New York – The biggest name in investing is making what he calls an “all-in wager” on the U.S. economy – $34 billion to own a railroad that hauls everything from corn to cars across the country.
The acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the nation’s second-largest railroad, would be the biggest ever for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company.
It’s a natural fit for the Oracle of Omaha, a city with a special place in railroad history. It was the starting point for the westward push of the transcontinental railroad. Today, Omaha is the headquarters of Union Pacific, and BNSF trains rumble through every day.
In a statement, Buffett, whose investing decisions are carefully scrutinized by the world of finance, voiced confidence in the railroad industry.
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“Most important of all, however, it’s an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States. I love these bets,” he said Tuesday.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. already owns a 22 percent stake in Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and would buy up the rest under the deal, for a total value of $34 billion. It still needs approval from Burlington shareholders and antitrust regulators, both expected early next year.
Burlington Northern is the biggest hauler of corn and coal for electricity, making it an indicator of the country’s economic health. It also carries everyday items such as refrigerators, clothing and TVs from Western ports including Los Angeles and Tacoma.
Berkshire will pay $100 a share in cash and stock for the rest of the company, more than a 30 percent premium on the Monday closing price. Shareholders will have the option of a $100 cash payment per share or common stock in Berkshire.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. stock shot up $20.93, or 27 percent, to $97 Tuesday. Stock in other rail companies rose as well. Berkshire owns a 2 percent stake in Union Pacific’s stock and a less-than-1 percent stake in Norfolk Southern.
Buffett has said he realized a few years late that railroads were an appealing investment. As diesel prices rise, shipping by rail instead of truck becomes more attractive, and it would be extremely difficult for a competitor to build a new railroad.
“They do it in a cost-effective way and extraordinarily environmentally friendly way,” Buffett told CNBC on Tuesday. “I basically believe this country will prosper, and you’ll have more people moving more goods 10 and 20 and 30 years from now, and the rails should benefit.”
The railroad made about 31 percent of its money last quarter from shipments of consumer products from the West to major hubs including St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago.
Analysts say Buffett is looking for an investment that will reap rewards many years into the future.