Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the financial vehicle run by billionaire Warren E. Buffett, are still bullish on bank stocks, despite news that he recently lightened his position in Wells Fargo & Co.
In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed last week, Mr. Buffett said he had reduced his stake-7.29 million shares on Dec. 31-by 300,000.
Mr. Buffet is Wells' largest shareholder, and his repositioning-even though small-made the market unhappy. Wells stock sank nearly 5% the day the action was revealed, and has yet to recover.
The fabled investor was unavailable for comment, but some veteran followers doubted his action suggested anything negative about Wells or the banking industry.
"It wasn't a large number of shares, given Mr. Buffett's position," said Luke E. Sims, a securities lawyer with Foley & Lander who has been a follower of Mr. Buffett's philosophy since 1987. "I don't read anything negative in that action."
Mr. Sims acknowledged that the San Francisco banking company has had difficulty with its acquisition of First Interstate, but argued that Wells has strong management and should benefit from the upswing in California's economy.
"They will get back on track, it's just not obvious to the outside world as to when," said Mr. Sims. "There is no reason to sell the stock, and it is probably a good reason to buy."
Mr. Sims said that for value investors, banks continue to be the investment of choice.
"Most of the good banks are generating tons of capital, and many are buying back their stock," Mr. Sims pointed out. "We also have a strong economy and interest rates are stable."
Some of Mr. Sims largest positions are in Fifth Third Bancorp., Firstar Corp., Norwest Corp., and Bank of New York Co., because they generate strong fee-based income and boast return on assets above 1.8%
Banks have always been reasonably priced, compared with other companies, noted Mr. Sims. Coca-Cola and Gillette both trade at 45 to 50 times earnings, while many banks trade around a multiple of 12.
Fund manager Mark Mullholland, a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder since 1992, said he doubted that investors would pull out of Wells stock just because of one investor's action, however high-profile.
"I have great respect for Mr. Buffett, but I don't necessarily buy what he buys," said Mr. Mullholland, who is interested in stock conversions of mutual thrifts. Eugene Baisch, a New Jersey chemist who is a Berkshire Hathaway investor, agreed. Historically shareholders have not "rushed in" on Mr. Buffett's investment strategies, in spite of his legendary record as an investor, Mr. Baisch said.
He noted that Coca-Cola and American Express share prices remained fairly stable after Mr. Buffett invested in the companies.
Mr. Baisch also noted that PNC Bank Corp.'s stock has risen since the billionaire reduced his holdings last year. That move was a mistake, the chemist said.