Berkshire Hathaway 2017 Annual Meeting Audience Question # 33

Options to deploy Berkshire’s almost $100B cash and cash equivalents

Warren Buffett:


Jay Gelb:

Berkshire’s cash and Treasury bill holdings are approaching $100 billion.

Warren, a year ago, you said Berkshire might increase its minimum valuation for share buybacks above 1.2 times book value if this occurred. What are your latest thoughts on raising the share repurchase threshold?

Warren Buffett:

Yeah, the… when the time comes… and it could come reasonably soon, even while I’m around… but we really don’t think we can get the money out in a reasonable period of time into things we like, we have to reexamine then what we do with those funds that we don’t think can be deployed well.

And at that time, we’d make a decision. And it might include both, but it could be repurchases. It could be dividends.

There are different inferences that people draw from a dividend policy than from a repurchase policy that, in terms of expectations that you won’t cut a dividend and that sort of thing. So you have to factor that all in.

But if we really… if we felt that we had cash that was unlikely to be used… excess cash… in a reasonable period of time, and we thought repurchases at a price that was still attractive to continuing shareholders was feasible in a substantial sum, that could make a lot of sense.

At the moment, we’re still optimistic enough about deploying the capital that we wouldn’t be inclined to move to a price much closer where there’s only a narrow spread between an intrinsic value and the repurchase price. But at a point, the burden of proof is definitely on us.

I mean, that… I… the last thing we like to do is own something at a hundred times earnings where the earnings can’t grow.

I mean, we’re… as you point out, we’ve got almost a hundred billion… it’s $90-plus billion invested in a business, we’ll call it a business, where we’re paying almost a hundred times earnings. And it’s kind of a lousy business.

Charlie Munger:

It’s more after after-tax earnings.

Warren Buffett:

Yeah. So, it… you know, we don’t like that. And we shouldn’t use your money that way for a long period of time. And, then, the question is, you know, are we going to be able to deploy it?

And I would say that history is on our side, but it’d be more fun if the phone would ring instead of just relying on history books.

And, you know, I am sure that sometime in the next 10 years… and it could be next week or it could be nine years from now… there will be markets in which we can do intelligent things on a big scale.

But it would be no fun if that happens to be nine years off. And I don’t think it will be, but just based on how humans behave and how governments behave and how the world behaves.

But like I say, at a point, the burden of proof really shifts to us, big-time. And there’s no way I can come back here three years from now and tell you that we hold 150 billion or so in cash or more, and we think we’re doing something brilliant by doing it.


Charlie Munger:

Well, I agree with you. The answer is maybe.

Warren Buffett:

He does have a tendency to elaborate.

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