Berkshire Hathaway Buys Back Stock As Warren Buffett Can’t Find Anything To Spend The Cash On

If we were to believe the likes of Robert Reich and Elizabeth Warren then Warren Buffett’s recent actions at Berkshire Hathaway would be tolling the death bell of modern capitalism. For Buffett has decided to buy back nearly $1 billion worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock, something he doesn’t normally do. The usual criticism from the knownothing left – there not being all that much of a know lots left these days – is that stock buybacks are detrimental to the economy. This is money that should be invested by companies, spent perhaps on higher wages. Instead a buyback is just giving it back to shareholders where it disappears from the economy.

This is, of course, nonsense.

What actually happens is that all money in the economy is either spent or invested. For there are only two things you can do with money, you can spend it or invest it. Well, in theory, you can stick it under the bed but few actually do that. Certainly not enough to make a difference in an $18 trillion economy.

So, what’s actually going on here?

Berkshire Hathaway repurchased nearly $1 billion of its own stock in the third quarter after the company changed a rule that had restricted stock buybacks.

Berkshire Hathaway (BRKB), Warren Buffett’s industrial and insurance conglomerate, said its net income jumped to $18.5 billion from $4.1 billion a year ago. Most of the gains came from its massive investment portfolio, though the value of its holdings are down slightly.
The company also saw a huge increase of cash on its balance sheet. Available cash soared to $36.5 billion at the end of September from $25.5 billion at the start of the year.

Why is it that BH and WB are giving this cash back to shareholders? Why aren’t they investing it themselves? The answer being because they can’t find any good use for it:

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway repurchased $928m of its stock in the third quarter, a telling shift by the company that underscores the difficulty its chief executive has had finding attractive deals that fit his investment philosophy.

He can’t find stuff he wants to buy at a price he wants to pay:

In his most recent annual letter to shareholders, Mr Buffett said that sensible purchase prices remained the key barrier to nearly every deal the company had reviewed in 2017 and likened Berkshire’s dealmaking restraint to a drought.

That does not though, obviously enough, mean the money is lost to the economy. Instead, other people now get to make the decision about what’s a good thing to do with that money:

Well, consider what does grow the American economy. More consumer demand grows the economy, we know that. More investment grows the economy, we know that also. So, the money coming out of companies in buybacks goes where? Well, there’re only two things you can do with money, spend it or invest it. Even if you just “save” it then whoever you’re saving it with is investing or spending it. So, whether the money stays inside a corporation or goes outside it, there are still only two things that can be done with it, spend or invest, either of which grows the American economy.

Stock buybacks are just different people making that spend or invest decision.

So much for experts, eh? What is being missed here is that money isn’t destroyed because it’s paid out to shareholders. All we’ve done is change the decisionmakers. Instead of it being the managers of the company that have just made the profits doing the deciding, it’s the owners of the money — yes, stockholders own companies — who decide where the new investment goes.

All Warren Buffett is saying is that he doesn’t know what the hell to do with your money and nor does Berkshire Hathaway. So, you, here, take it, your money, you decide what to do with it. And what’s wrong with that?

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Ah, but surely Reich and Warren’s big problem is that all those people who sell their shares back might not spend it as wisely as Reich and Warren could. So long as that capital is concentrated their prospects of one day being able to direct Warren’s investment activities are perhaps a smidgen higher than if it is disbursed among a myriad of shareholders who might do something disruptive with it.