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August, 2003


In the wake of North America's worst (and most recent) major power blackout, on 8/14/03, a reasonable question is: where are there related investment opportunities?

One likely winner in the months ahead is Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/A and BRK/B) (8/15/03 closing prices: $75,000; and $2510, respectively). The company's chairman and largest shareholder, Warren Buffett, has often mentioned his intention to invest at least $10 billion in utility stock bargains as soon as Congress and the White House permit a larger percentage of such investments by a single company.

As the blackout puts more emphasis on our country's energy and utility infrastructure needs, as if the rolling brownouts in CA a couple years ago were not enough incentive, there should be more motivation for the regulatory relaxation required to permit Berkshire Hathaway's expansion into this potentially lucrative area, augmenting that corporation's bottom line in the next few years.

Other likely winners include:

Home Depot (HD) (8/15/03 closing price: $33.54) - Not only is HD an excellent Benchmark Investing bargain (as per our last issue). It also is a source of emergency supplies and equipment for nervous homeowners considering future such events, whether due to infrastructure failures or terrorism. Home Depot sales should pick up further as a result. In addition new home owner or home improvement buying can be anticipated. This normally continues for some time following peak periods of mortgage refinancing and home purchase such as has been occurring recently.

NICOR (GAS) (8/15/03 closing price: $34.01) - GAS has above average stock price safety, per "Value Line." It is not an electric utility but should benefit from an overall increase in concern, legislation, and investment to better meet our national energy needs. NICOR is a holding company which distributes natural gas and stands to profit from increased demand for this commodity. It's debt to equity, while not as high as for many utilities, does stand at 0.96 and its price to book value at 1.98. These are not necessarily strong negatives, but should be taken into account before purchase. The asset is not as relatively risk free as some of the stocks we recommend here. Yet its yield is 5.47% (competitive with the long-term government bond and thus a Benjamin Graham value factor), and its price to sales ratio is 0.58. NICOR's P/E is 11.8, below the average (positive). Return on equity is a healthy 19.6%.

Shaw Group (SGR) ($8.26) - This is also a riskier asset, in my view, than many that we mention in these essays. But this low price to earnings (P/E 5.4) stock has terrific upside potential, and it makes a lot of its money from building for the power generation industry, one now likely to receive much more attention and funding. SGR's debt to equity is 0.81, and its return on equity is currently just 6.4%. This is a micro-cap asset with market capitalization of $311 million. The price to sales ratio is a mere 0.08, and its price to book value (another key Benjamin Graham value criterion) is only 0.48. Momentum is also a factor in SGR's favor. The stock price has jumped over a dollar just since the latest blackout brought to people's attention the need for better power infrastructure.

A few self-disclosing words about our recommendations. This past week I did an analysis, with the help of "Motley Fool," of the price performance of all our domestic individual equity suggestions in the past two years (mean period since recommended: approximately one year). The average price appreciation was just over 6%. While I note that this was a time of terrorist attacks, recession, higher than usual unemployment, buildup to and execution of wars against regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and substantial corporate and accounting scandals, and that our record would have easily beaten that of an equal amount of money invested at the same times in the Standard and Poor's 500 Index (again, per "Motley Fool") a 6% annualized performance is certainly not batting a home run out of the park. One cannot help but think the return could be improved by being both highly selective and concentrated in his/her investments.

The reader is encouraged to take our advised purchases simply as suggestions of possible good opportunities and to winnow the field down to a few of the most stellar options, perhaps also buying shares of some of the best long-term performing no-load value mutual funds, like Clipper Fund (CFIMX) (recent price $80.87), if feeling the need for greater diversification.


Larry is not a professional. Don't take him seriously!

Actually, the investment article provided here is for general information only and should not be considered as professional advice, a solicitation to buy or sell any security, or the Word of God. Investors are encouraged to do their own research while considering their personal goals and circumstances, or consult their own professional financial advisors, before making investment decisions. Neither Larry nor LARVALBUG will be liable for any losses sustained by any visitor to this site.

(Disclosure statement: Larry and Val have holdings in some of the suggested assets but do not "make a market" in any of them and do not derive any direct benefit from recommending them, except perhaps for a bit of smug self-satisfaction.)

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