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Why Warren Buffett buying Amazon stock means traditional value investing is dead

Brian Sozzi
Editor-at-Large

The financial services industry’s most prominent voice in not overpaying for investments — Warren Buffett — has declared a new type of value investing amid his headline-grabbing purchase of seemingly pricey Amazon (AMZN) stock.

That is this: it’s OK to buy high price-to-earnings multiple companies provided they will change the game at some point in the future. And in turn, the strong company in question could provide shareholders with outsize returns as dominance of a particular industry takes greater hold.

“The idea that value is somehow connected to book value or low price to earnings ratios — as Charlie has said, all investing is value investing,” Buffett told a packed house of shareholders at Berkshire Hathaway’s latest annual meeting when asked about the logic behind his firm’s purchase of Amazon.

Buffett continued, “I mean you are putting some money out now to get some money later on, and you are making a calculation as to the probabilities of getting that money and when you will get it.”

The “Oracle of Omaha” disclosed this week that one of his investment managers — either Ted Weschler or Todd Combs — has bought some of Amazon’s stock in recent months. The purchase likely caught many Buffett watchers by surprise, even when considering Buffett’s praise through the years for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

A champion of value investing

Buffett has long been a champion of a style of investing called value investing. The approach was pioneered by Buffett’s mentor, teacher and author of “Intelligent Investor” Benjamin Graham.

Graham’s value-based disciplines on investing included: (1) finding stocks trading below intrinsic value; (2) looking for stocks with low price-to-book and price-earnings ratios; and (3) favoring companies steady profits. Buffett has used his mentor’s guideposts to scoop up large stakes in Coca-Cola (KO) and Delta Air Lines (DAL) over the years and not overpay for big acquisitions such as railroad Burlington Northern.

Buffett has also spun that intense focus on value investing into one of the greatest investing quotes of all time — one that no doubt has served many long-term investors well. “We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful,” Buffett said.

2019 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting

Buffett’s Amazon wager

But Buffett’s purchase of Amazon flies in the face of his long-held investing views. Amazon’s stock — always trading on rich valuation multiples given its status in the tech industry — currently fetches a lofty forward price-to-earnings multiple of 51 times, per Yahoo Finance data. That’s about two and half times the forward price-to-earnings multiple of the S&P 500. The stock trades at an exorbitant 20 times price to book ratio on a trailing 12-month basis.

And, above all else, Amazon is known for not having steady profits as it invests aggressively to support growth businesses in retail, Alexa and the cloud.

Buffett’s Amazon wager appears to be rooted in the logic of the stock trading on higher valuation multiples 25, 50, 100 years from now as Amazon pushes forward with its dominance across many industries. The legendary investor probably has a firsthand look at how disruptive Amazon could be via his consumer oriented businesses.

“The considerations are identical when you buy Amazon versus some bank stock that looks cheap consistently book value or earnings,” Buffett said at the shareholder meeting.

Added Buffett’s right-hand man Charlie Munger, “Of course as something as this internet development happens and you don’t catch it, other people are going to blow by you. I don’t mind having not caught Amazon early, the guy [Jeff Bezos] is kind of a miracle worker. It’s kind of peculiar.”

Given this otherwise tweaked investment philosophy inside Berkshire, one has to wonder how long Ted or Todd wait to pull the trigger on another game-changing tech company with Amazon like characteristics — the soon publicly traded Uber.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and co-host of ‘The First Trade’ at Yahoo Finance. Follow Brian Sozzi him on Twitter @BrianSozzi

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