Warren Buffett is a fan of dividends. Just look at all the dividend stocks that fill Berkshire Hathaway’s (NYSE:BRK.B),NYSE:BRK.A) portfolio. Many of his top holdings send plenty of cash flowing back into BRK.B’s coffers, inflating them by billions of dollars each quarter. And for decades, BRK.B has been using those dollars to reinvest and drive the future returns of Berkshire Hathaway stock.
However, despite Buffett’s love of stocks that pay dividends, Berkshire Hathaway stock doesn’t pay one of its own, with Buffett preferring to use the money for other purposes. Over the years, that’s been a fine approach. But these days, Buffett and BRK.B may want to rethink that stance.
A huge cash pile, underperformance in recent years by Berkshire Hathaway stock and a lack of appealing elephant-sized takeover targets make the idea of paying a dividend- even a one-time special one- worthwhile for Berkshire Hathaway.
A Growing Problem for Berkshire Hathaway
Calling BRK.B a cash-generating machine would be an understatement. By design, the organization is set up to produce copious amounts of cash flows from its underlying holdings. Its insurance companies pull in billions from their investments, while Buffett receives billions each quarter in dividends from BRK.B’s massive stakes in companies like Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and U.S. Bancorp (NYSE:USB). And we can’t forget about the dividends/distributions that Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries send back to their parent.
Historically, Buffett has used this cash primarily to invest in its current businesses, buy new businesses and repurchase Berkshire Hatahaway stock when its shares are cheap enough.
The problem is that BRK.B may be producing too much cash these days. At the end of 2018, BRK.B had about $112 billion in cash and equivalents on its balance sheet. That balance has only grown as more of its positions have paid their quarterly dividends into the firm’s coffers.
The issue is that Buffett and Berkshire are having trouble finding ways to spend that cash.
With stocks surging over the last year or so, valuations aren’t as cheap as Buffett would like. After all, he is a value investor. As a result, it’s difficult for Berkshire to buy more shares of companies in which it already has stakes .
Meanwhile, expensive valuations make buying companies outright an expensive proposition. Since Berkshire Hathaway is so big, it takes a large deal to really move the needle for Berkshire Hatahawau stock. Unfortunately, Buffett and the team at Berkshire Hathaway recently haven’t found any major company that they like. It’s been more than three years since BRK.B carried out a substantial buyout. So, its cash keeps piling up.
That could explain Buffett’s recent bout of underperformance.
Over the long haul, Berkshire Hathaway stock has been a great investment. Since Buffett took over, Berkshire Hathaway has managed to produce a compound annual gain of 21% , versus a compound annual gain of just 9.7% for the S&P 500 during that time.
However, the last decade hasn’t been so kind for Buffett. BRK.B stock has risen by 259% over the last ten years. That’s not bad at all. However, the S&P has returned a total of 314% during that time. This year alone ,the S&P 500 has risen more than twice as rapidly as Berkshire Hatahaway stock.
Berkshire Hathaway Should Give It All Away
There is a relatively easy solution to the problem for Berkshire: enact a dividend of its own. Buffett has notoriously been stubborn on this issue and has said that in 10 or 20 years, the company may decide to institute a dividend. BRK has only paid a dividend once, back in 1967. However, it might be a good idea for for Berkshire Hathaway stock to start paying one.
For one thing, Buffett’s argument that it’s better to use the money for investments is only valid if he actually puts the cash to work. Handing some of the cash back to investors as a dividend would certainly remove some of the drag on the performance. of Berkshire Hathaway stock.
And Buffett wouldn’t have to get rid of all of the cash. If Berkshire Hathaway last year- after kicking out the issues with Kraft Heinz (NYSE:KHC) – put 42% of its profits into dividends, it would have spent about $20 billion on the payouts. In that scenario, Buffett would still have had plenty of cash to play with. In fact, about five years ago, Buffett had only about $42 billion in cash on Berkshire’s balance sheet, and he was perfectly content and performed better.
By paying a dividend, BRK.B would remove one of Buffett’s main complaints about Berkshire Hathaway as well. That is, that Berkshire Hathaway stock constantly trades at a huge discount to book value. If Buffett was to pay an annual dividend or even a one-time large special payout and remove some of the excess cash, the owners of Berkshire Hathaway stock would receive an improved return on their investment. Most likely, they would enjoy higher share prices and higher net asset value.
Here’s Hoping Berkshire Hathaway Starts Paying Up
Buffett is an amazing investor and has steered Berkshire Hathaway towards enviable returns that may have been too good. BRK just throws off too much cash these days. It’s a great problem to have, but it is starting to significantly hinder the performance of BRK.B stock. Initiating a one-time, special dividend or annual payout would go a long way towards removing that excess cash from Berkshire’s balance sheet, while improving the performance of BRK.B stock.
At the time of writing, author Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any of the stocks mentioned.