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Buffett Adds Apple to his Empire

By Jim Pearce on May 20, 2016

I’ve wondered why Warren Buffett didn’t own Apple (AAPL), since it epitomizes the type of stock he likes. It pays a solid dividend (2.5%), generates enormous cash flow, and is priced at a discount to the overall stock market based on its forward P/E multiple. That’s also why I own it in the Personal Finance Growth Portfolio, since it scores highly according in my IDEAL stock rating system for the same reasons.

Also, Apple is one of the world’s biggest publicly traded companies, which means he can add large blocks of it to his enormous portfolio without distorting the pricing of the stock. And Buffett effectively must own only mega-cap stocks because his portfolio is so big that buying even big blocks of smaller companies wouldn’t move the needle on the portfolio’s performance.

I don’t have to wonder any longer: earlier this week Buffett revealed that his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, recently bought nearly 10 million shares of AAPL for a little over $1 billion. It was not Buffett but one of his portfolio managers who pulled the trigger on the Apple purchase, but Buffett’s acquiescence signals that he was okay with the deal. Until now I assumed that Buffett’s longstanding friendship with Microsoft’s Bill Gates was the reason he avoided Apple, since Gates and the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs were not the best of friends. But Gates is no longer calling the shots at Microsoft (MSFT), and Jobs passed away over four years ago, so that barrier no longer exists.

The timing of this transaction is interesting. It comes on the heels of Carl Icahn selling his position in Apple for a large profit, which I wrote about last month (“Icahn Swaps Apple for Xerox”). And since Icahn has an uncanny knack for knowing when to get in and out of a stock, it’s fair to ask what does he know that Buffett doesn’t? Icahn said his concerns over China’s unpredictability were the primary reason for unloading Apple, which in the near term is a legitimate issue.

But Buffett takes a much longer view of owning a stock, having famously stated, “I buy on the assumption that they could close the market the next day and not reopen it for five years,” meaning his timeframe for owning a stock is at least five years. In that case the Apple acquisition makes sense for Buffett, since its problems in China are likely temporary and will not alter Apple’s business strategy or timeline in developing the next generation of consumer electronics.

As if on cue, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed this week he is traveling to India to strengthen Apple’s business ties there, now that India is the third largest market in the world for smartphones and is expected to soon leapfrog the U.S. into second place behind China. However, unlike in China, where Apple’s market dominance accounts for nearly a quarter of its total revenue, iPhone sales account for only 2% of India’ annual smartphone consumption. It’s probably safe to assume that Cook will be asked to create more jobs in India by expanding Apple’s manufacturing there to gain cooperation from government officials, and equally safe to assume that he will agree to do it.

In addition to politicking to generate more sales of Apple’s iPhone while in India, I suspect Cook may also be laying the groundwork for the company’s anticipated foray into the smart car market. There is no good reason for Apple to buy Tesla or any other car maker to capture market share, when it could just as easily (and more cheaply) enter into a joint marketing agreement with a company like India’s Tata Motors, which already has a successful sale network throughout India and much of southeast Asia.

Regardless, Buffett’s stamp of approval on Apple has already had a discernable impact: the day his ownership stake was announced AAPL’s share price jumped nearly 4%, adding roughly $20 billion to its market value. At less than $95 a share Apple is still a long way from the $130 share price it fetched a year ago before China began devaluing its currency, but Buffett’s endorsement should put a floor beneath the stock.  

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