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Warren Buffett Finds Wrong Elephant

Tara Lachapelle
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Warren Buffett Finds Wrong Elephant

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. has $128 billion of cash. There is almost no purchase too large for the company — in fact, large is exactly what investors are waiting for. And yet, the only stock Berkshire bought last quarter was a dinky retailer, RH.

Berkshire disclosed in a regulatory filing Thursday that it took a $212 million stake in RH, a California-based home-furnishings chain valued at $3.3 billion. Buffett could even buy the entire company and it’d still be a puny deal for him. But it was a big deal for RH, because the shares surged 9% in after-hours trading and held near that level early Friday morning.

I admit I didn’t even recognize the retailer’s name at first. RH used to be called Restoration Hardware, a place that sells $6,000 linen sofas and elongated wooden dining tables with “forthright silhouettes.” The company shrank its name and supersized its stores, an effort to target a more upscale clientele. It’s even installed some on-site restaurants, a little nourishment to help one ponder a new addition to the ski house. That’s partly what makes RH such a funny investment for Buffett. Not only is the billionaire known for his down-to-earth lifestyle — he’s lived in the same fairly modest house for more than 60 years — but he’s also usually drawn to businesses that mirror the America he sees from his unassuming Omaha office: railroads, truck stops, Dairy Queens, the Nebraska Furniture Mart. Furthermore, Berkshire tends not to waste time on minority stakes in small, specialty chains; its only other retail holdings are Amazon.com Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp., companies valued at $870 billion and $134 billion, respectively. 

RH was the only new position Berkshire took in the latest quarter, aside from buying common shares of Occidental Petroleum Corp., in which it already purchased $10 billion of preferred equity (part of a financing deal to assist the oil and gas explorer in its takeover of Anadarko Petroleum Corp.). All in all, it was another dull period for Berkshire, whose last splashy stock pick was Amazon earlier in the year. With U.S. equities still on the rise, Buffett, 89, and his investing deputies are struggling to find cheap candidates. 

Whoever made the call on RH — Todd Combs, Ted Weschler or the Oracle himself — he may have had prescient timing. At the end of May, RH’s price-to-earnings ratio hit a low, and the shares have doubled since then, taking a big leg up in September. 

That said, RH’s overnight gains drove the shares above analysts’ average target level, which is $181 apiece. “The business remains tough to predict and we believe expectations may now be somewhat elevated,” Bobby Griffin, an analyst for Raymond James & Associates who has the equivalent of a “hold” rating on RH, wrote in a Sept. 11 report, citing the China tariffs and a slowdown in high-end U.S. housing. Similarly, Gordon Haskett Research Advisors wrote to clients Sept. 10 that the firm finds other retailers such as Wayfair Inc., Williams-Sonoma Inc. and At Home Group Inc. more attractive. At the end of the day, though, no matter how RH performs, it won’t have much of an impact on Berkshire’s portfolio. 

Another quarter has passed without a major acquisition by Berkshire, its cash pile hitting a record yet again. RH may sell a $449 wool felt elephant, but it isn’t the kind of elephant Buffett is after. The wait continues.

To contact the author of this story: Tara Lachapelle at tlachapelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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