Warren Buffett selling Wal-Mart (WMT)

Investment companies are required to file lists of their holdings with the SEC at the end of each quarter.  The latest such 13-F form for Berkshire Hathaway shows a buildup in Apple and airlines   …and the sale of virtually all of Buffett’s long-term holding in WMT.

WMT as icon

A powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s, WMT has been a bad stock for a long time.  It had a moment in the sun during the market meltdown from mid-2007 through early 2009, when it rose by about 1% while the S&P 500 was almost cut in half.  Since the bottom, however, WMT has gained 40% while the S&P is up by 219%.

Wal-Mart isn’t an obviously badly run company.  It isn’t, say, Sears, or the Ackman-run J C Penney.  But it does have a number of impediments to achieving significant growth in earnings.  One is its already gigantic size.  A second is its focus on less affluent rural customers who were disproportionately hard-hit by recession and who have in many instances yet to recover.  There’s increased competition from the dollar stores.   And there’s Amazon, whose competitive threat WMT itself admits it played down for far too long.

My reaction:

old habits die hard.  Mr. Buffett built his career from the 1950s onward on the observation, novel at that time, that traditional Graham/Dodd portfolio investing techniques glossed over the considerable value of investment in intangible assets–brand names, distribution networks, superior business practices.  However, by the time I entered the business in the late 1970s, other people–me included–were beginning to adopt his methods.  So thinking about intangibles became part of the toolkit, rather than something special.  Then, of course, the internet began to erode the power of intangibles to stop newcomers from entering a business.  Mr. Buffett, like any successful incumbent (including WMT), has been slow to adapt.

WMT as metaphor for today.  WMT could become more profitable quickly if its heartland lower-income customer base could earn more money.  One way to do that would be to bar imported goods from the country, with an eye to creating manufacturing jobs in the US.  Of course, that would also destroy the WMT value proposition in the process.  So rolling the clock back to 1950 isn’t the answer, either for the health of WMT or for its customers.

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