Just over a year ago, Prem Watsa said Research in Motion, now renamed BlackBerry, was a “Canadian success story”, a good buy and a likely turnaround story, despite declining market share.
BlackBerry’s fortunes have only deteriorated since then, but Watsa, chief executive of top BlackBerry shareholder Fairfax Financial, is an old hand at looking wrong today and right tomorrow.
Fairfax, both an insurance holding company and Watsa’s investment vehicle, was on the losing end of bets against the market in the mid 2000s as Watsa waited for the US mortgage industry to collapse. The company’s stock fell by 50% between mid-2003 and mid-2006 as Watsa’s purchases of credit default swaps flattened profits, while rivals feasted on a housing-fed bull market.
But when the market began to weaken in 2007, Fairfax began notching up investment gains, pulling in billion-dollar profits in 2007 and 2008. Then with markets still reeling and other investors licking their wounds, Watsa started to plough money back into equities, bringing another strong year in 2009.
Since their 2006 low of C$100, Fairfax’s shares have more than quadrupled, and the stock is up 100-fold over 28 years.
Often called Canada’s version of Warren Buffet, Watsa preaches a long view that suggests it may be too early to assess his decision to take on a leading 10% stake in BlackBerry.
As it sits now, BlackBerry has not been a turnaround story under Watsa’s watch. Since January 2012, a period when Fairfax has raised its stake in the company from just over 2% to just under 10%, BlackBerry’s share price is down about 25%.
“Prem invests for the long term,” said Paul Holden, an analyst at CIBC World Markets who follows Fairfax. “He’s held his major stake now for what I would say is a fairly short period of time relative to his investment horizon, so I would say it’s probably too early to put any score on that investment.”
Watsa stepped down from the BlackBerry board on Monday, citing a potential conflict of interest, as the company said it was exploring the sale of itself and other options.
Holden said Fairfax, with a market capitalisation of C$8.7 billion, would be too small to purchase BlackBerry outright. The smartphone maker has a market capitalisation of C$5.8 billion.
But others said the signs that Watsa could be working behind the scenes were a positive.
“We have a lot of respect for the investment acumen and long-term track record Prem Watsa has