Berkshire lets the commoners in

Berkshire Hathaway splits its class B shares, which jumped in price to $72 Thursday.

By Kim Peterson Jan 21, 2010 4:23PM
Warren Buffett. Photo Credit: Paul White, APOh, poor Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), being forced to allow the lowlife investors in the door. However will it recover?

That's the sense I get from reading this BusinessWeek article, which bemoans the loss of exclusivity at Berkshire after its shareholders approved splitting the company's class B shares 50-for-1. The price of a share dropped to about $67, although it quickly zoomed to $72 Thursday.

Buffett proposed the split, Ben Steverman writes, even though he previously said a lower share price would attract "inferior" buyers who don't share his value philosophy.

And the author of a book on Buffett says that Berkshire's formerly "fine china" stock is now being made available to the "paper plate" crowd.

Maybe Berkshire's next shareholder meeting will have separate entrances for the "true" investors and for the hacks that tried to get in on the cheap.

As distasteful as a stock split is for Buffett, he needed to do it to help finance Berkshire's $44 billion purchase of the Burlington Northern (BNI) railroad. A lower share price means that small Burlington shareholders can receive Berkshire shares as payment.

So let's turn the tables. Is Berkshire worthy enough for the masses to invest in? Reuters asked three investing experts, and here's what they said:

Steve Check of Check Capital Management says the ratio-to-book value of the stock is very cheap. And, he adds, book value is going to go up as Buffett's recent investments pay off.

"With Burlington Northern, you are taking a bunch of cash that is yielding 1% or less and turning it into an immediate yield of 6 percent to 7%," he says. "You don't have much risk of the numerator not moving up."

Hedge fund founder Dennis Gartman said the split is "a serious weakness" on Berkshire's part and he would not consider it an opportunity to buy.

"He is splitting the stock, and paying a premium for a railroad when he has in the past always demanded a discount, and running his cash position down," Gartman said. "I don't see how you can see this as anything other than detrimental to the share price."

Asset manager Paul Loutzis said the Burlington deal is a good one, and Buffett thinks it's so attractive that he approved of a stock split.

"He did not want to force the smaller holders of Burlington to have to accept cash," Loutzis adds. "This is unusual, but it is perfectly in line with Warren being concerned that all shareholders have the same treatment."

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