make another $2.50/share pre-tax by cutting costs. You’re talking about making $5/share after-tax in sustainable earnings. When the price is $10, that’s two times earnings – a 50% earnings return.

If you think it is $3 or $3.50 with a potential of $5.00, you’re talking about an earnings return on American Express that’s 10% and up. They’ve got some organic growth because they earn 1.1 % on their billings [through merchant fees] without any significant impact on receivables. Rich people are clearly doing better than poor people, as they have for the last 40 years. The surprise is that these stocks, which you would not think are ugly or obscure, are this cheap. People have just gotten scared.

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is going to rule, because you need an operating system. They have pricing power. I don’t know why their stock was at $17, which I believe is where we bought it. They generate huge amounts of cash. Their stupidity seems to have stopped for the moment. They are not doing X-box or dumb things for Yahoo any more.

I know you own Berkshire Hathaway , so I have to ask you what you think about Buffett’s purchase of Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

It’s a crazy deal. It’s an insane deal. We looked at Burlington Northern at $75 and I’ll give you the exact calculation we did. You don’t have a high earnings return. They are paying 18 times earnings, but it’s really much worse than that. They report maintenance cap-ex very carefully. They report depreciation and amortization, and they report only about 70% of the maintenance cap-ex. So they are under-depreciating, and their profit numbers are lower than the true profit numbers – and in a bad way, because the tax shield for the depreciation is undergone too. Their profitability is much lower than it looks.

Buffett’s paying 18-times [at $100/share] and at $75 he was paying 16-times. Our calculation is he was paying 21-times.

Secondly, there are two kinds of assets. There are the rights-of-way, which you can’t get rid of. So there’s no issue about having to earn a return on them because you have to keep it in the business, and because there’s nothing they can do with those rights-of-way. If you look at the asset value of the non-right-of-way equipment, and you write it up because it’s more expensive than it was originally, you get an asset value that’s very close to the earnings power value. We didn’t see a lot franchise value or hidden asset value.

The other thing is that if you try to calculate sustainable earnings, you have to cope with the fact that earnings are up enormously since 2003, when oil went up. There is a simple calculation you can do, which compares the cost-per-ton-mile for freight for a truck versus a railroad. If you build the increase in the price of diesel fuel into the post-2003 experience, when revenues suddenly start to grow, what you see is that the entire growth of the revenue is accounted for by the energy advantage that the railroads have and therefore how much business they can capture from the truckers, and how much pricing they can get because the competition is now more expensive.

There is nothing special about the railroads. It’s entirely an energy play.

If you look at what their margins should have gone up by, given the energy efficiency, the margins go up by only about half of that. So you don’t have a good aggressive management over these five years producing outsized returns.

We looked back at when they did the merger with Santa Fe, because then they did increase margins. But they got bored with it, and margins started to come down. The same thing happened recently. We don’t see a lot of hidden profitability in the culture of the company.

It looked to us like an oil play. He has a history of making bad oil play decisions. And that was at $75/share, we thought there were better oil plays. At $100/share we think he has lost his mind.

Click to read the complete interview at www.advisorperspectives.com

Robert Huebscher


About the author:

Robert Huebscher

Mr. Huebscher is the founder and CEO of Advisor Perspectives, a web site and newsletter that provides investment strategy analysis for financial advisors and wealth managers. In 1982, he founded the investment software division of Thomson Financial, where he created the PORTIA product, a portfolio management system for institutional investors. In 1990, he founded Hub Data, a market data redistribution service, which he sold to Advent Software in 1998. He has also worked in the account aggregation field, as a consultant to both vendors and wealth managers. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School (1982) and Connecticut College (1976).

Visit Robert Huebscher's Website

Rating: 3.3/5 (32 votes)


Sivaram - 10 years ago    Report SPAM
Thanks for conducting this interview Robert. The first part was one of the most interesting and controversial interviews I have heard in a while. Excellent job with the interviews...

Wolinsky85 - 10 years ago    Report SPAM
Great job. Congrads on getting an interview with Bruce Greenwald
Crafool - 10 years ago    Report SPAM
Thank you for bring us this article, however Bruce Greenwald's description of Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway's purchase of the Burlington Northern as "It's a crazy deal. It's an insane deal" is perplexing given he is now the head of research for First Eagle. First Eagle was a great firm and one hopes still is, however I am now questioning if Jean Marie and Arnhold made the right choice or the choice for right now with his appointment. How crazy and insane is the deal or is it a matter of there is a forest behind the trees, Mr. Greenwald?

Buffett in his various letters to shareholders tells us the following:

"A truly great business must have an enduring "moat" that projects excellent returns on invested capital. The dynamics of capitalism guarantee that competitors will repeatedly assault any business "castle" that is earning high returns. Therefore a formidable barrier such as a company being a low cost producer (GEICO, Costco) or possessing a powerful worldwide brand (Coca-Cola, Gillette, American Express) is needed.

Our criterion of "enduring" causes us to rule out companies in industries prone to rapid and continuos change. Though capitalism's "creative" destruction is highly beneficial for society, it precludes investment certainty. A moat that must be continously rebuilt will eventually be no moat at all."

"Long-term competitive advantage in a stable industry is what we seek in a business. If that comes with rapid growth, great. But even without organic growth, such a business is rewarding. We will simply take the lush earnings of the business and use them to buy similar businesses elsewhere. There's no rule that you have to invest money where you're earned it. Indeed, it's often a mistake to do so: Truly great businesses earn huge returns on tangible assets, CAN'T for any extended period reinvest a large portion of their earnings internally at high rates of return".

"To sum up, think of 3 types of "savings accounts". The great ones pay an extraordinary high interest rate that will rise as the years pass. The good one pays an attractive rate of interest that will be earned also on deposits added. Finally, the gruesome..."

Buffett on Charlie Rose recently and regarding Burlington Northern:

Charlie Rose: Why did you do it?

Warren Buffett: 'Well, I felt it was an opportunity to buy a business that is going to be around for 100 or 200 years....It is the most efficient way of moving goods in the country. It is the most environmentally friendly way of moving goods, and both those things are going to be very important."

I would say his estimate of 100 or 200 years might qualify for his criteria for "enduring".

Low cost producer and barrier to entry as criteria for a Buffett purchase. We are constantly reminded that you don't want to get into any business that has you competing with China or India's cheap exports. During the interview Buffett says: "I mean, we can't move the railroad to China or India. They haven't figured out how to do that. So you know, it's sort of like if you remember that song about New York--we have to make it here or we can't make it anywhere". It's a business that can no be attacked by cheap imports like so many others. He points out "...it moves a ton of goods 470 miles on a gallon of diesel. It replaces--a train replaces 280 trucks on the road. It emits far less into the atmosphere that's damaging than trucks, and it moves--I'm talking about the whole rail industry-- it moves 40% of the goods". Greenwald points out it is an oil play. Yes, however it is also an efficiency play from both energy and time (congested and deteriorating highways and roads) make it in many estimates 30 to 40% cheaper than long haul trucking. Think about the other potential cost as Buffett says "those things are going to be very important" in the concept of "cap and trade". Will a shipper get "credits" in the future for shipping items in a greener fashion? Will investments in greener industries like trains be allowed to offset other carbon emissions like those that come from utilities like Mid-America that produce energy from coal, which rail roads selling "clean credits" could add a revenue source.

Barrier to entry Buffett had this to say: "If they wanted to reproduce the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, it might take $100 billion or so." Charlie Rose: "And a 100 billion years" Warren Buffett: "They'd have to be a real sport"."

Buffett likes to point out a Ben Graham saying of "Price is what you pay. value is what you get.". In this case $26 billion plus debt on a business with a replacement cost in the neighborhood of $100 billion. I think that qualifies as a "hidden asset".

Buffett says this is a business offering "Reasonable return is good enough, Charlie. I mean, 50 years ago, I was looking for spectacular returns, but I can't--I can't get them. We have--we have $8 or $10 billion to invest every year." He also says: "So it's capital intensive, and it is regulated, and it will continue to be regulated, and it will continue to be capital intensive'. Buffett loves regulated businesses at good prices. He likes his pipelines, utility companies and now railroad. Greenwald points out these are capital intensive businesses, and YES they are, but they offer guaranteed returns on that capital. Remember Buffetts rules to investing: Rule number 1: Don't lose money. Rule number 2: See Rule Number 1. Regulated businesses do a lot in protecting capital and as he points out in his letters to shareholders- " Such projects offer BRK the opportunity to put out substantial sums at decent returns." and "We have been allowed to earn a fair return on huge sums we have invested". Where was this money before hand? Cash. What does cash pay, Mr. Greenwald?

What do regulated utilities consider to be a fair return? Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger tell everyone considering buying a share of BRK that if they are looking at the past returns on BRK's Book Value that it can't be done because their capital base is so much larger. Mr Greenwald will find this out when he moves further from academics and into managing money for a HUGE Value fund. When Buffett was asked returns his answer was well I think I can earn ...10% per year. To Buffett that would be fair for most investors a real achievement and versus a 10-year Treasury Bond at 3.44% a real boon given the level of risks assumed.

Railroads are capital intensive, however Mr. Buffett has pointed out in the past that these railroads have spent HUGE in the past, and going forward there will be capital expenditures but not at the past levels. Investors tend to take short-term trends and extrapolate them well into the future. Mr. Greenwald did you do any calculations as to what will happen if Capex started to decline going forwarded from present levels? Also, Marmon industries (a BRK subsidiary largest holding is Union Tank Car which leases 94,000 rail cars (valued at $5.1 Billion and past Revenues of $7.1 Billion) ) when combined with BNI might benefit BRK?

I could go on. I am sure Buffett is crazy and insane just as the Mid-America Energy deal had no one clued as to what was going on at the time I believe within a couple of years of that purchase the price was something like 2 times EBIT. Do be surprised if this is a "crazy like a fox move". I beleive Dave Sokol of mid-America energy believes it for the week before in his appearance on CNBC. Mr. Sokol said the moves Mr. Buffett has made in the last 18 months may prove to be his greatest. I know I am going to stick with him, and Mr. Greenwald should too. By the way, what would you pay for a monopoly with a bright future?

Happy investing to all. Even you Mr. Greenwald.

Dealraker - 9 years ago    Report SPAM
Insane is for the idiot who can't think outside his overweight box.

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