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Berkshire's Rorschach: What do you see in these words?

Fri, Jan 10, 2020

On Tuesday morning, Boeing shares were up as much as 2.8% on sketchy market "chatter" that Warren Buffett was using some of Berkshire's $128 billion in cash to build a stake in the troubled aerospace giant.


Generally, when we contact Berkshire about rumors like these, we either get a "no comment" or no response at all.


This time, we were directed to item #13 in the Berkshire Hathaway Owner's Manual, which was first issued in 1996. (If you haven't read it yet, I strongly recommend you give it a read. It's an excellent summary of the principles Buffett and Charlie Munger have long used to run the company.)


Here's what item #13 says:


"Despite our policy of candor, we will discuss our activities in marketable securities only to the extent legally required. Good investment ideas are rare, valuable and subject to competitive appropriation just as good product or business acquisition ideas are.


"Therefore we normally will not talk about our investment ideas. This ban extends even to securities we have sold (because we may purchase them again) and to stocks we are incorrectly rumored to be buying.


"If we deny those reports but say “no comment” on other occasions, the no-comments become confirmation."


We reported it as Berkshire neither confirming nor denying the rumors.


That's a straightforward summary of what the words say.


But some of the words jumped out at me more than the others: "This ban extends even ... to stocks we are incorrectly rumored to be buying." 


My perception, and it's just perception, may have been influenced by the fact that I can't personally remember unsubstantiated and vague market rumors of Buffett buying ever turning out to be true.


There's also my sense that Buffett wouldn't be all that interested in a company that just ditched its CEO and still faces enormous financial and political pressure connected with the crashes and subsequent long-term grounding of its 737 Max jets.


Boeing's price spike didn't last very long. By today's close, it was down a little less than 1% on the week.


We probably won't know for sure about Buffett and Boeing until mid-May when Berkshire will be files its SEC-mandated disclosure of the publicly-traded U.S. stocks in its portfolio as of the end of March.

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