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Stocks B / Berkshire Hathaway


Subject:  Re: Questions About BRK Date:  10/7/2012  7:47 AM
Author:  mungofitch Number:  194711 of 226012

First off, Bigshan pts out in Column 1 and 2 valuation, that Cash and
investments is not = in value to sh'holders as op earnings, seems to
equate it to just excess cash on a BS and earning no real return.
Any further commentary on this aspect of BRK?

A first comment is that I believe that the "two column" approach is a
great way to understand Berkshire, but at best a so-so way to value it.
The reason is that no valuation of Berkshire can really be "good enough"
unless it understands how an insurance company works.
In particular, the two-column values published in the annual letters
implicitly assume that there will never be any underwriting profit or loss,
for the simple reason that they entirely ignore the fact that it's an insurance firm.
That being said, when today's price is far below intrinsic value measured
any number of different ways there isn't much point quibbling about
the most accurate process. I have moved to simpler and simpler valuation
methods over the last couple of years because fancy stuff isn't needed—for now.

To your question, you're right. The ongoing existence of the firm requires
that there always be a big pile of cash earning only very modest returns.
It can't all be deployed, and can't be paid out as dividends, so it
will always be a drag in that the earnings on those particular assets
will always be lower than the earnings on others.
So, one of these dollars of cash in the hands of Berkshire by itself
doing nothing is not worth as much as a dollar in the hand of a shareholder.
There are a couple of mitigating factors: first, as mentioned above,
Berkshire is an insurance firm and (unusually) one that definitely
earns an underwriting profit average through the years.
Thus, the overvaluation of a simple two-column approach which values
the cash as highly as anything else is offset by the undervaluation
because there is no estimate of ongoing average underwriting profits.
It's the insurance subsidiary that means the cash has to be there,
so it's fair to include the upsides of that subsidiary.
A second mitigating factor is that cash does earn interest in normal years.
The current ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) won't last forever.

Along the same lines, the publicly listed shares held by Berkshire
are not worth quite as much as the same publicly listed shares if
they were spun off to Berkshire's shareholders. The reason is the
extra level of taxation on the dividends. This is a pretty small
effect, almost certainly made up for by the fact that the people who
work at Berkshire seem to be better than average at picking stocks.
The two-column approach has no place to include any profits from
buying low and selling high, which does happen from time to time.
e.g., the PetroChina investment.

Also, curious about what ppl on this board think about Tangible Book Value vs Book Value when valuing BRK.

A rather glib but vastly true viewpoint is that it just doesn't matter
because Berkshire has so many assets that don't show up in book value at all.
Another thing to note is that a surprisingly large fraction of the
goodwill on the books is from a single purchase of BNSF.
That purchase turned $X of cash into less-than-$X of tangible book.
But was value destroyed thereby? Isn't BNSF worth more as an
operating business than the scrap value of the rails and cars?
I think most people would agree that BNSF is worth at least what
was paid for it, so the goodwill from that is real value.
Besides, if it were still a listed company it would likely be on the
books at a very much higher value, probably tracking the other big rails.
So the acquisition created a goodwill asset you think you might have
to mark down when it would otherwise have created a huge unrealized
capital gain if it were not consolidated which we'd never question.
UNP's share price is up 128% (not 28%) since the day before the BNSF acquisition
was announced making the 30% premium to undisturbed price seem pretty minor!
Though this discussion addresses only BNSF, much of the other goodwill is similar:
the business in question is really worth more than its book value, not less,
since the goodwill generally came from the gap between tangible assets of the
purchase price of an operating company which is worth more than its original purchase price.
In short, no, I don't think a tangible book adjustment is necessary or even prudent.
If you track tangible book through time you'll see a big downwards
discontinuity because of the railway purchase which seems rather perverse.

Which moves us on to the issue of book value as a value metric at all.