Why Warren Buffett Changed His Big Oil Bet

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Friday’s SEC filings showed investors which stocks Warren Buffett and his portfolio managers have been buying and selling. While the full stock holdings of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-B) grew in size yet again, there are numerous positions which did not grow and some which were lowered or eliminated completely. Perhaps the most unusual and surprising change seen was Buffett’s smaller stake in Suncor Energy Inc. (NYSE: SU). Perhaps the huge stake in Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) is the blame here.

It was only in August 2013 that it became known that Berkshire Hathaway had invested in Suncor Energy. What was so unusual about this position is that Suncor is a Canadian oil giant. Suncor is big into Canadian oil sands.

When the Berkshire Hathaway stake was first seen, it seemed that this could be a hedge against Berkshire’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail business. After all, Berkshire Hathaway is getting to make serious bank at the moment because, without the Keystone Pipeline, BNSF is getting to move all this oil from North Dakota by rail. And it is doing it for a handsome profit.

24/7 Wall St. predicted in November that it was likely that Berkshire Hathaway would have bought more Suncor stock. That was the case, growing to 18,009,957 shares last quarter from 17,769,457 previously. The SEC filing showing the full holdings was down to 13 million shares.

A history lesson signals that Buffett wanted in on the Canadian oil sands. After all, he and Bill Gates even went up to Canada in 2008 to investigate this as an investment. It took until 2013 for Buffett to pull the trigger there. Also in late 2013 was when it was finally revealed that Warren Buffett had made a much larger investment in Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM).

The full holdings released on Friday also showed that Buffett increased his stake by about $100 million in Exxon Mobil shares. With Exxon being so large and operating in just about every large oil deposit region in the world, it seems that, if Buffett wants exposure in Canada or a hedge against his BNSF rail oil transport business, then Exxon is good enough.

To prove a point, size matters. Warren Buffett has a hard time being able to be nimble when investing in stocks of public companies. Berkshire’s market cap is about $284 billion, and its public stock holdings were worth over $104 billion as of the end of December. Suncor Energy’s market cap is almost $50 billion, and the current Buffett stake in Suncor is only worth $434 million at current share prices. Even if Suncor’s stock price was to double, it just is too hard to make a difference to Berkshire Hathaway’s book value.

The stake in Exxon Mobil is, of course, different, in part because its market cap is a whopping $408 billion. Buffett’s Exxon Mobil stake of more than 41 million shares is worth some $3.87 billion. This is a huge nominal stake, but Team Buffett still does not even own 1% of the company. For Buffett to have nearly $4 billion in Suncor, at about 8%, could create all sorts of new regulatory filing requirements in the United States and in Canada.

It seems that Buffett still wants a lot of oil and gas exposure. It also seems that size matters here. And for Warren Buffett, it’s just easier to invest in Exxon Mobil and still get the exposure he wants in oil and gas.

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