Note: This post was originally published in the August 2016 issue of Value Investing Almanack. To read more such posts and other deep thoughts on value investing, business analysis and behavioral finance, click here to subscribe to VIA.
On April 10, 2003, Pepsi announced a contest called “The Pepsi Billion Dollar Sweepstakes”. It was scheduled to run for 5 months starting from May in the same year.
For the contest, Pepsi printed one billion special codes which could be redeemed either on their website or via postal mail. According to Pepsi’s estimate, about 200-300 million of these codes were redeemed. Out of these, 100 codes were chosen in a random draw to appear in a two-hour live gameshow-style television special. Each of these 100 people were assigned a random 6-digit number, and a chimpanzee (to ensure a truly random number and of course to rule out any monkey business) backstage rolled dice to determine the grand prize number. This number was kept secret and the 10 players whose numbers were closest to it were chosen for the final elimination. On the evening of September 14, the final day of the contest, the event, titled Play for a Billion, was aired live. If a player’s number matched the grand prize number, he would win US$ 1 billion.
Given the scenario, it was highly unlikely that anyone would win a billion dollar. The chances were literally 1 in a billion. In spite of that, Pepsi was unwilling to bear the risk of the possible billion-dollar prize. So they arranged for an insurance company to insure the event. They paid US$ 10 million to Berkshire Hathaway to assume the risk. Yes, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. The same guy who is famous for his two iron rules –
1. Never lose money
2. Don’t forget rule number 1.
Then why would Buffett expose his company to such a big risk for a relatively paltry premium of US$ 10 million? Isn’t this akin to playing Russian roulette?