While my daughter was driving us along congested Interstate 85 in Atlanta toward Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport,
we started talking about how Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB) (and social media in general) have transformed how we think about and evaluate other people. Our general perspective has morphed from the “long and intermediate term” into how the person about whom we are thinking has screwed up during the past week, day, hour, or even the past five minutes.
Add to that the fact that our human nature is such that the following statements are generally true (there are always exceptions, but they tend to “prove the rule”):
1) We are more strongly drawn toward “negative” news than toward “positive” news (and those with a political bent are (in particular) strongly inclined to tear down “opposition candidates”);
2) When we become upset (through financial loss, hurt, ideological issues, etc.) we are much more likely to “Tweet” or “post” than when we experience a kindness – and our adjectives and adverbs take on a stronger tone, vibrancy, and vigor as we “vent”, making it more likely that our comments will “go viral”.
3) Accentuating the above is the opportunity that social media provides to express ourselves in uncensored, “both barrels blazing” rancor because we can (if we choose) express ourselves anonymously – without fear of arrest, or someone doing us or our property wrong!
The premise I expressed to my daughter was this: “We have no more ‘heroes’ … except for athletes”. Such athletes are regularly highlighted through the use of glowing, eye-catching, and sometimes breathtaking streaming video and/or a stream of vivid, hyperkinetic adjectives that make them sound (in that moment) as though they are a Greek god preparing to take her/his place on Mt. Olympus!
That is… until the next game (or tournament) during which they (in the eyes of social media aficionados) “stink up the joint”. Suddenly, that athlete’s formerly smooth transition onto Mt. Olympus becomes significantly delayed!
Think of all the women and men whom (decades ago) “Baby Boomers” were led to think of as heroes:
John & Jacqueline Kennedy (“Camelot”)
Each of these persons accomplished great things, but each also had “baggage” in their personal lives that could easily “have gone viral” if they had lived and served during our current “Social Media Age”.
Then, my friends, just think of the many religious movements that might have been stopped dead in their tracks had Social Media existed during the age of the “founder” – be it (not an exhaustive list by any means):
Rishabha (aka, Adinatha)… reputed to be the first Tirthankara of the current “half-cycle of time” within Jainism.
Either Abraham (first “Patriarch”) and/or Moses (who received the Ten Commandments after leading the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery… which was the foundation of the Torah) is celebrated as the key human associated with the birth of Judaism.
Zoroaster (aka Zarathustra or Zarathushtra Spitama) founded Zoroastrianism.
Laozi (aka Lao-Tzu or Lao-Tze), an ancient Chinese poet/philosopher, is said to have written the Tao Te Ching and founded Taoism.
Siddhartha began life as Prince Fo of the Sakya tribe in India, later becoming enlightened under a special tree and becoming the Buddha (founder of Buddhism)
Jesus Bar Joseph (translation: “Jesus, son of Joseph”)… also known as “Jesus of Nazareth” – the founder of Christianity.
Muhammad has been viewed variously as the founder of Islam, or as the last prophet sent to restore the true, unaltered monotheism of Adam, Abraham, Moses, etc.
So my premise (right or wrong) is that Twitter (and Social Media) has distorted our perspective in dysfunctional ways – warping our perception in much the same way that is expressed in the familiar expression: “He can’t see the forest for the trees.”
A tremendous case in point is Warren Buffett.
It is extremely unlikely that any investment professional in the world with over three decades of excellent performance is as globally recognized and widely quoted as Mr. Buffett. In addition, on a personal basis, he is (without doubt) one of the world’s most philanthropic persons:
1) In 2006 he announced his intention to gradually give away all of his shares in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A).
2) In July of this year, Buffett announced a gift of 20.64 million BRK.B shares to various charities – including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At the stock’s (then) market value – the donation was valued at $2.8 billion.
3) That marks the tenth consecutive year that Buffett has given away breathtaking amounts.
a) His gift in 2013 was worth $2.6 billion at the time it was made
b) Last year’s gift was worth $2.8 billion.
4) That gift pushes Buffett’s accumulated “lifetime giving” at over $25.5 billion… which is an amount that I confess is much more than I could ever conceive spending, much less earning or giving away.
Also on a personal level, Buffett’s ego is modest enough to make him totally satisfied with a total BRK.A International Headquarters staff of just 25 persons (including Buffett)!! I have never read an account from a Buffett visitor or interviewer who characterized him as anything but affable and avuncular
And yet, despite all of the above, the Wall Street Journal reports that in 2011, a disheartening 46 percent of all tweets related to Mr. Buffett expressed a negative sentiment about the “Oracle of Omaha”.
The Wall Street Journal recently updated that report, based upon analytics from social media expert, Crimson Hexagon:
1) Obviously, as my deceased father would say – “the worms have turned” on the venerable Mr. Buffett.
a) Now fully 70% of all tweets expressing an opinion about Buffett included a negative thought or tone – with many categorizing him as a “phony” or a “hypocrite”.
2) Quite a few of the “naysayers” were upset that Buffett let himself be used by President Obama in the administration’s effort (a couple of years ago) to raise taxes.
3) Other “naysayers” objected to his support for Obama’s tax policy while (simultaneously) ensuring that BRK.A availed itself of all available tax incentives and credits!
a) Anyone who criticizes Buffett because BRK.A has utilized all legal tax credits, deductions, and incentives thereby demonstrates a glaring lack of understanding regarding the sacrosanct obligation of “fiduciary duty” that a CEO owes to the shareholders of her/his company:
i) Duty of Care: an obligation to offer one’s best in acting on behalf of shareholders (essentially, “pay attention to your job”);
ii) Duty of Loyalty: (quoted from a court decision) “the duty of loyalty therefore mandates that directors maximize the value of the corporation over the long-term [sic] for the benefit of the providers of equity capital, as warranted for an entity with perpetual life in which the residual claimants have locked in their investment.”
b) It would constitute negligence for Buffett to have failed to ensure that BRK.A takes advantage of every single tax deduction, tax credit, tax incentive, and tax advantage legally available.
i) If somehow that is “bad”, then either the legally established definition of “Fiduciary Standard” needs to be changed or U.S. Corporate Tax Policy needs to be significantly reformed.
4) Many equally uninformed critics have been haranguing lately that Buffett was somehow “unpatriotic” when he joined with 3G Capital in merging Burger King with Canada’s Tim Horton’s to form a corporation domiciled in Canada — Restaurant Brands International (QSR). [See https://www.markettamer.com/blog/what-60-year-old-company-has-surged-higher-over-the-last-2-years ]
i) This objection is centered on the (foolish) premise that any U.S. corporation that sees a potentially synergistic partnership with a non-U.S. company should automatically forsake the legally available strategy called “Tax Inversion” – which (legally) lowers the future tax liability of the merged company. Instead, these critics insist that a company (such as BRK.A) should voluntarily choose the higher U.S. corporate tax rate.
ii) At the risk of repeating my earlier point, Buffett owes no one an apology!
a) If somehow Buffett’s decision was “bad”, then the U.S. Congress is the culpable party, since it was Congress that created the law that enables “Tax Inversion”. [See: https://www.markettamer.com/blog/tax-evasion-or-inversion-a-short-history-case-study and/or https://www.markettamer.com/blog/would-you-invert-a-view-from-the-ceos-chair ]
So with all due respect to those who are Twitter aficionados, it seems to me that a primary purpose of Twitter is to serve as a virtual playground at which a whole lot of ill-informed adults can pose, posture, defame, and (frequently) exchange misleading negative comments about quality people such as Warren Buffett.
And speaking of Twitter as a “playground”, no less a personality than the infamous hedge fund manager, William Albert Ackman, has recently demonstrated the entertainment value that the well-informed can find within Twitter!
We don’t have the luxury of going into great detail regarding the controversy surrounding one of Ackman’s largest (and most visible) investments: Valeant Pharmaceuticals Intl Inc (VRX). Let’s just say that between a significant U.S. Federal investigation into its pricing practices, and VRX’s seemingly complicated, non-transparent, and shadowy relationship with the (now) largely discredited Philidor RX Services, VRX has had a tough year:
Of course, a longer-lived investment disaster for Ackman has been his very public “short” of Herbalife International (HLF).
It is reported that Ackman shorted HLF around $47/share, but he will need for it to sink to the “mid-30s” in order to ensure a net profit (due to significant investment expenses – including legal fees). That means that HLF is currently over 60% away from Ackman's “break even”. Here is a two-year chart of HLF:
It is in this context (his two most public investments moving overwhelmingly against him) that Ackman chose to run to the playground of Twitter to kick some “virtual sand” in the direction of Berkshire Hathaway. Now why on earth would Ackman feel compelled to kick sand into the direction of Buffett’s company? The answer is simple:
The Vice-Chairman of BRK.A, Charlie Munger, had the temerity to characterize VRX’s strategy of acquiring drugs… and then raising their retail price… “deeply immoral.” [In fact, that is a part of the Federal probe of VRX! Sorry, Bill!]
Evidently, Ackman’s tolerance for criticism is quite low – so low, in fact, that he chose to take the opportunity of Berkshire’s Birthday Celebration (the Berkshire Hathaway 50th Anniversary Symposium, in New York) to take shots at Munger, and at BRK.A… to whit (via Twitter):
“Charlie Munger said Valeant is a deeply immoral company. I would argue that Coca Cola does enormous damage to society.”
“A key business Berkshire owns is Coca Cola. Coke’s business philosophy is to displace the water children consume with sugar water.”
“There is no disclaimer on a Coke can on the harm it can cause. Promoting sugar water to society is damaging.”
Fascinating stuff, eh? The same (if not more) could be said about McDonald’s (MCD), the Cheesecake Factory Incorporated (CAKE), Pepsico, Inc. (PEP), etc.
Ackman’s comments, proclaimed during the midst of BRK.A’s “birthday” celebration, makes me mindful of a schoolyard bully who feels obligated to “strike back” whenever his tender ego is challenged. Hence, he rushed to the “Twitter Playground” to take his revenge and re-establish his status in the playground hierarchy.
All of that could be “well and good”… except for a few small (essential) details:
1) Ackman publicly acknowledged that he piggybacked onto the 3G Capital/BRK.A deal that merged Burger King (home of the Whopper and Chicken Fries) with Tim Horton’s (with its “to die for” donuts);
2) He is also an owner of Mondelez International, Inc. (MDLZ) – which is the purveyor of Oreo Cookies, not exactly known for its sterling health benefits.
I am not a Wall Street legend, nor am I a billionaire hedge fund manager, so I am in no position to suggest that Ackman might qualify as a hypocrite – which is why I will not suggest that … and I will (in no way) tweet it!
Moving on more directly to “facts” about Mr. Buffett…
Since 13G Filings by BRK.A are closely watched, here is a summary of key changes in Buffett’s equity portfolio, as reported for the period ended September 30, 2015:
|DirectTV (DTV)||Because of purchase, BRK.A now owns AT&T (T)|
|Viacom, Inc. (VIAB)|
|Kraft (KRFT)||Kraft was merged with Heinz to create KHC|
|Phillips 66 (PSX)|
|General Motors (GM)||Number shares increased by almost 22%|
|Suncor Energy, Inc. (SU)||Number shares increased by almost 34.5%|
|Liberty Media Corp (LMCK)|
|Liberty Media Corp (LMCA)|
|Axalta Coating Systems Ltd (AXTA)|
|Twenty-First Century Fox, Inc. (FOXA)||Number shares increased by over 43.3%|
|Charter Communications (CHTR)||Number shares increased by almost 43.5%|
|Liberty Global plc (LBTYA)|
|IBM (IBM)||Number shares increased by only 1.9%|
NOTES (Where Appropriate)
|Chicago Bridge & Iron (CBI)||Reduction in shares of over 81% from March|
|Walmart Stores Inc. (WMT)||Reduction in shares of 7% from June|
|Goldman Sachs (GS)||Reduction in shares of 13.5% from June|
|MGOC Inc. [Media General] (MEG)|
|The Bank of New York Mellon (BK)|
|Deere & Company (DE)|
|WABCO Holdings Inc (WBC)|
|Lee Enterprises, Inc. (LEE)|
|United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS)|
Here are some key points of interest from BRK.A’s portfolio changes:
1) Precision Castparts Corp. (PCP) was announced in August as a key strategic purchase by Berkshire. The cost of PCP was over $32 billion. Once finalized, PCP will become a subsidiary within BRK.A.
2) In order to free up cash to help pay for PCP, Buffett identified his sale of a portion of his GS and WMT stock holdings as being targeted toward that purpose.
3) Buffett has owned KO since the 1980’s. If one incorporates accumulated dividends since his original purchase, it is projected that Buffett’s 400 million shares of KO now have a “Zero Basis” (“zero adjusted cost basis”)!!
4) Buffett currently owns 9.1% of the total float within WFC. It is the general consensus that Buffett feels so strongly about that bank that he would gladly buy more of WFC – if it were not for the inevitability of undesirable regulatory and governance issues.
5) The 3rd Quarter Financial Report from BRK.A revealed a huge jump in Net Income — nearly doubling to over $9.4 billion.
a) Fully $4.4 billion of that Net Income represented the “current fruit” from the ingenious transactions jointly engineered by 3G Capital and BRK.A that ultimately brought together the former Kraft Foods with the former H.J. Heinz Company. [It is hard to believe that anyone can even imagine that Buffett has somehow “lost it”.]
6) Those who know that Buffett (earlier this year) sold down his Exxon-Mobil (XOM) shares could understandably be confused by his significantly increased position in Phillips 66 (PSX).
a) However, Buffett has a logical rationale for this seeming incongruity:
- Buffett has always admired the management at PSX, and still does.
- The weight of various business segments within PSX and XOM are significantly different.
- Here is Buffett’s explanation as shared with Becky Quick (of CNBC):
“They’re in different businesses, to some degree. Phillips 66 has no upstream production. That probably accounts for the bulk of the value of an Exxon.
“On the other hand, Phillips 66 is not a pure refiner. They’ve got a big chemicals division, a midstream business. So… we’re not buying it as a refiner, we’re certainly not buying it as an integrated oil company.
“We’re buying it because we like the company and we like the management very much … ever since Greg Garland has taken over after it spun out of Conoco Phillips. He’s done a terrific job. So I’ve liked the company!”
Here is an update of BRK.A’s biggest portfolio positions as reported at 9/30/15:
TOP 10 EQUITY POSITIONS
|Wells Fargo & Co (WFC)||
|Kraft Heinz Co (KHC)||
|Coca Cola (KO)||
|American Express Co (AXP)||
|Phillips 66 (PSX)||
|Proctor & Gamble Co. (PG)||
|Walmart Stores Inc (WMT)||
|US Bancorp (USB)||
|Davita Healthcare Partners (DVA)||
All of our readers recognize that several of Mr. Buffett’s largest positions stocks have, to put it mildly, “had a bad year”!
Buffett gets razzed about KO, not because it has tanked (it is currently within reach of its high for the year), but because it is dull, boring, and “doesn’t go up”. And yet, it throws off lots of cash, and Buffett’s basis in KO is virtually “zero”!
A few years ago, the “Coca Cola” Brand was, by far, the most recognized brand in the world.
Even with the recent emergence of other giant global brands (such as Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), and Facebook (FB))… KO owns the world’s third most recognized brand — worth an estimated $81.6 billion (almost half of its total Market Cap of $187.5 billion). It produces over 500 non-alcoholic beverages that it markets in over 200 countries… a long way from its humble roots almost 130 years ago:
“The world’s best-known taste was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 8, 1886. Dr. John Stith Pemberton, a local pharmacist, produced the [first] syrup for Coca-Cola, and carried a jug of the new product down the street to Jacobs' Pharmacy, where it was sampled, pronounced “excellent” and placed on sale for five cents a glass as a soda fountain drink.”
During this past year, Buffett’s “biggest loser” has been Walmart (WMT):
Those who understand WMT best agree with its CEO, Doug McMillon, who wrote an email in October that alerted all of his staff to this key future imperative: “This is an important time in our history – requiring all of us to think critically about our business.”
What McMillon meant is that all of their successes in prior decades were based upon a model (become the “low cost leader” in retail) that was executed brilliantly – but will no longer work within the global retail environment transformed by AMZN.
During the past couple of years, whenever WMT has tried to “protect its margins” (by increasing prices) it has lost sales revenue… but when it tried to compete on price, it lost its margins. Caught between a rock and a hard place (in what one could call a “profitability-growth trap”), and needing to “satisfy” investors and Wall Street at each quarterly reporting period – WMT cut back on infrastructure investment (expense). Now it must “Pay the Piper”.… leaving upper management with an extraordinarily unenviable challenge. If management cannot navigate the treacherous waters surrounding them – McMillon and his team will crash on the shoals and find themselves looking for work elsewhere.
Then finally, we know that venerable IBM continues to be “buffeted” about in the markets.
As a brief aside, Forbes magazine published an article in November that detailed why Buffett should sell IBM and purchase MSFT. Take a critical look at this comparative chart of those two stocks and try to imagine what Buffett’s reply to that article’s author might be:
The extremely visible struggling of key BRK.A stock positions has left Mr. Buffett quite vulnerable to “potshots” from the peanut gallery. But Buffett has always been clear about his investment philosophy and style – one that is based on owning great companies with strong cash flow, good management, and purchased at a reasonable price. He hasn’t ever strayed that investment approach – and he is not about to do so now!
Also, do not forget that anyone who claims that Buffett has “lost it” is evidently oblivious to the mammoth $4 billion gain he garnered through the carefully orchestrated Kraft/Heinz deal, plus his investment in the Burger King/Tim Horton’s merger! There is “life” (and brilliance) left in the old guy yet!!
None of our regular readers will be surprised to hear that I do not put much stock in tweets from Mr. Ackman, or anyone who spouts off about Warren Buffett while ignoring essential elements of his investment philosophy, as well as his fiduciary obligation to BRK.A shareholders
Instead, I choose to attribute extraordinary credence to the opinion and analysis of an established investment professional such as John W. Rogers, Jr., CEO
From an interview during which Rogers was asked which investment figure he admired most:
“It's clear that Warren Buffett is the greatest investor of all time. People can argue whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the greatest players of all time, but there's no question that Warren Buffet is the greatest investor that ever lived. … Not only because he so brilliantly executes his investment strategy, but he also explains what he does so thoughtfully. So you feel secure that his investment success is due to skill, not luck. So often his investments play out based on the criteria behind them.”
Then, amplifying the esteem in which Rogers holds Mr. Buffett, Rogers said this about his choice as “most admired executive”:
“[It is…] Joe Mansueto of Morningstar … [who] created [a] worldwide brand that’s known everywhere.
“I love the way he created a public company — followed in Warren Buffett's footsteps — the way he interacts with investors. Once a year he has a meeting and an annual report much in the Warren Buffett model. And he's not going to get caught up in the short-term quarter-by-quarter earnings per share. He's there for the long term. Apart from the boards I've been on, I've only bought the stocks of two companies for my personal account: Berkshire Hathaway and Morningstar … the two business leaders I most respect.”
The author has, in the past, owned positions in IBM, WMT, AXP, KO, BRK.B, WFC, PSX, GE, MSFT and GS.
Nothing in this article is intended as a recommendation to buy or sell anything. Always consult with your financial advisor regarding changes in your portfolio – either subtractions or additions.
 Such as our car being “keyed” or booby trapped with a bomb (ala “The Sopranos”)
 Who at the professional level are, in my opinion, excessively compensated, idolized in dysfunctional ways, and obsessively covered by the media.
 One of a series of “founders” over the centuries.
 Neither adjective is often associated with the “powers that be” on Wall Street.
 OK… in the “glass half full” category… 54% of “Buffett tweets” suggested that Buffett was admired and/or was thought of as “inspiring”.
 And shallow-minded
 Domiciled for tax purposes… meaning the company’s “tax home” is Canada, which offers a lower corporate tax rate than the U.S.
 the founder of Pershing Square Capital Management LP.
 Calculation based on $35 as the estimated “mid-30’s price” at which he would start profiting on this short position.
 KO is ticker
 According to Interbrand’s 2014 survey.
 Fiduciary Obligation must always override a CEO’s personal opinions about tax policy, etc.).
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