Warren Buffett Refuses to Break Up Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Commentators have argued that breaking up Berkshire Hathaway would unlock shareholder value. Warren Buffett explains why he disagrees with that strategy.

May 31, 2014 at 1:35PM

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A number of commentators, including Wall Street veteran and famous author Thorton L. Oglove, have argued that it's time to break up Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B).

I don't agree with that stance -- the company should do better as a combined entity. But, that's just my opinion. Obviously, it's more interesting to hear from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, Berkshire's Vice Chairman.

Fortunately, during the 2014 annual meeting, Carol Loomis of Fortune magazine asked Warren and Charlie about breaking up Berkshire. Below are my notes on Carol's question, along with responses from Warren and Charlie. 

Carol Loomis: Berkshire owns 79 unrelated businesses — a model which has almost universally not worked well, except at Berkshire. The probabilities do not seem favorable that it'll work well for your successors.

Warren: The model has worked well for America. If you look at all these disparate businesses, such as if you looked at the Dow Jones index during its history as a single entity [though it rotated] going from 66 to 11,000... clearly something went right. Owning a group of good business isn't a bad plan.

Many conglomerates, such as Litton or Gulf and Western, were financial engineering. You were put together to issue stock at 20-times earnings and buy stock at 10-times. The idea was to fool people with this chain-letter approach.

Our approach makes sense: great managers, great businesses, conservatively capitalized. Capitalism is about allocating capital, and we can do that without tax consequences. We can take money from See's and move it to the place of best return, as the situation says, be it wind farms or whatever. And nobody is better to do that than Berkshire. But, it needs to be done with business-like principles, not stock promotion. You can see what happened with Tyco. If companies are issuing stock continuously, they are probably playing a chain-letter game. Charlie?

Charlie: I think there are a couple of differences between us and people who are generally thought to have failed at the conglomerate model. One is that we have an alternative. When there are no other companies to buy, we have securities to buy. Also, most of them were hell-bent to buy, and we feel no compulsion to buy for the sake of it. I don't think we're a standard conglomerate, and we're likely to continue to do very well.

Admittedly, the conglomerate model has been abused and misused, and investors are right to view conglomerates with suspicion based on history. But, Berkshire stands apart -- fundamentally, it makes sense as a combination, assuming it is properly managed.

Clearly, Buffett has done well managing it, and he's developed a culture and organization to help his successor continue to manage it wisely. As a Berkshire shareholder, I'm happy to see the company remain intact. 

Brendan Mathews owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley 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.

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