Buffett invests big chunk of Berkshire Hathaway’s cash

Berkshire Hathaway’s first-quarter earnings fell more than 53% on a large swing on the paper value of its investments, but Warren Buffett found ways to put some of the company’s massive cash pile to work, which gave shareholders something to talk about at Saturday’s annual meeting.

Berkshire said it earned $5.46 billion, or $3.702 per Class A share, during the quarter. That’s down from $11.7 billion, or $7.638 per Class A share, a year ago.

But the key change during the quarter was that Berkshire’s mountain of cash shrank to $106 billion from $147 billion at the beginning of the year as it invested $51 billion in equities. Buffett also spent $3.2 billion repurchasing Berkshire stock.

Buffett told shareholders Saturday that right after he wrote to them in his annual letter on Feb. 26 that he was having trouble finding anything to buy at attractive prices, Berkshire spent more than $40 billion on stocks over the next three weeks, including one day in early March when he spent $4.6 billion at the peak.

During the first quarter, Buffett agreed to buy the Alleghany insurance conglomerate for $11.6 billion and made multibillion-dollar investments in HP Inc. and Occidental Petroleum. Buffett said Berkshire bought up 14% of Occidental’s shares in the first half of March as it built its stake, and it added to its already massive investment in Apple stock during the quarter. However, he hasn’t disclosed all of his stock purchases yet, so it’s not immediately clear everything Berkshire invested in this year

But Berkshire did say in its quarterly report that its stake in oil giant Chevron ballooned to $26 billion by the end of the quarter, up from $4.5 billion at the beginning of the year, to make it one of the company’s four largest investments. Edward Jones analyst Jim Shanahan said that with the Chevron and Occidental investments combined Berkshire now has more than $40 billion invested in the oil sector.

Buffett said Berkshire was able to take advantage of the fact that Wall Street is largely run like a “gambling parlor” with many people speculating wildly on stocks.

“Occasionally, Berkshire gets a chance to do something, and it’s not because we’re smart. It’s because we’re sane.” Buffett said.

Buffett’s investing partner, Charlie Munger, said there is an insane amount of speculation in the stock market over the last couple years as the market soared.

“We have people who know nothing about stocks being advised by stockbrokers who know even less,” Munger said.

But Berkshire said the value of its investments shrunk by $1.58 billion in the first quarter when a year ago that paper estimate of its investments grew by $4.7 billion. That accounted for most of the swing in net earnings.

Buffett says that Berkshire’s operating earnings are a better measure of the company’s performance because they exclude investment gains and losses. By that measure, Berkshire’s earnings remained steady at $7.04 billion, or $4,773.84 per Class A share, up from $7.018 billion, or $4,577.10 per Class A share, a year ago.

That beat Wall Street expectations. The four analysts surveyed by FactSet expected Berkshire to report operating earnings of $4,277.66 per Class A share.

Berkshire said Saturday that profits improved at most of its businesses, including the railroad, utilities and manufacturing companies it owns, but underwriting income fell at its insurance companies.

In addition to investments, Berkshire Hathaway owns more than 90 business outright, including BNSF railroad, several major utilities, Geico insurance and an assortment of manufacturing and retail companies. Tens of thousands of shareholders were packing into an Omaha arena not far from the company’s headquarters Saturday to listen to Buffett and Berkshire’s vice chairmen spend hours answering any and all questions.

Japanese investor Heihachiro “Hutch” Okamoto is attending the meeting for his first time this year partly because he is hearing so much interest in investing in the U.S. stock market at the brokerage company where he works in Japan.

“Mr. Buffett is kind of a proxy for the U.S. stock market, so I wanted to see him here,” Okamoto said.

Janet Dalton of Overland Park, Kansas, said she has been attending the meetings for decades. Her family has an even longer association with the company because her dad bought stock in the Berkshire Hathaway textile company even before Buffett took it over in 1965 and began to convert it into the conglomerate it is today. They never sold the shares, which now sell for nearly $500,000 apiece.

Dalton said she misses the more detailed business answers that Buffett used to give at the earlier meetings she attended.

“When I first came to the meetings, it was like getting a mini-MBA. Now it has become more general,” Dalton said. But part of what keeps her coming back year after year is the chance to reconnect with friends and fellow investors she’s met at past meetings.

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