Buffett touts benefits of buybacks in his shareholder letter

 Billionaire Warren Buffett said critics of stock buybacks are “either an economic illiterate or a silver-tongued demagogue” or both, and all investors benefit from them as long as they are made at the right prices.

Buffett used part of his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders Saturday to tout the benefits of repurchases that fiery Wall Street critics like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and many other Democrats love to criticize. The federal government even added a 1% tax on buybacks this year after they ballooned to roughly $1 trillion in 2022.

“When you are told that all repurchases are harmful to shareholders or to the country, or particularly beneficial to CEOs, you are listening to either an economic illiterate or a silver-tongued demagogue (characters that are not mutually exclusive),” wrote Buffett, who himself is a long-time Democrat.

Investor Cole Smead said Washington, D.C., should take note of Buffett’s view on buybacks.

“Any politician, regardless of the aisle side, should stand up and be at attention to a statement like that,” said Smead, who is with Phoenix-based Smead Capital Management.

Buffett used his typical self-deprecating style to say Berkshire’s remarkable record of doubling the returns of the S&P 500 over the last 58 years with him at the helm is the result of only “about a dozen truly good decisions – that would be about one every five years.”

He recounted a few of those in his letter but kept his message — which has long been one of the best-read documents in the business world — remarkably brief this year at a little over eight pages. And he devoted an entire page to a tribute to his 99-year-old partner Charlie Munger.

“I think investors -- whether they be investors in Berkshire or just students of Berkshire -- look to him for more and I think they may come away wanting more,” CFRA Research analyst Cathy Seifert said.

Buffett pointed out how much Berkshire benefits from dividends that it receives from the huge investments in its portfolio like Coca-Cola and American Express even though he refuses to pay a dividend at the Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate he leads because he believes he can generate a bigger return for shareholders by investing that cash. Coke paid Berkshire $704 million in dividends last year and American Express added $302 million, and those payments helped push the value of those stakes to $25 billion for Coke and $22 billion for American Express. Berkshire paid $1.3 billion for each of those investments in the 1990s.

Buffett said the key lesson for investors is that “it takes just a few winners to work wonders. And, yes, it helps to start early and live into your 90s as well.”

Berkshire said its fourth-quarter profit fell sharply to $18.2 billion from $39.6 billion a year earlier as the paper value of its investments fell.

So those bottom line numbers were again distorted by the value of Berkshire’s sizeable stock portfolio. That’s why Buffett maintains that operating earnings are a better measure of Berkshire’s performance because they exclude derivatives and investments. But by that measure, Berkshire’s operating earnings also declined to $6.7 billion, or $4,584.46 per Class A share, from the previous year’s $7.3 billion, or $4,904.23 per Class A share.

That’s well below what Wall Street predicted. The three analysts surveyed by FactSet predicted Berkshire would report operating earnings per Class A share of $5,305.83 on average.

Analysts said that overall the results were still strong, but higher claims costs continued to hurt Geico’s results while railroad traffic slowed at BNSF and rising interest rates hurt several of Berkshire’s businesses that are tied to the housing market, like its nationwide network of Realtors and its Clayton Homes manufacturing housing unit.

Berkshire’s performance tends to follow whatever the U.S. economy is doing because so many of its dozens of manufacturing, utility, and retail businesses follow those trends. In many ways, the conglomerate is a barometer of the economy.

Whenever Buffett sees opportunities, Berkshire continues to invest in whole companies and stocks. He was particularly aggressive last year when he made a net investment of roughly $53 billion by the calculations of Edward Jones analyst Jim Shanahan. Much of that went into the stock of oil producers Occidental Petroleum and Chevron and last fall’s $11.6 billion acquisition of Alleghany Corp. insurance.

But even with all that spending, Berkshire’s cash hoard grew to $128.6 billion at the end of the year, up from $109 billion at the end of the third quarter. Berkshire’s businesses generate so much cash that it piles up quicker than Buffett can invest it.

At the start of this year, Berkshire boosted its stake in the Pilot Flying J network of 750 truck stops to 80%, up from the 38.6% it acquired in 2017, so that will help this year’s earnings.

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