A Walking Contradiction – Warren Buffett

Michael Lebowitz

He routinely speaks about the competitive “moat” that he likes for his companies to have. Understanding what he means by that is important. The following quote captures the essence:

“If you’ve got a good enough business, if you have a monopoly newspaper or if you have a network television station, your idiot nephew could run it.”

Keyword: Monopoly.That is how a company retains pricing power. The empire of the perceived champion of American capitalism and free markets is built on monopolistic companies. Yes, I think we can add that to the list of contradictions.

Buffett on Bullish Market Prospects

The following recent quotes are from a CNBC interview of Mr. Buffett on June 7, 2018 about bullish market prospects:

–  “The decision on the stock market should be made independent of the current business outlook. When you should buy stocks is when you think you’re getting a lot for your money not necessarily when you think business is going to be good next year. The time to buy stocks in America generally has been always with a few exceptions because the long-term outlook is exceptionally good and I don’t think you should buy stocks based on what you think the next 6 months or year is going to bring.”

–  “I like buying stocks. I’m a net buyer.” 

–  “I’m no good at predicting out 2 or 3 or 5-years from now although I will say this, there’s no question in my mind that America’s going to be far ahead of where we are now, 10, 20 and 30-years from now.”

If the economic outlook is so constructive, and you can afford and are willing to hold investments for long periods, why does BRK/A hold so much dry powder as shown below?

brk berkshire cash and equivilents on book chart history

A growing war chest of over $300 billion in cash certainly appears to be inconsistent with his stated outlook.

Buffett’s True Concerns

The general platitudes of market and economic optimism Buffett shares in his CNBC interviews, letters to investors and shareholder meetings often run counter to the actions he has taken in his investment approach. Not only does he seek out companies with monopolistic characteristics and pricing advantages, he seems to be increasingly positioning to protect against imprudent central bank policies that have fueled this bull market.

His purchase of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad is an acquisition of hard assets. Control of BNSF affords a multitude of other benefits in the form of rights of way and adjacent mining rights, and it allows him to move other energy resources he has been steadily accumulating as well.

Four of his top ten holdings are financial services companies such as Wells Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC), and American Express (AXP). Additionally, he is also known to hold large offshore assets in Asia and elsewhere which generate non-dollar profits that can be held tax-free.

The common theme behind these holdings, besides the fact that they each have their monopolistic “moat”, is that they serve as a firebreak against an uncontrolled outbreak of inflation. If monetary policy sparked serious inflation, the hard assets he owns would skyrocket in value, and the off-shore holdings in foreign currencies would be well protected. As for the financial institutions, inflation would effectively minimize the costs of their outstanding debt, while their assets rise in value. Further, their net interest margin on new business would likely increase significantly. All of that would leave BRK/A and Buffett in a position of strength, allowing them to easily buy out bankrupt competitors from investors at pennies on the dollar.

Summary

Warren Buffett is without question the modern day icon of American investors. He has become a living legend, and the respect he receives is warranted. He has certainly been a remarkable steward of wealth for himself and his clients. Where we are challenged with regard to his approach, is the way in which he shirks his responsibilities as a leader. To my knowledge, he is not being overtly dishonest but he certainly has a way of rationalizing what appears to be obvious contradictions. Because of his global following and the weight given to each word he utters, the fact that his actions often do not match the spirit of his words is troubling.

Reflecting back on the opening quote from John D. Rockefeller, Buffett has ways of making money that we know nothing about, and he seems intent on obscuring his words to make sure we don’t figure it out. Putting that aside, Warren Buffett did not amass his fortune by following the herd but by leading it.

Twitter:  @michaellebowitz

Any opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not in any way represent the views or opinions of any other person or entity.

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