With many people blaming Wall Street and the major banks for the 2008-2009 financial crisis that nearly led to financial Armageddon, you'd be forgiven for believing that the financial sector is far too dangerous a place for risk-averse investors. However, there are a few select businesses that stand far above the others in their financial discipline and risk-management practices, thereby making them excellent options to consider for investors seeking to limit their risk.
Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B) is often labeled a financial stock because of its massive insurance businesses, but it's also a broadly diversified conglomerate. With operations ranging from regulated utilities to furniture stores, railroads to ice cream shops, chemical companies to candy makers, as well as a host of other subsidiaries, Berkshire is about as broadly diversified as a single enterprise can be.
Berkshire's strength comes from its diversity, which limits its risks arising from a downturn in any one particular subsidiary. But Berkshire's fortitude also arises from its strict financial discipline: Its insurance units often generate underwriting profits, even as large portions of the industry operate at a loss.
Even better, these profitable insurance operations generate enormous amounts of float that Berkshire CEO -- and legendary investor -- Warren Buffett can then invest on the company's behalf. Berkshire has used this float to help amass a publicly traded company portfolio filled with outstanding businesses such as Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) and American Express. Incredibly, the returns on this public portfolio, along with the performance of Berkshire's majority-owned subsidiaries, have allowed Buffett to compound Berkshire's book value at nearly 20% per year during the last 50 years.
With its broadly diversified collection of cash-generating businesses, disciplined insurance operations, and the unequaled capital allocation skills of its CEO, Berkshire Hathaway is an excellent investment option for investors seeking a perfect blend of safety and strong capital appreciation.
Wells Fargo is not just one of Warren Buffett's holdings, it's his largest position, comprising nearly a quarter of Berkshire's public company portfolio. What does the world's greatest investor see in Wells Fargo?
If I had to guess, I would say that it's quite simply one of the best-run banks in the world, if not the best. Wells Fargo offers investors industry-leading returns on assets and earnings-per-share growth that's greatly exceeded those of its major bank peers in recent years.
Maybe even more importantly, Wells Fargo was able to weather the 2008-2009 financial crises far better than most banks, demonstrating its ability to withstand even the most difficult environments. That's a testament to its disciplined underwriting standards and conservative management, which many regard as the most competent in banking. But don't just take my word for it; this is what Warren Buffett had to say on the topic:
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. With Wells Fargo, we think we have obtained the best managers in the business.
Warren Buffett wrote those words in 1990. Yet with Berkshire Hathaway now owning nearly 10% of Wells Fargo's stock -- a stake valued at about $28 billion -- I think it's safe to say that Buffett still believes those words to be true. That's a huge vote of confidence for this well-run bank -- one that investors should not ignore.