Why Warren Buffett’s Annual Letter and Annual Report Will Mean So Much

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Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) will be releasing the company’s 2018 annual report to its shareholders on Saturday, February 23, 2019. While some investors might not care what Warren Buffett’s own annual report letter introduction has to say, the reality is that this year’s letter in particular might have more to offer than usual. On top of the public equity holdings changes, there are issues around Buffett’s ultimate successor, big buyouts, stock buybacks and broader views of the economy and markets.

There is much more at stake than just the earnings report for Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett often has warned shareholders over the years that the company’s book value per share matters the most as quarterly and annual earnings per share results could be skewed by its existing gains or losses in public equities and in other investments.

One issue that investors may pay attention to is what’s happening in the overall equity investment portfolio inside of Berkshire Hathaway. There were some big changes made in the public stock holdings by the end of 2018, and it appears that Buffett added to existing bank holdings, but the investment team under him seems to have trimmed technology. The 13F filing for September 30, 2018, showed that a whopping $221 billion was held in equities at the time, but this was down to $183 billion as of December 31, 2018. (See more about holdings below.)

Ahead of the annual letter, it’s important to consider that Buffett hasn’t made any “whale of a deal” acquisitions in a while. It has been about three years since his last big acquisition, Precision Cast Parts for $32 billion. Price has been an issue, and Berkshire Hathaway has maintained its cash balance at $100 billion or more for a year. Buffett faces stiff competition for would-be deals as private equity firms are sitting on mountains of cash that they would love to deploy.

Even a year ago, Buffett addressed that it was no simple task to find attractive deals as an acquirer. His letter a year earlier had even warned at that time that the price seemed almost irrelevant to many optimistic purchasers. Again, price and valuations matter to Buffett.

One key issue to watch is how much its own shares the company has repurchased. It was just in 2018 when Buffett and Charlie Munger decided to loosen up the criteria and ease the exact levels and valuation ratios at which they could buy more shares of their own company. One recent report from Barron’s suggested that there seems to be an expectation that $2 billion or so would have been used to buy back the common shares.

It will be interesting to see how Buffett addresses his own future in the company as well. After all, he is 88 years young. In 2018, he named Greg Abel and Ajit Jain as vice chairmen. These two have become more responsible for many of the daily business operations at Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett also has extended more capital to portfolio managers Todd Combs and Ted Weschler to make equity investments on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway and its units, and Buffett has encouraged them to take larger roles via board seats in their larger investments.

As far as Buffett and his managers’ own picks, it was indicated that Buffett was not the seller of Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL), as one of the portfolio managers used the position to raise cash to pay for an unrelated purchase. Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC) is a position that Buffett has been shrinking to avoid that SEC-imposed 10% ownership threshold reporting, but he’s been busy adding stakes in Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM) and others, like Bank of New York Mellon, PNC and U.S. Bancorp. Buffett’s portfolio managers also seem to have trimmed their overall airline exposure.

If Buffett were to unexpectedly retire or take a further backseat at the company, it may be a disappointment to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. As he has been the wealthiest man alive, the retirement of the “best equity investor of the modern era” would follow the recent news of the retirement of the bond king, Bill Gross.

It is not all that often that Wall Street analysts upgrade their ratings or target prices on Berkshire Hathaway. The company has too many moving parts for most analysts to cover. That said, JPMorgan’s Sarah DeWitt used a look-through earnings analysis last October and projected that shares of the conglomerate may be undervalued by as much as almost 20% to her target of $250.

With the annual letter expected to come out Saturday, Americans should expect to hear a view about would-be tariffs and potential trade wars. Buffett also has a long history of calling America’s greatest days as still in the future. Let’s just hope he is right on that front.

Berkshire Hathaway shares were recently up just 1% so far in 2019, versus a gain of 11% for the Dow Jones industrials and S&P 500. Over the past year, Berkshire’s shares had risen about 1% as well, compared with 3% for the Dow and 2% for the S&P 500. The share price of about $307,500 is in a 52-week range of $279,410 to $335,900. The B-shares have a price of about $205 and a 52-week range of $184.75 to $224.07.

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