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Geoff Gannon April 7, 2007

Berkshire Owns More Than 10% of Burlington Northern

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B) has disclosed a greater than 10% stake in Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNI). Through three insurance subsidiaries (Columbia, National Indemnity, and National Fire & Marine) Berkshire beneficially owns 39,027,430 shares of Burlington Northern common stock according to an SEC filing made on Friday, April 6, 2007.

Berkshire’s most recent reported purchase was made on Thursday, April 5th, and consisted of 1,219,000 shares purchased at $81.18 each.

Upon presenting the familiar table of Berkshire’s major investments in his most recent letter to shareholders, Buffett wrote:

“We show below our common stock investments. With two exceptions, those that had a market value of more than $700 million at the end of 2006 are itemized. We don’t itemize the securities referred to, which have a market value of $1.9 billion, because we continue to buy them. I could, of course, tell you their names. But then I would have to kill you.”

It appears that Burlington Northern was one of the two large positions Berkshire was accumulating. Clearly, Berkshire has been a big buyer of Burlington Northern shares since Buffett wrote his letter to shareholders, because Berkshire’s position now has a market value of approximately $3.2 billion.

The size of the Burlington Northern investment will make it one of about a half dozen very large positions held by Berkshire. This investment dwarfs each of Berkshire’s investments made during the past few years – it is already considerably larger than any other single investment recently disclosed by Berkshire including the investment in Posco (PKX)US Bancorp (USB)ConocoPhillips (COP)Anheuser Busch (BUD)Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)USG (USG)Wal-Mart (WMT), and Tesco (TSCDY).

This is the biggest single common stock investment made by Berkshire in a long time.

It’s big news – and it seems to have caught most Buffett watchers off guard. GuruFocus, a site that tracks Buffett’s moves religiously, announced that its contest to name the two mystery investments alluded to in Buffett’s annual letter had failed to turn up any guesses that Burlington Northern would be among the pair.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe operates one of the largest rail systems in North America. The system includes 32,000 route miles of track of which 23,000 are owned route miles.

In recent years, Burlington Northern Santa Fe has been buying back stock. The company expects share repurchases will remain the primary use of its free cash flow. In fact, Burlington Northern may allow “a moderately higher level of debt” so the company can “devote additional financial capacity to share repurchases”.

In that respect, at least, it is a typical Berkshire investment.

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Geoff Gannon April 6, 2007

On the Mueller Mispricing: “A” Shares vs. “B” Shares

Some smart investors see value in Mueller Water Products (MWA). They’re probably right; but, Mueller isn’t the kind of situation that jumps out at me as a clear bargain I can understand. However, there is something peculiar about this situation that makes it worth writing about.

A or B?

There are two shares of Mueller Water Products common stock – Series A common stock and Series B common stock. There are roughly three times as many B shares as A shares. The A shares and B shares have identical economic rights. So, ownership of all of the B shares would provide a roughly 75% economic interest while ownership of all of the A shares would provide a roughly 25% economic interest.

Here’s where things get interesting. “Shares of Series A common stock and Series B common stock generally have identical rights in all material respects except Series B shares have eight votes and each Series A share has one vote per share.”

So, what’s the premium on the B shares? There is none. The last trade on Mueller A shares (MWA) was at $13.98; the last trade on Mueller B shares (MWA.B) was at $13.64. Buyers of the A shares are currently paying $0.34 a share more to reduce their voting power by 87.5%.

You can’t convert A shares into B shares or B shares into A shares. If you could, there would be a profit in simply buying, converting, and selling. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. So, there’s no “manual” arbitrage opportunity here. Obviously, you can bet that the discount on the B shares will be eliminated – but, the market has to close the gap for you.

Regardless, there is a nonsensical discrepancy in price between the A shares and the B shares.

Anyone looking to make a new investment in Mueller should buy the B shares. There’s no reason to even think about touching the A shares until they are trading at a discount to the B shares.

Owners of Mueller A shares who currently hold those shares in a manner that would cost them less than $0.34 a share to sell should immediately begin selling their A shares and putting the proceeds into the B shares. Doing so would slightly increase their economic interest in Mueller’s business (because they would end up with more shares), greatly increase their voting power – and, over the long-term, possibly provide additional appreciation in the share price, if and when the B shares consistently trade at a premium to the A shares.

Do the B shares have to trade at a premium to the A shares? Technically – no. But, in the future, it’s possible that circumstances may make the B shares far more attractive to certain investors. The A shares are extremely unattractive to any large shareholder who isn’t committed to complete passivity as nearly 96% of the votes are tied to the B shares – the A shares are essentially non-voting shares.

Furthermore, …

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Geoff Gannon April 2, 2007

On “Three Ideas and an Award”

Today, I’m going to try something a little different. Many longtime readers have told me how much they enjoy discussions of specific stocks and how rarely I discuss specific stocks these days.

Other bloggers often look back on the past performance of stocks mentioned on their blog. That’s difficult for me to do, because my conclusions regarding individual stocks tend to be pretty varied. I’ve written about many businesses I liked that weren’t selling at prices I liked. I don’t want to give up writing about interesting businesses merely because they’re overpriced today. The name of the blog, “Gannon On Investing” sums up what this site is all about – it isn’t a personal trading blog; it’s just me writing about investing.

I decided a short monthly post that focuses on a very small number of stocks and eliminates all the nuances of longer posts is the best way for me to give you some of my best ideas – at the moment – while also providing a record I can dissect at a later date. This way, I can still write about the stocks that are the most interesting stocks to write about – and yet keep them separate from the stocks that look most appealing as investments.

I’ll try to have a little fun with this monthly post. I’m calling it “Three Ideas and an Award”. I’ll always start by listing my three best ideas. Then, I’ll make up some award to present to a fourth stock that doesn’t make my top three ideas list – but is worth looking into.

The prices presented will simply be a recent price included for future reference. If a stock is one of my “three best ideas” it’s safe to say I believe there’s a wide margin of safety; so, I’m not worried about small price differences – I just want the post to be archived with relatively current prices.

Finally, unless otherwise indicated, you should assume I and people connected to me both professionally and personally own the stocks mentioned. If these are my best ideas, why wouldn’t I own them? Still, I’ll try to include a generic disclosure with each post.

I’d appreciate hearing what you think about this idea. Feel free to give your opinion about this new idea, or anything else you do or don’t like about my blog, by commenting to this post or sending me an email.

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Geoff Gannon April 2, 2007

Three Ideas and an Award – April 2007


Bancinsurance (BCIS)$6.05

Rex Stores (RSC)$16.55

Strattec (STRT)$43.00

Note: Despite the fact that I plan to update this post at the beginning of each month – these are not short-term stock picks. In fact, this particular group of stocks is likely to do little or nothing for long periods of time. Value investing is about buying an asset for less than it’s worth; the shares of these businesses are now selling for less than the businesses are worth. That’s why they are my three best ideas for the month of April. Expected short-term price movements have nothing to do with the selection.

Regarding BCIS – it trades very infrequently. If you decide to buy it (and you manage to find some shares) you’ll do best if you forget it’s a public company, ignore the daily market quote – and judge your investment by the quarterly updates on underwriting results and per share book value. Do not buy this company if you need a quote to sleep at night – fluctuations in market price are meaningless for such a small, thinly traded security.


Best DIY LBO Candidate – Timberland (TBL)$26.05

Description: The Best DIY LBO Candidate Award is presented to the company I believe is in the best position to benefit (continuing shareholders) by taking on debt and repurchasing its own shares through a large tender offer.

A good do-it-yourself leveraged buyout candidate requires both an unduly low public market value (market cap/enterprise value) and the ability to consistently cover large interest payments from free cash flow – Timberland meets both requirements.

Disclosure: I and people connected to me both professionally and personally own some or all of the stocks mentioned in this post.

I’d appreciate hearing what you think about my plan to do a “Three Ideas and an Award” post at the start of each month. Feel free to give your opinion by commenting to this post or sending me an email.

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Geoff Gannon April 1, 2007

20 Questions for Clyde Milton of Cheap Stocks

Clyde Milton became enamored with deep value, off the beaten path investment ideas through years of fundamental research, and ultimately, as a writer/editor for a now defunct personal finance magazine.

He strives to research stocks that few others will, using valuation techniques based on Ben Graham’s ideas (such as stocks trading below their net current asset value) as well as some ideas he has developed himself.

Milton freely admits that his site is written under a pseudonym; Clyde and Milton being the first names of his beloved grandfathers, to whom the site is dedicated. While Cheap Stocks was originally launched primarily to keep Milton’s research and writing skills sharp (and not as a public site) it has developed a following.

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1. Are you a value investor?

There’s no doubt about that. I am a dyed in the wool, card carrying, unapologetic value investor. That’s generally how I’m wired. I don’t understand how to value growth companies for the most part, perhaps I’m just not smart enough.

2. What is value investing?

Value investing is the ultimate pursuit, the ultimate treasure hunt, the extremely rewarding (financially and otherwise) quest to buy a buck’s worth of assets for much less than a buck – be those assets land, cash, marketable securities, pieces of other companies, water rights, or what have you. It’s the attempt to find that situation where true value is not reflected in the current price (market cap or enterprise value) of a given company. There’s a huge dependency here: that the markets ultimately discover what your analysis has revealed, and that your analysis was accurate. It doesn’t always work that way in practice, and patience is paramount.

3. What is your approach to investing?

It’s “off the beaten path” for lack of a better description. I try and turn over the rocks that few others do (maybe they are way smarter than I am, and know not to waste their time). For example, I will buy illiquid securities such as profitable companies that have “gone private”, and no longer file with the SEC, and are not required to comply with Sarbanes Oxley, but still trade on the Pink Sheets. Sometimes, liquidity is over-rated….if you can afford to be patient.

4. How do you evaluate a stock?

I start by identifying a potentially interesting situation. It may be that I discover a little-known thinly traded company that has some “hidden” or undervalued assets on its balance sheet. It might be a down and out company with a relatively large amount of cash relative to market cap, that is on the verge of profitability. It could be a situation where inventories are carried at lower of cost or market, and these inventories, in our estimation, are worth several times carrying value—this situation is rare. Could be land holdings that are undervalued. Most of these situations require some digging.

5. Why do you buy a stock?

When I’m convinced that there’s a real opportunity that the market is ignoring. …

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