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Warren Buffett has a track record that's the envy of the investing world. So if you had a chance to own shares of his company at a discount, wouldn't you jump at the chance?
Thanks to the recent split of its Class B shares, investing in Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) has become affordable even for those of modest means for the first time in decades. Just $75 will buy you a single B share. But that low price hasn't stopped bargain-hunting investors from trying to find an even better deal. Some believe that they've found a cheaper way to buy Buffett -- by way of a pair of closed-end funds.
Two offerings from Boulder Funds, Boulder Total Return (BTF) and Boulder Growth & Income (BIF), appear on the surface to be ordinary stock funds. Both seek to maximize total return by choosing investments that will appreciate in value as well as paying income.
There are a couple of interesting things about these two funds, though. Each holds a significant amount of Berkshire Hathaway stock -- 38% for the Total Return fund and 24% for Growth & Income. And right now, you can buy shares of either fund on the open market at a sizable discount to its net asset value -- 18% and 15% respectively.
Why so cheap?
At first glance, the chance to buy Buffett at between $0.80 and $0.85 on the dollar seems almost irresistible. But before you jump at the chance, it's important to know a little more about closed-end funds.
Closed-end funds used to be remarkable among mutual funds in that they traded on stock exchanges rather than directly through mutual fund companies. Of course, with the rise of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), investors are used to seeing funds that trade like stocks. What distinguishes closed-ends from ETFs, however, is that unlike ETFs, shares of closed-end funds aren't constantly created and redeemed. The fund company sells a fixed number of shares to investors, and thereafter, you can only buy and sell them in secondary trading.
That lack of liquidity sometimes causes funds to trade at prices that vary widely from the per-share value of the assets they hold. Funds that own popular investments might trade at a premium to their net asset value, while closed-ends that are out of favor often trade at a substantial discount.
Paying the price
Given Berkshire's popularity, that rationale doesn't seem to explain the Boulder funds' discounts. A closer look at the rest of their portfolios looks equally innocuous; the Total Return fund also owns big chunks of Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM ) , Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) , and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) , while the Growth & Income fund adds shares of Becton, Dickinson & Company (NYSE: BDX ) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) . Although not all of the funds' holdings are in large-cap stocks -- Growth & Income is required to maintain a 25% exposure to real estate stocks and REITs, for instance -- most of their biggest investments are in stocks most investors know fairly well.
Where the funds fall short, though, is in two things: leverage and expenses. Each fund has issued preferred stock, which effectively leverages the regular fund shares you'd buy on the exchange by about 28% for the Total Return fund and 13% for Growth & Income. That leverage can heighten the funds' volatility; Total Return shares dropped 48% in 2008 but gained 29% last year, both of which were bigger moves than the S&P 500 experienced.
More importantly, the expenses these funds charge eat into any benefit you get from the discount. Both funds have annual expense ratios above 2%. If you could be sure the discounts would eventually go away, then it might make sense to pay that much -- but in reality, the discounts have been even greater in the past and could certainly rise from current levels.
Stick with the real value
In the end, there's good reason for the discounts that these funds offer. They might be reasonable investments in their own right, but if you're just looking for a cheap way to buy into Buffett's success, you'd probably be better served picking up some shares of Berkshire yourself.
As great an investor as Warren Buffett is, Berkshire's size keeps him from taking advantage of some great opportunities. Find out why Buffett wishes he could buy these stocks.