Berkshire Hathaway 2018 Annual Meeting Audience Question # 17

Will Berkshire pay out a special dividend to its shareholders?

Warren Buffett:

OK, Gregg.

Gregg Warren:

Warren, this question’s also based on something you said more recently, so I can’t guarantee it’s going to be any easier.

You recently noted that you prefer share repurchases over dividends as a means for returning capital to shareholders should Berkshire’s cash balances continue to rise and hit the $150 billion threshold you noted as being difficult to defend to shareholders at last year’s annual meeting.

While I understand the rationale for not establishing a regular dividend, a one-time special dividend could be a useful option for returning a larger chunk of Berkshire’s excess capital to shareholders without the implied promise to keep paying a regular dividend forever.

The drawback with the special dividend, though, is that it would lead to an immediate decline in book value and book value per share. Whereas a larger share repurchase effort, while depressing book value, would reduce Berkshire’s share count, limiting the impact on book value per share.

If we do happen to get a few years out and Berkshire does hit that $150 billion threshold, because valuations continue to be too high, both for acquisitions and for the repurchase of company stock, would you consider a one-time special dividend as a means for returning capital to shareholders?

Warren Buffett:

Well, if we thought we couldn’t use capital effectively, we would figure… we would try to figure out the most effective way of returning capital to shareholders. And… you could… I would have probably… I think it’d be unlikely we’d do it by a special dividend.

I think it’d be more likely we’d do it by a repurchase, if the repurchase didn’t result in us paying a price above intrinsic value per share. We’re never going to do anything that we think is harmful to continuing shareholders.

So if we think the stock is intrinsically worth X, and we would have to pay some modest multiple even above that to repurchase shares, we wouldn’t do it because we would be hurting continuing shareholders to the benefit of the people who are getting out.

But we will try and do whatever makes the most sense, but not with the idea that we have to do something every day because we simply can’t find something that day.

We had a vote as you know… I don’t know, a few years back… on whether people wanted a dividend. And… the B shares… so I’m not talking my shares or Charlie’s or anything… but the B shares voted 47 to one against it.

So I think through self-selection of who become shareholders… I don’t think shareholders world… or countrywide… on all stocks would vote 47 to one at all.

But we get self-selection in terms of who joins us. And I think they expect us to do whatever we think makes sense for all shareholders. And obviously, if we really thought we never could use the money effectively in the business, we should get it out, one way or another. And…

You’ve got a bunch of directors who own significant… very significant… amounts of stock themselves. And you can expect them to think like owners. It’s the reason they’re on the board.

And you can expect the management to think like owners and… owners will return money to all of the owners if they think it makes more sense than continuing to look for things to do.

But we invested in the first quarter, maybe… have to look it up on the… well, certainly through April… probably close to 15 billion or something like that, net, so…

And we won’t always be in a world of very low interest rates… or high private market prices.

So we will do what makes the most sense. But I can’t see us ever making a special… almost… it’s very unlikely we would just pay out a big, special dividend. I think that if we put that to the vote of the shareholders, and Charlie and I did not vote, I think we would get a big negative vote.

And I’d be willing to… be willing to make a bet on that one.

Charlie?

Charlie Munger:

Well, as long as the existing system continues to work as well as it has, why would we change it? We’ve got a whole lot of people that are accustomed to it, have done well under it. And if conditions change, why, we’re capable of changing our minds, if the facts change.

Warren Buffett:

Yeah, and we’ve done that several times.

Charlie Munger:

Yes.

Warren Buffett:

Yeah.

Charlie Munger:

Although, I must say, it’s a little hard.

Warren Buffett:

He always brings me back to earth.

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