Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Earnings Dominated by Stock Buybacks and Stock Gains

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-B) is the largest conglomerate of them all. With the great Warren Buffett still at the helm after decades, investors are always curious about what actions the Oracle of Omaha is taking. After a dismal first quarter report was dragged down by the pandemic-related selling in stock prices, the second quarter of 2020 showed a major snap-back in Buffett’s investments and that drove earnings back up.

Without any doubt, the most interesting and the most important aspects of the Berkshire Hathaway quarterly report is the non-operating aspects of stock holdings and share buybacks. Investors know that Berkshire Hathaway is a conglomerate, but adding Warren Buffett and an estimated $200 billion stock portfolio makes this a company that is intertwined with activist investing, ETFs and mutual funds, and mergers and acquisitions all wrapped up into one.

The second quarter net earnings of $26.295 billion sounds massive, but the earnings for the first six-month period of 2020 was still a loss of $23.451 billion. The similar reports for 2019 were $14.073 billion in the first quarter of 2019 and $35.734 billion for the first half of 2019.

Warren Buffett has never paid out a regular dividend to his shareholders despite amassing well over $100 billion in cash. What Buffett will engage in, and what he loosened up the criteria for when that can occur, is to buy back Berkshire Hathaway’s own common stock. This can drive up operating earnings and shrink the float of stock, and Buffett and his team spent a record $5.1 billion repurchasing shares of Berkshire Hathaway during the second quarter.

Berkshire Hathaway’s record buyback quarter was some 130% higher than the $2.2 billion prior record from the fourth quarter of 2019. The earnings report now indicates that Berkshire’s own stock buying has been $6.7 billion in the first half of 2020.

As for how the massive investment portfolio during market volatility contributes to earnings, the combined investment gains and losses included a gain of $34.5 billion in the second quarter and a loss of $19.7 billion in the first half of the year. Buffett’s investment gains and losses in 2020 also included after-tax realized losses (sales of investments) of $3.5 billion during the second quarter and losses of $2.6 billion in the first six months.

Berkshire Hathaway’s operating earnings look much more boring than the larger all-in report including investments, but the core Berkshire Hathaway is hanging in there during the recession. Operating earnings of $5.513 billion in the second quarter and $11.423 billion in the first half of 2020 were against similar comparisons of $6.139 billion in the second quarter of 2019 and $11.694 billion in the first half of 2019.

One special note that was not normal, but was seen in the recession, was that the GEICO unit initiated a $2.5 billion “give-back” on April 8, 2020 to policyholders with respect to policies renewed and newly issued policies. This so-called “give-back” will be spread over the twelve month period beginning on April 8, 2020 for accounting purposes and will have a dragon results.

While Berkshire Hathaway’s stock portfolio has been seen much recovery, the current quarter that has not ended is currently on track to show solid delivery as well. While he appears to be too conservative in 2020, Buffett’s core stock holdings all seem to be tracking back up and are likely worth more than $200 billion again, even after losing billions in the panic-sale of airline stocks.

The largest holdings in Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) have seen a massive surge this summer after the tech giant’s market cap is nearing $2 trillion and as it has announced a stock split.

Buffett has also continued making big stock purchases in shares of Bank of America Corporation (NYSE: BAC). Buffett’s stake of 925 million shares at the end of June, but the latest filing showed a total beneficial ownership of more than 1.03 billion shares. The large bet in Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC) has continued to act as an overhang on Berkshire Hathaway, but it looks as though this position is continuing to be trimmed down. At $25.07 as of Friday, its 52-week low of $22.00 shows how much it has lagged peers during the recovery.

While American Express Co. (NYSE: AXP) and The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE: KO) are still handily lower than their highs, they are up again so far in the third quarter.

Another big move that will be helping out shareholders if current share prices hold is in The Kraft Heinz Company (NASDAQ: KHC). The troubled food giant has been a thorn in Buffett’s side and perhaps the biggest mistake ever, but after bottoming out at roughly $20 in the first quarter’s peak of the selling panic, Kraft Heinz’s packaged foods are back in favor in the eat-at-home economy. That stock rice was $31.89 on June 30 and was $35.41 as of Friday’s close. Berkshire Hathaway’s stake of 325,634,818 shares as of June 30 represented some 26.64% of the outstanding shares.

Warren Buffett has always warned that earnings were not the way to look at his company any longer. The company’s core operations held up so far in 2020 compared to elsewhere, but the big move is in the massive investment portfolio. Buffett has been making moves in utilities, and it’s very possible he could jump in and make another big specific acquisition of a troubled outfit.

The buyback also sounds massive, but that level of buying based on Berkshire Hathaway’s cash and based on the inflow that would come from operating earnings could last for well over a decade without using a penny of cash from that $200-plus billion (estimated vs. $175.5 billion at the end of March) equity portfolio.

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