Berkshire’s investment in Apple vividly illustrates the power of repurchases. We began buying Apple stock late in 2016 and by early July 2018, owned slightly more than one billion Apple shares (split-adjusted). Saying that, I’m referencing the investment held in Berkshire’s general account and am excluding a very small and separately-managed holding of Apple shares that was subsequently sold.
When we finished our purchases in mid-2018, Berkshire’s general account owned 5.2% of Apple. Our cost for that stake was $36 billion. Since then, we have both enjoyed regular dividends, averaging about $775 million annually, and have also – in 2020 – pocketed an additional $11 billion by selling a small portion of our position. Despite that sale – voila! – Berkshire now owns 5.4% of Apple. That increase was costless to us, coming about because Apple has continuously repurchased its shares, thereby substantially shrinking the number it now has outstanding. 6 But that’s far from all of the good news.
Because we also repurchased Berkshire shares during the 21⁄2 years, you now indirectly own a full 10% more of Apple’s assets and future earnings than you did in July 2018. This agreeable dynamic continues. Berkshire has repurchased more shares since yearend and is likely to further reduce its share count in the future. Apple has publicly stated an intention to repurchase its shares as well. As these reductions occur, Berkshire shareholders will not only own a greater interest in our insurance group and in BNSF and BHE, but will also find their indirect ownership of Apple increasing as well. The math of repurchases grinds away slowly, but can be powerful over time. The process offers a simple way for investors to own an ever-expanding portion of exceptional businesses. And as a sultry Mae West assured us: “Too much of a good thing can be . . . wonderful.”
Buying back shares appears to be back on the menu for an increasingly large number of companies. For investors who seldom sell, like Berkshire, that’s good news provided the number of shares in issuance does in fact contract.
One of the most egregious abuses of share buyback programs is that additional shares are issued at a similar pace through executives exercising options. That effectively means buybacks amount to a massive transfer of wealth to company management.Click HERE to subscribe to Fuller Treacy Money Back to top