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Why Did Warren Buffett Sell Wells Fargo and Buy Verizon?

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® - Mar 3, 2021 at 7:11AM

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The Oracle of Omaha made some surprising moves in the fourth quarter.

We recently got a glimpse at Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A 1.27%)(BRK.B 1.34%) stock portfolio as it stood at the end of 2020, and there were a few moves that surprised many investors. Two in particular are Warren Buffett's continuing disposal of Berkshire's once-massive Wells Fargo (WFC 2.35%) investment, and the decision to put billions of dollars to work in telecom giant Verizon Communications (VZ 0.12%)

In this Fool Live video clip, recorded on Feb. 22, contributor Matt Frankel, CFP, and Industry Focus host Jason Moser discuss why Buffett might have made these two big moves.

Matt Frankel: Let me see, Sanjay says, "For Matt, why might Buffett have soured on Wells Fargo after sticking with it for so long? Does he distrust management or believe that the incentive structures haven't been fixed enough?" Yes. [laughs]

Jason Moser: Yes.

Frankel: We don't know exactly why Buffett sold Wells Fargo other than that he obviously he likes Bank of America (BAC 2.50%) better. I will say that one of the biggest reasons that Buffett sells stocks is because his original reasons for buying no longer apply. At the time he bought Wells Fargo, they were thought to be the best at cross-selling products to their customers, which is a very efficient way of doing business. Like their checking account customers, they would sell them insurance products and credit cards and blah blah. It turns out that they were doing that illegally or improperly. That really changes the investment thesis. If that cross-selling, and you can Google Wells Fargo cross-selling, you'll see all of it, they used to brag about how good they were at this. If that was part of Buffett's original reasons for owning the bank, it makes perfect sense to me why he would have sold because his original reason for buying no longer applies. That's one thing I would say about that. I mean, I like the bank, but it's definitely not the Wells Fargo Buffett bought.

Moser: Yeah. He owned it for so long. They made a ton of money on that investment. Maybe he just figured, well, everything on it runs its course, maybe this one has, too.

Frankel: Yeah.

Moser: I don't know. Who knows? Let's see here. What do you think attracted Berkshire to Verizon as opposed to AT&T (T 0.96%)?

Frankel: I would say it's a more focused business.

Moser: Yeah, I think to me at least, Verizon, it seems to be financially in better shape, its balance sheet versus its income statement. They both run pretty heavy levels of debt.

Frankel: Verizon has considerably less debt relative to its size. AT&T is not the most focused business. They have DirecTV if you remember, Berkshire originally got AT&T shares because it owned some DirecTV, and then when AT&T acquired it, Berkshire got a nice little stake of AT&T. They acquired Warner. They're trying to be a streaming company. They're not as focused on the core business that just pays the bills and keeps the capital generation cycle running as Verizon is.

Moser: Yeah, that's always been my impression. Worried we're not going to see him try to divest some of that entertainment stuff at some point.

Frankel: I'm an AT&T shareholder.

Moser: Oh, yeah?

Frankel: I am, it's one of my biggest positions.

Moser: Look at you.

Frankel: I am not Warren Buffett.

Moser: You and Buffett are just at odds these days, Matt.

Frankel: We are.

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Stocks Mentioned

Wells Fargo & Company Stock Quote
Wells Fargo & Company
$43.20 (2.35%) $0.99
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
$470,159.29 (1.27%) $5,909.30
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
$313.43 (1.34%) $4.14
Bank of America Corporation Stock Quote
Bank of America Corporation
$35.68 (2.50%) $0.87
Verizon Communications Inc. Stock Quote
Verizon Communications Inc.
$49.10 (0.12%) $0.06
AT&T Inc. Stock Quote
AT&T Inc.
$20.48 (0.96%) $0.20

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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