Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s US$6.2-billion foray into Japan’s five largest trading houses may signal billionaire Warren Buffett’s expectation that inflation and a falling U.S. dollar may make international equities more attractive when economies worldwide recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Berkshire said late Sunday, on Mr. Buffett’s 90th birthday, it owned just over 5 per cent of each of Itochu Corp., Marubeni Corp., Mitsubishi Corp., Mitsui & Co. Ltd. and Sumitomo Corp., and said it could increase its stakes to 9.9 per cent.
The trading houses, known as sogo shosha with their diversified business lines including commodity exploration, fit the legendary investor’s taste for classic value stocks, which have lost investor favour.
Berkshire investors said they welcomed Mr. Buffett’s wager, at a time U.S. stock valuations are at their highest since the late 1990s tech bubble, lifted by giants such as Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., both of which Berkshire invests in.
“The inflation cocktail is being mixed and Buffett is migrating his investment to where you can create value through inflation,” said Bill Smead, chief investment officer at Smead Capital Management, which invests nearly 3 per cent of its assets in Berkshire. “These are companies that will make more money if the price of oil and any input goes up.”
Prices of gold, inflation-linked bonds and some commodities have surged since March on fears that global central banks’ more than US$9-trillion of stimulus to combat the pandemic will spark higher inflation.
The Federal Reserve indicated last week it will be slower to move to curtail inflation should it run above its per cent target.
At the same time, lower valuations and a continued decline in the U.S. dollar, now near a two-year low, could make Japan and other international markets more attractive for U.S. investors, said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at the Leuthold Group. Expectations of greenback weakness bolster the case for U.S. investors to own international equities if profits get a boost from the strength of the currencies they are denominated in.
“That adds up to a pretty good situation for investing in these companies,” Mr. Paulsen said of Berkshire’s choices.
The move fits with Mr. Buffett’s long-standing preference for value stocks.
“Warren is trying to expand his horizon but stick to his value investing roots at a time the U.S. market is very expensive,” said Paul Lountzis, president of Lountzis Asset Management, which invests nearly one-fifth of its assets in Berkshire.
Jamie Rosenwald, co-founder and senior portfolio manager of Asia and Japan investments at Dalton Investments, said Mr. Buffett got a bargain “at laughably low valuations on the stock market” that show the “tremendous values available in Japan today.”
Mr. Buffett, who at Berkshire’s annual meeting in May professed optimism in the United States’ ability to persevere through the pandemic, has looked outside the country before, having bought such companies as Israel’s IMC International Metalworking Cos. BV and German motorcycle apparel retailer Detlev Louis.
“Buffett certainly loves the United States,” said James Armstrong, president of Henry H. Armstrong Associates, which invests one-fourth its assets in Berkshire. “Considering that he was able to tap into companies with a global network and their fingers in a lot of pies at an attractive price, that is a winning combination.”
The bet on the Japanese companies may strengthen Berkshire’s toehold in the Chinese market, said Guy Spier, portfolio manager at Aquamarine Capital in Zurich, who said that those businesses “have spent far more time figuring out how to deal with a rising China than many.”
Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s 96-year-old vice-chairman, said in February that Chinese companies are stronger and growing faster than their U.S. counterparts. Berkshire has an investment in BYD Co., a Chinese electric car maker.
The deal will also help Berkshire trim its US$145-billion cash pile.
“Berkshire has the high class problem of needing to put billions of dollars to work,” Dalton’s Mr. Rosenwald said.
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