Is This Yet Another Big Buffett Mistake?

You don’t have to look far to find people calling IBM’s (NYSE: IBM)(FRA: IBM) third-quarter results another mistake by investing giant Warren Buffett. Over at the Financial Times a headline proclaims: “Third-quarter results blow to largest shareholder Warren Buffett.”

If IBM is indeed a mistake by Buffett it would be the second stock-picking slip to come to light in rapid succession. Earlier this month, Buffett called his investment in the U.K.’s Tesco a “huge mistake”.

But is it a mistake?

The Buffett way

Buffett’s holding company, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B)(ETR: BRH), has owned IBM stock since early 2011. That puts the stake at closing in on four years at this point. To many investors, that may seem like a very long time, to Buffett it may be no more than the first chapter.

A glance back at the history of Berkshire’s portfolio shows that Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC), and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) (by way of its Gillette acquisition) have been owned by Berkshire for more than 20 years. We could technically count GEICO in that camp as well, but Berkshire went ahead and bought the entire company.

In other words, Buffett doesn’t buy a stock to try to eke out a profit over the course of a few months or a couple of years. In his perfect world, Buffett wants to own stocks for… well, forever. He’s written that explicitly in his letters to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders:

In fact, when we own portions of outstanding businesses with outstanding managements, our favorite holding period is forever.

And there’s good reason to believe that Buffett is bringing the same long-term perspective to the investment in IBM. At the time that he purchased the stock, he talked about the fact that he’s been reading the IBM annual report for 50 years. That’ll give you a long-term perspective on a company.

Then again…

Even if we ignore IBM stock’s poor performance since Buffett’s purchase, there are still reasons to believe that Buffett has blundered here.

Most notably, Buffett has historically stayed away from investing in technology. That’s a primary reason why the big investment in IBM raised eyebrows. But there’s a valid case to be made that IBM is becoming less of a true “technology” company as its sales mix shifts more to services.

And yet we’re still talking about technology services. And that means that some of Buffett’s primary concerns about tech companies — namely, they technology itself is hard to understand and that the pace of change is so fast — may still hold.

To that point, the FT wrote:

However, [IBM’s new CEO] was quickly overtaken by the rise of cloud computing. Customers started to pay for access to centralised data centres run by companies such as Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) rather than buy technology and services from groups such as IBM to run in their own data centres.

The fact may be that Buffett not only invested in a technology company that he didn’t fully understand, but did so at almost the worst time.

The thing about investing mistakes

Buffett has made mistakes in the past — Tesco not the least among them. No investor is ever going to get it 100% right, or really anywhere near that.

What we as investors can hope for ourselves, and what Berkshire Hathaway shareholders can hope for Buffett, is that we get the big ones right. This is the biggest concern about Buffett’s IBM investment – it’s not just that it’s a potential mistake, but it’s a mistake around a company that he made a massive investment in.

That said, I think IBM and Buffett have earned the benefit of the doubt. Buffett for his long and successful track record building Berkshire and investing its capital. IBM, meanwhile, has stood out as a business precisely because of its adaptability. It’s shown itself to be able to navigate changes in its marketplace and reestablish itself as a leader in new ways. This hasn’t happened without growing pains in between, but the change has happened, and has happened impressively. There are few other technology companies that can claim this kind of longevity and adaptability.

Of course, should investors and the media prefer to jump on the bandwagon of the shorter-term indicators, that’s fine with me. Short term overreactions are what create some of the best investment opportunities.

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Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of and Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool recommends, Berkshire Hathaway, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of, Berkshire Hathaway, International Business Machines, and Wells Fargo and has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola.

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