When Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) released its annual letter for 2016, 24/7 Wall St. had already tracked the massive number of changes made by Warren Buffett and his two portfolio managers during 2016. The company showed something not usually shown: the cost basis of its largest holdings.
It turns out that the top 15 common stock holdings of Berkshire Hathaway by size have a cost basis of $65.8 billion, and the market value on the last day of 2016 was $122.032 billion. This is more than $56 billion in profits, but if you know what else Buffett owns then it is easy to see that Berkshire Hathaway’s profits are far more than this colossal figure.
Some of Buffett’s stock positions date back many years, some to the 1980s and 1990s. Other positions have been added or were raised quite recently. This may seem almost hard to imagine, but more than five investments still held by Buffett would each generate gains of more than $10 billion.
Buffett’s cost basis is so low in some cases that there is almost no reason for Berkshire Hathaway to sell them. Buffett even outlined what he would have to pay in taxes if he and his managers decided to sell stocks. Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report did show that it still had capital gains of $6.5 billion in 2016.
Here, 24/7 Wall St. has featured the five positions owned by Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway that each would generate more than $10 billion in profits.
American Express Co. (NYSE: AXP) may have not been as loved by investors as it has been by Buffett. Buffett’s stake of over 151.6 million shares is a 16.8% stake in the company. It dates back to the 1980s. Buffett’s cost basis is a mere $1.287 billion on paper and was worth $11.23 billion at the end of 2016. This gain of about $9.5 billion comes with an even happier sound to Buffett’s ears: at $79.76, American Express shares were last seen up another 7.6%, and that would drive the profit north of $10 billion.
Buffett made a $5 billion preferred stock investment in Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) after the recession, something he said he came up with in the bathtub. While this is not yet a common stock ownership stake, Berkshire Hathaway gets paid $300 million per year in income from this. Where the big value comes is a warrant allowing Berkshire Hathaway to purchase 700 million common shares for $5 billion at any time before September 2, 2021. At the end of 2016, that would have delivered a profit of $10.5 billion. But Berkshire said that it can use its preferred shares to satisfy the $5 billion cost of exercising the warrant. So with Bank of America shares up almost 10% from the end of 2016, we are north of an $11 billion profit.
Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO) has been dead money for years now, but Buffett has owned it for decades. Buffett’s 400 million Coca-Cola shares are a 9.3% stake. That stake comes with a cost basis of just $1.299 billion, while the current value of Coca-Cola was listed as $16.584 billion. Now consider something else about this gain of more than $15 billion. You could speculate that with creative accounting this stake’s cost basis could be about zero, depending on how you account for dividends and the likely money made from stock loans.
For many years, Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC) was the grand prize among bank stocks for Berkshire Hathaway. With a 10% stake of 500 million shares, Buffett has even petitioned to take his stake north of 10% while remaining a mere passive investor. Buffett did pause buying shares during the account opening scandal and the John Stumpf ouster, but he said he believes this was a very temporary issue with limited fallout in the years ahead. Buffett’s cost basis was $12.73 billion, and the year-end value of $27.555 billion would generate a $14.82 billion profit. Still, Wells Fargo shares were up another 4.9% in 2017 and Buffett’s new profit would be closer to $16.2 billion.
Kraft Heinz Co. (NASDAQ: KHC) is a stake of 325,442,152 shares that is carried on the balance sheet with a GAAP figure of $15.3 billion. Its year-end value of $28.4 billion represents a profit of more than $13 billion. Buffett said in his annual letter that the real cost basis for the shares is $9.8 billion. And to add in a kicker here, Kraft Heinz shares were up over 6% more from the end of 2016. Buffett’s profit here from his investment alongside 3G would be a whopping $20.44 billion, considering the gains seen in 2017.