Yardsticks seldom are discarded while yielding favorable readings. But when results deteriorate, most managers favor disposition of the yardstick rather than disposition of the manager.
Our partial-ownership approach can be continued soundly only as long as portions of attractive businesses can be acquired at attractive prices. We need a moderately-priced stock market to assist us in this endeavor. The market, like the Lord, helps those who help themselves. But, unlike the Lord, the market does not forgive those who know not what they do. For the investor, a too-high purchase price for the stock of an excellent company can undo the effects of a subsequent decade of favorable business developments.
Even if our partially-owned businesses continue to perform well in an economic sense, there will be years when they perform poorly in the market. At such times our net worth could shrink significantly. We will not be distressed by such a shrinkage; if the businesses continue to look attractive and we have cash available, we simply will add to our holdings at even more favorable prices.
Mergers and acquisitions
Our share issuances follow a simple basic rule: we will not issue shares unless we receive as much intrinsic business value as we give. Such a policy might seem axiomatic. Why, you might ask, would anyone issue dollar bills in exchange for fifty-cent pieces? Unfortunately, many corporate managers have been willing to do just that.
The first choice of these managers in making acquisitions may be to use cash or debt. But frequently the CEO’s cravings outpace cash and credit resources (certainly mine always have). Frequently, also, these cravings occur when his own stock is selling far below intrinsic business value. This state of affairs produces a moment of truth. At that point, as Yogi Berra has said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” For shareholders then will find which objective the management truly prefers—expansion of domain or maintenance of owners’ wealth.
The need to choose between these objectives occurs for some simple reasons. Companies often sell in the stock market below their intrinsic business value. But when a company wishes to sell out completely, in a negotiated transaction, it inevitably wants to – and usually can -receive full business value in whatever kind of currency the value is to be delivered. If cash is to be used in payment, the seller’s calculation of value received couldn’t be easier. If stock of the buyer is to be the currency, the seller’s calculation is still relatively easy: just figure the market value in cash of what is to be received in stock.
Meanwhile, the buyer wishing to use his own stock as currency for the purchase has no problems if the stock is selling in the market at full intrinsic value.
But suppose it is selling at only half intrinsic value. In that case, the buyer is faced with the unhappy prospect of using a substantially undervalued currency to make its purchase.
Ironically, were the buyer to instead be a seller of its entire business, it too could negotiate for, and probably get, full intrinsic business value. But when the buyer makes a partial sale of itself—and that is what the issuance of shares to make an acquisition amounts to—it can customarily get no higher value set on its shares than the market chooses to grant it.
The acquirer who nevertheless barges ahead ends up using an undervalued (market value) currency to pay for a fully valued (negotiated value) property. In effect, the acquirer must give up $2 of value to receive $1 of value. Under such circumstances, a marvelous business purchased at a fair sales price becomes a terrible buy. For gold valued as gold cannot be purchased intelligently through the utilization of gold—or even silver—valued as lead.
If, however, the thirst for size and action is strong enough, the acquirer’s manager will find ample rationalizations for such a value-destroying issuance of stock. Friendly investment bankers will reassure him as to the soundness of his actions. (Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.)
A few favorite rationalizations employed by stock-issuing managements follow:
- “The company we’re buying is going to be worth a lot more in the future.” (Presumably so is the interest in the old business that is being traded away; future prospects are implicit in the business valuation process. If 2X is issued for X, the imbalance still exists when both parts double in business value.)
- “We have to grow.” (Who, it might be asked, is the “we”? For present shareholders, the reality is that all existing businesses shrink when shares are issued. Were Berkshire to issue shares tomorrow for an acquisition, Berkshire would own everything that it now owns plus the new business, but your interest in such hard-to-match businesses as See’s Candy Shops, National Indemnity, etc. would automatically be reduced. If (1) your family owns a 120-acre farm and (2) you invite a neighbor with 60 acres of comparable land to merge his farm into an equal partnership – with you to be managing partner, then (3) your managerial domain will have grown to 180 acres but you will have permanently shrunk by 25% your family’s ownership interest in both acreage and crops. Managers who want to expand their domain at the expense of owners might better consider a career in government.)
- “Our stock is undervalued and we’ve minimized its use in this deal—but we need to give the selling shareholders 51% in stock and 49% in cash so that certain of those shareholders can get the tax-free exchange they want.” (This argument acknowledges that it is beneficial to the acquirer to hold down the issuance of shares, and we like that. But if it hurts the old owners to utilize shares on a 100% basis, it very likely hurts on a 51% basis. After all, a man is not charmed if a spaniel defaces his lawn, just because it’s a spaniel and not a St. Bernard. And the wishes of sellers can’t be the determinant of the best interests of the buyer—what would happen if, heaven forbid, the seller insisted that as a condition of merger the CEO of the acquirer be replaced?)
There are three ways to avoid destruction of value for old owners when shares are issued for acquisitions. One is to have a true business-value-for-business-value merger, such as the Berkshire-Blue Chip combination is intended to be. Such a merger attempts to be fair to shareholders of both parties, with each receiving just as much as it gives in terms of intrinsic business value. The Dart Industries-Kraft and Nabisco Standard Brands mergers appeared to be of this type, but they are the exceptions.
It’s not that acquirers wish to avoid such deals; it’s just that they are very hard to do.
The second route presents itself when the acquirer’s stock sells at or above its intrinsic business value. In that situation, the use of stock as currency actually may enhance the wealth of the acquiring company’s owners. Many mergers were accomplished on this basis in the 1965-69 period. The results were the converse of most of the activity since 1970: the shareholders of the acquired company received very inflated currency (frequently pumped up by dubious accounting and promotional techniques) and were the losers of wealth through such transactions.
During recent years the second solution has been available to very few large companies. The exceptions have primarily been those companies in glamorous or promotional businesses to which the market temporarily attaches valuations at or above intrinsic business valuation.
The third solution is for the acquirer to go ahead with the acquisition, but then subsequently repurchase a quantity of shares equal to the number issued in the merger. In this manner, what originally was a stock-for-stock merger can be converted, effectively, into a cash-for-stock acquisition. Repurchases of this kind are damage-repair moves. Regular readers will correctly guess that we much prefer repurchases that directly enhance the wealth of owners instead of repurchases that merely repair previous damage. Scoring touchdowns is more exhilarating than recovering one’s fumbles. But, when a fumble has occurred, recovery is important and we heartily recommend damage-repair repurchases that turn a bad stock deal into a fair cash deal.
The language utilized in mergers tends to confuse the issues and encourage irrational actions by managers. For example, “dilution” is usually carefully calculated on a pro forma basis for both book value and current earnings per share. Particular emphasis is given to the latter item. When that calculation is negative (dilutive) from the acquiring company’s standpoint, a justifying explanation will be made (internally, if not elsewhere) that the lines will cross favorably at some point in the future. (While deals often fail in practice, they never fail in projections—if the CEO is visibly panting over a prospective acquisition, subordinates and consultants will supply the requisite projections to rationalize any price.) Should the calculation produce numbers that are immediately positive—that is, anti-dilutive—for the acquirer, no comment is thought to be necessary.
The attention given this form of dilution is overdone: current earnings per share (or even earnings per share of the next few years) are an important variable in most business valuations, but far from all powerful.
There have been plenty of mergers, non-dilutive in this limited sense, that were instantly value destroying for the acquirer. And some mergers that have diluted current and near-term earnings per share have in fact been value-enhancing. What really counts is whether a merger is dilutive or anti-dilutive in terms of intrinsic business value (a judgment involving consideration of many variables). We believe calculation of dilution from this viewpoint to be all-important (and too seldom made).
A second language problem relates to the equation of exchange. If Company A announces that it will issue shares to merge with Company B, the process is customarily described as “Company A to Acquire Company B”, or “B Sells to A”. Clearer thinking about the matter would result if a more awkward but more accurate description were used: “Part of A sold to acquire B”, or “Owners of B to receive part of A in exchange for their properties”. In a trade, what you are giving is just as important as what you are getting. This remains true even when the final tally on what is being given is delayed. Subsequent sales of common stock or convertible issues, either to complete the financing for a deal or to restore balance sheet strength, must be fully counted in evaluating the fundamental mathematics of the original acquisition. (If corporate pregnancy is going to be the consequence of corporate mating, the time to face that fact is before the moment of ecstasy.)
Managers and directors might sharpen their thinking by asking themselves if they would sell 100% of their business on the same basis they are being asked to sell part of it. And if it isn’t smart to sell all on such a basis, they should ask themselves why it is smart to sell a portion. A cumulation of small managerial stupidities will produce a major stupidity – not a major triumph. (Las Vegas has been built upon the wealth transfers that occur when people engage in seemingly-small disadvantageous capital transactions.)
The “giving versus getting” factor can most easily be calculated in the case of registered investment companies. Assume Investment Company X, selling at 50% of asset value, wishes to merge with Investment Company Y. Assume, also, that Company X therefore decides to issue shares equal in market value to 100% of Y’s asset value.
Such a share exchange would leave X trading $2 of its previous intrinsic value for $1 of Y’s intrinsic value. Protests would promptly come forth from both X’s shareholders and the SEC, which rules on the fairness of registered investment company mergers. Such a transaction simply would not be allowed.
In the case of manufacturing, service, financial companies, etc., values are not normally as precisely calculable as in the case of investment companies. But we have seen mergers in these industries that just as dramatically destroyed value for the owners of the acquiring company as was the case in the hypothetical illustration above. This destruction could not happen if management and directors would assess the fairness of any transaction by using the same yardstick in the measurement of both businesses.
Finally, a word should be said about the “double whammy” effect upon owners of the acquiring company when value-diluting stock issuances occur. Under such circumstances, the first blow is the loss of intrinsic business value that occurs through the merger itself. The second is the downward revision in market valuation that, quite rationally, is given to that now-diluted business value. For current and prospective owners understandably will not pay as much for assets lodged in the hands of a management that has a record of wealth-destruction through unintelligent share issuances as they will pay for assets entrusted to a management with precisely equal operating talents, but a known distaste for anti-owner actions. Once management shows itself insensitive to the interests of owners, shareholders will suffer a long time from the price/value ratio afforded their stock (relative to other stocks), no matter what assurances management gives that the value-diluting action taken was a one-of-a-kind event.
Those assurances are treated by the market much as one-bug-in-the-salad explanations are treated at restaurants. Such explanations, even when accompanied by a new waiter, do not eliminate a drop in the demand (and hence market value) for salads, both on the part of the offended customer and his neighbors pondering what to order. Other things being equal, the highest stock market prices relative to intrinsic business value are given to companies whose managers have demonstrated their unwillingness to issue shares at any time on terms unfavorable to the owners of the business.
This annual report is read by a varied audience, and it is possible that some members of that audience may be helpful to us in our acquisition program.
- large purchases (at least $5 million of after-tax earnings),
- demonstrated consistent earning power (future projections are of little interest to us, nor are “turn-around” situations),
- businesses earning good returns on equity while employing little or no debt,
- management in place (we can’t supply it),
- simple businesses (if there’s lots of technology, we won’t understand it),
- an offering price (we don’t want to waste our time or that of the seller by talking, even preliminarily, about a transaction when price is unknown).