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Performance streak may end this year

Berkshire Hathaway may end a long streak of outperforming the S&P 500 this year, Chief Executive Warren Buffett warned shareholders on Friday, even as he said he was still eagerly hunting for acquisitions to grow the ice-cream-to-insurance conglomerate.

In his annual letter to investors, Buffett opened up with a caution that this year, for the first time, the growth in Berkshire’s book value per share may underperform the growth in the S&P 500 when measured over a five-year period.

“To date, we’ve never had a five-year period of underperformance, having managed 43 times to surpass the S&P over such a stretch,” he wrote. “But the S&P has now had gains in each of the last four years, outpacing us over that period. If the market continues to advance in 2013, our streak of five-year wins will end.”

Buffett said he expects the growth in Berkshire’s intrinsic business value will over time exceed the S&P’s returns by small margins. But at the same time, he said the firm would continue to underperform in a strong market like this year.

Long-time Berkshire investors said they detected almost a sense of frustration in this year’s letter.

“He’s gotten away from some of the things that used to just matter to him so much,” said Bill Smead, chief investment officer of Smead Capital Management in Seattle. “He has so much capital I don’t think he can just rely on a stock portfolio the way he used to.”

Just last month, Berkshire struck a deal to put $12 billion of that capital toward the $23 billion cash buyout of ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co. Buffett said he and vice chairman Charlie Munger were not done.

“But we still have plenty of cash and are generating more at a good clip. So it’s back to work; Charlie and I have again donned our safari outfits and resumed our search for elephants,” Buffett said in the annual letter.

Berkshire reported $47 billion of cash on hand at December 31. Backing out the Heinz deal, and even with Buffett’s preferred $20 billion cash cushion intact, that would leave Berkshire at least $15 billion to spend.

Another long-term Buffett investor said he was perfectly content with Berkshire’s returns precisely because of all that cash generation.

“It was an accurate assessment on his part in terms of performance, but I’ll tell you as a shareholder I’m not terribly disappointed,” said Michael Yoshikami, chief executive and chairman of the investment committee at Destination Wealth Management in Walnut Creek, California.

“We buy it because it’s a cash flow oriented position. If I get outperformance it’s a win.”