When asked why Berkshire didn’t purchase more stock in the first quarter of 2019, alluding to the prospect that Berkshire had an $80 billion to $90 billion acquisition in mind, CEO Warren Buffett said at the 2019 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting, that Berkshire’s first quarter purchase of $1.7 billion of its Class A and B common stock was not close to his ambitions.
Buffett said he prefers to buy stock when it is trading below its intrinsic value. “It’s a range in my mind that will have a range or band of probably 10%.” He said that he has no ambition to "spend a dime" if he doesn't think shareholders will be better off for it.
Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chair Charlie Munger stated tersely, “We’re going to probably be more liberal when it comes to repurchasing shares.” He later added about Berkshire stock buybacks, "When it gets really obvious, we'll be really good at it."
Buffett also added he prefers that Berkshire repurchase the considerably lower-priced Class B shares because they have higher trading volume than the Class A shares. Munger said, "We don't really care what class we buy."
Berkshire amended its stock repurchase program in July of 2018 to allow the company more freedom to buy back its own stock.
Share repurchases, or buybacks, increase the value of shares by decreasing the supply of outstanding stock, which also increases the closely-watched metric, earnings per share (EPS).
Buffett recently said Berkshire could repurchase as much as $100 billion of its stock, according to the Financial Times. Responding to a question at the 2019 shareholder meeting about how he arrived at this number, Buffett said he only had a few seconds to think about it, and it seemed to be a big, round number.
Berkshire’s first quarter earnings report discloses that the company is limited to repurchasing its stock if it reduces the total amount of Berkshire’s consolidated cash, cash equivalents, and U.S. Treasury Bills holdings below $20 billion. As of the end of the first quarter, that figure stood at $110.5 billion.
The controversy over stock buybacks
Stock buybacks are also under fire from Congress. Senator Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin, recently introduced a bill opposing the practice. As Yahoo Finance’s Jessica Smith reported, Baldwin and her staff prepared a report that “argues stock buybacks suppress wages and drive income inequality, while increasing systemic risk to the economy.”
“The evidence also shows that Wall Street insiders and corporate executives have abused the American system of corporate governance, spending trillions on buybacks to benefit themselves at the expense of employees and other corporate stakeholders,” the report said.
Nearly half of S&P 500 companies tie executive compensation to EPS, yet a recent Goldman Sachs study concluded this potential conflict of interest does not manifest itself in reality.
“The irony of this situation is that executives chose to return cash to shareholders in a manner that resulted in lower personal compensation than might have been earned if the spending was used to repurchase shares rather than pay dividends,” wrote David Kostin, the Goldman report’s author.
Jared Blikre is a senior producer and global markets reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @SPYJared