Bank of America stock appeared to fall out of favor with Warren Buffett in the fourth quarter – his Berkshire Hathaway dissolved its stake in the bank – but during an interview with CNBC Wednesday morning the billionaire explained that was not the case. Rather, the Bank of America holding was one of Berkshire’s positions built by Geico’s Lou Simpson, who retired at the end of 2010.
Buffett told CNBC that it was agreed that Simpson would liquidate his portfolio by year-end. “I never inherit any investment decision from somebody else,” Buffett said. “If Charlie Munger made me a gift of 100 shares of some stock I would sell it…then decide if I would want to buy it again myself.”
Simpson, who Buffett said generally had around 15 or so investments of $300-$400 million Buffett said, wound down his positions, including a stake in Nike that Berkshire also dissolved in the fourth quarter, after announcing his retirement earlier in the year.
In the same vein as the liquidation of Simpson’s portfolio, Todd Combs, a younger money manager Berkshire hired last year who is expected to manage a portfolio of similar size to start, will be responsible for his own investments, Buffett explained, and not judged on any legacy positions created by predecessors. (See “Berkshire Succession Talk Heats Up As Buffett Hires Little-Known Todd Combs.”)
Prior to Buffett’s explanation Wednesday morning, a glance at Berkshire’s Feb. 14 13F filing disclosing its holdings would seem to indicate that Bank of America fell out of favor relative to other financials like Wells Fargo, where Berkshire added to its stake. But that does not necessarily appear to be the case, though it also did not sound like Buffett was jumping to put Bank of America back into Berkshire’s portfolio. Confirmation of that will have to wait until the next 13F in May though.
BofA will host its first analyst day in four years next week, and though Evercore Partners analyst Andrew Marquardt doesn’t expect anything Earth-rattling from CEO Brian Moynihan and the bank’s management, there are a few keys he is focusing on.
In a note Wednesday Marquardt, who has an overweight rating on Bank of America shares and an $18 price target, expects the meeting’s highlights to include:
1) Near-term earnings appear to be improving but still choppy
2) Longer-term financial goals (including ROA of 1%+) achievable and may be higher depending on capital markets activity and/or timing/degree of credit leverage
3) Expense leverage key with efficiency ratio currently at 61% and could be closer to mid-50s% in a more “norm” environment.
Marquardt says other points of focus could be mortgage foreclosures; risk on private-label mortgage-backed securities; changes to retail or card businesses tied to regulatory factors; and plans to meet the requirements of Basel III and pass the stress tests underway to determine when and how U.S. bailout recipients can start returning more capital to shareholders.
While Evercore’s $18 target on BofA is above the current $13.88 share price, Marquardt’s earnings estimates are below consensus and he doesn’t expect capital deployment to shareholders to be a catalyst for the stock, unlike several peers, though management has said it anticipates a modest dividend increase in the back half of 2011.