Warren Buffett Hints That Berkshire Hathaway Shares Are Cheap In Stockholder Letter
I’m taking it as a given that practically everyone who reads this site has already gone through Warren Buffett’s stockholder letter, which Berkshire Hathaway released today.
Personally, I love how, for only the third or fourth time in his career, Buffett essentially provides enough mathematical evidence to say to people, “You’re a moron for not buying Berkshire Hathaway at these prices, but I’ll never come right out and say it.” He did it in sort of a clever way, too, to encourage people to run the figures. He gives the per share book value of the stock (if you want the Class B equivalent, you have to make the 1,500-for-1 adjustment, which comes to $89.98 per share) in the beginning of the shareholder letter. He then, later, talks about how intrinsic value has grown so much in recent years that anytime the stock is trading at 1.2x book value or less, the company will aggressively repurchase its own shares as they represent the best possible use of money.
A quick calculation puts this repurchase threshold at $107.98 per Class B share. As of the close of the stock market yesterday, the shares were trading at $115.78. That’s only a $7.80, or 7.2%, premium to the point at which he advocates acquisitions stop and the focus turns entirely to buy backs, something he’s been loathe to do throughout his almost 50-year career at the helm of the conglomerate.
In the past six months, I’ve had my parents, in-laws, and other family members buying up shares. The last purchase was at $112.61 back on February 11th.
Then again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise since I periodically use Berkshire Hathaway as an illustration of how my intrinsic value calculations differ from analysts. A year ago, I gave you my number – $125 to $130 per share – when it was at $96.51 in the open market. Three years ago, I told you the intrinsic value was between $100 and $115 at a time when the stock was at $72.23 in the open market. Going back even further six months before that, I wrote that the stock was trading at the lowest valuation in a decade and that we had been buying it for our own accounts (so much so that when it later surged to almost $120 per share, it created a portfolio composition problem that required some strategic adjustments).
My opinion? Since Berkshire Hathaway is one of those exceptions I discuss, I’ll just come out and say it. The stock is at $115.78 today. I think there is a very strong argument the intrinsic value, conservatively estimated, falls somewhere between $140 and $155 per Class B share, meaning the current market value represents a discount of between 17.3% and 25.3%. If I didn’t already own so much of it, I’d be buying for myself. As it stands, Berkshire Hathaway is my second largest personal position (the surge in Wells Fargo shares to nearly double their price since I wrote about them being stupidly cheap back in October of 2011 and mentioned we were buying whatever we could afford, meant that they became my family’s largest holding).
Why Is Berkshire Hathaway So Undervalued?
I think the undervaluation in Berkshire Hathaway is happening for three reasons:
First: The record-low interest rates have left yield-starved investors looking to stocks in the 2.5% to 3.5% range, sometimes even causing them to overpay for shares with low growth and high payouts. Buffett refuses to pay a dividend so the stock is off the buy list of a lot of people who would otherwise love to own it.
Second: Despite the fact he says succession isn’t an issue, knowing that Warren Buffett probably won’t be around in 10 years judging by the actuarial tables causes some uncertainty and anxiety. Other businesses have long, established processes for choosing the next leader. Berkshire stockholders essentially are trusting Buffett’s “it will be fine” sentiment. Related to the first point, even if the lack of dividend is more tax efficient, dividend payments keep the non-Buffett managers of the world disciplined as they can’t squander what they don’t have. If, say, 50% of profits were being mailed out to owners, the damage a new CEO could do if things go south is less than he could do if he were retaining all of the annual surplus.
Third: Following the banking crisis, a lot of investors are terrified of banks and financial firms in general. Berkshire Hathaway has enormous insurance subsidiaries, as well as large stakes in major banks. Therefore, $1 in earnings isn’t being valued as highly as it would be if it were a pure software or chemical enterprise. Seeing how AIG went from a AAA blue chip to near total wipeout in a matter of days because of small staff in a London office made all such firms suspect; a problem you don’t have with a business that is more old-school, such as J.M. Smucker that sells jams, jelly, coffee, and shortening.
Personally, I’m not too concerned about the three, which is why I’m fine holding so much of the stock. Despite his demonstrably true mathematical arguments, I still think it’s a mistake for Buffett not to distribute a dividend as a control mechanism on his successors. Charlie Munger once mentioned this during a shareholder meeting, saying something along the lines of, “Look, they can’t mismanage what they can’t touch so if it’s really a concern, the board can approve a huge dividend policy and solve the problem overnight, shrinking the responsibility of the executives by giving them access to a smaller pile of money.”
I’ll sleep better at night with Berkshire Hathaway paying a dividend, even if the returns are lowered a bit. As long as Warren Buffett is at the helm, the retention is fine. Anyone else in the world? They need to pay out some of the earnings or the company will deserve to have a lower valuation for the increased risk it poses.
Update: Several years ago, I placed many posts in the private archives. The site had grown beyond the family and friends for whom it was originally intended into a thriving, niche community of like-minded people who were interested in a wide range of topics, including investing and mental models. On 05/22/2019, I decided, after multiple requests, to release certain posts regarding Berkshire Hathaway from those private archives if they had some sort of educational, academic, and/or entertainment value. This special project, which you can follow from this page, has been interesting as I revisited my thought processes about a specific company or industry, sometimes decades later. In this case, reading about how we approached the analysis of a real-world business was helpful to many of you and the information contained herein is now so old there is no chance a reasonable person might mistake it for current market commentary. While this post was never put in those archives, many of those that link to it or from it were. As a result, I’m making an update note here.
One major change that has occurred in the years since this post was originally published: Aaron and I relocated to Newport Beach, California in order to have children through gestational surrogacy. Within a window of a couple of years around that relocation, we also sold our operating businesses and launched a fiduciary global asset management firm called Kennon-Green & Co.®, through which we manage money for other wealthy individuals and families. That means we are now financial advisors (or, rather asset managers operating under a investment advisory model as we are the ones making the capital allocation decisions rather than outsourcing those to fund managers or third-parties), which was not the case at the time this was written. Accordingly, let me reiterate something that should be perfectly clear: this post was not intended to be, and should not be construed as, investment advice. Also, for the sake of full disclosure, I’ll state outright that Aaron and I still own shares of Berkshire Hathaway personally and that the stock represents one of the major equity holdings of our firm’s private clients. We express no opinion as to whether or not you should buy it. Any company can do poorly or even go bankrupt. There are no guarantees Berkshire Hathaway will generate a profit or make money for shareholders. We may buy or sell Berkshire Hathaway for ourselves or our clients in the future and have no obligation to update this post or any other historical writing. You should talk to your own qualified, professional advisors about what is right for your unique circumstances, goals, objectives, and risk tolerance.