[NEW YORK] Warren Buffett, the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, faulted Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc's habit of pursuing strategies that looked good in the short term but were doomed to come to a bad end.
"The business model of Valeant was enormously flawed," Mr Buffett, 85, said about the embattled drugmaker on Saturday at Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.
"I watched the Senate hearings a couple days ago when Senator Collins and Senator McCaskill interrogated three people from Valeant, and it was not a pretty picture."
Valeant has endured months of turmoil as it became the face of price increases on drugs in the US, attracting scrutiny from regulators and politicians. Since its August peak, Valeant has lost more than 85 per cent of its stock-market value, failed to file its annual report on time and said it is being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Outgoing Chief Executive Officer Mike Pearson, former Chief Financial Officer Howard Schiller and billionaire investor Bill Ackman appeared before a US Senate committee last week, apologising for the company's behaviour and promising to lower the price of certain hospital drugs for all customers. They faced questions from senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Susan Collins of Maine.
Berkshire Vice Chairman Charles Munger has criticised Valeant's practices, drawing return fire from activist investor Ackman, whose Pershing Square Capital Management is one of the biggest shareholders in the drugmaker.
"Valeant of course is a sewer, and those who created it deserve all the opprobrium that they got," Mr Munger said at Saturday's annual meeting.
Valeant's largest shareholder as of March 31 is investment firm Ruane, Cunniff & Goldfarb - which has longtime ties to Mr Buffett. It runs the mutual fund Sequoia Fund, which has faltered as a result of its big bet on the drugmaker.
In March, Robert Goldfarb retired as Ruane Cunniff CEO and Sequoia co-manager in the wake of the fund's poor performance and the firm's defense of its Valeant stake as redemptions rose. Two of the fund's outside directors resigned in October including Sharon Osberg, a former world bridge champion and partner of Mr Buffett in the card game.
Sequoia traces its roots to Mr Buffett. It was co-founded in 1970 by Richard Cunniff and William Ruane, a friend of Mr Buffett's from the time the two studied together under legendary value investor Benjamin Graham at Columbia University. When Mr Buffett shut down his partnership in 1969 to concentrate on Berkshire, he recommended clients invest with Ruane.
"I think it was a very unfortunate period when the manager got overly entrenched with a business model," Mr Buffett said about the fund during Saturday's meeting. "Even now, if you take the record from inception to now with the trouble they've had recently, I don't know of a mutual fund in the US that has a better record. There probably is one, maybe or two, but it's far better than the S&P."
The US$5.3 billion Sequoia Fund declined 11 per cent this year through April 29, trailing almost all of its peers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The fund has returned 14 per cent a year from 1970 through the end of 2015, according to a March letter to shareholders from the firm. That beat the annualised gains of the S&P 500 Index. A spokesman for the fund didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.
Mr Munger said in October that Valeant's model of acquiring rights to treatments and jacking up prices was "similar to the worst abuses in for-profit education." Mr Ackman responded later, faulting Mr Buffett and Mr Munger for their holding in Coca-Cola Co. The soft drink maker has "probably done more to create obesity, diabetes on a global basis than any other company in the world," he said. Coca-Cola is among the largest and most successful stock investments at Berkshire.
Mr Munger, a billionaire who is also chairman of Daily Journal Corp in Los Angeles, said this year that it may not have been smart to publicly criticse Valeant, but that he felt obligated to speak out against what he sees as abusive practices.
"I couldn't resist calling attention to it," Mr Munger said in February at Daily Journal's annual meeting. "These crazy false values and this crazy excess is bad morals and it's bad policy. It's bad for the nation. It's just bad, bad, bad."
Valeant attempted to put the worst of its problems behind it on Friday, announcing a shakeup of its board and filing a long-awaited annual report where it promised significant changes to strategy and better oversight of executives. Mr Pearson is to be replaced by Joe Papa in May. Valeant said in a filing that Mr Papa's pay will amount to about US$67.4 million in cash, options and restricted stock for this year.
"In the last five weeks, we've recruited a phenomenal CEO and we're going to work very hard to make Valeant a leader in the industry," Mr Ackman said on Saturday in a phone interview. Mr Ackman first invested in Valeant in the first quarter of 2015 and joined the board last month.
The drugmaker's stock plunge and Mr Pearson's departure killed his chances of realising an unusually big incentive: In January 2015, Valeant arranged for a potential payday of US$2.66 billion for the CEO if the shares rose enough.
A grant the company disclosed for the first time on Friday would have given Mr Pearson 2.25 million shares if Valeant reached at least US$1,181.81 on three specific dates between October 2019 and April 2020.
Valeant's troubles began with a controversy over increasing the price of two cardiac drugs by 525 per cent and 212 per cent. The drugmaker has said that Mr Schiller had engaged in improper conduct that led to financial misstatements. Mr Schiller refused to resign from the board and denied the allegation.