Do Warren Buffett Portfolio Changes at Berkshire Hathaway Show Any Panic?

This has been a brutal year for investors of all sizes. Individual investors often feel behind the curve, and even large hedge funds and institutional investors like Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) have had a hard time. Warren Buffett is considered one of the greatest investors of the modern era. Unfortunately, his stock picks do not always echo that label, as Buffett chose to not follow his history and lessons of buying on the cheap.

It was already known that Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-B) had sold off the entire exposure to airlines. This was at a cost of billions of dollars to Berkshire Hathaway in realized losses, on top of what had previously been just paper losses. There were some other rather large position changes as well.

Many investors consider Berkshire Hathaway to be a conglomerate, mutual fund, hedge fund and private equity investors all wrapped up into one entity. The 13-F filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) showed that Berkshire Hathaway’s stock positions were trimmed handily during the first quarter of 2020.

Buffett disposed of approximately 84% of the stake in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS). The firm sold down 10.08 million shares of the stock and still held approximately 1.92 million shares at the end of the first quarter. This stake had ties back to a $5 billion preferred share investment during the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis.

Travelers Companies Inc. (NYSE: TRV) was another position that had been sold out, with 227,436 shares having been cut. Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX) was also sold out of in the first quarter of 2020, with the sale of 227,436 shares.

Sirius XM Holdings Inc. (NASDAQ: SIRI) was trimmed as a position, with the sale of about 3.85 million shares. The Berkshire Hathaway position had been 136.27 million shares at the end of 2019, but at the end of March 2020 it was 132.418 million shares.

Separate and more recent Form 4 SEC filings covering U.S. Bancorp (NYSE: USB) also indicated that 149,590,275 shares were held by Berkshire Hathaway since the end of the first quarter of 2020. This means that nearly 500,000 shares were sold after the 13-F filing’s cut-off date.

By eliminating all the airline stakes, even after suffering billions in paper losses during the first quarter, Berkshire Hathaway now has no upside if the coronavirus impact on the airlines is abated due to positive vaccine news, which means that the gains of 6% to 13% seen on Monday morning have no paper gains to Buffett and his portfolio managers.

While the airline segment stakes being sold out was already known, taking stakes of United Airlines Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL) and American Airlines Group Inc. (NASDAQ: AAL) to zero says a lot. Ditto for the removal of Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL) and Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV) from the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio.

24/7 Wall St. has already pondered whether age has made Warren Buffett too conservative an investor. This may not be the ultimate case, even if Buffett was much more active during the financial crisis a decade ago. His lack of action after such a dramatic selling wave might make Berkshire Hathaway investors wonder if another whale of a deal is even possible before Buffett turns 90.

Buffett’s 2016 annual report outlined at the time how good businesses should be viewed as a whole basket rather than just based on the market sentiment of short period. That report said:

American business – and consequently a basket of stocks – is virtually certain to be worth far more in the years ahead. Innovation, productivity gains, entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of capital will see to that.

Buffett is known for trying to bring calm to the markets and constantly signaling that America’s greatest days are ahead of it. What does it signal when America’s greatest financial market player did not acquire stocks after a 35% drop in the markets over a period of only about a month?

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