November 16, 2009

Warren Buffett's Big Bet With Burlington Northern

So, I imagine everyone knows Warren Buffett bought Burlington Northern recently and the media has spun it as wholly positive and a bullish bet on the economy of the United States. I'm going to look at this in a different angle and in a more skeptical and realistic fashion. Buffett says,"I basically believe this country will prosper and you’ll have more people moving more goods 10 and 20 and 30 years from now, and the rails should benefit. It’s a bet on the country, basically."

Let's start with the good things. I think it was definitely a good buy for the long-term. A classic Buffett moat company. A safe, smart move. But I think this could be a clue to the macro as well because Buffett is very keen on the macro economy. I'm not sure that I buy the argument that this is a big bet on the economy of the United States though. Right now the railroad gets only about 30% of its revenues from shipping consumer products. "Its next most important segment was coal, followed by industrial products like farm equipment, lumber and chemicals. It also hauls corn, wheat and soybeans, much of it exported to China."1

The media spin on it however is it's a bullish bet on the economy. I think it is a bet on future trends. None of them on a stronger United States economy. It just looks more like a bet on commodities, the fact that the dollar will be very weak, that people will be alive and eating in the future, the fact that oil prices will sky rocket over coming decades and that Canada will probably be stronger than the United States economically.

What is the way to ship if oil exceeds $140 a barrel? It sure isn't trucks or planes. The fact that rails take away from them doesn't seem particularly good, just that they will. This may be a bit of a stretch but buying a railroad seems more like a doomsday economic hedge than a hope that the economy will be strong. Shipping coal and necessities is pretty much a given. And you can't ignore a healthy demand from Canada next door.

Where's the leveraged bet on the consumer? Are you telling me from the extremely low valuations from the biggest stock market crash of his career and the worst economic crisis since the early 1900s that Buffett couldn't find a company any more correlated to the consumer? This is supposed to be an "all-in" bet right? Remember the consumer is the U.S. economy with consumer spending comprising over 70% of GDP. If the consumer does well so will the economy. And this railroad is the best deal he could find to "bet" on the economy? Give me a break media.

A bet on the economy is buying a company related to the housing industry or a service company.

I heard Buffett say he thinks this country will prosper in the future. Prosper isn't that strong a word though really. Buffett is an extremely candid guy to say the least. Why wouldn't he have said do extremely well or better than ever. He was saying this in the heart of the panic of 2008 and 2009 but I think one has to be skeptical of the context of those statements possibly because he is one of the most important statesman.

A low dollar and high fuel prices makes railroads an alternative for shipping to Canada and across the country. In that case it is a strong bet on Canada's economic future. I think that Canada will possibly be doing better than the US because they have the oil, healthier banks and financial institutions and more stable currency.

1. Yahoo! news

another source

full disclosure:no position in BRK-A,BRK-B,BNI