Is Buffett Making Another Big Oil Mistake?

Warren Buffett's disclosure of Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) holdings last Friday probably made a couple of meaningful points.

The first is obvious: Despite being the most revered investor of our times -- or perhaps all time -- Buffett, along with his team of helpers, is capable of heading down the wrong investment path. On the energy front, he demonstrated that by snapping up ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) shares for Berkshire at or near the top of their run.

In addition, an economy that continues to teeter wildly hasn't helped the Oracle of Omaha -- or anyone else, for that matter. Nevertheless, Buffett is proving that he can take his medicine like the rest of us. His team has been unloading Conoco shares hand over fist, taking a drubbing in the process.

But secondly, this massive investment in Conoco, which made Berkshire the Houston-based oil company's largest shareholder, proved that, despite the manner in which we tend to lump them together, all Big Oil companies are not created equal. As to the second point, take a quick look at the table below, which shows how Big Oil companies have fared relative to their 52-week highs.

Company

52-Week High

Price 5/15/09

Decline

BP (NYSE: BP  )

$77.69

$45.62

41%

Chevron (NYSE: CVX  )

$104.63

$65.88

37%

ConocoPhillips

$95.96

$43.93

54%

ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  )

$96.12

$69.11

28%

Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  )

$88.73

$48.43

45%

I frankly haven't a notion why Buffett and his team settled on ConocoPhillips for a buying spree last year, something he now calls a mistake. It clearly has been the laggard among the big integrated companies in year-to-date performance, and the company also was the caboose among the group regarding last quarter's earnings slide versus the prior year.

However, Conoco finishes behind only Exxon in share price recovery, as crude has ascended from its early-year lows. I'm not certain I'd be selling it today if I owned it at much higher levels, although Buffett maintains he's doing so for tax reasons.

I also believe that crude's upward movement since February virtually mandates that Fools -- after careful analysis -- include at least a minimal energy component among their investments. On that basis, I'll sign off with a pair of specific thoughts on this subject.

First, I'd avoid buying shares in ConocoPhillips, given its low reserve replacement ratio and relative standing in the group. I've said repeatedly that I think ExxonMobil remains the qualitative and quantitative star of the show. I haven't changed my mind.

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't have financial interests in any of the companies mentioned above. He does, however, welcome your questions or comments. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection, a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation, and The Fool owns shares of it. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a mistake free disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (15)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2009, at 5:29 PM, karles wrote:

    Seems to me that Buffet is selling Conoco for the capital loss tax benefits while freeing up some more cash for investments that look a whole lot better that holding Conoco. Everyone makes some investment mistakes, even here at Motley, but at least the old "Fool" has enough sense to minimize his losses and maximize his potential gains via buying other assets at below book value.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2009, at 5:32 PM, ozzie wrote:

    Having been a huge supporter of COP from years back, the simple explanation between COP and other Oil Majors is its focus on Refining (#2 Refiner) and Natural Gas (#1 NatGas) in the U.S. Longer-term, these still look like great bets. New Refineries aren't being built (nor will they during this administration, you can be certain!), and NatGas is a primary focus of "Clean Energy" by this administration. I don't think Buffett's bet on COP was a "Mistake" so much as it was "premature", but of course things are always much clearer in the rearview mirror.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2009, at 5:42 PM, alsowrongagain wrote:

    I bought COP on March 17 at $36.27 and today I'm up 25% from that date. I plan on holding a while longer. Buffet just timed it wrong.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2009, at 11:10 PM, ozzfan1317 wrote:

    Yeah sometimes Your Timing sucks. Just my opinion but BP shares still look pretty attractive at the moment.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2009, at 12:15 AM, GMoneyCaps wrote:

    COP may look like his worst investment but tell me how GE, GS, WFC, & AXP fair had the government not stepped in. COP had the unfortunate circumstance of not being run like garbage and also didn't have the luxury of being in control of the government and the markets.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2009, at 2:21 PM, SCBergman wrote:

    I think BP is the best choice on that list. Full replacement for a long time and a nice dividend at the current price (I've had positions in BP, COP, CHK in the last year).

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