For a very long time, even as the legend of his investing prowess grew to mythic proportions, Warren Buffett refused to take positions in tech companies out of a belief that their future cash flows are — due to the sector’s dynamism — too hard to project.
But gradually, the Oracle of Omaha has softened his stance on tech a bit, opening up sizable positions in IBM (IBM – Get Report) and Apple (AAPL – Get Report) and also taking less-publicized stakes in some smaller tech firms.
However, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Buffett has completely abandoned his old stance on tech: His investments in the space have skewed towards well-established businesses that (on the surface at least) could be trusted to deliver strong cash flows for years to come. And by recently upping his stake in Apple and nearly liquidating his position in IBM, Buffett’s tech portfolio now bears an even stronger resemblance to his non-tech portfolio.
Ahead of the Feb. 24 release of Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A – Get Report) shareholders, Berkshire disclosed in its Q4 Form 13-F filing that it had slashed its IBM position by 35 million shares last quarter to a mere two million. The conglomerate also disclosed its Apple position had been upped to 165.3 million shares (current value of $29 billion) from 134.1 million. That amounts to a 3.25% ownership stake in Apple, according to FactSet.
Positions in two other tech firms — domain name registrar Verisign (VRSN – Get Report) and insurance risk analytics firm Verisk Analytics (VRSK – Get Report) — were unchanged at 13 million and 1.6 million shares, respectively.
Buffett originally disclosed a $10.7 billion position in IBM back in November 2011. Even after accounting for substantial dividend payments, Big Blue’s shares only delivered a 4% return from Sep. 2011 to the end of 2017. The S&P 500, meanwhile, more than doubled over that time.
The near-liquidation of the IBM position came before the IT giant (though beating Q4 estimates) issued slightly below-consensus 2018 EPS guidance on its January earnings call, and forecast its free cash flow (FCF) would drop by $1 billion this year to roughly $12 billion. As it is, IBM’s FCF had fallen sharply from a 2012 peak of $18.2 billion, something that doubtlessly wasn’t lost on Buffett, Charlie Munger and the rest of Berkshire’s investment team.
On the other hand, Apple, which Berkshire first took a stake in during the first quarter in 2016, has seen its FCF rise from $33.3 billion in fiscal 2011 (ended in Sep. 2011) to $51.1 billion in fiscal 2017. And in spite of recent iPhone X sales pressures, analysts on average expect Apple’s FCF to rise 13% in fiscal 2018 to $57.8 billion.
Verisign, for its part, has seen its FCF grow 48% over the last five years to $720 million. Verisk’s has risen by 42% over that time to $560 million.