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Buffett buybacks: Could Berkshire tender stock?


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I wrote a blog post speculating about this. I'll paste it here but if you want to read it in a better format here's the link: http://vardeinvesteraren.nu/vardeinvestering/buffett-buybacks-could-berkshire-tender-stock/

 

Two weeks ago Berkshire Hathaway removed their set buyback level of 1.2x book value. The stock reacted by trading up 5% the following session. However, I think the momentousness of this action is heavily underappreciated by the market. In my view this is a far bigger step than when the original buyback policy of 1.1x book (later revised upwards) was instituted.

 

The reason why I think this is a watershed moment lies in the answer to this question: why wasn’t the book multiple just once again raised? Let me try and answer that question in a roundabout way.

 

If you have followed Berkshire for some time you’ll know that the former policies, perhaps unwittingly, established soft floors to the stock trading, such that Buffett hardly managed to do any buybacks at all. That was probably mostly OK for Buffett and worked out pretty well for the Gates foundation, in that they got a ”guaranteed” buying price in the market. Buffett didn’t really want to repurchase Berkshire shares if he had other alternatives; in the past he has looked at it as taking slight advantage of his less sophisticated partners (the selling shareholders) while also having superior information. This issue is of course also a big reason why he vowed not to make any repurchases prior to the release of the Q2 report on August 3.

 

Another raise of the buyback level to say 1.3x book would likely also establish a floor. Keeping in mind the tax cut and the heightened importance of the operating businesses inside Berkshire, such a move would make perfect sense as a signal of what is now considered ”below intrinsic value, conservatively determined”. However, what’s slightly different this time is that Berkshire is sitting on an ever-growing pile of cash, now safely over $100 billion (Buffett still wants to keep around $20 billion cash as a cushion no matter what), while its investment universe is dwindling fast.

 

The last ”elephant” Buffett shot was Precision Castparts three (!) years ago. He would need three more acquisitions (!!) of that size to move most of the cash that he already has. And another one in a year again, probably. Not very likely to happen in today’s market.

 

In light of all that, this is basically Buffett admitting defeat. He just can’t allocate all that capital within the company anymore. Knowing how much he abhors taxes, the natural second choice then is of course share repurchases, rather than dividends. In short, I think the inherent ambiguity of the new policy is a deliberate feature – he really wants to buy back stocks this time.

 

But how will the buybacks be executed? If done over the market he’ll have to move lots of volume and will risk the price moving away from him as soon as the market gets clued in to the magnitude of what is happening. Dribbling ”a mere” couple of billions in buybacks per year will not make much of a difference, so the purchases are going to have to be very aggressive and represent a sizable portion of the trading each day to even stand a chance at paring down the cash pile.

 

Warren

 

A tender offer?

 

An alternative to this – that I have never seen mentioned anywhere else – could be if Berkshire made a tender offer for some amount of the shares. As some of you may know Buffett’s big idol among corporate leaders, Henry Singleton, utilized buyback tenders to great effect, retiring 90% of the shares outstanding of Teledyne in about a decade. The thought of making a tender offer to Berkshire shareholders has most certainly entered both Buffett’s and Munger’s minds more than once. Curiously, I have never heard them consider this action out loud in public. When you think all the questions have been asked at the shareholder meetings…

 

The big issue with a tender is of course the tradeoff between the acceptance rate and the premium offered.. Would people not just think Buffett was making an offer that was easy to resist? Well, if contrasted favorably with the former buyback level, some amount of private shareholders could probably be persuaded. A PR campaign with a CNBC guest spot by Buffett might also help with that.

 

There are also lots of big funds and other institutions who hold Berkshire stock and they might take the offer as an easy way to reallocate parts of their position with less friction involved. Correctly structured, the offer could also make the weak hands sell the stocks to arbitrageurs, thus securing even higher acceptance. One shouldn’t underappriecate how enticing a premium can be to stockholders, whether they are Buffett groupies or not. Making a big enough splash with the tender size should ready investors for this to have a one-off character (an argument Bufett time and time again has made against dividends is that when instituted, the owners expect it to be ongoing), thus feeding expectations that the stock price will subside back to lower levels again once the tender is done and dusted, prompting higher acceptance.

 

Another thing in favor of a tender offer is a fairness argument. As opposed to market buybacks, there is nothing sneaky about a tender offer. We know that Buffett cares about such things, but I dare not say how important this consideration could be. Conceivably more so if the plan is to retire a huge amount of shares, as opposed to in the past.

 

Last but not least, the combined daily average trading volume of A and B shares amounts to almost $900 million per Yahoo finance. That is, for Berskhire to deploy $100 billion at current prices they would have to be the sole buyer of shares for 111 straight trading days. Of course, that is a literal impossibility, but you clearly see how far the timeline is drawn out by using any reasonable but still aggressive assumption such as 20% of the average volume. The simple fact is that it is nigh impossible for Berkshire to put a really big dent in their cash pile with running buybacks. Additionally, in the pursuit of shares at a fast enough clip, the share price is extremely likely to enjoy a good ride.

 

For further evidence, consider Apple’s behemoth buyback program of $100 billion, which it manages with a clip of roughly $20 billion per quarter. That’s with a daily average stock trading volume of $4.6 billion (Yahoo), which makes their buyback roughly 7% of daily volume. Apple could conceivably buy back way more way faster than that with a cash balance o $250 billion. Perhaps their reasons not to include that it would move the price too much.

 

While I think the tender scenario for Berkshire is far above a non-zero percent possibility, a regular, but sizable, buyback is probably still the safest assumption to make. However, a market buyback strategy won’t likely solve the issue of the accumulated cash balance.

 

An asymmetric situation

 

No matter what avenue of buying back shares that is chosen, it will be done in size and with relative swiftness. The Q2 report will likely show that Berkshire trades just above 1.3x book at current market prices of just shy of $200 for the B-shares. I will not go into a big valuation exercise here (there are lots of them out there for those so inclined), but suffice to say that I view this as cheap, perhaps very cheap, and see it as unlikely that the stock will move much lower from here, bar unfortunate deaths, a super cat or some macro event affecting all market prices.

 

I also harbor a great suspicion that Buffett is now actually willing to buy back shares a bit above current levels. In some way or other he is likely to, by sheer necessity, affect the stock price in the coming months. An additional slight upside for the B shares is that the tiny discount that has opened up against the A shares (presumably in part due to technical selling pressure from the Gates foundation), may start closing again when a huge entirely economically motivated buyer enters the market.

 

My good friend David suggested that the rather muted response to the buyback policy change could depend on the extreme size of Berkshire. ”Who is going to move that much stock in a controlled company in response to such a vague policy change?” Be that as it may, it is a rather scintillating thought that an inefficiency could be because of huge size, rather than in spite of it. No matter if that hypothesis is correct, an agile mind is important in all markets.

 

Disclaimer: Long BRK

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Is it possible for a company to remove itself from S&p 500? Say, Berkshire do a reverse split of B shares or merge B shares back to A shares,, thus perhaps disqualify itself.  Then Berkshire structures a deal to buy back all the shares that index tracking funds are holding.

 

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I think the buyback, assuming there's no tender offer or large block purchase, is likely to merely keep the cash growth in check, perhaps stopping cash from exceeding float and maintaining that low-risk uncallable leverage. I wouldn't be surprised to see Berkshire take 5 to 10 years to gradually reduce the cash balance towards $20bn through buying a small fraction of daily volume. In reality, there may well be a modest bear market in 2-5 years, allowing Berkshire to make some meaningful acquisitions or other sensible capital allocations, which could put a sizeable chunk of its cash to work.

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The Gates foundation and various Buffett family foundations are more likely sources of large blocks than S&P index funds.  But I suspect Berkshire will primarily just repurchase shares in the open market - they do have a half trillion dollar market cap and the B's are fairly liquid.  Occasionally a large shareholder will die or otherwise make a large block available - similar to the only large repurchase accomplished so far.  If other companies can do it through open market purchases, so can BRK.

 

We've seen the daily liquidity increase from Gates foundation selling in their filing.

 

I doubt Berkshire cash levels will ever get below $40 billion again.

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The more I think about it, the more likely scenario is that “nothing has changed“ with regards to their buyback posture. It’s still intended for the long term, still a pressure relief valve for the next guy and very much  “conservatively calculated”. The biggest signal Buffett maybe sending is that BV is not their yardstick longer term. Per share Earnings is. The fixation with the BV multiple ended, it would not allow them to buy well over $100 B worth which’s what they need to do over the next decade.

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But I suspect Berkshire will primarily just repurchase shares in the open market - they do have a half trillion dollar market cap and the B's are fairly liquid.

 

Did you read my basic calculations about an open market buyback? The B shares don't seem all that liquid for their purposes from what I can tell, but I could be wrong.

 

it would not allow them to buy well over $100 B worth which’s what they need to do over the next decade.

 

They'd need way, way more than that over the next decade, barring any mega-merger. It's not hard to see them earning north of $300b with already $100b+ in cash.

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I hadn't read that far but now I have.  It's not a lot of daily volume, but there are several selling shareholders also constrained by the low turnover, so there is a lot of room for average daily volume to increase.  Whether or not there are direct block transfers between the Gates Foundation and Berkshire, both can increase the ADV over time.  You are right though - it will be very difficult to make a material dent in either share count or cash levels without a tender (and a tender seems unlikely).

 

But I suspect Berkshire will primarily just repurchase shares in the open market - they do have a half trillion dollar market cap and the B's are fairly liquid.

 

Did you read my basic calculations about an open market buyback? The B shares don't seem all that liquid for their purposes from what I can tell, but I could be wrong.

 

it would not allow them to buy well over $100 B worth which’s what they need to do over the next decade.

 

They'd need way, way more than that over the next decade, barring any mega-merger. It's not hard to see them earning north of $300b with already $100b+ in cash.

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Here I'm reposting some basic Berkshire figures [from some of my earlier posts, updated with 2017 figures] - from a birds perspective - related to the topic, just to bring specific data into the discussion. I think they are handy to have here:

 

Some numbers for the last ten years:

 

Year - Cash YE [incl. T-Bills] - Equity YE [uSD M]:

 

2007 -  44,329 - 120,733

2008 -  25,539 - 109,267

2009 -  30,558 - 135,785

2010 -  38,227 - 162,934

2011 -  37,299 - 164,850

2012 -  46,992 - 187,647

2013 -  48,186 - 221,890

2014 -  60,033 - 240,170

2015 -  67,161 - 255,550

2016 -  86,370 - 282,070

2017 - 115,954 - 348,296 [2017 tax cut effect [net] +28,200]

 

Average shares outstanding YE2007 : 1,545,751 [A eq.]

Average shares outstanding YE2017 : 1,644,615 [A eq.]

 

Cash flow from operating activities full years this century [uSD B]:

 

2000:      2.947

2001:      6.574

2002:    11.135

2003:      8.438

2004:      7.405

2005:      9.446

2006:    10.195

2007:    12.550

2008:    11.252

2009:    15.846

2010:    17.895

2011:    20.476

2012:    20.950

2013:    27.704

2014:    32.010

2015:    31.491

2016:    32.525

2017:    45.776

 

Total:  324.615 [<- ~USD 325 B!]

 

Float YE 2000 : USD 27.9 B

Float YE 2017: USD 114.0 B

 

[increase in float is included in cash flow from operating activities.]

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Thanks John Hjorth, really helpful post for perspective.

 

CNBC posted this. Guess we will know soon. I checked precious releases bad they have been both fridays and saturdays, so if there is anything to read into the postponement it should be that it might be a postponement for a reason?  :)

 

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/03/buffetts-berkshire-could-reveal-share-buy-back-plan-saturday.html

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Your're welcome, SwedishValue, and thank you for your kind words! [ : - ) ], - Please feel free just to call me John - we are not that formal here on CoBF [ : - ) ].

 

- - - o 0 o - - -

 

alwaysinvert, I did not even know untill now that we're in the same boat here with Berkshire. Awesome blog post provided by you. Thank you for sharing it with us here on CoBF. Quite refreshing read, containing new line of thinking related to the "luxury problem" of Berkshire here on CoBF.

 

- - - o 0 o - - -

 

Personally, I do not rule out any alternative with regard to Berkshire capital allocation going forward.

 

I'll respectfully submit here, that Mr. Buffett is not totally rational on this matter. alwaysinvert uses the term:

 

... In some way or other he is likely to, by sheer necessity, affect the stock price in the coming months ...

 

Hasen't Mr. Buffet expressed, that there is no way, that he could defend standing in front of the shareholders at the AGM with USD 150 B on the Berkshire balance sheet in cash and T-bills? - He would actually have been in that particular situation right now, haden't he loaded up on Apple.

 

In the balance between rational capital allocation and the reluctance of buying partners out, going forward, naturally rationality must prevail.

 

When you deliberately seek to build a crowd of long term shareholders aligned with yourself, a side effect is lower liquidity in the stock. One can't get both simultaniously.

 

Personally, I don't possess any particular feelings for the customers and fund managers at:

 

Vanguard [9.24 % of out B]

Blackrock [7.66 % of out B]

State Street [6.25 % of out B]

 

Just let them do their thing, and let Mr. Buffett do our thing.

 

When Mr. Buffet was young, he was ringing doorbells in Omaha to pick up shares he considered cheap.

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I think the situation concerning the buybacks is quite clear. According to the buyback text from 17th July: till 3rd August happened nothing.

 

We are clearly under a conservative IV, because we just trade 1.32 x BV. IV shall be around 240 to 275 $ per B share. (See various estimations for the IV; for example Semper Augustus Letter)

 

For me this means: from Monday on, the buybacks will start. They will end below a market price of 240 $ per B share

 

Bulks of cash are ready.

 

The time between 17th July (when the buyback was announced) till 3rd August was the time to load shares, cause the anoucment was more or less without any reasonable market results. During all this time we traded around 1.3 BV.

 

 

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I think the situation concerning the buybacks is quite clear. According to the buyback text from 17th July: till 3rd August happened nothing.

 

We are clearly under a conservative IV, because we just trade 1.32 x BV. IV shall be around 240 to 275 $ per B share. (See various estimations for the IV; for example Semper Augustus Letter)

 

For me this means: from Monday on, the buybacks will start. They will end below a market price of 240 $ per B share

 

Bulks of cash are ready.

 

The time between 17th July (when the buyback was announced) till 3rd August was the time to load shares, cause the anoucment was more or less without any reasonable market results. During all this time we traded around 1.3 BV.

 

Agreed. It moved up like what? 4% after the buyback cap was lifted? Not a move at all. Still 10% below the highs.

 

Maybe there will be a chance to purchase shares ~$200 over the coming weeks. Or maybe the golden opportunity was the past two weeks when Buffett telegraphed what will likely be a massive, potentially accelerated, buyback.

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I'll be perfectly happy if this buyback bump is a nonevent.  Berkshire the stock under-performed Berkshire the company so far in 2018, but I'm not sure that was the case in 2013, 2014, 2016, or 2017.  It seems like there have been many more undervalued spots in recent history than there are right now so I don't see why Buffett would be rushing to buy back shares hand over fist right now.  It would be great if some more China fears, Gates Foundation sales, and disappointed speculators drop the stock back under 200 for the foreseeable future.

 

I don't want to see a crash, but I just don't want the stock to look fully valued as it will be harder to buy new shares when money becomes available.  I have a lot more shares I want to buy over the next 10+ years, and I wouldn't want to be competing with the Company for shares, especially not over $200.

 

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I think the situation concerning the buybacks is quite clear. According to the buyback text from 17th July: till 3rd August happened nothing.

 

We are clearly under a conservative IV, because we just trade 1.32 x BV. IV shall be around 240 to 275 $ per B share. (See various estimations for the IV; for example Semper Augustus Letter)

 

For me this means: from Monday on, the buybacks will start. They will end below a market price of 240 $ per B share

 

Bulks of cash are ready.

 

The time between 17th July (when the buyback was announced) till 3rd August was the time to load shares, cause the anoucment was more or less without any reasonable market results. During all this time we traded around 1.3 BV.

 

Agreed. It moved up like what? 4% after the buyback cap was lifted? Not a move at all. Still 10% below the highs.

 

Maybe there will be a chance to purchase shares ~$200 over the coming weeks. Or maybe the golden opportunity was the past two weeks when Buffett telegraphed what will likely be a massive, potentially accelerated, buyback.

 

BRK moved up after the 17rh July, but the BV also moved up driven by AAPL etc. the lowest valuation during the last weeks was app 1.28, now it is 1.32.

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33:00 in, about the 1,2x floor (when it was still there). Still relevant.

 

https://youtu.be/2yMeIdheIS0

 

I listened to the clip and respectfully disagree as the relevance of BV. WEB clearly says that BV is very poorly correlated with IBV, across the investing universe; not just at Berkshire. At 1.2x BV they were rather willing to buy back because they are cheapskates. They do have mixed feelings about buying partners out, but wouldn't hesitate if buying stock back compares favorably with buying other businesses.

 

Now, this is from the 2013 meeting. WEB has repeatedly telegraphed that IBV is diverging (up) away from BV; most notably, BV has actually been dropped from the performance table on the first page of the chairman's letter!

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...I listened to the clip and respectfully disagree as the relevance of BV. WEB clearly says that BV is very poorly correlated with IBV, across the investing universe; not just at BV. At 1.2x BV they were rather willing to buy back because they are cheapskates. ...

 

Somehow hilarious - two billionaire cheapskates!  [ : - D ]

 

I think it's about two - thee years ago, I personally left looking at Berkshire based on BV progress. With the soft buyback threshold abolished, or at least making it even softer [upwards <-?], it does not make much sense to me any longer.

 

The future for Berkshire investors boils down to future earnings, future cash flows, & future capital allocation.

 

I speculate we'll survive , no matter what.

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So what does it mean? what is a conservative IV for today ?

 

I will go with SemperAugustus line of thinking; They had the YE 2017 IV at $610B of market cap. I agree with them that the market in due course will happily pay 13x (or more) for the earnings growth at Berkshire.

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33:00 in, about the 1,2x floor (when it was still there). Still relevant.

 

https://youtu.be/2yMeIdheIS0

 

I listened to the clip and respectfully disagree as the relevance of BV. WEB clearly says that BV is very poorly correlated with IBV, across the investing universe; not just at Berkshire. At 1.2x BV they were rather willing to buy back because they are cheapskates. They do have mixed feelings about buying partners out, but wouldn't hesitate if buying stock back compares favorably with buying other businesses.

 

Now, this is from the 2013 meeting. WEB has repeatedly telegraphed that IBV is diverging (up) away from BV; most notably, BV has actually been dropped from the performance table on the first page of the chairman's letter!

 

I must have been unclear. I agree with you that Buffett here - and on other occassions - clearly hints at IV is significantly above the previous treshold. I also agree to your pointing out the fact of Buffett saying IV increasingly diverging over BV over time.

 

I think buybacks are likely.

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