In my view a board of directors of a huge financial institution is derelict if it does not insist that its CEO bear full responsibility for risk control. If he’s incapable of handling that job, he should look for other employment. And if he fails at it – with the government thereupon required to step in with funds or guarantees – the financial consequences for him and his board should be severe.
It has not been shareholders who have botched the operations of some of our country’s largest financial institutions. Yet they have borne the burden, with 90% or more of the value of their holdings wiped out in most
cases of failure. Collectively, they have lost more than $500 billion in just the four largest financial fiascos of the
last two years. To say these owners have been “bailed-out” is to make a mockery of the term.
The CEOs and directors of the failed companies, however, have largely gone unscathed. Their fortunes may
have been diminished by the disasters they oversaw, but they still live in grand style. It is the behavior of these CEOs and directors that needs to be changed: If their institutions and the country are harmed by their recklessness, they should pay a heavy price – one not reimbursable by the companies they’ve damaged nor by
insurance. CEOs and, in many cases, directors have long benefitted from oversized financial carrots; some
meaningful sticks now need to be part of their employment picture as well.
An Inconvenient Truth (Boardroom Overheating)
Our subsidiaries made a few small “bolt-on” acquisitions last year for cash, but our blockbuster deal with BNSF required us to issue about 95,000 Berkshire shares that amounted to 6.1% of those previously outstanding. Charlie and I enjoy issuing Berkshire stock about as much as we relish prepping for a colonoscopy.
The reason for our distaste is simple. If we wouldn’t dream of selling Berkshire in its entirety at the current market price, why in the world should we “sell” a significant part of the company at that same inadequate price by issuing our stock in a merger?
In evaluating a stock-for-stock offer, shareholders of the target company quite understandably focus on
the market price of the acquirer’s shares that are to be given them. But they also expect the transaction to deliver them the intrinsic value of their own shares – the ones they are giving up. If shares of a prospective acquirer are selling below their intrinsic value, it’s impossible for that buyer to make a sensible deal in an all-stock deal. You simply can’t exchange an undervalued stock for a fully-valued one without hurting your shareholders.
Imagine, if you will, Company A and Company B, of equal size and both with businesses intrinsically worth $100 per share. Both of their stocks, however, sell for $80 per share. The CEO of A, long on confidence and short on smarts, offers 1 1⁄ 4 shares of A for each share of B, correctly telling his directors that B is worth $100 per share. He will neglect to explain, though, that what he is giving will cost his shareholders $125 in intrinsic value. If the directors are mathematically challenged as well, and a deal is therefore completed, the shareholders of B will end up owning 55.6% of A & B’s combined assets and A’s shareholders will own 44.4%. Not everyone at A, it should be noted, is a loser from this nonsensical transaction. Its CEO now runs a company twice as large as his original domain, in a world where size tends to correlate with both prestige and compensation.
If an acquirer’s stock is overvalued, it’s a different story: Using it as a currency works to the acquirer’s advantage. That’s why bubbles in various areas of the stock market have invariably led to serial issuances of
stock by sly promoters. Going by the market value of their stock, they can afford to overpay because they are, in
effect, using counterfeit money. Periodically, many air-for-assets acquisitions have taken place, the late 1960s
having been a particularly obscene period for such chicanery. Indeed, certain large companies were built in this
way. (No one involved, of course, ever publicly acknowledges the reality of what is going on, though there is
plenty of private snickering.)
In our BNSF acquisition, the selling shareholders quite properly evaluated our offer at $100 per share. The cost to us, however, was somewhat higher since 40% of the $100 was delivered in our shares, which Charlie
and I believed to be worth more than their market value. Fortunately, we had long owned a substantial amount of BNSF stock that we purchased in the market for cash. All told, therefore, only about 30% of our cost overall was paid with Berkshire shares.
In the end, Charlie and I decided that the disadvantage of paying 30% of the price through stock was offset by the opportunity the acquisition gave us to deploy $22 billion of cash in a business we understood and liked for the long term. It has the additional virtue of being run by Matt Rose, whom we trust and admire. We also like the prospect of investing additional billions over the years at reasonable rates of return. But the final decision was a close one. If we had needed to use more stock to make the acquisition, it would in fact have made no sense. We would have then been giving up more than we were getting.