While Buffett's investing prowess receives the lion's share of attention, Berkshire Hathaway is, at its core, an insurance company. Insurance has been around in one form or another for thousands of years and will continue to be a necessity for thousands more. More importantly, it means never having to worry about your investment going out of style.
2. Underwriting profit
The measuring stick for quality insurers is when insurance companies pay out less in claims and expenses than they earn from customer premiums, and they record an underwriting profit. Berkshire has operated with an underwriting profit for 11 consecutive years – and is well on its way to a 12th. Better yet, because of this underwriting profit, Berkshire is essentially getting paid to invest the $83 billion in customers' money that it is currently holding.
3. The "world-is-our-oyster advantage"
Whether it is railroads, energy, insurance, clothing, or chemicals, Berkshire's ability to acquire businesses in whatever industry it pleases makes the company more durable, creates more growth opportunities, and makes it extremely difficult to replicate.
Moreover, while the "world" for Berkshire has historically meant the U.S., I think that, looking further out into the future, there will be international opportunities that the company will take advantage of. In fact, it was reported on December 8 that Berkshire's specialty insurer will be entering Singapore. I think this represents just a small nugget of what's to come.
4. Businesses get better under Berkshire's umbrella
When Buffet acquired GEICO in 1996, the company ranked seventh among U.S. auto insurers. In his 2013 letter to shareholders, Buffett noted, "Now, GEICO is number two, having recently passed Allstate."
The same can be said of energy company MidAmerican; its pre-tax earnings totaled $393 million when Buffett acquired it in late 1999. Compare that to the almost $1.5 billion the company earned in 2013.
While this has shown to be the case for dozens of Berkshire's acquisitions, much of the success has been attributed to Buffett's keen eye for businesses. However, I think this ignores Buffett's willingness not to tinker with a good thing. Keeping the company's original management, and allowing it almost full autonomy to operate as it sees fit, is one of the major reasons Berkshire's subsidiaries continue to perform well after being acquired.
5. Cash pile
Buffett has suggested that Berkshire "will always maintain supreme financial strength, operating with at least $20 billion of cash equivalents." As of the third quarter of 2014, Berkshire was holding nearly $60 billion in cash and cash equivalents. This protects Berkshire from risk, allows the company to grow organically, and leaves plenty left over for new acquisitions.
6. Buffett doesn't dilute stock
Just as important, this huge cash pile avoids the necessity for Buffett to dilute Berkshire stock by issuing new shares. For instance, of Berkshire's five largest non-insurance companies -- which include BNSF, MidAmerican, Iscar, Lubrizol, and Marmon -- only one, BNSF, was acquired by issuing new shares of stock. And even then, 70% of the acquisition was financed with cash. Altogether, Buffett increased total shares by just 6.1% and created a "$10.4 billion gain in annual earnings."
More simply put, the ability to make acquisitions without issuing new shares of stock means better per-share earnings growth for investors.
7. An incredibly deep bench
There is no replacing Warren Buffett, the man; but when it eventually comes to filling his role as CEO, Berkshire has a laundry list of qualified candidates.
But don't listen to me... listen to Buffett:
Leading our two capital-intensive companies are Greg Abel, at MidAmerican, and the team of Matt Rose and Carl Ice at BNSF. The three are extraordinary managers who have my gratitude and deserve yours as well.
From a standing start in 1985, Ajit [Jain] has created an insurance business with float of $37 billion and a large cumulative underwriting profit, a feat no other insurance CEO has come close to matching.... Ajit's mind is an idea factory.
Lubrizol is exactly the sort of company with which we love to partner – the global leader in several market applications run by a talented CEO, James Hambrick.
It's a joy to watch Marmon's progress under Frank Ptak's leadership. In addition to achieving internal growth, Frank regularly makes bolt-on acquisitions that, in aggregate, will materially increase Marmon's earning power.
8. A fair price
While price is purposely at the bottom of my list, nothing is worth an infinite price -- so it certainly matters. Buffett has suggested in the past that Berkshire will repurchase shares at 120% of book value. So, with the company currently trading at almost 150% book value, investors will be paying a premium to what Buffett himself considers undervalued.
I think that, when you step back and look at the vast web of quality businesses under Berkshire's umbrella, its talented management, ability to grow in every direction, and incredible financial strength, Berkshire's intrinsic value far exceeds its true book value. And it's still reasonably priced and a fantastic long-term buy at today's price.