Buffett's Stock Picking Skill Unrivaled

 | May 01, 2013 | 12:30 PM EDT
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Several years ago two professors released a study about Warren Buffett and his stock picks. They concluded that over more than 20 years that if investors had bought the same stocks Buffett bought for Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) (BRK.B) and sold when Berkshire sold, the returns would have outperformed the S&P 500 by a significant margin.

The conclusion was even more specific: you didn't have to buy the stocks at the same time Buffett did as that is impossible to know. They based their results on buying after the stocks were revealed to the public and on selling after Berkshire revealed the disposition.

Fast forward to today and I believe this study still would hold true. Buffett has hired two lieutenants to manage some of Berkshire's billions but he's still allocating capital. The biggest in the past year or so has been IBM (IBM) where Berkshire has put $10 billion. IBM shares, at $202 a share, are up 20% to 30% since Buffett revealed the stake last year. Even if bought today and, if an investor is willing to hold it for as long as Berkshire, odds are you will outperform the S&P.  

Despite a weak quarter that sent the stock lower, IBM's customers are sticky. More to the point, the company is churning out cash flows. For the past three years, free cash flow has averaged $15 billion per year. IBM is doing some important things with those cash flows: paying a modest dividend and buying back stock. Stockholders' equity has dropped to $19 billion from $23 billion over the past three years while net income has grown from $14.8 billion to $16.6 billion over the same time.

 Even with little or no growth in free cash flow, if IBM continues to allocate its capital as it does now, shareholders will be rewarded well. That's assuming no growth in free cash flow. I suspect over the years that IBM will experience reasonable growth in free cash flow. That's why Buffett made IBM one of Berkshire's largest equity holdings. Heads he wins big; tails he probably still comes out all right.

Buffett will be peppered with questions at his annual meeting on Saturday. Maybe someone will ask him about IBM. If I know Buffett, he won't say much about current holdings. He doesn't need to do so. But rest assured he's excited about it -- he has $10 billion doing the talking.

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