Questioning Berkshire Hathaway's BYD Purchase: Long-Term Economics?

|
 |  Includes: AOBI, BRK.A, BRK.B, HMC, TM
by: Jeffrey Walkenhorst, CFA

The Fortune magazine cover story for the 4/27/09 issue was "Buffett's Electric Car-Buffet Takes Charge", an interesting read about Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A, BRK.B) $230 million purchase of a 10% stake in a Chinese company called BYD (HKG:1211). BYD makes cell phone batteries, mobile phones, and electric cars. The purchase was announced 9/29/08 by Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy Holdings subsidiary and, according to Fortune, is still awaiting approval from the Chinese government.

The article is up-front about Mr. Buffett's primary investment rules:

  • "When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is usually the reputation of the business that remains intact.
  • You should invest in a business that even a fool can run, because someday a fool will.
  • And perhaps most famously, Never invest in a business you cannot understand."

The article goes on to say:

  • 'In acquiring a stake in BYD, Buffett broke a couple of his own rules. "I don't know a thing about cellphones or batteries," he admits. "And I don't know how cars work." But, he adds, "Charlie Munger and [MidAmerican Chairman] Dave Sokol are smart guys, and they do understand it. And there's no question that what's been accomplished since 1995 at BYD is extraordinary."'
  • "... Buffett and Munger and Sokol think it is a very big deal.... They think BYD has a shot at becoming the world's largest automaker, primarily by selling electric cars, as well as a leader in the fast-growing solar power industry."

Finally, the article highlights that the primary reason for breaking Mr. Buffett's rules was/is BYD's hard charging founder and chairman, Wang Chuan-Fu. Mr. Wang built BYD into a behemoth in the cell phone battery and component market from scratch over the past decade. Berkshire's Vice Chairman, Charlie Munger, relayed to Fortune the following about Mr. Wang:

  • '"This guy ... is a combination of Thomas Edison and Jack Welch - something like Edison in solving technical problems, and something like Welch in getting done what he needs to do. I have never seen anything like it."

To summarize: Berkshire Hathaway decided to take a swing based on the past success of Mr. Wang and the future potential in the "clean tech" market (electric cars, solar).

So far, Berkshire Hathaway and Mid-American look like champions based on their entry point of HK$8 per share (16 times 2008 earnings) for 225 million shares. Shares of BYD now trade around HK$42 (a whopping 84 times 2008 earnings) -- up 425% from HK$8 -- rising on the back of the Berkshire news, optimism that China's stimulus is working (with local stocks zooming upward), and clean-tech sector momentum.

BYD's two-year stock chart is included below -- we believe shares plunged in February 2008 after plans to raise additional capital were announced. The raise never happened in 2008 because of ensuing market conditions, but BYD announced last week a potential 100 million share offering is now in the works. The planned offering is expected to bring total shares outstanding to 2.4 billion, slightly diluting Mid-American's stake.

Yet, Berkshire Hathaway did not invest in BYD for a quick gain. Rather, we know that Berkshire is on-board for the long-haul. In this case, what matters most are business economics over the long-term and, more specifically, the equity earnings stream that Berkshire/Mid-American will realize from BYD. For us, this is where things get hazy.

From BYD's 2008 annual report, we learn the following:

  • Gigantic revenue growth - BYD's 2008 revenue of RMB 26.8 billion increased 26% Y/Y and by a factor of four from RMB 6.4 billion in 2004 (organic and acquisitions).
  • But, margin compression - although gross profit increased 23% Y/Y, gross and net margins declined to 19% and 4% in 2008, respectively, from 20% and 8% in 2007 and 27% and 15% in 2004. Total segment operating margin (before interest/finance costs and taxes) was 6.8%, down Y/Y from 9.8%.
  • And, low return metrics - 2008 return on average equity and return on invested capital of approximately 9%, and a return on average assets of 3.3%.
  • With huge capital consumption to fund growth - cash flow from operations less capital expenditures of negative RMB 3.7 billion in 2008 and negative 2.1 billion in 2007. BYD's net debt increased almost 200% to RMB 7.5 billion, with gearing* increasing to 66% from 24% (*net debt divided by net assets, or shareholder equity).

Quick conclusion: the facts tell us that BYD operates in a low margin, low return, competitive business that consumes significant capital.

We explore BYD's gross margin and segment operations, margins, and earnings in more detail on our personal blog.

Key Observations related to the auto segment:

  • Margins/metrics for leading, mature players such as Toyota (NYSE:TM) and Honda (NYSE:HMC) - we know last year was horrendous for automakers, but what about five year average operating margins, ROE, and ROI? Based on Thomson Reuters data, Toyota's five-year average operating margin, ROE, and ROI were 6.9%, 10.4%, and 5.5%, respectively, with an effective tax rate of 40%. Honda's were 6.8%, 12.1%, and 5.8%, with an effective tax rate of 41%. The industry averages were 6.0%, 9.1%, and 4.9% with an effective tax rate of 38%.
  • BYD is an insurgent player with arguably* strong battery technology and no legacy cost structure tied to a very large, complex supply chain in major developed markets (we put an asterisk next to arguably because we've heard different views from some clean-tech investors).
  • The company is trailblazing to establish market share in a large, global market. However, incumbent players are not going to close up shop and go home. BYD will need to work overtime to achieve the quality and reliability for which Toyota and Honda are well known.
  • Despite not having a legacy cost structure, BYD's automobile segment margin of 5.8% is only in-line with average margins for mature, traditional high cost competitors. BYD's ROE of 9% is in-line with the five-year industry average.
  • Although BYD's auto sales are growing rapidly and the company will benefit from significantly lower tax rates (16.5% in 2008), the company has no established brand or distribution outside China unlike mature players. As a result, these areas will no doubt require meaningful investment on top of continued investment in physical plant.

Conclusion

For sure, given increased global environmental concerns, the world will move toward more clean-tech solutions. Why not try to reduce dependency on fossil fuels by promoting electric cars that can be recharged overnight when electric grid usage is low? Assuming concerns surrounding batteries (heat, efficiency, recycling) and car safety (small size, fear of "electric" accidents, increased pedestrian accidents+silent engine perils) can be addressed, seems very plausible that a growing portion of the population will drive hybrid vehicles over time.

We are certain that Berkshire Hathaway and MidAmerican performed extensive due diligence on BYD and understand that they think the world of Mr. Wang. Other smart, long-term oriented investors are also buying into the BYD story, surprisingly even at now elevated P/E multiples. According to a 7/21/09 report from China Knowledge Online sourcing information from the Hong Kong exchange, The Capital Group Companies recently increased its stake to 7.02% from 6.93%.

Still, even with great management and a potential technology advantage, we can't help but scratch our head over the economics of the business. We have no problem believing that BYD will be around in ten years and quite possibly be bigger, better, stronger in each of the company's key markets. After all, the low-cost provider in a given market can be a big winner with a durable competitive advantage. Plus, perhaps MidAmerican will benefit from access to BYD's battery know-how. However, with low margins and large capital requirements, we are less confident in the company's ability to "generate cash and consistently earn above-average returns on capital" (Berkshire Hathaway's #4 Owner-Related Business Principle, "preference for companies that...."). As a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder with great respect for Messrs. Buffett and Munger, we're curious to see how things develop at BYD.

As an aside, Berkshire's confidence in BYD gives us confidence in our position in American Oriental Bioengineering (AOB, $5.28). AOB also has a highly motivated, hard-charging CEO with a successful track record and long-term vision, yet has the benefit of business model with high margins and excess cash generation.

Disclosure: long BRK.B, AOB.