Has Age (or Reality) Made Warren Buffett Too Conservative and Too Cautious?

Kent Sievers /

As investors get older, and as retirement approaches or has arrived, there is a generally accepted rule used by most fiduciaries that most client investments should be conservative and less risky than investors who have more time ahead of them. Does the same rule apply to Warren Buffett? Perhaps more importantly, should it?

Last weekend’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: NYSE: BRK-B) annual meeting came with a few surprises. Frankly, it was might end up being among the most important news events after the market’s massive snapback rally since the March 23 panic-selling lows.

It was not supposed to be a surprise that Buffett had sold airline stocks, but the market was taken aback by his views that consumer behavior concerning plane travel would be changed for a long time and that the great companies with great management still face many new challenges. Buffett and his portfolio managers unloaded all their shares in Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV), American Airlines Group Inc. (NASDAQ: AAL), Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL) and United Airlines Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL).

On top of other losses in his vast investment portfolio, Berkshire Hathaway lost billions of dollars in the value of its full portfolio of public equity holdings. Its company-owned franchises also will have seen their revenues and earnings vaporize in just a few short weeks. Holdings in Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) and Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC), as well as the large position in American Express Co. (NYSE: AXP), contributed billions of dollars worth of financial losses in the first quarter.

Buffett will turn 90 years old later this year, and Vice Chair Charlie Munger is now 96. While age can come with great wisdom, most investors approaching 90 years old probably would not have been aggressive buyers of Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL). They also probably wouldn’t be touting Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL) as great investments, but Buffett and his team bought Amazon shares in 2019.

One hard reality, with any references to age or incredible success aside, that Berkshire Hathaway is likely to carry always is that its business is very complex and is hard to evaluate in a classic earnings scenario. That also explains why so few analysts on Wall Street actually issue “Buy, Sell or Hold” ratings on its Class A and Class B shares.

Perhaps the biggest surprise from the 2020 annual shareholder meeting (what used to be known as Stockpalooza in Omaha — now just in virtual broadcast mode) was that Berkshire Hathaway deployed very little capital on new investments and shareholder benefits, despite the massive panic selling from the peak in February through that classic V-bottom on March 23. Buffett and his team of portfolio managers bought only $1.8 billion worth of public stocks and reportedly sold about $6.1 billion worth of stocks since the start of the year.

Buffett and his partner Munger now effectively have the ability to buy back Berkshire Hathaway’s shares at will, with no real reason. Despite the dropping stock price, and despite that lack of criteria to make repurchases, the conglomerate and holding company spent just $1.7 billion buying back its own shares in the first quarter, after using $2.1 billion to repurchase its shares in the fourth quarter of 2019.

As for why all these billions of dollars are referred to as if they were pocket change, note that Berkshire Hathaway’s cash balance rose to about $137 billion at the end of the first quarter of 2020. Its cash balance was $128 billion at the end of 2019. The company’s public equity holdings are still more than $180 billion, but that’s also down from the end of 2019 when the market was still quite strong.

Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting also contained a note that Buffett sees his role, along with that of Munger, as being trustees for the company’s shareholders. Some investors could easily interpret that as a message that Buffett’s main ambition is now capital preservation rather than growing businesses. Stepping into the first two months of an instant recession, accompanied by witnessing an outright and unexpected vaporization revenue and earnings, can change the views of even the most aggressive person in the world.

If you take Buffett’s views at face value, that consumer behavior will be drastically different, then Buffett is hunkering down for harder times. He even went through an economic history, while still maintaining that America will overcome this like it has all other challenges, and the end result is that Buffett’s views and his actions are perhaps more financially conservative when it comes to deploying capital than has been seen perhaps ever.

Even during and shortly after the Great Recession, Buffett pulled out Berkshire Hathaway’s checkbook and pom-poms and acted as a lender and distressed capital investor for financial companies such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) and Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC). He also acted as a distressed lender for companies like Tiffany & Co. (NYSE: TIF), Harley Davidson Inc. (NYSE: HOG) and even General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE).

One important lesson about Buffett, or any classic valuation analysis, is that a 35% drop in a stock may only make a stock “cheap” on paper. If the share price drops 35% but the new normalized earnings may be down 40% or worse, that stock has actually become more expensive on that classic price-to-earnings (P/E) basis.

One issue that will have shaken Buffett and his portfolio managers is the absolute paralysis a record-breaking market drop can cause. Those fears are compounded when it may not be easy to sell billions of dollars worth of stock at any given time when buyers are in panic mode.

Berkshire Hathaway’s operating earnings were more than $5.8 billion in the first quarter of 2020. The conglomerate’s net loss after backing out gains and losses from the investment portfolio came to a loss of almost $50 billion, after a $54.5 billion writedown of the public stocks and other investments at the end of March.

It might seem easy to point fingers and say that the market has become too complicated for a so-called trustee of a company with more than $400 billion in market cap. Capital preservation and income are not noble long-term strategies, considering the time value of money, but navigating the instant recession and rapid bear market before it has proven tiring for even the greatest investors in the world. The degree of the recovery rally based on trillions of stimulus and a gradual reopening of the economy have caught even the biggest bottom-fishers and value buyers by surprise. That has been true for those who are 29, 39, 49 and 89 alike.

Many investors have begun to lower their expectations for an elusive “whale of a deal,” wherein Buffett would make another acquisition potentially in the high-tens of billions of dollars. Of course, there is the problem that management of a selling company often cannot sell a merger to their shareholders if it locks many of them in at sales prices that are too low solely due to the market and sudden economic shift.

When an investor reaches even 10% of the clout of Buffett, that investor is considered to be among the most successful of the time. When Buffett communicates that he cannot find many opportunities and isn’t even more excited about buying back his own Berkshire Hathaway shares at a big discount, it has to instill at least some caution.

At $177.95 apiece, Berkshire Hathaway shares are down 23% from their high of $231.61. That compares to the S&P 500 down only about 16% from its peak, as of Monday’s close.

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