This year, Carol Loomis asked the question whether Berkshire (BRK.A) should start paying dividends since the stock price hasn’t risen in 5 years. This was in reference to Buffett's longstanding quote that he will pay a dividend when he thinks he can’t create at least $1 of market value for each $1 of retained earnings. Jeff Matthews refers to this as a question that Buffett avoided answering in this thought provoking blog post.
My opinion is, who cares whether Buffett answered the dividend question? If you are even asking the question, you should sell your Berkshire stock. The reason to own Berkshire is to get access to Buffett’s capital allocation decisions. Based on his well-documented track record and his well-know thought process, most Berkshire investors think Buffett can make better investment decisions and/or has access to better investment opportunities than they do. The last thing Berkshire investors should want is to have Buffett return the cash back to them in a taxable transaction. Then, the investors will have to decide how to allocate the returned cash.
Historically, investors have wanted management teams to pay dividends because they don’t trust management to spend the free cash flow from the business wisely. The business may be not need capital reinvestment, like Coca-Cola (KO), or it may be a business in secular decline where the best thing to do is harvest the cash rather than reinvest. Shareholders of these businesses probably want managements to pay dividends to make sure they don’t destroy value.
Since the main reason to own Berkshire is to get access to Buffett’s capital allocation skills, if investors want Berkshire to pay dividends, then they should sell the stock instead because they obviously don’t believe in Buffett’s ability to create value by allocating capital.
There is a scenario where it makes sense for an investor to want Berkshire to pay a dividend. Maybe an investor thinks Buffett destroys value but think Berkshire is so undervalued that he can make a return by owning the stock and getting Buffett to change his dividend policy. I don’t think Berkshire is anywhere close to a valuation level where this would make sense. At $91,500 per share, Berkshire trades at 1.4x tangible book. It would have to trade below tangible book value for this strategy to make sense.
The reason to invest in Berkshire is to get access to Buffett’s skills as a capital allocator. If you want him to pay a dividend, you shouldn’t own the stock. You should ignore the 5-year rolling test about whether he adds more $1 of value for each $1 of retained earnings. He is never going to pay a dividend because he’ll never admit that he can’t add value. If he ever does decide to pay a dividend, you won’t want to own Berkshire.
Disclosure: Long KO and no position BRK.A, BRK.B.