So Warren Buffett has bought himself a railroad: Burlington Northern Santa Fe, to be exact. Crafty fellow.
Buffett famously invests in easy-to-understand large companies with a strong competitive advantage that generate cash and above-average return on capital. He has not been dazzled by the computer age. Computers, though, have had a dazzlingly disruptive effect on one of his investments: The Washington Post Company, for which Buffett serves as a director.
By his own account, Buffett finds newspapering scads of fun, connecting with journalists. Because The Post Co. bought Kaplan, Inc., the educational services outfit, Buffett and other Post investors have been spared some of the pain that falling advertising and circulation have inflicted across the industry.
Even as he was enjoying newspapering, Buffett appears to have had his eye on more solid industries. In 2000, he paid $1.7 billion to acquire an 85-percent stake in utility MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, and later acquired the rest. Now he is paying $26.3 billion to acquire all of Texas-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
It would appear that in these investments, these dull industrial cornerstones, Buffett has chosen government oversight over technological vulnerability.
Both utilities and railroads are government regulated and subject to the vagaries of public policy. But they are both necessary, and therein lies Buffett’s comfort factor. Electric utilities are not known for their gyrations, nor are railroads. Indeed, both have been largely shunned by hedge funds because they lack volatility.
Buffett, it would seem, is not balked by government or its impact, through regulation, on whole classes of businesses. Electricity companies are heavily regulated at the state and federal level–and in other ways, including pollution control, fuel mix and return on equity. Similarly railroad safety, service and return on equity are dictated by regulators.
Since the heady days of deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s, despite the conservative dialectic, the electric utility industry, in particular, has discovered regulation by the government to be both a burden and a godsend. Government stifles but it also succors.
Wall Street is conflicted about regulation. While it loves the security regulation brings to electric utilities, gas distribution companies and railroads, which makes their debt an attractive investment, it fears the extension of the government’s embrace to other industries and to itself. Wall Street would love, for example, to see the airlines back under the government’s wing–as would the carriers themselves.
While the political class is consumed with the machinations of Congress, and the activism of President Barack Obama, Buffett is tacitly declaring his apprehension about disrupting technologies: computers and their progeny, like the Internet and wireless communications. Buffet is voting for investments that cannot be moved to China and cannot, by today’s reckoning, be rendered obsolete by technology.
Washington is awash with analysts, pundits, reporters and strategists aggregating and disaggregating, dicing and slicing the smallest morsel of political change. Yet, since the end of World War II, technology has had as much claim on change as politics. The three great political events of this time have been China’s conclusion that communism and capitalism can abide together; India’s final realization that protectionism was holding it back; and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Did the end of the British Empire matter? Not really.
By stealth, technology has been changing the world, wiping out whole areas of endeavor and creating new ones. Thanks to the green revolution between 1950 and 1984, the world has been better fed. Thanks to the microprocessor, we have been gadgetized–from the way we enjoy music to the ease with which we stay in touch by telephone. Thanks to the jet engine, the world has been opened to all who can afford to fly. And thanks to new technologies, medicine posts successes daily.
But it is the computer that has changed everything, for good and otherwise. It is the computer that has robbed us of our privacy, but has put the great libraries of the world at our fingertips. It has made writers of us all, even while undermining traditional journalism.
So while we are parsing electoral tidbits, technology is the real shaping force loose in the world.
If you cannot embrace it, try and get to some safe, predictable high ground, like Buffett. He is known as the Oracle of Omaha for good reason. –For the Hearst-New York Times syndicate