Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Warren Buffett May Have Quadrupled Berkshire Hathaway’s Position in ConocoPhillips

In the latest filing of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s previous position in ConocoPhillips (COP) did not show up. This makes us Buffett followers wonder what he did to the stock.

The filing said this about ConocoPhillips: "Confidential information has been omitted from the Form 13F and filed separately with the Commission. Included in the confidential filing is information regarding Berkshire Hathaway's position in ConocoPhillips. At March 31, 2008, shares held in ConocoPhillips were included in Berkshire Hathaway's public Form 13F."

Did Buffett buy more COP, or just sold it out?

According to the latest quarterly reports of Berkshire Hathaway, during the first half of 2008, Warren Buffett bought $5.5 billion of stocks, $1.5 billion of that was purchased during the first quarter. Also Warren Buffett sold more than $1.6 billion of stocks during the second quarter.

The sale of $1.6 billion is mostly from the reduction of AnheuserBusch Companies Inc (BUD). Berkshire had about 35 million shares at the first quarter. He sold about two thirds of it, which is worth about 1.3 billion, close to the dollar amount of sale he reported.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Freddie Mac: An Interesting Bet?

Please read my comment at: Lollapalooza Investing

John Stumpf: Wells Fargo cracks the whip

As one of the country’s top two mortgage originators and distributors, Wells knew that steering clear of subprime and securitised lending would mean ceding valuable business to more aggressive competitors.

“You can imagine the pressure on us. We were the number one mortgage originator and we had to give up market share and earnings,” Mr Stumpf says. “[But] it is more difficult to attend a party and leave before the trouble starts than not to attend the party at all. Part of my job here is to make sure we don’t attend parties that make no sense.”

With his laid-back delivery and penchant for catchy metaphors – traits he shares with Warren Buffett, his occasional bridge opponent and Wells’ largest shareholder – the 54-year-old Mr Stumpf makes Wells’ escape from the crisis sound easy. The reality is that the lender’s bold counter-cyclical call saved the company from the worst US housing bust since the Great Depression.

To be sure, Wells did suffer some $3bn in credit losses and has a sizeable portfolio of home equity loans that could continue to lose money for some time. But while some rivals such as Citigroup and Wachovia were forced to raise billions of dollars to close the gaping holes in their balance sheet and others such as Countrywide Financial had to sell themselves to avoid extinction, Wells’ relative financial health turned it into the hottest property in US banking.

Wallace Weitz on WealthTrack

Monday, August 18, 2008

Warren Buffett's Favourite Security 1952: Western Insurance Securities

This article was written by Warren Buffett...
Again my favorite security is the equity stock of a young, rapidly growing and ably managed insurance company. Although Government Employees Insurance Co., my selection of 15 months ago, has had a price rise of more than 100%, it still appears very attractive as a vehicle for long-term capital growth.

Rarely is an investor offered the opportunity to participate in the growth of two excellently managed and expanding insurance companies on the grossly undervalued basis which appears possible in the case of the Western Insurance Securities Company. The two operating subsidiaries, Western Casualty & Surety and Western Fire, wrote a premium volume of $26,009,929 in 1952 on consolidated admitted assets of S29,590,142. Now licensed in 38 states, their impressive growth record, both absolutely and relative to the industry, is summarized in Table I below.

Western Insurance Securities owns 92% of Western Casualty and Surety, which in turn owns 99.95% of Western Fire Insurance. Other assets of Western Insurance Securities are minor, consisting of approximately $180,000 in net quick assets. The capitalization consists of 7,000 shares of $100 par 6% preferred, callable at $125; 35,000 shares of Class A preferred, callable at $60, which is entitled to a $2.50 regular dividend and participates further up to a maximum total of $4 per share; and 50,000 shares of common stock. The arrears on the Class A presently amount to $36.75.

The management headed by Ray DuBoc is of the highest grade. Mr. DuBoc has ably steered the company since its inception in 1924 and has a reputation in the insurance industry of being a man of outstanding integrity and ability. The second tier of executives is also of top caliber. During the formative years of the company, senior charges were out of line with the earning power of the enterprise. The reader can clearly perceive why the same senior charges that caused such great difficulty when premium volume ranged about the $3,000,000 mark would cause little trouble upon the attainment of premium volume in excess of $26,000,000.

Adjusting for only 25% of the increase in the unearned premium reserve, earnings of $1,367,063 in 1952, a very depressed year for auto insurers, were sufficient to cover total senior charges of $129,500 more than 10 times over, leaving earnings of $24.74 on each share of common stock.

It is quite evident that the common stock has finally arrived, although investors do not appear to realize it since the stock is quoted at less than twice earnings and at a discount of approximately 55% from the December 31, 1952 book value of $86.26 per share. Table II indicates the postwar record of earnings and dramatically illustrates the benefits being realized by the common stock because of the expanded earnings base. The book value is calculated with allowance for a 25% equity in the unearned premium reserve and is after allowance for call price plus arrears on the preferreds.

Since Western has achieved such an excellent record in increasing its industry share of premium volume, the reader may well wonder whether standards have been compromised. This is definitely not the case. During the past ten years Western's operating ratios have proved quite superior to the average multiple line company. The combined loss and expense ratios for the two Western companies as reported by the Alfred M. Best Co. on a case basis are compared in Table III with similar ratios for all stock fire and casualty companies.

The careful reader will not overlook the possibility that Western's superior performance has been due to a concentration of writings in unusually profitable lines. Actually the reverse is true. Although represented in all major lines, Western is still primarily an automobile insurer with 60% of its volume derived from auto lines. Since automobile underwriting has proven generally unsatisfactory in the postwar period, and particularly so in the last three years, Western's experience was even more favorable relative to the industry than the tabular comparison would indicate.

Western has always maintained ample loss reserves on unsettled claims. Underwriting results in the postwar period have shown Western to be over-reserved at the end of each year. Triennial examinations conducted by the insurance commissioners have confirmed these findings.

Turning to their investment picture, we of course find a growth in invested assets and investment income paralleling the growth in premium volume. Consolidated net assets have risen from $5,154,367 in 1940 to their present level of $29,590,142. Western follows an extremely conservative investment policy, relying upon growth in premium volume for expansion in investment income. Of the year-end portfolio of $21,889,243, governments plus a list of well diversified high quality municipals total $20,141,246 or 92% and stocks only $1,747,997 or 8%. Net investment income of $474,472 in 1952 was equal to $6.14 per share of Western Insurance common after minority interest and assuming senior charges were covered entirely from investment income.

The casualty insurance industry during the past several years has suffered staggering losses on automobile insurance lines. This trend was sharply reversed during late 1952. Substantial rate increases in 1951 and 1952 are being brought to bear on underwriting results with increasing force as policies are renewed at much higher premiums. Earnings within the casualty industry are expected to be on a very satisfactory basis in 1953 and 1954.

Western, while operating very profitably during the entire trying period, may be expected to report increased earnings as a result of expanding premium volume, increased assets, and the higher rate structure. An earned premium volume of $30,000,000 may be conservatively expected by 1954. Normal earning power on this volume should average about $30.00 per share, with investment income contributing approximately $8.40 per share after deducting all senior charges from investment income.

The patient investor in Western Insurance common can be reasonably assured of a tangible acknowledgement of his enormously strengthened equity position. It is well to bear in mind that the operating companies have expanded premium volume some 550% in the last 12 years. This has required an increase in surplus of 350% and consequently restricted the payment of dividends. Recent dividend increases by Western Casualty should pave the way for more prompt payment on arrearages. Any leveling off of premium volume will permit more liberal dividends while a continuation of the past rate of increase, which in my opinion is very unlikely, would of course make for much greater earnings.

Operating in a stable industry with an excellent record of growth and profitability, I believe Western Insurance common to be an outstanding vehicle for substantial capital appreciation at its present price of about 40. The stock is traded over-the-counter.

Thanks to Investor's Consigliere: Article

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bruce Berkowitz Stays In The Sunshine

The fund has been busy buying health care stocks, ranging from generic drug makers to health maintenance organizations. What do you like about the health care sector right now?

There are predictions about the demise of this industry, with a new president coming in. The bottom line is that we want--especially baby boomers--to live until we're 100 years old. We want a very high quality of life until the last day. The unintended consequence is that health care costs are going to skyrocket. The only chance we have to control skyrocketing health care costs, while still trying to improve services, will be through the large HMOs.

But investors might be worried about committing capital to pharmaceutical and managed care companies because we don't know who will be in the White House next year and what that change in administration will mean for these industries.

So there is a simple question: Who else will do it? Barack Obama talks about having health care like they have in Congress. Who does the health care in Congress? It's the HMOs. The government can only write a check. When all you can do is write a check, you can't control costs. So costs will go through the roof, even more so. The government needs the HMOs. Who helps the government develop the pricing that's paid for products and services? It's the HMOs. The HMOs are the system. Then look at the pharmaceutical industry, which develops these miraculous drugs.

One of your top picks is drug giant Pfizer. How come?

$17 billion of free cash, which turns out to be over $2 per share of free cash for a triple-A quality company. This is the largest pharmaceutical company in the world trading under $20 per share.

Let me make sure we all understand what I mean by free cash: It's the amount of money that is possible to pull out of the business without hurting the franchise. Ten years ago, everybody loved Pfizer. It was trading between 40 and 50 times earnings. Today, it's under 10 times earnings and nobody wants it.

How come?

Because they are all worried about Lipitor and the new president. Lipitor doesn't come off patent for another three years, and the company is dramatically changing. There is a new CEO with a wonderful strategy.

You will see Pfizer, in my opinion, do a lot more joint ventures. I think they will become almost like Exxon Mobil, which is really a merchant bank that has the distribution, size and cash to partner up with a lot of people around the world. Pfizer will do that. People just don't realize the number of joint ventures they have and the power of their distribution channel.

Also, the pharmaceutical companies in the past have been quite stodgy and lazy in not pursuing generics. They have given the generics away. I don't think we will as much now. We will see Pfizer become a larger generic manufacturer. As their drugs go off patent, you will see them compete more with the generics too.

They are the 800-pound gorilla. They and UnitedHealth have one-fifth of the entire insured population in the United States. That's it. They are the answer.

The problem now is that everybody is blaming everybody else: the doctors, the insurance companies, the government, the patients. Things have to change. The system needs to change more toward wellness. You should not be able to get a new pair of knees if you are 300 pounds overweight and you haven't made a valiant effort to lose weight. What's the point? You will just blow out your new knees. There has to be a huge shift. It is starting with the baby boomers as they try to keep their weight down and do some exercise. If the shift doesn't happen, then the costs are going higher and higher.

Frankly, the companies aren't making that much money. They look great now because their prices have fallen 50%.

Full Article

Saturday, August 02, 2008

MUST-WATCH: A Conversation with Charlie Munger

Charles Munger presented the Institute's 2008 DuBridge Distinguished Lecture in Beckman Auditorium on March 11. Munger, the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a business partner of Warren Buffett, and one of the richest people in the United States, was joined in conversation by Caltech's Tom Tombrello, chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, and Kenan Professor and professor of physics.