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Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) has never been keen on investing in cutting edge technology. He famously ignored the frothing dot-com bubble to instead shop for traditional businesses like MidAmerican Energy and Benjamin Moore. In the aftermath of the dot-com collapse, Buffett looked like an absolute genius, but his aversion to investing in high technology roots is more deeply rooted than a one-time bubble.
Two main reasons stand out:
- As a value investor, Warren would rather pay for companies with hard assets that provide him with a margin of safety. Since technology stocks often rely on intellectual property of nebulous value and heady growth assumptions, they're less attractive to his investing style.
- Warren likes to buy companies he understands, and technology stocks are well outside his core competency of consumer goods, industrials, and insurance and banking.
Still, throughout his investing career, Buffett has shown an ability to reinvent his investing style. He branched out from the teachings of Ben Graham to understand the value of a strong brand. Later, Charlie Munger shifted Warren away from buying "cigar butts" (i.e., decaying businesses selling at excessively low prices) to "excellent businesses selling at a fair price."
Last year the company even broke its long-standing stance of not investing in cutting-edge technology when it invested in BYD Company, a Chinese auto manufacturer that focuses on advanced rechargeable batteries.
With positive comments on BYD still fresh in my mind from Berkshire's annual meeting last Saturday, there are a number of technology stocks today that even Warren Buffett could love. Not that Buffett or Munger are primed for a high-tech buying spree, but here are three stocks that exemplify qualities the Oracle himself could appreciate.
1. IBM (NYSE: IBM )
IBM has a number of qualities that Buffett would find extremely attractive. Its brand, built through decades of technology leadership, is still synonymous with cutting-edge technology solutions. Through its hardware-plus-software-plus-services model, IBM has become a one-stop vendor with extremely high switching costs for large enterprises.
Beyond that, Buffett also values strong tenured leadership at the front of his favored organizations. IBM has been led by Samuel Palmisano since the beginning of 2002. Under his stewardship, the company has relentlessly squeezed new efficiencies out of a lumbering bureaucracy, nearly doubling operating margins and entering new high-margin areas that support its pre-eminent position in the world's data centers. The cherry on this delicious investment cake? It's priced right at just 12.5 times trailing earnings.
2. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG )
I know this might sound crazy. After all, Google is one of the greatest growth stories of the past decade -- not exactly Buffett's cup of tea. However, weigh these quotes from Buffett and Charlie Munger at the press conference following Berkshire's shareholder meeting last year before making any Google judgments:
Charlie Munger: "Google has a huge new moat. I've probably never seen such a moat."
Warren Buffett: "Some keywords cost $70 for a click, and this creates its own positive feedback loop and momentum, that's an incredible business"
Charlie Munger: "It's a wide moat, full of sharks and alligators, and it's getting wider."
What both Buffett and Munger realize is that like operating systems, there are numerous traits that lead search to be a natural monopoly. Beyond the advertising pricing positive feedback loop Buffett alluded to, there are also exorbitant costs to creating and maintaining a data center that can provide speedy results. These costs have led Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) to crushing online losses as it tries to build out capacity to handle a larger search load. Also, the more data a search provider has, the more relevant its results. Whoever has a dominant share should only see the quality of results lap their lesser competitors.
The list goes on and on until you realize that Google controls a market whose dynamics lead to a single, dominant player. With all this in mind, Google is trading at only 10% above the S&P 500's aggregate forward P/E ratio. What was that phrase again? Oh yes, "a fair price for an excellent business."
3. Activision Blizzard (Nasdaq: ATVI )
From the point of view of understanding the business, Activision Blizzard isn't overly complex. While the technology behind video games might be daunting, at their core video games are a leisure activity. Still, you don't see Buffett investing in movie studios or other companies fighting for consumer's entertainment dollars. That's largely because the economics of the industry haven't been great. Companies have lumpy cash flows, and knowing which company will strike a streak of hits is more luck of the draw than some sort of bankable competitive advantage.
However, Activision Blizzard has created a new, powerful business model in the gaming industry. Through its robust World of Warcraft series, it draws a recurring, consistent cash flow stream. In addition, the company's focus on quality has led to a slew of popular gaming series that can dependably deliver excellent results for years to come.
While technology might not be dominating Berkshire Hathaway's portfolio anytime soon, there's a number of quality companies out there with traits that even a crusty old value investor like Buffett could love. As seen in the company's BYD investment, given the right circumstances, Berkshire's willing to branch out to scoop up attractive companies in just about any industry. If you're looking for deals in today's market, don't overlook some of the opportunities in this rapidly recovering sector.
Make sure to go to http://www.fool.com/events/berkshire2010/ to follow all of the Fool's coverage at Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting.