Fairfax's Watsa says BlackBerry a good long-term investment

Reuters

By Cameron French

TORONTO, April 9 (Reuters) - Struggling smartphone maker BlackBerry Ltd is a good long-term investment that is being unfairly punished by the stock market, the chief executive of the company's top shareholder said on Wednesday.

"We think over time BlackBerry is going to do well," Prem Watsa, CEO of Canada's Fairfax Financial Holdings, which holds about 10 percent of BlackBerry's shares, said at Fairfax's annual general meeting in Toronto.

Watsa, who has built a reputation as a shrewd value investor through winning plays such as his bet that the U.S. housing market would fall into crisis, has built up Fairfax's BlackBerry stake over the past three years. The smartphone maker's share price has tumbled from a Nasdaq high of about $148 in 2008 to a low of just over $5 last year.

Fairfax sought partners last year in a $4.7 billion bid to take BlackBerry private, but abandoned the plan after its due diligence showed BlackBerry could not handle the large debt load it would have to take on in such a deal.

Watsa said he still believes the company, which pioneered handheld email but has watched its market share disappear to rivals such as Apple Inc's iPhone, has valuable assets and is being underpriced by investors.

"In my experience, markets go up, markets go down. When stock prices come down, the marketplace ... predicts bankruptcy, and when it goes up, it predicts years of fantastic growth. And the truth is always in between," he said.

He also praised BlackBerry CEO John Chen and said the company was "so fortunate" to have him.

Chen, who replaced Thorsten Heins as CEO after the buyout was abandoned, is best known for turning around software maker Sybase in the late 1990s.

In addition to its equity stake, Fairfax has C$500 million ($459 million) in BlackBerry debentures, convertible at $10 a share into BlackBerry stock, after taking the lead in a debt offer after the buyout talks fell through.

BlackBerry's shares were at $8 on Wednesday on Nasdaq and at C$8.69 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

($1=$1.09 Canadian) (Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway)

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