Harley's amazing downhill ride

harley_davidson.top.jpgBy Carol J. Loomis, senior editor-at-large

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Today is an anniversary for motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson that it would just as soon not remember.

On February 3rd a year ago, with the stock market hurtling toward its March lows, Harley (HOG, Fortune 500) announced it had sold $600 million in five-year notes at a nosebleed interest rate of 15%. Yes, 15%, because the company needed the money to fund its finance company and had to pay what the market demanded.

The market, in this case, included Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire-Hathaway (BRK.B) had been husbanding cash for years, and who was pleased to give $300 million of that money to Harley at 15%. The other $300 million was put up by Davis Advisors, a mutual fund company whose Chris Davis saw Harley notes as a fine investment for his funds (which, by the way, also own Harley stock).

The annual $90 million of interest those notes carry certainly didn't help out Harley's 2009 results, though a recession that was killing sales of discretionary goods would have led to a financial wreck in any case. For the year, Harley reported shipments that were down 27% from 2008 and ended up with a $55 million loss -- its first red ink since 1993.

Still, 2009 had its redeeming features for Harley, and these certainly began with its stock price. For the year, as investors anticipated the company regaining its zoom, its stock rose by 53%.

Meanwhile, the great 2009 bull-market in junk-bond prices was producing an astounding turn in interest rates. In December, Harley sold still another block of 5-year notes -- $500 million -- at a 5¾% rate.

For swings in what it costs to do business, and for a reminder of just how remarkable the securities markets were in 2009, a 15% rate down to 5¾% is an amazing ride.

-- The author of this article is both a friend of Warren Buffett and a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder. To top of page