Ignore Buffett's Investments Today

 | Mar 17, 2014 | 4:00 PM EDT  | Comments
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Hopefully, the title of this column has attracted those of you who know that I am a big fan of the Oracle of Omaha. Warren Buffett is one of the best investors of all time, and even at the sharp age of 83, he can still outperform anyone. Perhaps recommending that you "ignore" Buffett's investment is a little too strong of word -- maybe "disregard" is a better term. 

My point is that no matter how talented he is, Warren Buffett today is working with billions and billions of dollars that need be allocated each and every year. That is a very difficult process, working with such large sums of money. More so, Buffett's investment menu is reduced. As a result, he has to stick to making big moves, such as putting $10 billion into IBM (IBM) and $3 billion into Exxon Mobil (XOM).

I would presume that both IBM and Exxon Mobil will turn out to be acceptable investments. Both are dominant businesses in their respective fields, and they generate healthy cash flow. But it is highly unlikely that Exxon Mobil shares will double in the next four to five years, given the company's current market cap of $400 billion. In the past five years, Exxon Mobil is up 41%.

There is a simple unwritten law of money: The more money you have to allocate, the lower your hurdle has to become under ordinary circumstances. That's why, during the highly unusual environment of 2008 and 2009, Berkshire put over $20 billion to work in a manner of months into names such as Goldman Sachs (GS), Bank of America (BAC) and General Electric (GE).

For years, Buffett has been clear about his expectations for future return performance. He admitted this again with his investment into the railroad Burlington Northern (BNI). Although railroads' returns on capital have improved, these are capital-intensive operations. For years, Buffett had disdained capital-intensive businesses. So why did he invest in Burlington? The railroad was a conduit to enable Berkshire to a put a lot of capital to work and earn an above-average return, although it was nothing like the past returns Berkshire was used to.

Still, if you have $20 billion earning 8% a year, that's $1.6 billion each year. If you were to ask Buffett, I believe he would take 6% to 8% a year return on capital from Berkshire's investments today. Combine that with the operating performance, and you have a very decent return for a mutli-billion-dollar company. 

Make no mistake, Buffett is always on the hunt for huge gains. He scored plenty back in 2009, but those are the rare opportunities. Also, Buffett will wait for years, earning little to nothing on cash, if he can't find the right investment opportunity.

My main point here is that when Buffett buys a stock today, you should not revere these headlines as highly as you may have back in Buffett's heyday, when he was working with smaller sums. An investor working with much smaller sums has opportunities that Buffett can only dream of having. So the Oracle is still the Oracle, and one should always keep alert to Berkshire's new investments. Just don't presume that they are the multi-baggers of past.

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