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Warren Buffett: Buying Berkshire Hathaway Was $200 Billion Blunder

Monday, 18 Oct 2010 | 9:18 AM ET
Warren Buffett
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Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett says Berkshire Hathaway is the "dumbest" stock he ever bought.

He calls his 1964 decision to buy the textile company a $200 billion dollar blunder, sparked by a spiteful urge to retaliate against the CEO who tried to "chisel" Buffett out of an eighth of a point on a tender deal.

Buffett tells the story in response to a question from CNBC's Becky Quick for a Squawk Box series on the biggest self-admitted mistakes by some of the world's most successful investors.

COMPLETE CNBC INTERVIEW VIDEO AND TRANSCRIPT

Buffett tells Becky that his holding company (presumably with a different name) would be "worth twice as much as it is now" — another $200 billion — if he had bought a good insurance company instead of dumping so much money into the dying textile business.

Legends Share Mistakes
Billionaire Warren Buffett reveals his worst investing mistake, with CNBC's Becky Quick.

Here's his story, as it appeared this morning in edited form on Squawk Box:

BUFFETT: The— the dumbest stock I ever bought— was— drum roll here— Berkshire Hathaway. And— that may require a bit of explanation. It was early in— 1962, and I was running a small partnership, about seven million. They call it a hedge fund now.

And here was this cheap stock, cheap by working capital standards or so. But it was a stock in a— in a textile company that had been going downhill for years. So it was a huge company originally, and they kept closing one mill after another. And every time they would close a mill, they would— take the proceeds and they would buy in their stock. And I figured they were gonna close, they only had a few mills left, but that they would close another one. I'd buy the stock. I'd tender it to them and make a small profit.

So I started buying the stock. And in 1964, we had quite a bit of stock. And I went back and visited the management, Mr. (Seabury) Stanton. And he looked at me and he said, ‘Mr. Buffett. We've just sold some mills. We got some excess money. We're gonna have a tender offer. And at what price will you tender your stock?’

And I said, ‘11.50.’ And he said, ‘Do you promise me that you'll tender it 11.50?’ And I said, ‘Mr. Stanton, you have my word that if you do it here in the near future, that I will sell my stock to— at 11.50.’ I went back to Omaha. And a few weeks later, I opened the mail—

BECKY: Oh, you have this?

BUFFETT: And here it is: a tender offer from Berkshire Hathaway— that's from 1964. And if you look carefully, you'll see the price is—

BECKY: 11 and—

BUFFETT: —11 and three-eighths. He chiseled me for an eighth. And if that letter had come through with 11 and a half, I would have tendered my stock. But this made me mad. So I went out and started buying the stock, and I bought control of the company, and fired Mr. Stanton. (LAUGHTER)

Now, that sounds like a great little morality table— tale at this point. But the truth is I had now committed a major amount of money to a terrible business. And Berkshire Hathaway became the base for everything pretty much that I've done since. So in 1967, when a good insurance company came along, I bought it for Berkshire Hathaway. I really should— should have bought it for a new entity.

Because Berkshire Hathaway was carrying this anchor, all these textile assets. So initially, it was all textile assets that weren't any good. And then, gradually, we built more things on to it. But always, we were carrying this anchor. And for 20 years, I fought the textile business before I gave up. As instead of putting that money into the textile business originally, we just started out with the insurance company, Berkshire would be worth twice as much as it is now. So—

BECKY: Twice as much?

BUFFETT: Yeah. This is $200 billion. You can— you can figure that— comes about. Because the genius here thought he could run a textile business. (LAUGHTER)

BECKY: Why $200 billion?

BUFFETT: Well, because if you look at taking that same money that I put into the textile business and just putting it into the insurance business, and starting from there, we would have had a company that— because all of this money was a drag. I mean, we had to— a net worth of $20 million. And Berkshire Hathaway was earning nothing, year after year after year after year. And— so there you have it, the story of— a $200 billion— incidentally, if you come back in ten years, I may have one that's even worse. (LAUGHTER)

Current Berkshire stock prices:

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Class A:

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