Well, you can’t say that Warren Buffett’s ever been all that imaginative in his investment strategy. Despite offering up a perspective littered with pearls of investing wisdom, he’s pretty much embodied meat-and-potatoes blue-chip value investing, with a penchant for dividends thrown in for good measure. And, as he buys a $3.45 billion stake in the most valuable company in the world that doesn’t sell iPhones, he seems to have stuck with that formula. Over the years, it’s the lack of anything flashy that’s seemed to define Buffett. The Oracle of Omaha is still living in the same Omaha, NE house he bought for $31,500 in 1957, and he’s still investing in the same safe, steady bets he’s always backed.
Biggest Investment Since IBM (IBM)
Buffett made biggest stock bet since revealing that his company, Berkshire Hathaway ($BRK.A) had bought a $10.7 billion stake in International Business Machines (IBM) in 2011 (unless one counts Berkshire’s purchase of Heinz with 3G Capital early this year). And there’s no investor in the world who’s every move is met with so much speculation and consideration than Mr. Buffett, with the entire investing world hanging on his every word. As such, Buffett’s big investment in Exxon Mobil (XOM) is going to have investors across the world pouring over the oil giant’s finances looking for clues as to why Buffett’s so bullish.
Exxon Mobil (XOM) the New Buffett Pick
But really, what’s there to see? Buffett’s success has never been hard to understand or decipher. He plans on holding stocks for the long term, he looks for companies that will offer steady returns over that period. As such, low volatility, dividends, and stable segments are where he lives. The one exception would be when he sees an opportunity created by macro events, like he did when he bought a $5 billion stake in Bank of America (BAC) in 2011 or the $5 billion he put into Goldman Sachs (GS) in 2008 (a deal that netted him a $2 billion profit).
However, Exxon, like IBM, isn’t going through anything that makes it especially attractive in the short term. This is clearly an ole fashioned Buffett value play.
Buffett’s Jeweler’s Eye
So why Exxon? Why now? There’s a few things to look at:
Exxon offers up a P/E ratio just over 12 and a P/S ratio of just under 1. Buffett, who’s as keen as anyone to get his money’s worth, most likely sees a chance to get equity at a good price. Exxon routinely throws up revenues over $100 billion a quarter, and there doesn’t appear to be any reason to see that rate slowing. What’s more, with a forward P/E of 12, the company’s trading at a 23 percent discount to the S&P 500’s forward earnings multiple.
“[Exxon Mobil] is undervalued, in his opinion, and pretty much being ignored by the market,” said David Kass, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Exxon also knows how to treat its investors, something Buffett prizes. He’s always kept an eye on how companies treat their stockholders, eschewing stock splits and favoring health dividends. Well, at a 2.64 percent yield, Exxon’s dividend is a strong one. What’s more, Exxon has bought back over $200 billion worth of company stock in the last decade, a figure that shows this oil giant knows which side its bread is buttered on.
Buffett, ultimately, seems to have one other idea about his Exxon purchase: it’s a timely one. There’s plenty of reason to think that it’s a good time to buy in. For starters, Exxon’s stock is up just over 10 percent on the year, well behind the 25 percent gains of the S&P 500 over the same period. Part of this relatively bearish response to Exxon could be connected to the company’s considerable investment in exploring Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oil field. The project is expensive (the first phase alone should cost $50 billion) and Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell ($RDS.A) both don’t expect to see their rate of return being worthwhile unless they maintain a presence until 2040, meaning an awfully long time for investors to wait for results.
So who buys a stock with plans to hold it for 30 years? The answer is: Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett buys stocks with plans to hold them for 30 years. What’s more, Exxon’s currently at a stage where it’s already shouldered much of the costs and has yet to see the benefit of the estimate 13 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the Kashagan oil field. As such, Buffett could be getting while the getting’s good, jumping into Exxon when the price is attractive so he can spend decades reaping the benefits of a massive oil company that never stops being profitable.
Not Creative, but Still Brilliant?
As always, it’s impossible to see into the future, though that would explain a lot about Buffett’s persistent success in picking stocks. Whether this move is going to pay off for Berkshire Hathaway is something that only time will tell, but it does have all the hallmarks of a classic Buffett play: good value, strong dividend, and real potential as a buy-and-hold stock. If this works out, it seems possible that everyone will be kicking themselves ten years from now with the same observation of Buffett investments they’ve echoed since the Oracle of Omaha got into the business: “It was so simple! Why didn’t I see it then?!”