Warren Buffett, the famed investor from Omaha, released his annual letter over the weekend.
Investors love to delve through his musings to find any bits of wisdom they can when it comes to the investment markets. One interesting line we found? This one, on the company's $116 billion cash hoard:
"This extraordinary liquidity earns only a pittance and is far beyond the level Charlie [Munger] and I wish Berkshire to have. Our smiles will broaden when we have redeployed Berkshire's excess funds into more productive assets."
The group has never really been shy about making acquisitions, be it Geico, Burlington Northern, Duracell or Precision Castparts, among many others. So what other names could be on the list?
In the past, it's clear that Buffett and Charlie Munger look for some attributes in the names they buy. They like secular themes with dependable income streams. Stock that have low valuations and generate lots of cash flow. Generally they have been shy on tech stocks and turned away from luxury or high-end companies in favor of companies with mass-market appeal and deep moats.
With $116 billion in cash to spend (not including debt consideration), the Berkshire team sure could afford to spend a lot.
Admittedly, it's quite unlikely. The bold move would pit Apple vs. Buffett as the biggest buyers of the stock and make Apple a tremendous outlier on its books. But if they did, Berkshire could amass a nearly $150 billion position in Apple stock, good for more than 15% of the entire company.
Sometimes investors shy away from owning more than 10% of a company though, as it becomes a more complicated rodeo with the SEC. If that's the case, about $60 billion in additional capital will bring Berkshire close to that threshold. Apple isn't the sexiest pick, but it's at least one that's fun to think about.
Buffett already owns a lot of airline stocks, with holdings in Delta Air Lines, Inc. (DAL) , United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL) , American Airlines Group Inc (AAL) and Southwest Airlines Co (LUV) . The crazy thing is, these four companies have a combined market cap of just under $120 billion. Meaning that, if he wanted to, Buffett could likely afford to buy all of them outright assuming he took on some debt.
Of course, it wouldn't make any sense to do that.
Buffett knows there's secular demand in the airline space. Why else would he have bought Precision Castparts a few years ago?
Further, the airlines have been working on increasing their revenue and maximizing capacity. Boeing Co (BA) has years of backlog. Global and U.S. flight demand continues to trend higher. So it could make sense to buy one of these companies outright -- or perhaps two of them and merge?
The valuations are dirt cheap and while they will be impacted by recessions, so too are railroads, which Buffett has bought in the past. In the end, people will keep flying and with Delta sporting the largest market cap ($38 billion) and United having the smallest ($20.5 billion) a deal could easily be done for less than $50 billion, leaving plenty of cash in Berkshire's bank account.
I know, I know. Who would want to -- forget sticking your toe in the water -- jump in with both feet and not look back with General Electric Company (GE) ? It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to.
The company now sports a market cap of about $123 billion, just a bit more than Buffett's cash pile. Keep in mind though, this conglomerate of a company had a market cap hovering just under $300 billion 18 months ago.
The great American industrial has been under fire for all sorts of sloppy business work. But that's all changing under CEO John Flannery. He's going to make this baby lean and mean, leaving it standing much stronger than it is now. Although, it will take time.
Before rejecting the theory outright, just listen. First, when the banks were in big trouble during the Great Recession, who was there to throw them a lifeline? Warren Buffett. Years later, who stood beside Wells Fargo & Co (WFC) and didn't bail on their massive position despite all of the sketchy behavior from management? Warren Buffett.
So long as the financials fully check out -- which if they didn't, someone would have caught by now -- GE could be a Buffett candidate. Further, consider some of GE's business: Aviation, health care, oil and gas/Baker Hughes. These have some secular themes and could have a nice fit in Berkshire's holdings.
A full-fledged acquisition might be tough unless GE stock continues to sink. Currently near $14, what if we saw $12 or $10? I know that seems unlikely, but when it was at $22, today's $14 price probably didn't seem realistic either.
Even if Berkshire didn't want to buy the entire company, it could buy a huge stake in it. A 50% stake (at today's prices) would be about $61 billion, assuming no premium in the deal. GE's down right now, but it won't be forever. This could be Buffett, who's famous for patience and buying when there's blood in the streets, to pounce on a long-term opportunity.
If anything, perhaps the Oracle could work a deal like it did with big banks in the past. Swapping cash for attractively priced warrants and common stock could provide GE with the liquidity it needs while giving Buffett a potential windfall of a deal down the road.