Over the weekend, legendary investor Warren Buffett, the “Sage of Omaha,” released his annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. Each year the financial world pores over Buffett’s words as if they are tea leaves predicting the future of the world economy. And considering that Buffett is the world’s third-richest man, it’s not hard to understand why.
Well, among his advice this year: Read D Magazine.
Before I depart the subject of spin-offs, let’s look at a lesson to be learned from a conglomerate mentioned earlier: LTV. I’ll summarize here, but those who enjoy a good financial story should read the piece about Jimmy Ling that ran in the October 1982 issue of D Magazine. Look it up on the Internet.
Through a lot of corporate razzle-dazzle, Ling had taken LTV from sales of only $36 million in 1965 to number 14 on the Fortune 500 list just two years later. Ling, it should be noted, had never displayed any managerial skills. But Charlie told me long ago to never underestimate the man who overestimates himself. And Ling had no peer in that respect.
Ling’s strategy, which he labeled “project redeployment,” was to buy a large company and then partially spin off its various divisions. In LTV’s 1966 annual report, he explained the magic that would follow: “Most importantly, acquisitions must meet the test of the 2 plus 2 equals 5 (or 6) formula.” The press, the public and Wall Street loved this sort of talk.
In 1967 Ling bought Wilson & Co., a huge meatpacker that also had interests in golf equipment and pharmaceuticals. Soon after, he split the parent into three businesses, Wilson & Co. (meatpacking), Wilson Sporting Goods and Wilson Pharmaceuticals, each of which was to be partially spun off. These companies quickly became known on Wall Street as Meatball, Golf Ball and Goof Ball.
Soon thereafter, it became clear that, like Icarus, Ling had flown too close to the sun. By the early 1970s, Ling’s empire was melting, and he himself had been spun off from LTV . . . that is, fired.
Periodically, financial markets will become divorced from reality – you can count on that. More Jimmy Lings will appear. They will look and sound authoritative. The press will hang on their every word. Bankers will fight for their business. What they are saying will recently have “worked.” Their early followers will be feeling very clever. Our suggestion: Whatever their line, never forget that 2+2 will always equal 4. And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is — zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.