Berkshire Bets on More Corporate Belt-Tightening

It’s getting tough for everyone. Consumers have led the way downward with a new zest for thriftiness that has plunged retail sales into its first decline in years. And all signs point to we’re still on the downtrend of consumer spending activity.

It’s not just consumers though; corporations are taking their licks too. They’re being forced to pass out more pink slips in a few months than most have in the past decade, advertising budgets have been sharply curtailed, and business investment is dropping as well.

But here’s the thing, all of the corporate fat which has built up in a lot of businesses will, help make them leaner and more efficient. Of course, it takes years for this process to work through an entire economy the size of the United States’, but it should be worth it in the long run. Corporations will be forced to run more smoothly…do more with less. It’s going to be a great learning experience and companies that can survive (on their own…not the ones getting bailouts) will be even stronger when the recession subsides.

Now is the time to start finding companies that will allow other businesses to run leaner and meaner. Its survival time and more rounds of corporate belt tightening should be expected. And the companies that can help its customers become more efficient and reduce costs without requiring significant upfront cash outlays should hold up very well in a market like this. We’ve been looking for cost cutting companies for a while because a long and deep recession will be the perfect opportunity to pick a few up.

After all, that’s what it looks like what Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) is doing. Last week, Berkshire Hathaway’s CORT subsidiary completed its takeover of Aaron Rents (NYSE:RNT) Corporate Furnishing Division.

CORT has grown over the years into a business service provider. It can move a business lock, stock, and barrel including employees and their families. CORT also provides temporary living facilities in new cities.

CORT does a lot more too to help businesses deal with major changes. Adding the office furniture rental division from Aaron Rents will just help further CORT’s expansion into new markets.

Although the $73 million takeover was small compared to recent moves made by Berkshire, it proves there are plenty of values out there for investors with an eye to the future. Finding ways to play the upcoming rounds of corporate belt-tightening should be a worthwhile venture.

When times are tough, everyone will be looking for ways to grow the bottom line while top line revenues flat line. The only way to do that is by cutting costs. Any company that specializes in that will surely be welcomed with open arms.

We’ve been eyeing technology companies that are cost cutters for their customers. Cutting cost technology companies will be able to get a strong foothold in a market like this.

For example, one stock I’ve liked for about two years now is Concur Technologies (NASDAQ:CNQR). Concur’s core business is making its customers’ lives easier. Concur provides software which connects a network of major credit card companies like American Express (NYSE:AXP) and Visa (NYSE:V), banks, and corporate accounting departments.

Its software allows companies’ entire travel expense management process to be completely automated. An expense is tracked from credit card swiped at a business dinner in New York directly to an accounting department in Houston. There are no expense forms to fill out and no time consuming calculation of receipts after a trip.

Concur’s technology saves companies a lot of time and money. In fact, Concur states it can reduce the cost of processing travel by as much as 37%. It really is a fairly easy set-up and the initial capital outlay is quite small (Concur makes most of its money by processing the transactions and ongoing support). No wonder companies like Airbus, Eaton, and Texas Instruments.

Is now the exact best time to buy companies that can reduce their customers costs? In a market like this it’s impossible to tell over the short-term. However, if you’ve got a decent time frame and are willing to use a conservative investment strategy, you should find plenty of winners among these beaten down group of companies.

By Andrew Mickey

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