Warren Buffett wants to invest in Britain. Is that a good idea?
Posted May 3, 2019 12:37 p.m. EDT
CNN — Warren Buffett has said he's ready to invest in Britain. Even for the legendary investor, that could be a tough bet.
Buffett's record in the United Kingdom is spotty. He's referred to his investment in supermarket chain Tesco as a "big mistake." And an attempt by Berkshire Hathaway-backed Kraft Heinz to buy Unilever in 2017 collapsed after the consumer goods giant said it wasn't interested.
Still, Buffett has made clear that he's eager to plow some of Berkshire's cash into a huge deal, and that Britain remains on the table.
Buffett disclosed in his annual shareholder letter in February that Berkshire Hathaway has $112 billion on hand, and is ready to make "an elephant-sized acquisition."
"When you have over $100 billion in cash, you get to name the terms," said Stephen Biggar, an equity analyst at Argus Research. "It's just a matter of finding the right opportunities."
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Buffett said he is "ready to buy something in the UK tomorrow."
"We welcome the chance to put money out any place where we think we understand and sort of trust the system," he told the newspaper. "We're never going to understand any other culture or the tax laws or the customs as well as the United States, but we can come awfully close in Britain."
Historically, Buffett has invested mostly in the United States.
Berkshire, which is based in Omaha, Nebraska, has invested in some foreign companies such as India's Paytm. But its largest stakes are in Apple, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Coca-Cola and American Express.
Buffett's past investment in British companies hasn't always gone well.
He said in 2015 that he'd lost $444 million on an investment in Tesco, Britain's largest grocery store. Tesco's stock shed 44% in 2014 because of falling profits and a costly accounting scandal.
Buffett told investors in his annual letter that year that he'd waited too long to sell. "I made a big mistake with this investment by dawdling," he said.
He faced another disappointment in 2017, when Kraft Heinz was forced to withdraw its massive takeover bid for Dove and Lipton owner Unilever. The consumer group said Kraft's offer, which came in above $140 billion, was too low.
What to target
The United Kingdom isn't Buffett's only option. There's been some speculation that he could buy a major airline, since Berkshire already owns stakes in Southwest, American, Delta and United.
He's committed $10 billion to help Occidental in its bid for Anadarko. And a big stock buyback is also on the table.
Should Buffett choose to invest in Britain, it would be a sign of confidence in the country at a time when Brexit looms large.
Britain's reputation as a stable environment for investors has been undermined by three years of uncertainty over its departure from the European Union. The latest exit deadline is October 31.
In the past year, London's FTSE 100 index has dropped 1.7%, while the S&P 500 has climbed nearly 12%.
Survey data for April showed that the delay "has done little to revive confidence among business or consumers," said Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, in a recent note.
But that many not bother Buffett, who likes to find companies that he believes are undervalued by the market (even if he's recently targeted growth stocks like Amazon).
"He's looking for good brands that could be trading at discounts and need financing," Biggar said. In Europe, "dozens if not hundreds could fit that profile."