Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway reduces share count, suggesting possible buybacks

(Reuters) – Berkshire Hathaway Inc has reduced its share count by 1.2% since April 23, a regulatory filing shows, suggesting that Chairman Warren Buffett might have become more aggressive in repurchasing its significantly underperforming stock.

The reduction in the conglomerate’s outstanding shares was noted in a Wednesday filing concerning Buffett’s $2.9 billion donation of Berkshire stock to five nonprofits, part of his pledge to give away nearly all his fortune. If Berkshire repurchased those shares, it might have conducted roughly $4.9 billion to $5.9 billion of buybacks, depending on the price, over 2-1/2 months, analysts said.”It implies relatively strong buyback activity,” said James Shanahan, an Edward Jones & Co analyst with a “buy” rating on Berkshire. “There is certainly capacity.”

He said buybacks might have totaled $5.3 billion, based on Berkshire’s average share price from April 23 to July 7.Since bottoming on March 23, Berkshire’s share price had through Thursday risen 12%, lagging the Standard & Poor’s 500’s 41% gain.

Berkshire did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Buybacks could help Buffett reduce Berkshire’s cash hoard, which totaled $137.2 billion as of March 31.

It has been 4-1/2 years since the legendary billionaire completed a major acquisition for his Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate, though Berkshire did agree last Sunday to pay $4 billion for some gas assets from Dominion Energy Inc. Buffett’s buyback appetite had been relatively muted since July 2018, when a policy change let him and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger repurchase stock when they thought its price was below Berkshire’s intrinsic value.

The old policy allowed buybacks only at prices up to 1.2 times book value. Shanahan estimated Berkshire’s current multiple at 1.1. Berkshire’s previous buybacks under the current policy totaled about $8 billion, including $1.7 billion from January to March as the coronavirus pandemic drove down the price. Wednesday’s filing said Buffett owned the equivalent of 248,741 Class A shares, a 15.54% stake, following his donations.

That suggests Berkshire had the equivalent of just over 1.6 million Class A shares outstanding, down roughly 19,000 from April 23. Some investors believe Berkshire’s cash has hurt its stock price.

Lawrence Cunningham, a law professor who has published several books about Berkshire, said impatience may explain why some investors sold Buffett their stock. “Berkshire’s stalwart quality shareholders do not sell, so we are seeing a voluntary purging of the shorter-term, lower quality shareholders,” he said.

Buffett was asked at Berkshire’s May 2 annual meeting why he had not repurchased more stock. He said the price had not fallen to “where it really feels way better to us than other things, including the option value of money, to step up in a big, big way.”

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