Berkshire Gives Mixed Signals on AmEx Stake

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

Warren Buffett has long regarded Berkshire Hathaway’s stake in American Express like he views his stake in Coca Cola. It’s one of his “forever stocks.”

With American Express having struggled in recent years, including losing its co-branded relationship with Costco, the question is whether forever is really forever, or just a long time.

Costco’s jump to Visa is expected to take a big bite out of AmEx revenues, as it represented a whopping 8% of total billed credit card charges.

“I personally feel OK about American Express, and I’m happy to own it,” Buffett, said while taking questions at the meeting Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. He did note AmEx’s problems, stating that it “has been under attack for decades — more intensively lately — and it will continue to be under attack. It’s too big a business, and too interesting a business.”

Buffett acknowledges that banking and finance draw a lot of attention and competitors, and there is always someone trying to knock you off your pedestal.

In that regard, Charlie Munger was less sanguine about AmEx.

“Anybody in payments who’s an established long-time player with an old method has more danger than used to exist,” he said.

Buffett is loath to sell Berkshire’s stake in AmEx and Coca Cola, because the cost basis is very low, and the profits from the sales would incur billions in taxes. The positions are both so large that they would also be hard to unload without affecting share prices.

Buffett also noted that Berkshire’s fund managers Ted Weschler and Todd Combs may not be as wedded to holdings in those companies as he has been when the day comes that they take over the entire $100+ billion portfolio. Each currently manages a $9 billion portfolio.

© 2016 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.