Monday, March 23, 2015

Warren Buffett and Conglomerates

Berkshire Hathaway is a difficult to understand conglomerate with a collection of unrelated businesses ranging from candy to insurance. Conglomerates suffer a well deserved discount from their pure play peers. Consulting firms like BCG and Marakon estimate the discount as high as 10% in normal times. The discount is based on the following factors:

1)     Poor focus leading to inefficiencies including: a) high head office overhead; b) cross subsidies from cash positive SBUs to cash deficient units; and c) poor capital allocation decisions. Conglomerates mimic capital markets, but on a less efficient basis.
2)     Weak Fit: conglomerates are usually not the best owners of all their SBUs. Managers must not only manage well enough to earn their cost of capital; they also earn more than an alternative owner who can extract synergies from related operations.

These forces underlie the wave of proposed spinoffs by firms such as Hewlett Packard, EBay and Yahoo.  Yet Warren Buffett claims Berkshire’s collection of businesses are worth more under their corporate umbrella than as standalone entities. He bases this on the following:

1)     He can move capital efficiently and on a tax efficient basis among the various units. This is premised on his being a better capital allocator than capital markets. This may be true for him, but probably questionable for other mere mortals.
2)     Spinoffs are frowned upon as the “spin-or” does not receive any premium. There is no premium, however, because, the “spin-or’s” shareholder still own the spun SBU just is a different form.
3)     Berkshire has very low overhead-at least for now.
Well, how can you dispute his success? The success, however, has some question marks associated with it. Consider:
1)     Buffett used to measure Berkshire’s by the growth in book value per share compared to the S&P 500. Unfortunately, Berkshire’s performance by that measure has lagged the S&P index for 5 of the last 6 years. Consequently, he switched metrics to comparing Berkshire market value changes compared to the S&P index.
2)     He justifies the change as better reflecting the significant change in his business model from owning minority positions in liquid public securities (70%+  of business 20 years ago) to owning and operating large business today (70%+ of the current business now).

Perhaps, the conglomerate curse is catching up with Berkshire as it marches down the conglomerate path. Buffett’s superior individual skills may slow the onset of “conglomeratism”. Nonetheless, I doubt that even the Oracle can stave off its effects forever. That may be why he saw it necessary to explain why the conglomerate model makes sense for Berkshire in his annual shareholder letter this year.

Berkshire is unlikely to spin-off any divisions while Buffett remains CEO. My guess is that the pressure to break-up will mount once he gone. It seems that the advantages of the conglomerate model are more evident to those who run them, than to customers, employees and investors.


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