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Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway Inc's annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., May 4, 2019.SCOTT MORGAN/Reuters

If the past few years are any guide, Warren Buffett’s annual letter on Saturday will serve up a sprinkling of folksy humour while stonewalling anyone who wants a clearer picture of what lies ahead for Mr. Buffett’s byzantine empire.

This non-disclosure disclosure has become a frustrating February ritual for shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Mr. Buffett’s flagship company. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those frustrated shareholders.)

However, people in search of a bargain may want to get over their annoyance. Despite its murkiness on some key issues, Berkshire stands out as one of the few reasonably priced corners of an expensive U.S. stock market.

Mr. Buffett’s company trades for only 1.4 times its book value, about half the average for other large U.S. stocks. It spans a wide range of stable, non-cyclical industries – railways, power generators, insurance and consumer brands.

Better yet, it is sitting on a vast cash hoard worth US$128-billion at the end of the third quarter of 2019. Once you factor in the meagre returns from that enormous pile of low-yielding cash, the company’s nominal price-to-earnings ratio of 21 looks more than reasonable.

Berkshire’s combination of reliable businesses and giant cash reserves offers all-weather appeal to cautious investors. If the U.S. economy continues to prosper, the company should keep on spewing dollars. But if the market were to tumble, Mr. Buffett will be able to deploy his mountain of cash to acquire other companies at discount prices.

It’s not exactly a no-lose proposition – Berkshire would still be hit by a bear market, like everyone else – but the company’s muscular balance sheet does make it appealing for value-conscious investors such as Bill Ackman, who runs Pershing Square Capital Management in New York. He invested more than 10 per cent of his hedge fund in Berkshire last year.

“Warren Buffett’s iconic holding company has significant excess cash and is trading at a cheap valuation,” Pershing Square said in a presentation this month.

In addition, it said, Berkshire has lots of room to improve profit margins at many of its key operating subsidiaries, such as BNSF Railway.

So why isn’t everyone buying in? It comes down to whether you view Mr. Buffett as a great investor, waiting patiently for his chance to pounce, or as a once-great investor struggling to keep up with the latest trends.

Much of the market tends to the latter opinion. Critics point out that Berkshire’s 11-per-cent advance over the past year lags far behind the 22-per-cent gain in the S&P 500 index of big U.S. stocks.

Berkshire has also trailed the market over the past five years. During that span, some of Mr. Buffett’s biggest bets have flopped. Particularly painful examples include IBM Corp. and Kraft Heinz Co.

Mr. Buffett, who turns 90 in August, does seem a beat behind the times. While embracing duds such as IBM over the past decade, he has largely missed out on the spectacular rise of companies such as Alphabet Inc., Inc., Visa Inc., Mastercard Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp.

What makes these omissions so galling is that a few of these businesses – Amazon and Costco, for instance – would seem to have fit perfectly with the billionaire’s long-held affection for strong retail brands.

But as frustrating as these missed opportunities have been, patient investors can still see a lot to like in Mr. Buffett’s humdrum kingdom. His insurers, railways and power utilities are anything but glamorous, but they are capable of pumping out profits with monotonous regularity.

This ensures that Berkshire’s weak patches are not all that weak. Since 2015, for instance, the stock has failed to keep up with the S&P 500. However, its absolute results – a 59-per-cent gain over that five-year stretch – are far from dismal.

Better yet, Mr. Buffett finally seems to be addressing his aversion to technology. Since 2016, he has built a stake in Apple Inc. worth US$79-billion.

He also seems willing to delegate large parts of Berkshire to younger lieutenants – notably Greg Abel, the Canadian executive who heads up Berkshire Hathaway Energy, and Todd Combs, an investment manager who Mr. Buffett promoted last year to the top job at auto insurer Geico.

Investors will read Mr. Buffett’s letter on Saturday to see whether he is any closer to naming a successor or delegating more authority to the next generation of managers.

They will also search for clues as to whether Berkshire may yield to popular pressure and start paying a dividend – something Mr. Buffett has always resisted, on the grounds that dividends are inefficient both from a tax perspective and from a wealth-building perspective.

Chances are many readers will go away dissatisfied with Mr. Buffett’s lack of disclosure on such issues. But that doesn’t mean they should rule out buying his stock.