Buffett cannot find attractive firms to invest in

Buffett cannot find attractive firms to invest in

OMAHA - The Associated Press
Buffett cannot find attractive firms to invest in

Billionaire Warren Buffett says his company has benefited from some “extraordinary luck” in finding acquisitions like BNSF railroad over the decades, but he has not had much of that in recent years as Berkshire Hathaway’s cash pile has grown to nearly $147 billion.

Buffett sought to reassure shareholders with his annual letter on Feb. 26 that he retains a strong appetite for acquisitions and stock investments, but he has not found many of either that interest him at today’s inflated prices. In fact, Berkshire was a net seller of stocks again last year, unloading $7.4 billion more shares than it bought.

He blamed the continued low interest rates for helping drive up the price of stocks and whole companies alike, and in the past he has said that increasing competition from private equity buyers has also made it hard to find good deals.

“From time to time, such possibilities are both numerous and blatantly attractive. Today, though, we find little that excites us,” Buffett wrote about the prospects for finding good stock investments.

So Berkshire has focused on growing the 90-odd businesses the Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate already owns and repurchasing its own shares - something Buffett has invested $51.7 billion in over the last two years including $27 billion last year. But the pace of buybacks may have slowed a bit because Berkshire has only bought $1.2 billion of its own shares so far this year.

With Berkshire’s companies generating about $7 billion in cash every quarter, the repurchases have not been enough to meaningfully shrink the cash pile. And Buffett said he will always keep at least $30 billion on hand to make sure Berkshire can cover any catastrophic claims on the insurance policies its companies write.

Buffett’s letter is always well read in the business world because of his remarkably successful track record, but he kept his message focused on Berkshire’s businesses and did not mention politics or say much about the broader economy.

He also did not offer any new details about Berkshire’s succession planning in his first letter since saying last spring that Berkshire Vice Chairman Greg Abel will one day replace him as CEO, although the 91-year-old Buffett has no plans to retire.

Buffett did warn investors to be careful when reading other companies’ financial reports to make sure they are accounting for all their costs when they report their earnings.

“Deceptive ‘adjustments’ to earnings - to use a polite description - have become both more frequent and more fanciful as stocks have risen. Speaking less politely, I would say that bull markets breed bloviated bull,” Buffett wrote.

The company reported making $39.6 billion, or $26,690 per Class A share, during the fourth quarter. That’s up from $35.8 billion, or $25,015 per Class A share, a year ago.

But those bottom line figures were inflated by paper gains on Berkshire’s investments, which is why Buffett maintains that operating earnings are a better measure of the company’s performance because they exclude investments and derivatives.

By that measure, Berkshire’s operating earnings jumped from $5.02 billion, or $3,224.74 per Class A share, to $7.3 billion, or $4,904.23 per Class A share, during the fourth quarter.

Buffett said the four biggest pillars of Berkshire’s business - its insurance companies, its $161 billion investment in Apple stock, BNSF railroad and its collection of utilities - all helped it succeed last year. The railroad alone contributed a record $6 billion in profit last year while the utilities set a record of their own with a $3.5 billion profit.