25 February 2020
Warren Buffett said the near-term prospects for more acquisitions are “not good” because prices are “sky-high” for businesses that had decent long-term prospects. Photo: Bloomberg
Warren Buffett said the near-term prospects for more acquisitions are “not good” because prices are “sky-high” for businesses that had decent long-term prospects. Photo: Bloomberg

Buffett laments lack of opportunities for big deals

Warren Buffett acknowledged that market conditions are making it tough for his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to find more big companies to buy, Reuters reports.

Berkshire posted a US$25.39 billion fourth-quarter net loss, and its lowest annual profit since 2001, in the wake of sinking stock prices and a big writedown for the company’s Kraft Heinz Co. investment. 

But many of Berkshire’s more than 90 businesses, such as the Geico auto insurer and BNSF railroad, performed well, and quarterly operating profit rose 71 percent.

In his widely read annual letter to Berkshire shareholders, Buffett, 88, appeared to fault U.S. President Donald Trump for taking too much credit for the nation’s economic growth.

The billionaire investor said Berkshire’s success has been in part a product of “the American tailwind” that has enabled the country to enjoy “almost unbelievable prosperity”.

He said that since he began investing in 1942, that prosperity has been overseen by seven Republican and seven Democratic presidents, through times of war and financial crisis, and gained in a bipartisan manner.

Trump often takes credit for upbeat news on the economy and stock market, sometimes tying them to his economic policies.

Buffett, who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in her 2016 White House run, said no one person should claim credit when things go well.

“It is beyond arrogance for American businesses or individuals to boast that they have ‘done it alone,’” Buffett wrote.

Buffett also made a possible oblique criticism of Trump’s bragging about US economic performance, including relative to other countries such as China, where Berkshire invests in electric car maker BYD Co.

The United States, according to Buffett, should “rejoice” when other countries have bright futures.

“Americans will be both more prosperous and safer if all nations thrive,” he wrote. “At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders.”

Reacting to Buffett’s letter, Thomas Russo, a partner at Gardner Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and longtime Berkshire investor, said: “It sent an extraordinarily strong message about how open markets and free trade end up helping all participants do better.”

Looking for elephants

Part of the reason Buffett may be looking to invest abroad is that he is struggling to find big investments at home, and does not expect that to change soon.

Berkshire has not made a major acquisition since paying US$32.1 billion for aircraft parts maker Precision Castparts in January 2016.

Buffett said the near-term prospects for more acquisitions are “not good” because prices are “sky-high” for businesses that had decent long-term prospects.

While Buffett said the thought of an “elephant-sized” acquisition causes his heart to beat faster, the “disappointing reality” was that Berkshire would likely in 2019 use some of its US$111.9 billion of cash to buy more stocks.

Berkshire ended 2018 with US$172.8 billion of equities, but many of these suffered double-digit price declines in the quarter, including a 30 percent slide in its largest holding, iPhone maker Apple Inc.

Those declines were a major factor in Berkshire’s huge quarterly loss, and its 91 percent drop in full-year net income to US$4.02 billion from US$44.94 billion the prior year, when it benefited from a lower corporate tax rate.

Accounting rules require Berkshire to report unrealized stock gains and losses with net income, causing huge quarterly swings that Buffett says are usually meaningless.

Heinz impact

Operating profit in the quarter totaled US$5.72 billion, or US$3,484 per Class A share, topping analyst forecasts, and for the year rose 71 percent to US$24.78 billion.

The operating businesses are overseen by vice chairmen Greg Abel and Ajit Jain, freeing Buffett and vice chairman Charlie Munger, 95, to focus on capital allocation.

Results also were hurt by a US$3.02 billion writedown for intangible assets that Buffett said was “almost entirely” attributable to Kraft Heinz, in which Berkshire owns a 26.7 percent stake.

The packaged food company on Thursday shocked investors when it reported a US$15.4 billion writedown for Kraft, Oscar Mayer and other assets, slashed its dividend, and said the US Securities and Exchange Commission was examining its accounting practices.

While dated Saturday, Buffett’s shareholder letter is written well in advance, and did not discuss Kraft Heinz’s travails or the day-to-day management of that company by 3G Capital, the Brazilian firm and Buffett business partner.

Berkshire bought back about US$418 million of its stock in the quarter. It has recouped some losses on its stock holdings this year, though the Standard & Poor’s 500 remains 4 percent below where it was at the end of September.

– Contact us at [email protected]