You know the activists have made an impact when the prospects of targeting Berkshire Hathaway are taken seriously enough to warrant a question on the subject to Warren Buffett at the company’s famous annual meeting. Buffett scoffed at the idea by stressing a combination of performance and size—but there is a bit more to say, and now is a good time to say it, in light of yesterday’s stinging rebuke of the notorious activist Nelson Peltz by shareholders of DuPont. (No, greed is not good.)
Berkshire is among the largest, most diversified and profitable corporations in American history. It owns nine subsidiaries that, if they stood alone, would each be a Fortune 500 company, and boasts scores of diverse companies generating revenue from $1 billion to $8 billion apiece. At present, no sensible activist would target the firm, since Warren Buffett built, runs, and controls it by owning 34% of the voting power.
But just as the 84-year old conglomerate builder plans for Berkshire’s fate beyond his lifetime, no doubt activists are planning too. After all, despite a whopping market capitalization of nearly $400 billion, most analysts agree that Berkshire is worth more—that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Citing criticisms of the conglomerate business model, activists will urge management to sell Berkshire’s struggling units, spin-off the mediocre, and install new managers at any failing to meet publicized performance standards. In the process, they would call for distributing the cash to shareholders. They would explain how what they offer is worth more than Berkshire shares alone: cash plus shares in spun-off subsidiaries along with the continuing Berkshire shares.
The counterargument, familiar to Berkshire’s stalwart shareholders, will stress the value Berkshire has created from its unique business model. It pledges to business sellers that it will hold them indefinitely and give managers autonomy. Such commitments have great economic value not necessarily reflected in either today’s stock price or the valuations of individual business units. The only way to preserve that premium is sustaining the conglomerate. The value is amplified by the capacity to relocate capital across subsidiaries without taxes, interest, covenants or hassle. Keeping the whole together reinforces the economic value of these and other intangibles, including a culture of trust, thrift, and teamwork. Read More