Buffett, Of All People, Should Know It Hurts Shareholders to Telegraph Buybacks Ahead of Time

One of my pet peeves is how frequently public companies announce stock buyback programs before they buy a single share. If you are buying back your stock because you believe it is undervalued, and you know that announcing your intentions is going to give a boost to the stock, you are essentially screwing over your shareholders. Why pay more than you have to for the shares you want to repurchase? Today we learned that Berkshire Hathaway (BRKa /BRKb) has authorized share buybacks at prices up to 110% of book value. I am kicking myself because I took a hard look at this stock last week, concluded it was very attractive, but didn’t rush in to buy any. After all, what catalyst near-term could possibly boost the stock that much in a volatile market? Well, a telegraphed buyback program is about the only thing. And today the “B” shares are up nearly $5, or 7%, to just under $71 per share. They looked good at $66, but much less so now.

Isn’t Buffett smarter than this? If he could have bought the stock at $66 why put out a press release and drive your potential cost basis up so much? Skeptics will say he has no intention of actually buying the stock… that it is just a way to give the stock a boost without committing any capital. Perhaps this will prove true (Buffett thought hard about it decade ago but never actually bought any) but I hope not. The stock really is cheap, and Buffett of all people knows this. I cannot figure out why he wouldn’t buy the stock first, and then announce the amount purchased and price paid. That too would give the stock a jolt to the upside, but it would actually benefit shareholders too. This announcement really seems silly. Other companies do it all the time, but I expect more from Buffett.

Some might argue that disclosing the buyback authorization is a Reg FD issue but I would respectfully disagree. Reg FD is supposed to protect certain investors from getting information earlier than others, thereby providing a level playing field for everyone. Failing to disclose the buyback plan ahead of time does nothing to give anyone a leg up on others. In fact, it treats everyone equally (nobody learns of the plan) and beneficially (all shareholders profit from the accretive nature of the repurchases, which were done at the lowest price possible).

We will see if Berkshire stock holds today’s 7% gain. If it does and Buffett doesn’t buy any shares, not only will this announcement have been a waste of time, but more importantly, he will have balked at a great opportunity to make money for Berkshire shareholders.

Full Disclosure: No position in BRKa or BRKb at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time