JUNE 23, 2009, 11:39 P.M. ET
Lunch with Warren Buffett is up for sale on eBay again. The Oracle of Omaha will break bread in New York with the winning bidder and seven pals, with proceeds going to the Glide Foundation, a San Francisco charity.
With a few days to go, bidding has reached $81,000. Last year the winner, a Chinese fund manager, paid $2.1 million.
But you don't need an expensive New York lunch with Mr. Buffett to invest alongside him these days. Despite this spring's stock market rally, several of Mr. Buffett's favorite stocks are selling for less than he paid for them.
Mr. Buffett liked oil giant ConocoPhillips (COP) enough to invest $7 billion in the stock through the end of last year, at an average price of $82.55, according to the Berkshire Hathaway annual report. Anyone buying today can get it for about $41.
Mr. Buffett has conceded an "unforced error" in buying this oil stock when oil prices were booming. But that doesn't mean he has given up on it. In his last comments on the subject a few months ago, he reiterated his belief that demand for energy would remain strong. At current prices ConocoPhillips is about 13 times this year's forecast earnings, but analysts predict that will drop to a cheap 7 times in 2010. That's because they believe oil and gas prices will rebound.
He bought Johnson & Johnson at about $62 a share: It's now about $55, or 12 times likely earnings, yielding 3.5%. He had also invested about $4.3 billion in food company Kraft, at around $33 a share. It's now around $25, 13 times likely earnings and boosting a hefty 4.7% yield. He had also invested $2.3 billion in US Bancorp at an average price of about $31. Today's it's $17. (Mr. Buffett has added to his positions in both Johnson & Johnson and U.S. Bancorp since.)
To be sure, there are many more aspects to Warren Buffett's financial success than his stock-picking acumen. His investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, benefits from the cheap cash flow provided by its vast insurance operations, which include GEICO. He can at times get access to deals not available to private investors, such as the high-yielding convertible preferreds in GE and Goldman Sachs bought during the financial crisis. His company buys a lot of great private businesses pretty cheaply.
Yet Mr. Buffett has also been successful at picking publicly-traded stocks too. He was shrewd enough to load the boat with Coca-Cola, Washington Post, American Express and Gillette (now part of Procter & Gamble) when they were out of fashion, and then to hang on for decades.
Paul Howard, Berkshire Hathaway analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott, puts it simply: "He finds names that are out of favor, or where people just don't see the longer term profit potential that others don't. He has a longer term horizon than the majority. If you have patience, and others don't, you can wait things out."
Investors have become markedly more nervous in recent weeks, worried that the stock market has risen too far, too fast. That many of Mr. Buffett's picks remain around the prices he paid for them certainly suggests that some value remains. It's also an intriguing contrarian sign: Since early March, the biggest gainers on world stock markets have been riskier stocks, from Sprint to Citigroup to Las Vegas Sands. Mr. Buffett tends to go for more stable blue chips with strong cash flow. Many such stocks have been left on the sidelines in what one wag has called "the dash for trash."
Buying Warren Buffett stocks at Warren Buffett prices, or less, certainly doesn't guarantee you will make money. But it surely provides an additional level of comfort for anyone willing to risk their capital. The worst that can happen is that you will lose money in good company.Related Links
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Warren Buffett and the Interpretation of Financial Statements: The Search for the Company with a Durable Competitive Advantage by Mary Buffett
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