(Bloomberg) -- As Warren Buffett moves off the sidelines for the first time since the global pandemic struck, he’s sticking to the areas he knows best.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. announced an agreement Sunday to purchase Dominion Energy Inc.’s natural gas pipeline and storage assets for an enterprise value of $9.7 billion, expanding its energy empire even further. While the deal wasn’t the splashy “elephant-sized” acquisition that Buffett has sought for his $137 billion cash pile, the move shows he’s carefully opening Berkshire to acquisitions, according to Cathy Seifert, an analyst at CFRA Research.
“It represents a little bit of an opening of a valve. I don’t necessarily think it’s a light switch that flipped from off to on,” Seifert said. The deal is a “prudent move and one that can be strategically justified and also tucked into the existing business model.”
Buffett has stayed relatively quiet as the Covid-19 outbreak ripped through the U.S., raising questions about whether he would find attractive deals or financing opportunities similar to the moves he pulled off in the 2008 credit crisis. In some ways, the Federal Reserve beat him to the punch, taking steps that helped swiftly unlock markets earlier this year. That meant that the opportunities Berkshire had been looking at dried up, Buffett told investors in May at his annual meeting.
The deal with Dominion Energy hints that opportunities might start cropping up for his conglomerate. It also shows Buffett is willing to put some of his funds to work, despite expressing caution in May that his cash pile wasn’t unreasonably high when considering worst-case possibilities for the pandemic.
“He’s willing to make investments now, of a fairly sizable amount,” said David Kass, a professor of finance at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “It’s very positive that he’s sending a signal for the right deal at the right price, $10 billion or more -- ‘We’re ready to go, we’re ready to invest.’”
Buffett, who has crafted Berkshire into a conglomerate valued at nearly $443 billion, built his reputation as an investor able to swoop in during volatile markets to strike unique and complicated deals in past crises. After being stymied on the acquisition front during the recent bull market for stocks, Buffett still wasn’t finding any deals during the initial stages of the pandemic and even dumped his stakes in the major U.S. airlines.
His inability to make a major acquisition recently has drawn scrutiny from his critics, who argued that Buffett lost his ability to pull off the game-changing transactions that helped vault Berkshire into the ranks of the most valuable U.S. public companies. Now, the deal to buy substantially all of Dominion Energy’s natural gas transmission and storage assets for $4 billion, along with the assumption of $5.7 billion in debt, ranks as its biggest acquisition in more than four years.
“We are very proud to be adding such a great portfolio of natural gas assets to our already strong energy business,” Buffett, who is chief executive officer and chairman of Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway, said in a statement Sunday.
Berkshire’s Class A shares, which are down almost 20% this year, gained 2.1% to $273,254 at 10:30 a.m. in New York. Dominion Energy dropped 6.7% to $77.18.
“I’m inspired to see that, given that he’s bearish, he’s still willing to make acquisitions where he thinks it makes sense and where it meets Berkshire’s hurdle points,” said Darren Pollock, a portfolio manager at Cheviot Value Management, which invests in Berkshire shares.
Buffett has considered its energy business one of the “lead dogs” of Berkshire’s non-insurance operations alongside its railroad. The purchase expands its hold in the sector, adding more infrastructure to handle natural gas to its already sprawling energy operations across states such as Nevada and Iowa. Berkshire also struck the deal at a low point in the market. Natural gas futures in the U.S. dropped last month to their lowest point in 25 years and have recovered just slightly since then.
“This looks like confirmation that commodities like energy are undervalued,” Bill Smead, chief investment officer at Smead Capital Management, which owns Berkshire shares, said in an emailed comment. “At the bottom, assets move from weak hands to strong hands.”
What Bloomberg Intelligence Says
“Berkshire Hathaway’s $9.7 billion acquisition of Dominion’s gas-line assets and debt further solidifies its position in natural gas and is opportunistic, given the movement in energy prices this year and the desire of some participants to move to cleaner fuel sources.”
--Matthew Palazola, senior industry analyst, and Derek Han, associate analyst
Berkshire is digging deeper into a business that’s been facing increasing scrutiny amid the push for energy companies to shift away from fossil fuels. In its own statement on Sunday, Dominion Energy cited its target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The deal also highlights the work of one of Buffett’s key deputies, Greg Abel, who led the energy business for years and is now chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Energy alongside his role as Berkshire’s vice chairman for all non-insurance businesses. Abel gained a reputation as a key dealmaker for Berkshire with the 2013 purchase of NV Energy and even the battle to buy Oncor Electric Delivery Co., which didn’t ultimately come together. Abel is viewed as a potential successor to Buffett, 89.
The Dominion deal is set to be Berkshire’s largest acquisition ranked by enterprise value since its purchase of Precision Castparts Corp. in 2016. Still, Buffett ended the first quarter with a record $137 billion on hand and has been hankering for a major acquisition to put a chunk of cash to work. The Dominion agreement’s total enterprise value would account for about 7% of that total.
“It’s not something that’s going to move the needle from a balance-sheet standpoint, but it’ll produce several hundred million dollars a year in net income to Berkshire,” said Cheviot’s Pollock. “That’s no paltry sum. That adds up over time.”
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