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Warren Buffett picks a side in an oil bidding war

Berkshire Hathaway, commits US$10b to help Occidental Petroleum bid for Anadarko Petroleum

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Analysts say Anadarko's board may well look at Mr Buffett's proposed investment as a 'seal of approval'.

Houston

WARREN E. Buffett hasn't shown much interest in oil stocks in recent years, but that changed on Tuesday when his company, Berkshire Hathaway, committed US$10 billion to help Occidental Petroleum compete in a bidding war for Anadarko Petroleum.

Occidental is hoping that Mr Buffett's reputation as one of the world's most successful investors will bolster its proposal and financial position relative to Chevron, a company four times its size. At stake is a commanding position in the Permian Basin, the world's most productive oil field, which straddles Texas and New Mexico.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Chevron's proposed US$33 billion acquisition of Anadarko looked like a done deal. But on Monday, Anadarko's board said it was considering Occidental's bid, which is roughly 20 per cent higher than Chevron's.

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Should Occidental acquire Anadarko, Berkshire would invest US$10 billion in new preferred shares that have an 8 per cent annual dividend.

"We are thrilled to have Berkshire Hathaway's financial support of this exciting opportunity," Vicki Hollub, Occidental's chief executive, said in a statement. "We look forward to engaging with Anadarko's board of directors to deliver this superior transaction to our respective shareholders."

Occidental's takeover offer of US$76 per share in cash and stock values Anadarko at US$38 billion. Including Anadarko's debt brings the value of the offer up to US$57 billion. With debt included, Chevron's bid would value Anadarko at about US$50 billion.

Analysts said Mr Buffett's involvement would help Occidental's chances, even though the company probably would have been able to finance the deal without the billionaire investor, by issuing debt and common stock.

"Anadarko's board may well look at Buffett's proposed investment as a 'seal of approval,' an intangible but potentially valuable factor as the board is thinking about which bid to end up backing," analysts at Raymond James wrote in a research note.

Raymond James added that Mr Buffett's 8 per cent dividend "is not cheap", in part because Occidental would not be able to treat the US$800 million it pays Berkshire Hathaway as a tax-deductible expense.

By comparison, Occidental's 30-year bonds maturing in 2048 had a yield of 4.36 per cent on Tuesday. Companies can deduct some of the interest they pay on bonds and other kinds of debt from their taxes.

Chevron has repeatedly said its agreement with Anadarko will prevail because its assets, including Gulf of Mexico drilling and natural gas exporting facilities, make it a better fit.

Berkshire Hathaway has significant energy investments, but they are mostly in power generation and transmission. They include PacifiCorp, a power and grid operator that serves six Western states; and Northern Natural Gas, the nation's largest interstate natural gas pipeline system. Berkshire has modest investments in Phillips 66, a refiner; and Suncor Energy, a Canadian oil sands business.

The conglomerate also owns Burlington Northern Santa Fe, a major transporter of crude oil. It previously had large investments in Exxon Mobil and Kinder Morgan, the oil and gas pipeline company, but sold those positions.

Mr Buffett has shifted his electricity holdings towards renewable energy like wind and hydroelectric power. By investing in Occidental, he would be making a bet on oil production, although he may find a kindred spirit in Ms Hollub, who has said the oil companies need to address climate change and has invested in a Canadian company that is seeking to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Mr Buffett's proposed investment is the kind of expensive financing that he has offered before. As part of a joint bid with investment firm 3G Capital to buy HJ Heinz in 2013, Berkshire invested US$8 billion in preferred shares that paid a 9 per cent annual dividend.

Berkshire also bought preferred shares in General Electric and Goldman Sachs during the financial crisis, effectively extending Mr Buffett's credibility to help restore investor confidence in those businesses - at the steep price of a 10 per cent annual dividend.

The acquisition of Anadarko, the 41st-largest producer of oil and gas globally, would be the largest takeover in the oil industry in three years. The company has major assets in the Gulf of Mexico, Colorado, Mozambique, Algeria and Ghana.

But the most valuable piece of Anadarko is its prime holdings in the Permian Basin, where it has identified 10,000 drilling locations. The Permian produces roughly 4 million barrels of oil a day, about a third of all US production. It is the hub of a shale drilling boom that has made the United States a major oil exporter over the past three years.

Construction of pipelines over the next two years should allow oil companies to increase production in the Permian even further.

The current bid for Anadarko is Occidental's fourth in two years.

Chevron shares closed up 2 per cent on Tuesday, while Occidental shares fell 2.1 per cent. Shares of Anadarko were little changed. NYTIMES