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Warren Buffett’s move into Suncor says more about his faith in Canadian oil sands than in the company itself. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
Warren Buffett’s move into Suncor says more about his faith in Canadian oil sands than in the company itself. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

A better way to follow Buffett into the oil patch Add to ...

Nothing gives the seal of approval to a stock quite like Warren Buffett. When the legendary investor buys, investors big and small take notice and often follow his lead.

How else to explain the sudden infatuation with Suncor Energy Inc., Canada’s largest energy company and a big player in the oil sands, but a long-term market dud?

Since Mr. Buffett disclosed his purchase – through Berkshire Hathaway Inc. – of nearly 18 million Suncor shares in regulatory filings this week, the share price has risen more than 5 per cent. The gain looks even more impressive when you consider that the broader market has been struggling.

Yet, next to Mr. Buffett’s move on Burlington Northern Santa Fe in 2009, when he added to an earlier position in the railway with a massive $26.5-billion (U.S.) all-in bet, his foray into Suncor looks tentative at best, which should give would-be copycats pause.

His stake is valued at just $610-million, representing a slim 1.2-per-cent ownership slice in the company. Given that Mr. Buffett has said “We buy very few things, but we buy very big positions,” the move into Suncor is a bit of a head-scratcher.

Granted, there are reasons to see the move as an intriguingly bullish signal on a stock that has delivered zero gains to investors over the past eight years, even as the price of crude oil has risen 75 per cent.

Mr. Buffett said five years ago that a trip to the Canadian oil sands – or “tar sands,” as he called them – gave him an understanding of the region’s energy operations, which he could use at a later date.

His new ownership slice could be another move in that direction, adding knowledge that could lead to a bigger investment. After all, he initially bought just 10.9 per cent of Burlington Northern, in 2007, before ramping up his ownership stake to 100 per cent within two-and-a-half years, in the process paying a nice premium to investors.

Today, investors are piling into Suncor – where trading volumes on Thursday in Canadian and U.S. markets spiked to a six-week high – in the hope of a similar outcome.

They’re likely to be disappointed, though. There’s nothing wrong with Suncor, but its appeal to Mr. Buffett isn’t necessary what other investors should be looking for in a stock.

One of the most attractive features of Suncor to big investors is its liquidity. It’s a large company worth $50-billion and with about 1.5 billion shares outstanding. It is relatively easy for investors like Mr. Buffett to move in and out without disrupting the share price.

And yes, Mr. Buffett can move out. His stated preference is to stay invested in a company forever, but that doesn’t mean he does. Recently he has been selling shares in Kraft Foods Group Inc. at a furious pace.

In taking a modest-size stake in Suncor, Mr. Buffett hasn’t signalled profound confidence in the company, which is something that copycats should pay attention to.

At best, the investment in Suncor should be seen as little more than a nod to the viability of the Canadian oil sands – and it is here that Mr. Buffett’s foray should be of greatest interest to investors.

He could have kept his money in the United States, where surging energy production is putting the country on the road toward energy independence. That he chose a Canadian energy company is noteworthy because it suggests he sees greater opportunity here.

But rather than follow Mr. Buffett mindlessly into Suncor, you can apply his interest in the energy sector to other stocks. For example, Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. looks cheaper, trading at just 10.4-times trailing earnings.

If serial underperformers are more your thing, in the hope that they’ll be turned around, there’s Talisman Energy Inc. and Athabasca Oil Corp.

And if you’re striving for a takeover candidate, why not try something a little more digestible? Cenovus Energy Inc. and even Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. are bite-sized compared to Suncor.

Following the lead of legendary investors brings all sorts of risks. Beating them to the opportunities brings the rewards.

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