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Buffett‘s Chance for a Blockbuster Deal Faded as Fed Stepped In

Warren Buffett struck some of his famous deals — taking lucrative stakes in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and General Electric Co. — by swooping in when others panicked during the last financial crisis. He’s treading more carefully this time around.

With a record $137 billion of cash piled up at his Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Buffett fielded questions over the weekend from shareholders who wanted to know why he hadn’t acted as companies clamored for liquidity amid the pandemic-related shutdowns. This crisis is different, Buffett said.

“We have not done anything because we don’t see anything that attractive to do,” Buffett said at his annual shareholder meeting, which was held by webcast. The deals in 2008 and 2009 weren’t done to make “a statement to the world,” he said. “They seemed intelligent things to do and markets were such that we didn’t really have much competition.”

The famous investor’s reputation allowed him to serve as a lender of last resort during the 2008 financial crisis, racking up deals that generated 10% annual dividends from household-name companies. But as panic about the virus and shutdowns assaulted equities in March and even began to freeze debt markets, the Federal Reserve beat him to the punch with an unprecedented set of emergency measures.

“There was a period right before the Fed acted, we were starting to get calls,” Buffett said at Saturday’s meeting. “They weren’t attractive calls, but we were getting calls. And the companies we were getting calls from, after the Fed acted, a number of them were able to get money in the public market frankly at terms we wouldn’t have given.”

Buffett’s cautious reaction to the latest crisis drew plenty of attention from investors. While Berkshire bought back $1.7 billion of its shares in the first quarter, it was a net seller of stocks through April as it shed stakes in four major U.S. airlines.

The approach seems to put him in the camp of other notable investors who think markets may not have seen the worst of the impact from the pandemic. Buffett said the prospect of buying back Berkshire’s own stock isn’t much more attractive than it was in January, even as the share price dropped.

“He received much more demanding questions,” said Tom Russo, who oversees investments including Berkshire shares at Gardner Russo & Gardner LLC.

The sale of stakes in Delta Air Lines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co., American Airlines Group Inc. and United Airlines Holdings Inc. continues Buffett’s tumultuous history with the industry. He swore off the sector years ago after a troubled bet on USAir, then in 2016 he dove back in. In March, he told Yahoo Finance that he wouldn’t be selling airline stocks.

“Well, he just rejoined Airlines Anonymous,” said Bill Smead, chairman and chief investment officer of Smead Capital Management, which owns Berkshire shares.

Buffett, Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive officer, gained fame for turning a struggling textile company into a conglomerate now valued at $444 billion. But as Berkshire swelled in size, the billionaire investor struggled to supercharge its growth amid soaring valuations in the recent bull market. That’s weighed on Berkshire’s stock price, as the Class A shares fell 19% this year, more than the 12% decline in the S&P 500 Index, and have trailed the benchmark’s returns over the past decade.

In the meantime, Berkshire’s companies keep throwing off earnings, building the $137 billion cash pile that’s equal to nearly 31% of Berkshire’s market value. Buffett acknowledged that Berkshire doesn’t need that much on hand, adding that he still aims to keep his company as a “Fort Knox,” stout enough to weather the pandemic.

Buffett said he couldn’t promise Berkshire would outperform the S&P over the next decade, but he could vow not to be reckless. Maintaining that discipline is gratifying to longtime investors, said James Armstrong, who manages money, including Berkshire shares, as president of Henry H. Armstrong Associates.

“He bears a lot of responsibility and he never has any trouble remembering that Berkshire isn’t his,” Armstrong said. “Despite the criticism in the press and the public eye that he should deploy that cash, he continues to, every day, make his calculation of price to value and say, ‘I either see a good investment or I don’t.”’

Berkshire’s meeting lacked the familiar presence of his longtime business partner, Charlie Munger, as well as the thousands of audience members who normally attend the event in Omaha, Nebraska. Buffett said that Munger, 96, was still in fine health, but it didn’t make sense for him to travel from California or to have another vice chairman, Ajit Jain, come in from the East Coast in this age of social distancing.

Buffett, 89, instead was joined by a top deputy who lives just hours from Omaha, Greg Abel. A vice chairman overseeing the non-insurance units, Abel is considered a candidate to take over the CEO job someday. While Buffett still dominated the time, Abel spoke up about incoming calls before the Fed acted and gave investors a taste of his leadership style and his knowledge of Berkshire’s varied operations.

Buffett’s businesses haven’t been spared the effects of the shutdowns. The railroad BNSF reported reduced volumes as Covid-19 disrupted commerce, while footwear and apparel businesses were hit with a 34% decline in first-quarter earnings.

Munger said earlier this year that some small Berkshire units might not reopen after the pandemic. Buffett clarified the point, saying Berkshire was never willing to prop up a business amid unending losses. “There are businesses that were having problems before and that have even greater problems now,” he said.

Buffett remains cautious about the current crisis, saying that the range of economic possibilities was “extraordinarily wide.” Still, he ended the meeting on his classic optimistic note that people should never bet against America. And he left open the possibility that Berkshire’s dealmaking days will return.

The panic in markets “changed dramatically when the Fed acted, but who knows what happens next week or next month or next year? The Fed doesn’t know. I don’t know and nobody knows,” Buffett said. “There’s a lot of different scenarios that can play out. And under some scenarios, we’ll spend a lot of money. And under other scenarios, we won’t.”

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