Buffett says his IBM thesis was flawed, he blew it on Google

By Bloomberg   |   07 May 2017   |   4:26 am  

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett, who long shunned investments in technology stocks and then made an ill-fated bet on IBM, said that mistake shouldn’t discourage wagers on the broader industry.

“I thought it would do better in the six years that have elapsed than it has,” Buffett said of International Business Machines Corp. Saturday, at the annual meeting of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. “And Apple, I regard them as being in a quite different business. I think Apple is much more of a consumer-products business” with skill at finding opportunities that are difficult for rivals to duplicate.

Apple Inc. has become one of Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire’s largest holdings, valued at about $19.2 billion as of March 31. The billionaire said this week that he cut about a third of his stake in IBM, sending the shares down 2.5 percent Friday.

Buffett and Vice Chairman Charles Munger built Berkshire into one of the world’s largest companies with bets on consumer-product companies like Coca-Cola Co. and older industries such as railroads. Munger said Saturday that avoiding Silicon Valley investments made sense for the pair, with some exceptions.

“We avoided the tech stocks because we felt we had no advantage there, and other people did. And I think that’s a good idea not to play where the other people are better,” Munger said. “But, you know, if you ask me in retrospect, ‘What was our worst mistake in the tech field?’ I think we were smart enough to figure out Google.”

Buffett’s Lament

The stock of Alphabet Inc., the parent of Google, has advanced 20 percent this year, and its co-founders became two of the richest people in the world. Buffett said Berkshire’s Geico unit was an early customer of Google, paying the search-engine company when people clicked on the auto insurer’s ads. Given the price that Geico was paying per click, Buffett said, he should have seen the technology company’s promise.

“I had plenty of ways to ask questions, or anything of the sort, and educate myself,” Buffett said. “But I blew it.” He also said he missed an opportunity by failing to invest in Amazon.com Inc.

Buffett said time will tell about whether his recent wager on Apple is smarter than the 2011 IBM investment. He stressed that the companies have different types of customers, so each stock requires unique analysis.

“They are two different types of decisions, and I was wrong on the first one,” Buffett said. “We’ll find out whether I’m right or wrong on the second.”

Munger said it was a “very good sign” that Buffett jumped into Apple.

“It shows either one of two things: Either you’ve gone crazy, or you’re learning,” Munger said. “I prefer the learning explanation.”

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