Thursday, November 23, 2006


"We remain agnostic about the market. We light a candle and hope it goes down. Only during periods of stress can you find good companies at reasonable prices."

Bruce Berkowitz, Fairholme Fund – Barron’s August 14 2006

The Dow continues to break records. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) continues to defy and hit a high of $513 today - not far from where I thought the stock would be in 5 years when I first wrote about it last November (the rapid rise is partly the risen I sold Google in our Model Portfolio). Incidentally, I find it interesting that an air of skepticism remains in the air. People don’t seem to want to believe the market rally has taken place and that it may indeed continue. Many continue to hold onto to their cash. Perhaps a good contrarian sign that the bull may still have some legs. But I digress. Amid the market’s recent torrid advance and the private-equity orgy, one sector remains unloved and untouched: homebuilders.

Don’t hold your breath though. Recent articles are beginning to mention the beaten down homebuilder stocks as possible targets for private-equity folks. We shall see. Regardless, my position on this sector has not changed. So I won’t rehash what I have said before except that I see opportunity in this sector. In the ten years since I started investing, I don’t recall any other industry getting so much negative news day after day, week after week. Company earnings are coming in below estimates, existing home sales are declining, potential new home owners are canceling contracts, inventories of new homes are piling up and homebuilders themselves are the most pessimistic they have been in years. Yikes. Amid all this the shares are holding up well, a possible signal that we are at or near a bottom.

So if you knew all this and someone gave you a few million dollars tomorrow to buy a business and make a living running it, what would you do? Where would you look? I bet homebuilding would be one sector you would shy away from, let alone a business which provides homebuilding materials to builders, unless, you are Warren Buffett. This brings me to USG Corporation (NYSE: USG) which recently emerged from bankruptcy. Mr. Buffett has managed to snap up shares and increase his holding in the company to nearly 20%, most of it recently at around $46. You may not know USG but I bet you know what SHEETROCK® is. Indeed, that is a USG brand. Apart from being cheap (the stock is trading at 4 times trailing EBITDA), what is unique about USG is that the management sought bankruptcy protection not because the business was performing badly, but because they wanted to shelter shareholders from asbestos litigation related to products sold decades earlier. The company emerged from bankruptcy with its equity intact - a rare occurrence.

If Buffett’s foray into a housing related stock doesn’t give you comfort, here is another data point to consider. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent SEC filing shows the addition of seven homebuilders to its stock portfolio. The Foundation’s endowment is managed by an under the radar fellow named Michael Larson. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Gates is getting a few ideas from his good pal in Omaha. Mr. Gates is a Buffett apprentice and they are extremely good friends – they do play online bridge on weekends after all.

Who knows, perhaps it is premature to jump in. But calling a bottom is never easy, if not impossible. But at these levels, the shares of the various companies in this sector offer a decent Margin of Safety and an above average upside potential for the long-term investor. One more thing to consider – during a couple of recent speeches, the brain of them all, Alan Greenspan, has been quoted as saying, “the worst may well be over,” and that he is seeing “early signs of stabilization” in the housing market.

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