Are tools, iron in Warren Buffett's sights?

NEW YORK Thu Mar 31, 2011 8:10am EDT

Warren Buffett attends a news conference at a factory of TaeguTec after a ground-breaking ceremony for the factory, run by a unit of an Israeli firm owned by his Berkshire Hathaway, in Daegu, about 300 km (189 miles) southeast of Seoul, March 21, 2011. REUTERS/Truth Leem

Warren Buffett attends a news conference at a factory of TaeguTec after a ground-breaking ceremony for the factory, run by a unit of an Israeli firm owned by his Berkshire Hathaway, in Daegu, about 300 km (189 miles) southeast of Seoul, March 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Truth Leem

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Warren Buffett's hunt for a large acquisition could lead to targets like Eaton, Illinois Tool Works or Cliffs Natural Resources, all of which seem to fit his recent preference for growth in industries outside of his core insurance unit.

Using Thomson Reuters StarMine data, Reuters Insider compiled a list of more than 80 companies that met Buffett's basic criteria -- namely industry leaders with strong balance sheets that are available on the cheap.

Names like ITW, Cliffs and Eaton feature on the list, along with high-profile international names like Rolls-Royce Group and AkzoNobel.

All of them are trading at enough of a discount to analysts' expected earnings growth for the next five years that Buffett could pay a 20 percent premium and still be getting value in the deal.

"He always wants a simple defensible durable business that will still be here and still be on top of its game in 25 years," said James Armstrong, president of Henry H. Armstrong Associates, which manages about $400 million, around a quarter of which is invested in Berkshire.

The Reuters Insider analysis focused on companies with market capitalizations in the $10 billion to $30 billion range that meet Buffett's publicly stated criteria for deals, including a history of profitability and little debt.

MORE CAPACITY TO DEAL

Buffett made a splash earlier this month in buying lubricant maker Lubrizol Corp for $9 billion, extending the trend of Berkshire Hathaway's recent investments in basic industries.

The deal is Berkshire's biggest since it bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe for more than $26 billion in late 2009, but Buffett is still on the hunt for big deals.

In Berkshire's annual report, Buffett said he is on the lookout for possible acquisitions -- making references to going big-game hunting with an elephant gun.

The company had amassed a cash pile of about $38 billion by the end of last year. When Goldman Sachs buys preferred shares back from Berkshire, the insurance company will pick up an additional $5.5 billion.

"Lubrizol changes his acquisition profile by zero," said Glenn Tongue, managing partner who helps manage around $200 million at T2 Partners.

Tongue estimates that after the Lubrizol deal, Berkshire will still have more than $50 billion of cash on hand at the end of 2011 if the company does not do any more acquisitions.

"He characterized the acquisition exercise as elephant hunting. Lubrizol is not an elephant -- I wouldn't be surprised if he announced an acquisition larger than Burlington Northern this year," Tongue said.

SPECIFIC CRITERIA

Reuters looked for companies trading at a significant discount to their implied value, so that Buffett could pay a substantial premium and still feel he was getting a bargain.

In Berkshire's latest annual report, Buffett gave six of his own criteria for deals: current earnings of at least $75 million pretax, a demonstrated history of profits, good return on equity with little or no debt, solid existing management, simplicity and a firm offering price on the table.

Based on those terms and the StarMine data, among the list of companies Buffett could be interested in were several foreign names like Japanese auto component maker Denso, Polish utility PGE and Dutch grocery group Ahold and paint maker Akzo.

One analyst following AkzoNobel said there was "some logic" for Buffett in a deal, despite the company's liabilities from a UK pension deficit, given the synergies with the Berkshire-owned paints business Benjamin Moore.

"As far as intrinsic value is concerned, I believe AkzoNobel's shares are undervalued, even including the pension deficit," said Mark Van der Geest at ABN AMRO in Amsterdam.

Illinois Tool Works, which is trading at roughly a 40 percent discount to its implied value based on analyst projections, stuck out to one investment banker in the industrials space among other companies on the list.

"If I asked you what is the most similar company to ITW, I would say Marmon," the investment banker said, referring to a business Buffett bought from the Pritzker family. "So you could see that -- it has a lot of niche businesses, with generally dominant positions."

(Additional reporting by Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam, editing by Matthew Lewis)

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