OMAHA, Neb. — Billionaire Warren Buffett likes to compare his company to a masterpiece that he’s been painting for nearly five decades, and the deal he announced Tuesday will permanently alter the color of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s portrait.
The 79-year-old investor plans to add a brilliant orange section to the painting for the brightly colored locomotives of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. that Berkshire will acquire in a $34 billion cash and stock deal. It will be the biggest deal yet in a career of big deals.
“I think it’s classic Buffett,” said Andy Kilpatrick, the stockbroker-author who wrote “Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett.”
Throughout the nation’s economic struggles of the past two years, Buffett and Berkshire have been busy making deals, but few of those were outright acquisitions.
Berkshire’s recent big deals include investing $6.5 billion in equities related to Mars Inc.’s acquisition of Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., $5 billion in preferred shares of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., $3 billion in General Electric Co., and $2.6 billion in Swiss Reinsurance Co.
Those financing deals have given Berkshire substantial stakes of at least 10 percent and in some cases, warrants to buy stock. As a result the company has collected millions in interest.
Last year, Berkshire failed in its attempt to buy Constellation Energy Group Inc. But even failure was profitable because of the breakup terms of the deal.
Berkshire’s utility division MidAmerican Energy Holdings received 20 million Constellation shares and $593 million cash last year after Baltimore-based Constellation rejected MidAmerican’s $4.7 billion takeover bid in favor of a deal with Electricite de France SA. MidAmerican has since sold the Constellation stock.
Buffett hasn’t gone through the recession mistake-free. He acknowledged earlier this year that he shouldn’t have bought 79.9 million shares of ConocoPhillips stock when oil and gas prices were near their peak.
But Berkshire has partly made up for that misstep by selling some of the ConocoPhillips stock to generate a loss to offset past capital gains taxes.
Buffett’s decision to write more than 200 derivative contracts — many of them tied to equity indexes — has contributed to multibillion-dollar swings in Berkshire’s earnings. But the derivative losses and gains are mostly unrealized, and Buffett has said he’s confident the contracts will ultimately be profitable because Berkshire can invest the premiums for at least another 12 years.
The company plans to release its third-quarter earnings report on Friday.
Berkshire prefers to buy companies instead of just investing in stocks, and Buffett has simple standards for what he looks for in an investment: easy-to-understand large firms with a strong competitive advantage that generate cash and above-average returns on capital.
Over the years, Buffett’s company has bought more than 60 subsidiaries; including clothing, furniture, jewelry and candy companies, restaurants, natural gas and corporate jet firms and has major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co. and Wells Fargo &Co.
Berkshire’s biggest acquisition before BNSF was the $16 billion stock purchase of reinsurance giant General Re announced in 1998.
Analysts who follow Berkshire say the BNSF deal will reshape the company because of the railroad’s size. Justin Fuller, who works with Midway Capital Research &Management in Chicago and writes about Berkshire online at www.buffettologist.com, said this is the kind of elephant deal that Buffett seems to be able to find once every five or six years.