Warren Buffett always says the cheaper stocks get, the more he likes them. But did he like them enough to do some buying for Berkshire Hathaway as prices plunged to their bear market lows in early March?
We'll have some answers late this afternoon (Friday) when Berkshire reveals its U.S. stock holdings as of March 31, the end of the first quarter.
The benchmark S&P 500 stock index closed at its lowest level of the bear market (so far) on March 9. On that day, it was down about 25 percent since the beginning of the year. By the end of the quarter it had cut that loss to 11.7 percent.
Was Buffett buying bargains for Berkshire?
He was hard to pin down early last week when our Becky Quick asked him during a live CNBC interview about his October New York Times piece. In it, he argued U.S. stocks would outperform Treasuries over the long run making it a good time to buy equities.
BECKY: As we get into March and we saw some of those (stock market) lows, did that make you feel even more strongly about those positions?
BUFFETT: Oh, sure.
BECKY: Did you continue buying?
BUFFETT: Oh, the cheaper things go, the better I like it. I mean, if I can buy the whole American economy at three-quarters of X instead of X, I feel better off. And particularly when I compare it with rolling, you know, Treasury bills at a quarter of a percent, of a half of a percent, or buying the ten-year at three percent. I know that buying the ten-year at three percent is not going to work out very well in terms of purchasing power. I know that rolling Treasury bills is not going to work out in terms of purchasing power. And I think I know that if you buy the American economy at 60 percent of what it was selling for a few years ago, and you get a cross-section of companies that aren’t highly leveraged, or something of that sort, you’re going to do well.
BECKY: Does that mean that as we got into March that you stepped up or continued your buying, either in your personal portfolio or through Berkshire?
BUFFETT: The cheaper things have become, the more I’ve wanted to buy, yeah.
BECKY: And the more –
BUFFETT: If I run out of gas, I run out of gas.
That last comment refers to his desire to maintain a comfortable level of cash, so Berkshire "doesn't have to rely on the kindness of strangers." Buffett likes to have a solid cash cushion, and definitely won't borrow money to buy stocks, no matter how cheap they might look. He told us last fall his minimum is $10 billion.
And it was that goal of keeping a cash cushion that prompted Berkshire to do some selling instead of buying in recent months.
The company's December 31 portfolio snapshot revealed Berkshire had slashed its stake in Johnson & Johnson by almost 54 percent since September 30. That prompted CNBC's Jim Cramer to criticize Buffett for "Selling America."
Buffett told shareholders he used the proceeds of the J&J sales, and others, to help fund multi-billion dollar injections into General Electric and Goldman Sachs . Those loans, in the form of preferred stock purchases, are earning a very generous 10 percent a year for Berkshire.
And just one week ago, Berkshire told us in its first quarter earnings release that it had sold almost 14 million ConocoPhillips shares, at a loss, and would continue to sell down the stake to generate capital losses for tax purposes. Buffett has said he made a "major mistake" when he bought Conoco shares last year as energy prices were peaking.
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