Category: Corporate Finance


Berkshire’s Blemishes: Lessons for Buffett’s Successors, Peers, and Policy

Columbia University has published my most recent research paper, available free on SSRN (registration required): “Berkshire’s Blemishes: Lessons for Buffett’s Successors, Peers, and Policy.” Here is the abstract.

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Berkshire Hathaway’s unique managerial model is lauded for its great value; this article highlights its costs. Most costs stem from the same features that yield such great value, which boil down, ironically, to Berkshire trying to be something it isn’t: it is a massive industrial conglomerate run as an old-fashioned investment partnership. An advisory board gives unchecked power to a single manager (Warren Buffett); Buffett makes huge capital allocations and pivotal executive hiring-and-firing decisions with modest investigation and scant oversight; Berkshire’s autonomous and decentralized structure grants operating managers enormous discretion with limited second-guessing; its trust-based culture relies on a cultivated vision of integrity more than internal controls; and its thrifty anti-bureaucracy means no central departments, such as public relations or general counsel.

Delineating the visible costs of Berkshire’s model confirms the desirability of tolerating many of them, given the value concurrently generated, but also reveals ways to improve the model—a few while Buffett is at the helm but mostly for successors. Current reform suggestions include hiring a full-time public relations professional at headquarters and more systematically developing senior executives; suggestions for future reform include enhanced subsidiary compliance resources and separating the identity and personal opinions of top executives from the corporation and its official policy.

Besides helping Berkshire, the review and suggestions will help managers of other companies inspired by Buffett’s unique managerial model and policymakers who should study it. Implications for peers and policymakers include highlighting flexibility in corporate governance, the efficacy of the conglomerate form, and especially the value of strategies that produce long-term thinking among shareholders and managers alike.


Buffett’s Timeless Investing Principles


WB MOAFWarren Buffett distills investment success into three words—margin of safety—and tells investors to take one of two approaches: either focus on value or buy an index fund. Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha,” has been steadfastly giving such sage advice for decades, through calm and choppy markets alike.

In fact, twenty years ago I hosted Warren and Charlie Munger, his Berkshire Hathaway partner, for a two-day conference at Cardozo Law School that launched an international best seller, The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. At the time, Warren’s investing style was unfashionable. Critics increasingly said he’d lost touch, misunderstanding the budding “new economy” and its “game-changing” technology.  Buffett foresaw exceedingly high stock prices—and soon proved correct.

After recently stumbling on the transcript from that gathering, I published an annotated version, The Buffett Essays Symposium: Annotated 20th Anniversary Transcript.  It’s packed with timeless gems for every investor—then and now, in ups or downs—including these three pivotal propositions. Read More


Dale Oesterle on Buffett & Munger 20 Years Later

35Editor’s Note: Dale Oesterle (Ohio State U.) contributes an extended version of his current reflections on The Buffett Essays Symposium: A 20th Anniversary Annotated Transcript, recently published by The Cunningham Group and Harriman House. Prof. Oesterle (right) participated in the 1996 symposium’s panel on takeovers and engaged in extensive colloquy with Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman, Charlie Munger, sitting in the front row (left).   67

Much has changed since my exchange with Mr. Munger in 1996.  Relevant to my comment, leveraged acquisition practice, and our view of the social utility of leveraged acquisitions has changed significantly.

First, true hostile tender offers, tender offers that close hostile, are dead.  By hostile, I refer to tender offers that are made and executed (closed) without the consent of the target board of directors.  An offer closes hostile when the hostile bidder, buys enough stock to replace vote out a resisting target board.  Financial buyers were “raiders” funded by “LBO Funds” [Leveraged Buy-Out Funds].

We have a very infrequent current substitute in which hostile tender offers are made contingent on the success of a hostile proxy contest. But the word hostile now attaches to tender offers that are, in essence, harsh opening bargaining positions to pressure sitting boards of the target to negotiate to a friendly conclusion. These bids too are rare, however.

What now survives of the old 80s hostile acquisition is a rather timid substitute.  Hedge funds buy small stock stakes so as to not trigger takeover defenses and, as “activist shareholders,” attempt to persuade a sitting board to engage in major transactions or financial reorganizations.

In most cases, the incumbent board and the new active block shareholder negotiate to some sort of compromise.  Incumbent boards that refuse any and all changes face a challenge for one or two board seats and “shark attacks”, a growing group of shareholders, other hedge funds and even institutional investors, that is increasing disturbed by the board’s position.  The common public attack, fueled by the same group of lawyers, politicians, and pundits that attacked raiders, now focuses on hedge funds and “activist shareholders.”

True leveraged acquisition became friendly, run by “PE [Private Equity] Funds,” and often focused on distressed companies negotiating purchases short of inevitable or impeding bankruptcy.  PE Funds also attracted the scorn of the public for their often radical re-organization efforts;  workers were fired, factories closed or sold, and headquarters moved. Read More


Warren Buffett’s Timeless Ten Investing Rules

cunningham buffett 4e coverAbout 10 years ago, editors of Investing Rules asked me the top ten rules from Warren Buffett on investing.  Last week, the editors asked me to update the list for a new edition.  After studying the list for the first time in a decade, guess how much change was needed?

None. Given the timeless quality of Buffett’s method, I did not elect to change a word.  Herewith the list, as good today as ten, twenty or more years ago. And for elaboration of these and other insights, see The Essays of Warren Buffett, recently updated to a fourth edition.

  1. Don’t be the patsy.

If you cannot invest intelligently, the best way to own common stocks is through an index fund that charges minimal fees. Those doing so will beat the net results (after fees and expenses) enjoyed by the great majority of investment professionals. As they say in poker, ‘If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy’.

  1. Operate as a business analyst.

Do not pay attention to market action, macroeconomic action, or even securities action. Concentrate on evaluating businesses.

  1. Look for a big moat.

Look for businesses with favorable long term prospects, whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher 5, 10, 20 years from now.

  1. Exploit Mr. Market.

Market prices gyrate around business value, much as a moody manic depressive swings from euphoria to gloom when things are neither that good nor that bad. The market gives you a price, which is what you pay, while the business gives you value and that is what you own. Take advantage of these market mis-pricings, but don’t let them take advantage of you.

  1. Insist on a margin of safety.

The difference between the price you pay and the value you get is the margin of safety. The thicker, the better. Berkshire’s purchases of the Washington Post Company in 1973-74 offered a very thick margin of safety (price about 1/5 of value).

  1. Buy at a reasonable price.

Bargain hunting can lead to purchases that don’t give long-lasting value; buying at frenzied prices will lead to purchases that give very little value at all. It is better to buy a great business at fair price than a fair business at great price.

  1. Know your limits.

Avoid investment targets that are outside your circle of competence. You don’t have to be an expert on every company or even many – only those within your circle of competence. The size of the circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.

  1. Invest with ‘sons-in-law’.

Invest only with people you like, trust and admire – people you’d be happy to have your daughter marry.

  1. Only a few will meet these standards.

When you see one, buy a meaningful amount of its stock. Don’t worry so much about whether you end up diversified or not. If you get the one big thing, that is better than a dozen mediocre things.

  1. Avoid gin rummy behavior.

This is the opposite of possibly the most foolish of all Wall Street maxims: ‘You can’t go broke taking a profit’. Imagine as a stockholder that you own the business and hold it the way you would if you owned and ran the whole thing. If you aren’t willing to own a stock for 10 years, don’t even think about owning it for 10 minutes.



Five Reasons to Cheer for Starr v. United States (AIG Nationalization Case)

AIG coverYesterday, the US Federal Court of Claims ruled that the US government and its leaders acted illegally in nationalizing AIG during the 2008 financial crisis, in a shareholder suit led by Hank Greenberg, the man who built AIG until his departure in 2005. But the judge (Wheeler) also ruled against awarding any damages, saying AIG shareholders were not harmed.

A top journalist at a major financial magazine asked me the following five questions, and I gave the answers indicated–being five reasons you should celebrate the ruling. Please note that I wrote the book, The AIG Story (Wiley 2013), with Greenberg, where we laid out the legal basis for Wheeler’s ruling on illegality.

1) Is this a moral victory for Hank Greenberg? Do you think he sees it that way? 
Yes, it is a moral victory for Greenberg and for everyone else who cares about the rule of law.  I can’t speak for Hank other than to say he cares deeply about the rule of law.

2) Andrew Ross Sorkin calls this a split decision in today’s New York Times. Is that true and if not who won?
It is a Solomonic split decision but designed to invite an appeal by Greenberg and not by the government, so Hank gets a second bite at the apple on appeal.

3) Given the collateral calls that were pending and the certainty of an AIG bankruptcy, did Greenberg ever have a real chance to recover $40 billion?
No, but given the possibility of hiving off the insurance companies outside of bankruptcy, Judge Wheeler’s conclusion on no damages is vulnerable to reversal on appeal.

4) What will this ruling mean for government intervention in future financial crises? Is that good or bad?
No more violating the law or the rule of law by government officials, whatever they may think at the time. Very good–a win for justice and true American legal values.

5) The judge says that government broke the law in taking over AIG. Do you agree with that assessment?
Yes. Virtually every major figure in the takeover violated the law, certainly fiscal authorities such as Bernanke and Geithner, and maybe cabinet secretaries such as Paulson, and many of their bankers and lawyers, including those from Davis Polk, Goldman Sachs and Sullivan & Cromwell. They should all feel disgraced.


A Berkshire Opportunity Cost: Listed Family Firms

aaaaaThe following is adapted from “Berkshire’s Blemishes,” a working paper delineating the costs, rather than the vaunted benefits, of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway as a management model.  

Warren Buffett loves family businesses whose owner-managers care more about their constituents than about profits, recognizing instead that customer care tends to translate into economic gain. Those entrepreneurs, in turn, love Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s company, because it offers intangible benefits such as managerial autonomy and a permanent home. When family businesses sell to Berkshire, they know they can still run them as they see fit and will not be sold if prospects falter: Berkshire has not sold a subsidiary in forty years and promises not to.

Buffett hates using Berkshire stock to pay for acquisitions, however, since few companies can match the time-tested premium currency Berkshire has come to represent. In fact, Berkshire’s worst acquisition was paid for in stock and Buffett still translates the cost into current values: $443 million paid in 1993, equivalent to more than $5 billion in Berkshire stock now. Preferring to pay cash, Berkshire is often able to acquire family businesses at a discount because selling shareholders value Berkshire culture. Buffett also hates auctions, plagued by frightful dangers like the winner’s curse, which can push bids well above value, rationally calculated.

Sensible as these tenets are, there is always an opportunity cost, in this case forsaking listed family firms–publicly traded companies controlled by a family. Unlike those owned solely by close-knit groups who all wish to sell to Berkshire, directors of listed family businesses owe duties to non-family shareholders when selling control. In most states, led by Delaware, they are duty-bound to get the best value for shareholders.  (The doctrine is known by famous cases illustrating it, including Revlon and Paramount v. QVC.)

In a stock deal where all holders share gains in future business value, directors could consider Berkshire’s special culture in valuing the transaction. But with cash, all such future value goes to Berkshire’s shareholders, not selling public stockholders, who would also gain nothing from the autonomy or permanence that family members prize in a sale to Berkshire. So directors resist an all cash sale at a discount and seek rival suitors at higher prices, even stimulating an auction to drive price up—repelling Berkshire’s interest.

An example can be drawn from Berkshire’s 2003 acquisition of Clayton Homes, a publicly traded family business bought for a modest (seven percent) premium to market. Many Clayton shareholders objected; one, Cerberus Capital Management, told Clayton it wanted the chance to make a competing bid; another sued. The result was a six-month delay in getting to a shareholder vote, which narrowly approved the Berkshire deal. Many Clayton shareholders were disappointed, but Cerberus opted not to outbid Berkshire, and the court dismissed the lawsuit.

The scenario remains unattractive to Berkshire, however, given the risk of litigation, delay and rival bids. After all, courts might require directors to take affirmative steps, presenting the risk of an auction, which in itself suffices to deter Berkshire from bidding in the first place. The upshot: the publicly traded family business is outside Berkshire’s acquisition model, amounting to an opportunity cost for what would otherwise be a sweet spot. On balance, it is probably a price worth paying, but it’s useful to know the price.

Lawrence A. Cunningham, a professor at George Washington University,  has written numerous books on a wide range of subjects relating to business and law. 


DuPont Victory Good Sign for Buffett’s Berkshire

aaaaaYou 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


Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger Annotated by Experts in Wall Street Journal

WB1996Warren Buffett’s latest letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders is annotated in The Wall Street Journal by 30 professors, authors, and investors.  Editors Erik Holm and Anupreeta Das assigned us each two sentences in the letter, and/or Charlie Munger’s addendum, to amplify.  Here are my two, followed by the list of contributors. Mine address the role Warren’s son Howard will play in succession and what Munger believes concerning what made Berkshire succeed.

Regarding Buffett’s reference to his son Howard (p. 36):   Buffett tries again to defend the choice of Howard to succeed him as board chairman. Many remain skeptical. But critics should appreciate the plan’s savviness. It deftly carves a niche for the son of a legend, as Howard will: (1) not be asked to perform any task his father has performed (like investing or capital allocation) and (2) be asked to perform only one task, which Warren has never performed (monitoring the CEO for adherence to Berkshire culture and dismissing any who fail). This shrewdly avoids the trap many children of legendary parents face of never being able to measure up.

Notably, besides Munger, Howard is the only individual Buffett identifies by name among Berkshire personnel in his anniversary message and, besides Buffett, Munger only names Abel and Jain. In fact, while Munger and Buffett mutually credit the other for minting the Berkshire model, they never credit any other Berkshire personnel for its success. The omission contrasts with Buffett’s letters, which rightly herald specific executives who power Berkshire and animate its culture. The difference is that these messages, while in form historical, are really about the future, and all three people identified by name are referenced in discussions of succession.

Where Munger asserts (p. 39) that “The management system and policies of Berkshire . . . were fixed early”:   Munger’s statements about how Berkshire’s “system and policies” were “fixed early” is vague. In one sense, it sounds as if they were part of a master plan at the outset back in the 1960s.  But Buffett has often stressed that Berkshire never had a strategic plan nor any business plan. And through the 1980s, most of Berkshire’s “business” consisted of investments in securities for its insurance companies, not wholly owned operating subsidiaries. So it doesn’t seem likely that, in the 1970s or even as late as the 1980s, Buffett’s goal was to create “a diffuse conglomerate.”

On the other hand, Munger subsequently clarifies (p. 40) that Buffett “stumbled into some benefits [of these policies] through practice evolution” over his career. And Buffett sculpted much of Berkshire’s culture late in the company’s life as part of a process that is still ongoing and extends well beyond these policies. Therefore these passages should not obscure the fact that the “Berkshire system” looks sharper from today’s vantage point than from Buffett’s desk “early” on. That’s important to recognize lest observers commit errors associated with hindsight bias like believing that observed outcomes were predictable, a weakness of human psychology which Munger often lectures against.

Cunningham is the author of Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values and editor and publisher, since 1997, of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. For more commentary on this topic, see today’s New York Times Dealbook column, here. Read More


Fed Officials Accused of Perjury in AIG Bailout Trial

In the financial trial of the century, the most important document is missing. The document is the term sheet that the government says it gave AIG’s board right before taking the company over in Sept. 2008.  The government says the AIG board thus approved the Draconian terms that benefited Goldman Sachs and other rivals. But other evidence, including  AIG’s contemporaneous securities filings, suggests the board was agreeing only to sell the government warrants not transfer 80% of the common stock to it for a song.  The missing document would prove which side is telling the truth.

That’s one of many amazing points of contention noted by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism in her relentless digging into what government really did during the financial crisis. Most recently, she alleges and documents perjury and obstruction of justice by top federal officials in the pending case of former AIG shareholders against the US. The case alleges that the government trampled on corporate law rights and that the Fed exceeded its authority—allegations that I document in my book, The AIG Story, written with Hank Greenberg, lead plaintiff in the case.

Smith lays out her claims in an extensive blog post at Naked Capitalism, accompanied by reams of additional documents and examples. For those looking for a skinny version, here is an abridged adaptation. Most examples concern Scott Alvarez, general counsel of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve; there is one with with Tom Baxter, general counsel of the New York Fed, who worked with Tim Geithner. The shareholders are represented by the noted trial lawyer, David Boies. The point about the term sheet is at the end.

Example 1

Boies: Would you agree as a general proposition that the market generally considers investment-grade debt securities safer than non-investment-grade debt securities?

Alvarez: I don’t know.


Example 2

Boies: [Presents a copy of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report stating that the Fed had lowered the standards it applied for the quality of collateral for its loans under two programs then devised to support lending and asks] Do you see that?

Alvarez: I see that. . .

Boies: . . . [W]ould you agree that the Federal Reserve had lowered its standards regarding the quality of the collateral that investment banks and other primary dealers could use while borrowing. . . ?

Alvarez: No.

Boies: You would not agree with that?

Alvarez: Right.


Example 3 Read More


Walmart versus Apple aka Revenue versus Profit

Which business would you want to be? The Economist Espresso reports that Walmart takes “about 65 seconds to collect $1m in revenue,” but Apple needs “very nearly three minutes.” Looks like Walmart is where the money is. And it is, but when it comes to profit, “Apple, with its high margins, is fastest in the profit stakes: chalking up $1m takes it less than 13 minutes and 20 seconds, whereas Walmart needs more than half an hour.” Looking at the chart, Apple and Google have good profit margins but banks like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs do even better (all above 20%). Coke (17.4) and Pepsi (10.4) are quite good too. So how much does the law affect these sectors and which the best to be in? Hard to tell.

No matter what, any regulation be it about disclosures about practices or nutrition or oversight or safety or labor or where a good is made or liability for property rights or ability to weather an economic downturn, can shape a sector. Given the high profits in some of these sectors, you will see some arguing that they are getting away with too much and others saying that any regulation will kill the sector. Both positions are likely incorrect. That said, watching where new money, new offices (for old and new ventures), and start ups go may tell us something about where people believe they can do well.

One thing I am thinking about is how much state-by-state regulations and barriers to labor mobility influence business decisions. Although work on intellectual capital and noncompetes is quite strong that lower restrictions help business overall, alleged protection of voting systems and other entry barriers matter too. Someone may have studied this point. If so, please share. But my guess is that a company that has trouble getting people (and I mean U.S. citizens) to their headquarters won’t be happy about that cost.