Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A -0.64%) (BRK.B -0.81%) CEO Warren Buffett has a knack for making money. Since taking the reins in 1965, he's created more than $630 billion in value for shareholders (himself included), as well as delivered a return of 3,641,613% for his company's Class A shareholders (BRK.A), as of Dec. 31, 2021.
Having invested for longer than most Americans have been alive, the Oracle of Omaha has seen just about everything. He's lived through more than a dozen recessions, as well as 39 double-digit pullbacks in the benchmark S&P 500 since the beginning of 1950. There's not a thing Wall Street or the U.S. economy can throw Buffett's way that'll scare him or his investing team to the sidelines.
A perfect case in point is the United States' historically high inflation rate of 9.1%, as of June 2022. Despite the price for goods and services rising at the quickest pace in four decades, Warren Buffett has been aggressively putting his company's capital to work in a number of stocks. What follows are five stocks Buffett has piled into as inflation soars.
Chevron & Occidental Petroleum
The first two stocks Warren Buffett has been buying hand over fist as inflation skyrockets are energy giants Chevron (CVX 0.84%) and Occidental Petroleum (OXY -0.54%). I'm discussing both companies together because their operating models are extremely similar, and Buffett's reasoning for piling into these companies is as well.
During the first quarter, Berkshire Hathaway added slightly more than 120.9 million shares of Chevron, making it the fifth-largest position in Buffett's portfolio, as of July 22. Meanwhile, the share-buying of Occidental Petroleum has been more methodical, with Berkshire Hathaway filing paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) seemingly every couple of weeks to note a new purchase. Close to 50 million total shares of Occidental have been bought by Buffett's company since the end of the first quarter.
With inflation at a 40-year high, buying mammoth stakes in Chevron and Occidental Petroleum likely signals that Buffett and his investing team expect oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquid prices to remain elevated for an extended period of time. Both Chevron and Occidental generate their juiciest operating margins from their upstream drilling segments. In other words, these stocks are a way to take advantage of sustainably higher energy commodity prices.
Chevron and Occidental also happen to be integrated oil stocks. This means that, in addition to their prized upstream assets, they have midstream (e.g., transmission pipelines and/or storage) and downstream assets (refineries and/or chemical plants). If and when the price of energy commodities falls, downstream assets benefit from lower input costs and higher demand. Meanwhile, midstream assets often have fixed-fee or volume-based deals in place, which are generally immune to wild swings in commodity prices.
The one thing to note that is different about Chevron and Occidental is their respective balance sheets. Chevron has among the lowest debt-to-equity ratios in the oil industry, whereas Occidental was buried in debt following its acquisition of Anadarko in 2019.
Citigroup & Ally Financial
The third and fourth stocks Warren Buffett has been piling into as inflation ascends to historic highs are bank stocks Citigroup (C 2.45%) and Ally Financial (ALLY 5.61%). Yet again I've chosen to discuss two companies at once because the thesis behind Buffett's purchases should be nearly identical for both stocks.
During the first quarter, Berkshire Hathaway gobbled up more than 55.1 million shares of Citigroup, as well as nearly 9 million shares of Ally Financial. The Ally position is reasonably small (it was worth about $300 million as of this past weekend), with the Citigroup stake nearing $2.9 billion.
Under normal circumstances, buying bank stocks with fears of a recession looming wouldn't be an advisable strategy. That's because banks typically face a double whammy when a recession strikes. First, they contend with rising loan delinquencies as economic weakness weighs on consumers and businesses. Second, the Federal Reserve would often come to the rescue by lowering interest rates to encourage lending. Lower interest rates reduce the net interest income-earning potential of banks.
But this time really is different. With inflation soaring, the nation's central bank has no choice but to aggressively increase its federal funds target rate to get rising prices under control. Even though loan delinquencies could rise and Citigroup and Ally Financial could be inclined to set aside capital for loan losses, both banks should benefit from higher net-interest income as a result of the Fed's hawkish monetary policy shift.
Warren Buffett is also a big fan of playing a simple numbers game that favors the patient. You see, bank stocks like Citigroup and Ally Financial are cyclical. When the economy struggles, banks struggle. Conversely, when the U.S. and global economy are firing on all cylinders, banks are typically growing their loans and deposits.
The thing is, recessions only last for a couple of quarters, whereas periods of economic expansion can go on for years. Buying shares of Citigroup and Ally Financial is a smart way of taking advantage of this simple numbers game and benefiting from the natural expansion of the U.S. and global economy.
The fifth stock Warren Buffett has piled into as inflation skyrockets is gaming company Activision Blizzard (ATVI). Although Berkshire ended the first quarter with an 8.2% stake in Activision, the Oracle of Omaha noted during his company's annual shareholder meeting in late April that this position had grown to 9.5%. A 9.5% stake would mean Berkshire owns around 74 million shares.
The Activision Blizzard stake is nothing short of a head-scratcher -- until you dig a bit deeper. I say this because Buffett isn't known for investing in tech stocks -- especially tech stocks focused on gaming. Personally, I'd be surprised if the Oracle of Omaha could name a single gaming franchise that drives Activision's top line.
So, "Why Activision?" The simple answer is the arbitrage opportunity. In mid-January, Microsoft (MSFT -1.16%) announced an all-cash offer to acquire Activision for $95 per share. Microsoft already has a sizable gaming presence; however, it's likely angling to use Activision as its on-ramp to the metaverse.
What makes this deal so appealing to Buffett is how far below the all-cash offer price Activision has traded. As of this past weekend, shares of the gaming company were roughly 20% below Microsoft's buyout price. While there's some concern about whether international regulators will allow the deal to close, a completed buyout would result in a 20% gain from current levels. A 20% return in a year or less would put even historically high inflation in its place.