Buffett's Obvious $10 Billion Bet

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On Monday, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) announced that it is acquiring Lubrizol (NYSE: LZ  ) , the leading global supplier of additives to transportation and industrial lubricants (so boring it's good), in a deal valued at $9.7 billion. Despite the fact that this is one of Berkshire's largest ever acquisitions, it appears that Lubrizol had gone largely unnoticed by investors. I'll take a look at this deal before describing how you can follow Buffett's approach to capitalize on similar opportunities. Finally, I'll highlight two other "Berkshire-type" companies with publicly traded stocks.

A bet on growing economic activity
More than 70% of Lubrizol's revenues are related to the transportation and industrial lubricant business. Over the short term, this presents a risk in that Lubrizol's customers are in cyclical industries. However, given Berkshire's holding period -- forever -- that is of no concern to Buffett; he's willing to bet that industrial activity and transportation needs, and the resulting demand for Lubrizol's products, will be greater in 10 years' time than they are today.

Unless you want to take sides against the long march forward of global trade and industry, that looks like a pretty good bet. The rationale here is similar to the one Buffett invoked to justify the purchase of Burlington Northern: "I basically believe this country will prosper and you'll have more people moving more goods 10 and 20 and 30 years from now. ... It's a bet on the country, basically."

A leading business going cheap
Despite the 28% premium offered over Friday's closing price, the acquisition price tag looks very reasonable. At $135 per share, it represents less than 12 times estimated earnings per share for the next 12 months. Acquirers of entire businesses often look at the enterprise value-to-EBITDA ratio because the enterprise value represents the entire price paid including the assumption of the target's debt (EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, is a measure of cash flow). The implied EV/EBITDA of Berkshire's offer is a mere 6.7 (on the basis of estimated EBITDA for the next 12 months), which compares very favorably with Lubrizol's peer group average, 7.6.

How does he do it?
Now that Berkshire has announced the acquisition, commentators and analysts -- including me -- are busy explaining after the fact why the acquisition makes complete sense (though sometimes I'm lucky and I get out in front of Buffett). But it's not as if Lubrizol is a micro-cap stock that no one has ever heard of; it's the leader in its industry and a multibillion-dollar company. In that regard, it's remarkable that it took Buffett's bid to highlight the opportunity. Where were the same pundits before Buffett made his bid?

One way to increase your odds of spotting similar opportunities is to begin by identifying "Berkshire-type" companies, irrespective of the price at which their stock is trading. Once you put together a shortlist of these names, you can begin to stake out your quarry by creating a watchlist, the idea being to bide your time until the stock becomes temporarily undervalued. When it comes to great businesses, that doesn't happen often, so you have to be ready to pounce. Buffett follows the same modus operandi: He has followed some businesses for many years, and he is always ready to purchase their stocks if they are offered at the right price. To get you started, I'll point out two Berkshire-type businesses.

Two businesses with great brands and genuine durability
Founded in 1905, Mead Johnson Nutrition (NYSE: MJN  ) was spun out of another first-rate company, Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) in February 2009. Mead Johnson is a leader in infant and child nutrition that generates more than 60% of its revenues in the high-growth regions of Asia and Latin America. The company has strong brands, is solidly profitable, and its products are unlikely to become obsolete -- all characteristics that Buffett is very fond of.

Have you ever worn a Hanes T-shirt or a Champion sweatshirt? If you're an American male, the answer is probably "yes." These brands, part of Hanesbrands' (NYSE: HBI  ) stable, are mainstays of basic apparel. As with Mead Johnson, the products have virtually zero obsolescence risk (assuming "going commando" doesn't become the norm). Buffett would never buy Hanesbrands, but that's mainly because Berkshire already owns its No. 1 competitor, Fruit of the Loom.

It's your turn
Neither of these two stocks looks particularly compelling right now, but the only way you'll know when they do is by beginning to follow them. To track them, click on Mead Johnson Nutrition, Hanesbrands, or start a new watchlist and add any company you want. You'll get valuable updates as well as immediate access to a new special report, "6 Stocks to Watch From David and Tom Gardner." Click here to get started.

Fool contributor Alex Dumortier, CFA, has no beneficial interest in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can follow him on Twitter. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (33)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 15, 2011, at 3:46 PM, albinos wrote:

    hanesbrands is a terrible company, layoffs for no reason, bad company to work for

  • Report this Comment On March 15, 2011, at 9:46 PM, bornboring wrote:

    I think Buffet noticed that his model train set needs a lot of lubricant, even if using alternative fuel or energy in the future. I am just surprised at what takes him so long -- due diligence I presume.

    I wonder if his next target will be related to signaling, which in todays terms, electronic communications.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2011, at 3:25 AM, alreadysmiling wrote:

    To the original article...beyond cotton and such. Indeed, Lubrizol can keep the former BNSF running well. I would appreciate thoughts on the aquisition of AECOM to enable both BRK buys to continue their successful paths. This also is Buffett's pro-US investment. The market cap of AECOM is within given the shopping list.

    I would appreciate any comments. (no investor experience beyond my own...about 7 yrs.)

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 9:49 PM, fatboy48 wrote:

    Sorry for the riddle but those who are doing their homework will easily understand it point.

    If you will remember in school there is a principle in physics called Newton’s law of motion “an action will have an equal and opposite reaction.” AT&T just acquiesced T-Mobile is this coincidence?

    could be buying a chemical company really is good fit, but it's more likely a smoke screen.

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