Back in February, InvestorPlace Editor Jeff Reeves asked if the best days of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A, BRK.B) and its legendary leader Warren Buffett were just a fading memory. After all, Berkshire hasn’t delivered the type of earnings investors and the Street have become accustomed to over the years.
Indeed, full-year 2011 results fell 21% against 2010, and the company returned a mere 2.36% annually in the past five years.
And yet, here we are, watching BRK.B shares hovering around their 52-week high, having gained 10.5% year-to-date to beat an 8% return for the S&P 500. Investors might just have to answer the boss’ question with an emphatic “Not yet.”
Berkshire’s share price reflects what I want to call the “Buffett Forward Earnings Premium.” You won’t find this in any financial books or in stock price models that follow BRK.B pricing. But what it means is that the company so famously run by Buffett (and his similarly famous but less visible long-term partner Charles Munger) is set to move into a new era on rock-solid footing.
And the market, or at least investors, understands what that means to the company’s and the stock’s future.
Buffett is 81 and has signaled his intentions to step aside, although there is no published timetable. Before he’s done, though, be clear about what he’s leaving to his investors and the presumptive new management team of Ted Weschler and Todd Combs:
- Cash-cow insurance businesses Geico, General Re and Berkshire Hathaway Resinsurance Group that generate absurd levels of investable cash, which at this writing is around $38 billion. So the opportunity to put money into play is not an issue at all for whomever controls the checkbook or debit card.
- A baseline portfolio that sits on multibillion-dollar public investments like Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), IBM (NYSE:IBM) and American Express (NYSE:AXP). Not a bad start for both dividend cash flows and earning appreciation potential. And if you think Buffett lost his touch while mulling over leadership changes, forget it. Between 2009 and 2012, Buffet bought two huge tranches of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) to the tune of just over 25 billion shares. Wal-Mart has jetted to all-time highs recently, so perhaps the magic isn’t over quite yet.
- Remember the part about the cash? The U.S. government might be the last call made by companies desperate to raise cash without having to be on the hook to the taxpayers, but Buffett is the second-to-last call. Investments with huge dividend payouts through combinations of preferred shares or share warrants have paid off at Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC).
- Weschler and Combs were given a little bit of slack in the rope early last year, with each riding herd on oversight of around $2.75 billion in the portfolio. The experiment must be going pretty well — Buffett just raised their allowance up to $4 billion in portfolio value each. That might not sound like much considering the equity portfolio is around $60 billion, but it cements the belief that one of these two investment professionals (or both) will take over the reins when Buffett finally calls it quits.
Buffett might have painted the company into a little bit of a corner in the real estate market by picking up homebuilder Clayton Homes and supplier Johns Manville, not to mention taking a huge stake in Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC). The real estate market still is very cloudy at best, and these investments could be a drag on the portfolio for a while (although WFC appears to be weathering the banking storm fairly well).
Additionally, catastrophic risk in the insurance portfolio is always just an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane away. Ask property and casualty insurers like Aetna (NYSE:AET) what multibillion-dollar payouts mean to the balance sheet, and you’ll start to see the possible problems.
But all in all, Berkshire is as well-positioned as possible while Buffett and Munger pack for the drive toward the sunset.
As for investors, the Buffett Forward Premium will carry the stock higher — at least until someone else takes the podium at the shareholder meeting and tells them otherwise.
Marc Bastow is an Assistant Editor at InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing he does not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.