Hewlett Packard Confusion and Berkshire Hathaway Stake

The Investors Chronicle (IC) published an article last week entitled “What does Buffett see in HP?”. I read it with interest as I used to do a lot of business with HP and its customers before I retired from a proper job. But I think the article might have confused more people than it enlightened.

The article referred to the acquisition of a “large stake in printer manufacturer and software company Hewlett Packard (US:HPE)” by Berkshire Hathaway. But the latter actually acquired a stake in HP Inc (US:HPQ).

The Hewlett Packard company split into two companies in 2015 these being HP Inc (HPQ) focussed on printers and PCs, and HP Enterprise (HPE) focussed on software and services. The latter made the disastrous acquisition of Autonomy although they did win a legal case on the issue of misleading accounts in January this year.

The printer/PC business was seen as being slower growth and of course as being in a highly competitive sector and hence achieved a relatively low market rating. It’s now on a historic P/E of 7 but as the IC article indicated the free cash flow of HPQ has been improving greatly. Return on assets has improved to 17% as well so one can see why Buffett might be attracted to this business.

The IC article also talked about the management in-fighting at HP not prevented by weak management at the top of the company. In fact the company want through a series of top management changes after the founders departed and the worst of them was the appointment of Carly Fiorina as CEO. To quote from Wikipedia “Fiorina’s predecessor at HP had pushed for an outsider to replace him because he believed that the company had become complacent and that consensus-driven decision making was inhibiting the company’s growth. Fiorina instituted three major changes shortly after her arrival: replacing profit sharing with bonuses awarded if the company met financial expectations, a reduction in operating units from 83 to 12, and consolidating back-office functions. Fiorina faced a backlash among HP employees and the tech community for her leading role in the demise of HP’s egalitarian “The HP Way” work culture and guiding philosophy which she felt hindered innovation. Because of changes to HP’s culture, and requests for voluntary pay cuts to prevent layoffs (subsequently followed by the largest layoffs in HP’s history), employee satisfaction surveys at HP—previously among the highest in America—revealed widespread unhappiness and distrust, and Fiorina was sometimes booed at company meetings and attacked on HP’s electronic bulletin board.”

The company’s record of investing in software was also abysmal when hardware was becoming ever cheaper and generic. This cumulated in the disastrous acquisition of Autonomy.

But the fact that the company has survived (albeit it in two parts) is no doubt due to its strong historic reputation for well-engineered quality products and strong brand name.

But there are two key lessons to learn from the history of HP: 1) Changing the culture of an organisation is always exceedingly difficult and is likely to fail unless done very sensitively; and 2) Management incompetence can damage even the most admired businesses, as Hewlett Packard used to be.

To quote from my book Business Perspective Investing: “One of the key factors that affect the outcome of any investment is the competence of the management and how much they can be trusted to look after your interests rather than their own. Incompetent or inexperienced management can screw up a good business in no time at all, although the bigger the company, the less likely it is that one person will have an immediate impact. But Fred Goodwin allegedly managed to turn the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), at one time the largest bank in the world, into a basket case that required a major Government bail-out in just a few years”.

At Hewlett Packard it was not quite so disastrous and the company certainly faced challenges as the computer technology market changed but the damage done to a once great company was unhappy to see.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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Warren Buffett Letter and Culture

Warren Buffett has published the latest Berkshire Hathaway letter to shareholders (see https://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2021ltr.pdf ). As usual it makes for an amusing and educational missive including his comment on the $3.3 billion the company paid in taxes. He says “I gave in the office” is an unassailable assertion when made by Berkshire shareholders.

The company improved its per share value by 29.6% in 2021 which was slightly ahead of the S&P 500 with dividends included. That’s a big improvement on the previous two years when Berkshire lagged the index.

What has been one of the key reasons for the success of the company over the last 55 years? I would suggest culture is one. A culture of honesty, integrity and rational behaviour if you read the latest and prior newsletters.

Meanwhile the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors (CIIA) have published a report entitled “Cultivating a Healthy Culture” (see https://www.iia.org.uk/policy-and-research/research-reports/cultivating-a-healthy-culture/ ). It suggests based on research among its members that culture is important and that 66% believe that the UK Corporate Governance Code should be strengthened in regard to the responsibilities of company directors. The Financial Times reported this as one of the causes of several company collapses in recent years such as at BHS, Carillion, Greensill and Patisserie Valerie. But if you read the reporting on this issue there is discussion of Environmental, Social and Governance issues (ESG) and equality issues as if adding those to the Governance Code might assist.

Yes I suggest culture is important but the key question to ask when looking to invest in a company from my experience is simply this “Is the Management Competent and Trustworthy?” (that’s a quote from my book on investing). If you don’t trust the management walk on by. And if you are holding shares in a company and news comes out that undermines your confidence in the directors, then sell the shares. Don’t wait for them to reform.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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Rampant Speculation, Cryptocurrencies, Buffett Meeting and Ridley Blog

With a long weekend for the May bank holiday, I took the opportunity to prepare the information required by my accountants to submit my and my wife’s tax returns (it’s many years since I completed my own Self Assessment tax returns – my financial affairs got too complicated).

After reading a good article in this weeks Investors Chronicle on Inheritance Tax (IHT), entitled “Eight things executors need to know”, I think I should have simplified my financial affairs long ago! My executors are going to have quite a job on their hands. But IHT is just ridiculously complicated. It looks like a “make work” scheme for accountants.

I have of course tried to simplify matters recently by consolidating two SIPPs on different platforms into one. The process was started on the12th January and is still not complete although most of the assets have now been transferred. As I have said before, the time and effort required to move platforms is disgraceful so I will be preparing a complaint to go to the Financial Ombudsman this week.

Having reviewed my income and expenditure figures for last year, it’s also a good time to review the state of the market. Should I “Sell in May and Go Away” as the old adage goes? Not that one can go far these days without a lot of inconvenience and expense.  

My portfolios contain a mix of individual shares and investment trusts, with a strong focus on technology stocks and small cap stocks. I certainly have some concerns about small cap technology stocks which seem to be fully priced at present, even if their futures look rosy. There are a large number of new IPOs of late where the valuations seem very optimistic. Meanwhile there is rampant speculation being pursued by inexperienced investors, particularly in cryptocurrencies and NFTs.

This is what Warren Buffett’s partner Charlie Munger said at the recent Berkshire Hathaway Meeting: “Of course, I hate the Bitcoin success and I don’t welcome a currency that’s useful to kidnappers and extortionists, and so forth…Nor do I like just shuffling out billions and billions and billions of dollars to somebody who just invented a new financial product out of thin air. So, I think I should say modestly that I think the whole damn development is disgusting and contrary to the interests of civilization. And I’ll leave the criticism to others”. That’s very much my opinion also.

Government debt has been ramped up to meet the Covid epidemic and interest rates are at historic lows. The concern of many is that inflation will increase as a result requiring Governments to clamp down on the economy to stop it overheating. This was a useful comment recently from the editor of Small Company Sharewatch: “The solution to the problem of lower interest rates is self-evidently higher interest rates. But the US Federal Reserve is having none of it. In the 1970s. inflation of around 15% was the problem. This was cured by higher interest rates, which got inflation down, and allowed interest rates to fall – for the next 40 years! The problem has now flipped. Low interest rates are the problem. Debt is encouraged: complacency grows; savers take on more risk; and investor mania grows. These are all likely to persist until the Fed acts”.

The economy is certainly buoyant. I learned today from attending a webinar of Up Global Sourcing (UPGS) that even pallets are in short supply. Commodities are also increasing in price as a result. I have not lost faith in technology stocks but perhaps it is best to look for new investments in other sectors of the economy – and certainly UPGS is a very different business which I now hold.

For another topical quote, here’s one from Matt Ridley in an article in the Telegraph (he always has something intelligent to say):

“The whole aim of practical politics, said HL Mencken, ‘is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’

It is hard to avoid the impression that officials are alarmed rather than pleased by the fading of the pandemic in Britain. They had a real hobgoblin to hand, and boy did they make the most of it, but it’s now turning into a pussy cat. So they are back to casting around for imaginary ones to justify their draconian – and deliciously popular – command and control over every detail of our lives. Look, variants!

And yes, the pandemic is fading fast. The vaccine is working ‘better than we could possibly have imagined’, according to Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, based on a study which found that it reduced hospitalisation by 98 per cent……”.

If the pandemic and the associated fear of the population is over, no doubt the Government will ramp up the concern about global warming despite the fact that we had the coldest April for almost 100 years. Government actions in this area are already having a significant effect on some sections of the economy and I have been putting a toe into that pool. No I am not buying electric car stocks but the power generation area is certainly of interest. How to avoid the speculations and just buy good businesses that are not totally reliant on Government funding is surely the key.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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Words of Wisdom from Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett has published his latest annual letter for investors in Berkshire Hathaway (see http://berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2018ltr.pdf). These letters are always worth reading for their insight into how a successful stock market investor thinks. I’ll pick out a few highlights:

Berkshire’s per share book value only rose by 0.4% in 2018 but he assigns that to the need to write down $20.6 billion on his investment holdings in unlisted companies due to new GAAP accounting rules using “mark-to-market” principles. He is not happy about that change.

He expects to make more purchases of listed securities as there are few prospects for mega-sized acquisitions. But that is not a market bet. He says “Charlie [Munger] and I have no idea as to how stocks will behave next week or next year”. He just buys shares in attractive businesses when their value is more than the market price.

At the ages of 88 and 95 for Warren and Charlie, they are not considering downsizing and becoming net consumers as opposed to capital builders. He quips “perhaps we will become big spenders in our old age”.

He comments on “bad corporate behaviour” induced by the desire of management to meet Wall Street expectations. What starts as an innocent “fudge” can become the first step in a full-fledged fraud. If bosses cheat in this way, subordinates will do so likewise.

He criticises the use of debt which he uses only sparingly. He says “at rare and unpredictable intervals, credit vanishes and debt becomes financially fatal”. It’s a Russian roulette situation in essence.

He’s still betting on the commercial vibrancy of the USA to produce investment returns in the future similar to the past. He calls the nations achievement since 1942, when he first invested, to be “breathtaking”. An S&P index fund would have turned his $114.75 into $606,811. But if it was a tax-free fund it would have grown to $5.3 billion. He also points out that if 1% of those assets had been paid to various “helpers” (he means intermediaries), then the return would have been only half that at $2.65 billion. He is emphasising the importance of avoiding tax if possible, and minimising what you are paying in charges.

But if you panicked at the rising debts in this world and invested in gold instead the $114.75 would only be worth $4,200. Clearly Warren believes in investing in companies and their shares as not just a protection against inflation but as the better investment than “safe” assets. He suggests the USA has been so successful economically because the nation reinvested its savings, or retained earnings, in their businesses.

The moral for private investors is no doubt that you should not spend all your dividends but at least reinvest some of them, or encourage companies to reinvest their earnings rather than pay them out as dividends. But you do need to invest in companies that reinvest their earnings to obtain a good return.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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