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Warren Buffett is trying to tell us something about the economy with Berkshire Hathaway’s earnings and the $147 billion of cash on hand



Warren Buffett can’t find bargains the way he used to. On Saturday, his Berkshire Hathaway reported its cash pile reached $147 billion while operating profits jumped 7% year-on-year to $10 billion in the second quarter.

That’s a solid performance, but the growing hoard of cash, nearing a record level, is an ongoing “problem” for the Oracle of Omaha—albeit a nice one to have. It suggests his conglomerate is struggling to find bargains in acquisitions or the stock market amid high valuations.

One way Berkshire has addressed this is by more aggressively pursuing stock buybacks, which it did to the tune of $1.4 billion in the second quarter over $4 billion in the previous quarter. But with Berkshire’s share price rising, that strategy—which Buffett once shunned—has grown less attractive.

As for the many business units under Berkshire’s umbrella—including in insurance, railroads, and utilities—Buffett warned at its annual meeting in May that the majority of them could falter this year amid higher prices. In the second quarter, however, most of them saw earnings rise, with BNSF Railway among the exceptions.

He also predicted in May that earnings at Berkshire’s insurance underwriting operations would improve, and indeed profits there jumped 74% to $1.25 billion in the second quarter. Its Geico unit, which struggled with unprofitability last year, recorded positive results for a second consecutive quarter, helped by higher average premiums and lower advertising costs.

In the first half of this year, Berkshire sold over $18 billion of stock on a net basis, whereas it bought $34 billion on a net basis last year. Buffett and his crew bought $5 billion worth of stocks in the quarter while selling close to $13 billion worth. The trimming of the stock market portfolio also contributed to the swelling cash pile.

As for Fitch downgrading the U.S. credit rating this week from AAA to AA+, for which it’s been widely criticized, Buffett indicated that it won’t change anything about how Berkshire goes about its business. 

“There are some things people shouldn’t worry about,” he told CNBC on Thursday. “This is one. The dollar is the reserve currency of the world, and everybody knows it.”

He added, “Berkshire bought $10 billion in U.S. Treasurys last Monday. We bought $10 billion in Treasurys this Monday. And the only question for next Monday is whether we will buy $10 billion in 3-month or 6-month.” 

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