Warren Buffett has spent more money buying back Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s stock in recent years than he did amassing his biggest equity bet on Apple Inc.
Warren Buffett led Berkshire spent nearly $20 billion more repurchasing its own stock since the middle of 2018 than it deployed accumulating its Apple stake through the end of last year. In total, Buffett poured about $51 billion into buybacks since a change to its policy more than three years ago, and appears to have continued snapping up at least $1.7 billion of stock since the end of September.
Buffett, Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive officer, has built Berkshire into a sprawling conglomerate valued at more than $650 billion, but that immense size has heaped pressure on his need for what he deemed an “elephant-sized” acquisition to ramp up Berkshire’s growth. Buffett has been foiled on his recent deal hunt, outbid at times by aggressive private equity firms. That’s left him increasingly relying on buybacks, with more than $20 billion of repurchases so far this year, as a way to put some of Berkshire’s record cash pile to work.
“The bull case would say they bought back $20 billion worth of their stock because they’re confident in their future outlook and that should be a catalyst for the stock, and my sense is it probably will,” Cathy Seifert, an analyst at CFRA Research, said. “The bear case, which is also relevant to point out, is this is a company that has had, as a stated desire, the need to make additional acquisitions and they haven’t been able to do that.”
It’s a marked shift for a CEO who previously shunned buybacks. For years, Buffett preferred large deals and spending money snapping up other company’s stocks over repurchasing Berkshire’s own shares. But that changed in 2018 when the company’s board lifted a cap on buybacks, giving Buffett and his longtime business partner, Charlie Munger, more flexibility to parcel out profits.
Buybacks have now surpassed even Berkshire’s largest holding, an Apple Inc. stake valued at more than $121 billion at the end of September. The company has spent just $31 billion buying Apple shares since it began accumulating that stake in 2016 through the end of 2020, according to the most recent data available.
“We believe Warren Buffett’s significant share repurchases show his conservatism as rising valuations make deals he may find attractive more scarce.”
-- Matthew Palazola and Kylie Towbin, BI analysts
All the buyback activity, while significant in size, hasn’t been enough to meaningfully whittle away some of the conglomerate’s cash. Berkshire ended September with a record $149.2 billion of funds in its coffers. While investors often want management to remain disciplined on when and how it spends the money, the swelling cash pile is “somewhat disappointing,” according to Edward Jones analyst Jim Shanahan.
“Buybacks were fine, but cash balances increased again,” Shanahan said. “Cash is now approaching $150 billion. That certainly was unexpected earlier this calendar year, I would have thought they would have been able to manage that lower with a combination of investments, acquisitions and buybacks.”
The Omaha, Nebraska-based business, which reported third-quarter earnings Saturday, posted an 18% gain in operating profit during that period, buoyed by record railroad earnings and strong results from its energy businesses. That helped offset even more underwriting losses at its group of insurers, which have been hit by catastrophes such as Hurricane Ida and more frequent claims from its drivers at auto insurer Geico.
Berkshire also disclosed that it bought back at least $1.7 billion in stock from the end of September through October 27, according to Saturday’s filing. Empire Financial Research’s Whitney Tilson, who’s attended the Berkshire annual meeting for more than two decades, applauded the buyback, but noted that he’d still prefer to see Buffett find the next lucrative stock bet.
“If Buffett could find another Apple, clearly I’d rather have him allocate to that,” Tilson said. “Buying back Berkshire stock makes sense when you’re drowning in cash."
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