BERLIN — This isn’t the first or only time that Warren Buffett and his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A.US) (NYSE: BRK-B.US) have gone shopping in Germany. But I think this latest buy – the full acquisition of motorcycle gear retailer Detlev Louis Motorradvertriebs – is particularly notable for investors.
1. Bullish on Germany (and Europe)
Buffett is known for going against the grain – and succeeding thanks to this strategy. In 2008, he penned on OpEd in The New York Times titled “Buy American. I Am.”. At the time, the U.S. was reeling from the massive financial crisis. Just a month prior to Buffett’s column, the behemoth investment bank Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy.
Buffett backed his words with actions, loading up Berkshire’s portfolio with U.S. stocks, including U.S. financial companies such as banking giant Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC.US) and investment bank Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS.US). Time has proven Buffett’s bullishness right.
Today, we see Europe still struggling to get growth back on track. The clash between Russia and Ukraine have the continent on edge. And the ongoing financial struggle of Greece have caused headaches for members of the EU – notably the financially-strong Germany.
Reporting on the purchase of Detlev Louis, the Financial Times wrote:
[Buffett] told the Financial Times on Friday that Europe is a natural location for what he calls “elephant hunting” — searching for big acquisitions — and said that the continent’s current economic issues would not dissuade him.
Knowing Buffett’s modus operandi, the continent’s current situation may not only be “not dissuading” him, it may actually be encouraging him to look for deals in Germany and the rest of Europe.
2. This isn’t a new interest in Germany
Also from the FT:
“There is nothing like a deal to get people’s attention,” Mr Buffett said. “This is smaller than something we would normally do, but it is a door opener. I like the fact that we have cracked the code in Germany.”
This suggests that Buffett has been looking for a while for opportunities to buy into the German economy. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. Berkshire’s business base is loaded up with strong companies that produce quality products, and have leadership positions in their industries. Sound familiar? To me, it sounds a lot like Germany’s Mittelstand.
Buffett’s words also suggest that this is just the beginning. He’s got the code cracked now, so we may soon see Berkshire back in Germany for more – and next time it may be much larger.
3. For Berkshire investors: Not much here, but…
Berkshire is paying around 400 million EUR for Detlev Louis. For normal human beings, that’s a lot of money. For Berkshire, it’s peanuts. So for Berkshire investors, it means that there’s not going to be much of an impact on the overall company from this deal.
But as noted above, this may be a test case and a way for Berkshire to “dip its toes” in the German and European marketplace before jumping at bigger deals. And because Berkshire’s acquisition model is to buy companies and then let them operate without much interference, it can be a very attractive option for many owners. That may make this deal a signal to EU business leaders that Buffett has open ears for sellers from across the pond.
One of Buffett’s more famous quotes is “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” For Berkshire investors, it’s great when Buffett is able to put the company’s cash to work by buying businesses for the Berkshire portfolio. When he can do that in situations where “others are fearful,” it’s that much better.
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Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs.