How Airlines Have Generated Massive Gains for Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway

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If you have followed Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) for very long, you know it has been no secret that Buffett was not a fan of investing in the airlines. On top of rising labor costs and strikes, there is the risk of rising oil prices, disasters and other business interruption. That is what made such unusual news in November of 2016: Buffett’s portfolio managers had bought three of the big airlines.

What has stood out is that the gains since the Buffett investment came to light. We do not have the formal dates when Berkshire Hathaway bought the shares, but we do have the share count and the value of each lot as of the end of the third quarter. 24/7 Wall St. has taken a snapshot of the share price going back to the end of third quarter and tallied up how much each position has risen since then.

It is also no secret that Buffett likes wide moats of protection for the companies he acquired and invests in. These moats offer defendable business positions with market share and capital, as well as strong barriers to entry for new would-be competitors.

When we tally up the known airline positions and add in a guess on the fourth position, it looks as though Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway shareholders are up more than $350 million since the end of the third quarter in 2016.

American Airlines Group Inc. (NASDAQ: AAL) was a new stake of 21.77 million shares and was worth almost $800 million at the end of the third quarter of 2016. This puts a quarter-end share price of almost $36.70. American Airlines was last seen trading at $45.50, which would be a gain of 24%, or about $192 million, from the end of the third quarter.

American Airlines has a 52-week trading range of $24.85 to $50.64, and its consensus analyst target price is $54.33. That consensus target was $42.86 a day before the election.

Also listed as a new stake, United Continental Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL) at 4.533 million shares, worth about $238 million. This would be a quarter-end price of $52.50. The last share price of $72.15 is some 37% higher than at the end of the third quarter, which now would be a gain of $89 million.

United Continental has a 52-week range is $37.41 to $76.80 and a consensus analyst price of $85.44. Its consensus target price was $63.30 a day ahead of the election.

Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL) was listed as a new stake of 6.333 million shares, worth some $249.3 million at the end of September. Delta’s third quarter ending value was close to $39.35 per share. With a last share price of $48.25, that would be a gain of more than 22% ($56 million or so), without considering any dividend payments.

Delta’s 52-week range is $32.60 to $52.76. Its consensus target price is $61.67. To show just how much more favorable analysts are, Delta’s consensus target was $51.13 right before the election date in November.

CNBC’s Becky Quick also said that a stake in Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV) was taken also. Buffett said that he requested that the Southwest position be included. That stake size is not yet known, but it would seemingly be $100 million or more. At $53.18 per share as of late, that is up almost 37% from the $38.89 closing price at the end of the third quarter. Even if Buffett’s team invested just $100 million in the third quarter of 2016, that would be another $37 million in profits.

The airlines used to be a bad investment, but the metrics are changing more and more. Now the airlines get to dictate terms to passengers, as well as gouge on fees. These airlines even have mostly started paying dividends and buying back stock.