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Berkshire's cash pile hits record US$122b as stock buys slow

New York

THE world's most famous value investor isn't seeing much value in stocks at record highs.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc sold US$1 billion more worth of stocks than it bought last quarter, its biggest net selling since the end of 2017. He had been an active buyer of equities every quarter last year, including almost US$13 billion in the third quarter alone.

Mr Buffett hasn't had a major acquisition in several years and has even pulled back on one of his newer ways to deploy cash, slowing down repurchases of Berkshire's own stock in the second quarter. The result was that the company's cash pile - a major focus for investors in recent years - surged to a record US$122 billion.

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"It would be hard to look at the cash balance and their uses of cash in recent quarters and not be disappointed that they haven't bought any companies, they haven't bought much stock, and they haven't bought back a lot of their own stock," Jim Shanahan, an analyst at Edward Jones, said in a phone interview on Saturday.

The growing cash pile is a reflection of the strength of the operating businesses that Mr Buffett has assembled under one roof, and allows the investor flexibility to move quickly when big deals emerge. But Mr Buffett has acknowledged that having more than US$100 billion earn little return for several years weighs on the company's growth.

The 88-year-old earned his legendary status by consistently outperforming the broader market, but Berkshire's total return has trailed the S&P 500 over the last five, 10 and 15 years. That has raised questions of whether Berkshire has grown too large to generate excess returns, and whether the cash would be better off returned to shareholders than left for his eventual successor to pursue a major deal.

Mr Buffett has tried to get ahead of those concerns, spending his last few annual meetings and letters to shareholders extolling the value of keeping Berkshire together as a conglomerate and maintaining the company's status as the first call for unique opportunities.

Some of the cash pile is set to be put to work soon. Berkshire agreed to inject US$10 billion of preferred equity in Occidental Petroleum Corp to help finance an acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum Corp, a deal that will be completed if Anadarko shareholders approve the merger later this month.

Last year, Mr Buffett said prices for deals were too high for his liking, so he turned to building a huge stake in Apple Inc, spending more than US$15 billion on the tech giant's shares. He also bulked up on banks and airlines, but the stakes in many of those companies are now near the 10 per cent ownership threshold that he has said he prefers not to cross.

Berkshire's US$400 million of buybacks in the quarter was down from US$1.7 billion in the first three months of the year. That total fell short of the US$1.5 billion expected by Barclays Plc analysts. Berkshire's board changed its buyback policy last year as another way to deploy the mammoth cash pile, but Mr Buffett has kept buybacks relatively limited, only repurchasing a total of US$3.4 billion since the policy tweak. JPMorgan Chase & Co, the closest financial firm to Berkshire in market value, has bought back about US$20 billion in that time.

For now, the stock market's march higher is limiting Mr Buffett's opportunities, but it has pushed his stock portfolio above US$200 billion in value and driven higher earnings. New accounting rules cause unrealised gains to be included in profit, so the company's US$7.9 billion in investment gains drove net income to a 17 per cent jump. BLOOMBERG