Is Buffett jumping into web stocks with Yahoo deal? Not so fast

Warren Buffett is said to be backing a group bidding for Yahoo! Inc.’s core assets after famously staying on the sidelines through two Internet booms. Have his views changed? Not necessarily. Buffett, 85, often says he doesn’t buy Web companies because he broadly avoids industries he doesn’t understand. But depending on how the deal is structured, he might not be betting on a stock’s performance, so much as the company’s continued existence. Moreover, the assets for sale - including finance, sports and video sites - are arguably media, a business he’s long tracked. “He has owned media and advertising businesses for 40 or 50 years,” said Richard Cook, who oversees about $350 million, including Berkshire shares, at Cook & Bynum Capital Management. “That’s something he knows.” Buffett, as chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., is backing an investor consortium that includes Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert in the second round of bidding for Yahoo’s Internet assets, people familiar with the matter said Friday, asking not to be identified because the talks are private. Berkshire has a long history of providing financing for buyouts, as well as patient capital for companies in crisis. Simple Decisions While there aren’t many details available yet on Buffett’s potential role in the Yahoo offer, “he might feel the cash flows are good enough to make the debtholders whole,” Cook said. In 2014, Buffett put up $3 billion to help Burger King Worldwide Inc. with its takeover of Canadian doughnut chain Tim Hortons Inc. During the 2008 financial crisis, he injected $5 billion into Goldman Sachs Group Inc. That year, he also backed Mars Inc.’s deal for Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. Each of the deals featured terms that let him profit without counting on a stock surge. In the Burger King and Goldman Sachs transactions, Buffett acquired a combination of preferred shares with relatively high dividends - 9 percent and 10 percent, respectively - and warrants that he could use to buy stock cheaply in the future. For Mars, Buffett bought $4.4 billion in bonds paying 11.45 percent interest. Buffett has said such terms can open the way for investments in industries where he has little personal expertise. “I knew they wouldn’t go out of business,” he told Berkshire shareholders in 2010, explaining an agreement the previous year to buy debt in Harley-Davidson Inc. that paid 15 percent. Unlike buying a stock, that decision boiled down to whether the company would survive, rather than an analysis of how it and the broader motorcycle industry would perform, he said. Media Bets If Buffett backs a deal for Yahoo assets, “he’ll get his terms,” said David Rolfe, who oversees holdings including Berkshire shares at Wedgewood Partners Inc. “He always does.” Buffett, Yahoo and Gilbert’s Quicken haven’t commented on the bidding. To many households, Yahoo is synonymous with the Web, having helped millions of people discover e-mail and the Internet in the 1990s. It has struggled in the past decade after failing to keep up with changing consumer tastes and advertising techniques, losing audience and revenue to Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. Still, display advertising generated the largest portion of Yahoo’s revenue in the first quarter - about 44 percent of the $859.4 million the firm took in, excluding sales shared with partner websites. Buffett built his reputation as the “Oracle of Omaha” with profitable stock picks that included media company Capital Cities/ABC Inc. in the 1980s. His current holdings include dozens of newspapers and a Miami television station. And he isn’t allergic to tech stocks, having taken a stake in International Business Machines Corp. in recent years. Berkshire already has links with Yahoo. Buffett turned to the Web portal to broadcast his company’s famous annual shareholder meeting online for the first time this year. And Susan Decker, a Berkshire board member since 2007, previously held various executive roles at Yahoo.

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