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March 2, 2013 at 1:25 PM   |   Comments

Buffett says he is still hunting elephants

OMAHA, March 2 (UPI) -- Wall Street kingpin Warren Buffett said 2012 was the year in which the big ones got away, referring to his pursuit of profitable acquisitions.

Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett's investment firm, announced this year that it had teamed up with a Brazilian firm to buy H.J. Heinz for $23.6 billion. But last year his firm's most notable acquisitions were newspapers, for which he spent a relatively small amount: Only $344 million, The New York Times reported Saturday.

"There is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job," Buffett wrote in his annual letter to stockholders.

He also characterized 2012 as the year in which "I pursued a couple of elephants, but came up empty-handed."

Berkshire Hathaway is now holding $42 billion in cash, $12 billion of which will go to the deal to buy ketchup maker Heinz. But that still leaves a large cash reserve available for other purchases.

In his annual letter, Buffett wrote that, "America's destiny, however, has always been clear: ever-increasing abundance."

Berkshire Hathaway's value rose 14.4 percent in 2012, but that meant it lagged behind the Standard & Poor's 500 index, the Times said.

It was the ninth time in 48 years that Berkshire Hathaway did not keep up with the rising value of the broader stock market.

But Buffett's letter, which is a cherished souvenir for investors around the world, still conveyed the investor's congenial optimism and his rocking chair mannerisms.

His folksy style long ago earned Buffett the nickname of the Sage of Omaha, referring to his hometown in Nebraska.

Rather than pursue the wrong deal, "More than 50 years ago, Charlie told me that it was far better to buy a wonderful business at a fair price than to buy a fair business at a wonderful price," he wrote, referring referring to his longtime partner at Berkshire, Charlie Munger.

For 2013, Buffett, who is 82, wrote, "Charlie and I have again donned our safari outfits and resumed our search for elephants."


Japan and others cautious on 787s

CHICAGO, March 2 (UPI) -- A Japanese official said U.S. planemaker Boeing had taken a first step in solving problems that prompted the grounding of the new 87 Dreamliner aircraft.

Boeing's Chief Executive Officer for commercial aircraft Raymond Conner had flown to Japan to convince officials Boeing had developed a credible solution to overheating lithium-ion batteries which was the cause of one fire and one outbreak of smoke on two different planes.

Both incidents occurred in early January. Regulators soon after that ordered the new jets grounded until a cause of the problem was found and a solution put in place.

The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that Japanese Transport Minister Akihiro Ohta said finding a solution would "take some time," although he called Boeing's immediate plans to fix the problem a "starting point."

Industry observers are now looking for signs of how much Boeing will compensate owners of the 50 787 Dreamliners that have been sold and are now stuck on the ground.

The company has orders for 800 Dreamliners and that number may be affected in time, as well, with the odds of an order cancellation increasing for each day the Dreamliners remain out of service.

Besides All Nippon Airways, Dreamliners have been purchased by Japan Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, LAN Airlines of Chile, United Airlines and Qatar Airways, the Times said

All Nippon alone has cancelled over 3,600 Dreamliner flights and the problem is now rippling through the industry.

United Airlines, for example, has postponed launching a new route because it is using the extra planes in its fleet to replace grounded Dreamliners. Other airlines report that pilots who were trained to fly the 787 Dreamliner are sitting at home waiting to be put back in rotation.

A solution, meanwhile, could be months away.

"Once we approve a plan, then we have to go through the process of actually implementing the plan, which would involve a great deal of testing, a great deal of further analysis and re-engineering before those planes will be flying again," said Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration.


Store within a store concept goes to court

NEW YORK, March 2 (UPI) -- Martha Stewart's company cooked up the plan that would allow U.S. retailer J.C. Penney to sell its wares despite a contract with Macy's, it was said in court.

Macy's contends it has an exclusive contract to sell Martha Stewart housewares, which it has been selling exclusively since the end of 2009, when Martha Stewart's relationship with Kmart ended, The New York Times reported Saturday.

In December 2011, however, J.C. Penney announced it had struck a deal with Martha Stewart that involved creating a store within a store that would legally distance Martha Stewart from its exclusive contract with Macy's.

The contract with Macy's allows Martha Stewart's company to sell its own products in its own stand-alone stores. As such, the deal with J.C. Penney calls for Martha Stewart to design and build stand-alone kiosks or booths that just happen to be inside J.C. Penney stores.

J.C. Penney would own the merchandise and its personnel would sell the products. But legally the kiosk would be a Martha Stewart venture, J.C. Penney contends.

Macy's is challenging that idea in court.

J.C. Penney's Chief Executive Officer Ron Johnson said in court that Martha Stewart's firm came up with the idea. But documents and his testimony made it clear that, even though housewares is not the most profitable department in a department store, Johnson envisions Martha Stewart's line as vital to his company.

In an email to company executives, Johnson called the store within a store concept "a breakthrough."

In another email, written the day the deal with Martha Stewart was announced, he wrote that Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren, "might have a headache tonight."

Analysts say that housewares creates customer traffic because, at some point, almost everyone needs a pot or a pan or a towel or bedding.

The housing market is also on the upswing, which makes it a good time to corner the market on housewares that people often buy when they move to a new home.


Best Buy CEO: Don't count us out

RICHFIELD, Minn., March 2 (UPI) -- The chief executive officer of U.S. retailer Best Buy said rumors of the store's demise were premature.

"People who thought we were dead have to go through the painful process of revisiting that point of view," said CEO Hubert Joly in an interview.

In a dramatic and critical development, Best Buy reported that U.S. same-store sales rose in the fourth quarter for the first time in more than a year, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

The retailer's fourth quarter losses fell to $409 million compared to $1.82 billion in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Profit margins fell less than expected, as the retailer has tried to align its prices and its services with competitors, including Internet retailers that have lower overhead costs and can in some places avoid state taxes, giving them a quick advantage over brick and mortar stores.

Going head-to-head with Internet stores, Best Buy's own online sales rose 11 percent in the fourth quarter, a sharp decline from its 25 percent gain in that category in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Best Buy's board has also been dealing with Richard Schulze, the company's founder who owns 20 percent of the business and is trying to take the company private.

Schulze missed a Thursday deadline to put together a credible plan for buying the company, but offered, instead, on Friday to buy a substantial block of shares.

The board turned that offer down because it thought the deal would dilute share prices, the Journal said.

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