Chart of the day: Warren Buffett’s bolt-ons

By Felix Salmon
February 26, 2012
shareholder letter, I was struck by the number of times he talked about bolt-on acquisitions.

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Reading Warren Buffett’s latest shareholder letter, I was struck by the number of times he talked about bolt-on acquisitions — situations where one of his subsidiary companies makes an acquisition of its own. They’re mentioned six times in this letter, and then at the end he mentions a “tuck-in” acquisition, which is essentially the same thing.

I wondered if he’d ever been so keen to talk about such things in the past, so I called up the last ten years’ worth of shareholders’ letters. He’s never used both terms in the same letter before, and he’s never used the term “bolt-on” more than once.

This could of course simply be random variation, but I think that something important is going on here. The big question, with Berkshire Hathaway, is how it’s going to invest its billions of dollars, especially now that companies like Swiss Re, Goldman Sachs and General Electric are exercising their options to return billions of dollars of emergency funding from Berkshire.

In the past, Buffett has talked about spending enormous sums buying very large companies: last year, for instance, he said that Berkshire will need “major acquisitions” (his emphasis), adding that “our elephant gun has been reloaded, and my trigger finger is itchy.”

This year, there’s no talk of elephants. Instead, various bolt-ons are scattered throughout the letter, Princeton Insurance being the only one mentioned by name. The rest are relatively small and anonymous. But I see a message here: just because you don’t see Berkshire bagging elephants, that doesn’t mean it isn’t growing by acquisition. It probably is, but just at the level of subsidiary companies, buying other companies you probably haven’t heard of and which probably aren’t big enough to warrant Berkshire’s shareholders being told the details.

Essentially, Buffett is saying “trust us: we’re growing, even if you can’t really see it.” But what you can see is the change in his language. The only real difference between a bolt-on and a tuck-in is that a bolt-on sounds bigger and more important. And so after using the term “tuck-in” seven times between 2006 and 2008, he’s now largely abandoned it. And the bolt-ons are coming thick and fast.

John Hempton singles out one 2002 acquisition which Buffett made and which has been extremely successful — but the fact is that the company in question was bought for $139 million and is now worth maybe $1 billion, after throwing off $180 million in cash. That is indeed impressive, but it doesn’t move the needle for a company with a market capitalization of $200 billion. You need a lot of such acquisitions to do that, and they don’t scale: they’re hard to find, and don’t come along every month.

At the beginning of every annual letter, Buffett compares the performance of Berkshire Hathaway’s book value to the performance of the S&P 500. Here’s two ten-year periods: on the left is 1973-1982, and on the right is 2002-2011.

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What you’re seeing here is something that Buffett makes no secret of: it’s much easier to grow very fast when you’re relatively small than it is when you’re huge. Check out that run of growth beginning in 1975, in the first column: it’s simply astonishing. And even the relatively modest performance in 1973 and 1974 looks fantastic when you compare it to what the rest of the market was doing.

Buffett’s kept his ability to stay conservative and outperform in down markets. His two best years of the past ten, if you look at the “relative results” column, were — by far — 2002 and 2008, when the broad stock market fell a lot, but Berkshire’s book value did much better. And that’s largely an apples-to-oranges test in any case: after all, the book value of the S&P 500 didn’t fall nearly as much as its market value either.

If you look at Buffett’s own favored metric, the per-share book value of Berkshire, he’s had some good years of late, but nothing which even comes close to the numbers he was posting in the 70s.

That’s to be expected: big, mature companies don’t grow as fast as the best small companies. But when you’re a public company, shareholders’ desire for growth never goes away. Especially when, as at Berkshire, the stock doesn’t pay any dividends. As a result, every year Buffett does two things in his letter to shareholders. Firstly, he tries to downplay expectations as to how fast Berkshire is going to be able to grow going forwards. And secondly, he tries as best he can to explain where the future growth they want is going to come from. He’s consistent on the first part. But on the second he moves around a bit more. And this year, the message is that he’s going to encourage his subsidiary companies to make lots of acquisitions.

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