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8 Buffett Secrets for Investing in Banks

Matt Koppenheffer
November 29, 2012

Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) Warren Buffett is seen by many as one of the best investors of our time. But he's also often seen as particularly insightful when it comes to investing in banks.

Certainly Berkshire shareholders should hope that the latter is the case as the company owns 8% of banking giant Wells Fargo  (NYSE: WFC  ) along with $5 billion in Goldman Sachs  (NYSE: GS  ) , nearly $2 billion of US Bancorp  (NYSE: USB  ) stock, and roughly another $1 billion between M&T Bank  (NYSE: MTB  ) and Bank of New York Mellon  (NYSE: BK  ) . Not to mention $5 billion in preferred shares of Bank of America  (NYSE: BAC  ) .

So what does Warren know that makes him so prescient when it comes to banks?

1. Owning a bank can be a long-term endeavor.
The banking business is a cyclical one, but bank ownership for Buffett typically isn't. In 1969, Berkshire acquired Illinois National Bank and Trust Company and held onto it until it was forced by regulators to sell the bank in 1980. The company's ownership position in Wells Fargo goes back to 1989, while the stake in M&T Bank dates back to at least 1999.

2. Management matters.
We've seen from the financial crisis how reckless management can lead to outright disaster. When Buffett talks about the banks he's owned, he's generally taking time to praise management. Here's what he had to say in Berkshire's 1990 shareholder letter when praising Wells Fargo's management:

[The team at Wells Fargo pays] able people well, but abhor having a bigger head count than is needed... attack costs as vigorously when profits are at record levels as when they are under pressure. Finally, [they] stick with what they understand and let their abilities, not their egos, determine what they attempt.

3. Leverage kills.
Again from the 1990 shareholder letter:

When assets are twenty times equity-a common ratio in this industry-mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. ... Because leverage of 20:1 magnifies the effects of managerial strengths and weaknesses, we have no interest in purchasing shares of a poorly managed bank at a "cheap" price. Instead, our only interest is in buying into well-managed banks at fair prices.

4. Panic? Not a chance.
Rather than panic during banking downturns, Buffett has used them to build his ownership stakes. The original stake in Wells Fargo was purchased between late 1989 and early 1990 -- when banks were faltering during the previous banking crisis. During the latest meltdown, Buffett upped Berkshire's ownership in Wells Fargo and US Bancorp, maintained the company's position in M&T Bank, and famously provided preferred-share financing to Goldman. Just last year he sunk $5 billion into Bank of America when it was facing a market freak-out.

The fact that Wells Fargo's price fell after Berkshire initially bought didn't phase Buffett one bit:

Even though we had bought some shares at the prices prevailing before the fall, we welcomed the decline because it allowed us to pick up many more shares at the new, panic prices. Investors who expect to be ongoing buyers of investments throughout their lifetimes should adopt a similar attitude toward market fluctuations; instead many illogically become euphoric when stock prices rise and unhappy when they fall. 

In case you're wondering, yes, thi