Buffett Looks to Japan With $6 Billion Bet on Five Biggest Trading Firms

September 1, 2020 Updated: September 1, 2020

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. has bought a 5 percent stake in each of Japan’s five biggest trading houses, together worth over $6 billion, marking a departure for Chairman Warren Buffett as he looks beyond the United States to diversify his conglomerate.

The long-term investment in Itochu Corp., Marubeni Corp., Mitsubishi Corp., Mitsui & Co Ltd., and Sumitomo Corp. could see the stakes rise to 9.9 percent, Berkshire said on Aug. 30, Buffett’s 90th birthday.

“The five major trading companies have many joint ventures throughout the world and are likely to have more,” Buffett said in a statement. “I hope that in the future there may be opportunities for mutual benefit.”

The investment will help reduce Berkshire’s dependence on the U.S. economy, which in the last quarter contracted the most in at least 73 years as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Many of its businesses have struggled, including aircraft parts maker Precision Castparts, from which it bore a $9.8 billion writedown.

Buffett’s choice in Japan, however, surprised market players as trading houses have long been far from investor favorites. As well as significant exposure to the energy sector and resource price volatility, tangled business models involving commodities as varied as noodles and rockets have long been a turn-off.

“Their cheap valuation may have been an attraction,” said Norihiro Fujito, chief investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities in Tokyo. “But it is un-Buffett-like to buy into all five companies rather than selecting a few.”

Below Book

Berkshire bought the little-over 5 percent stakes in about a year through insurance business National Indemnity Co. Together, the five 5 percent stakes were worth 700 billion yen ($6.63 billion), Reuters calculations showed based on Refinitiv data.

Firms’ shares often rise when Buffett discloses investment, reflecting what investors view as his imprimatur. On Aug. 31, Marubeni and Sumitomo ended up over 9 percent, followed by Mitsubishi and Mitsui at over 7 percent. Itochu rose 4.2 percent to a record high.

Berkshire shares were flat in premarket trade.

Even so, Marubeni, Mitsubishi, and Sumitomo are still 10 percent down on the year, versus a 6 percent fall in the Topix index. Itochu, which has shifted toward consumer-related businesses, is the only one whose share price is higher than in 2019.

Indeed, Itochu is the only one whose stock trades above its book value. That means, for the other four, their market capitalization is less than the value of their assets, making them attractive to a value investor like Buffett.

Several have large amounts of cash on hand, raising their appeal. Mitsubishi, for instance, has seen steady growth in free cash flow per share for four years, Refinitiv data showed.

Trading houses are also deeply involved in the real economy in areas such as steel, shipping, and commodities, putting them on the radar of an investor such as Buffett who famously avoids investing in businesses he claims not to understand.

Asked about the investment, Mitsui told Reuters it aims to improve returns for all shareholders. Marubeni and Mitsubishi said they will continue efforts to improve corporate value. Sumitomo said it will communicate with Berkshire as with all other shareholders.

Itochu Chairman Masahiro Okafuji in an emailed statement welcomed Buffett’s interest in Japanese trading house stocks, which he said have lagged global financial markets, adding that the investment “will be a catalyst for revitalizing the industry.”

US Dependence

Berkshire owns more than 90 businesses outright including the BNSF railroad and Geico car insurer.

It also invests in dozens of companies including American Express Co., Bank of America Corp., and Coca-Cola Co. It has a roughly $125 billion stake in Apple Inc. based on its holdings as of June 30.

“Buffett’s portfolio is becoming heavily skewed to Apple, so maybe he was looking for something the complete opposite of Apple,” said Monex chief strategist Hiroki Takashi in Tokyo.

Most of Berkshire’s operating businesses are American, though it has acquired a handful of foreign companies including Israel’s IMC International Metalworking and German motorcycle apparel retailer Detlev Louis.

Additional investments in Japan could also help reduce Berkshire’s cash pile, which ended June at a record of $146.6 billion.

By Jonathan Stempel