Warren Buffett might be a value investing legend, but a new analysis of his investment approach suggests that Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s chairman and CEO could be more accurately called a savvy connoisseur of risk.
In an unpublished paper, “Buffett's Alpha,” AQR Capital Management veterans Andrea Frazzini, David Kabiller and Lasse H. Pedersen argue that Mr. Buffett's success over the past half century is the result of a sophisticated application of leverage to a portfolio of quality, low-beta stocks.
Mr. Kabiller is a founding principal of AQR and head of client strategies. Mr. Pedersen is a principal and global asset allocation team member. Mr. Frazzini is a vice president with AQR's global stock selection group.
The authors count themselves among the legions of admirers of Mr. Buffett's skill as an investor — exemplified by the fact that over the more than 30-year period covered by AQR's empirical analysis, the stock of Mr. Buffett's holding company has enjoyed the highest risk-adjusted returns of any listed company.
Still, the most popular views offered up to account for Mr. Buffett's success — such as his ability to make long-term investments in undervalued companies — fall short in explaining that investment skill, Mr. Kabiller said in a recent interview with him and his co-authors.
Although the “value investor” label suggests a conservative investment approach, AQR's analysis shows Mr. Buffett hasn't shied from taking on considerable risk to garner exceptional returns for Berkshire Hathaway investors: an annualized 19 points above the Treasury bill rate between November 1976 and the end of 2011.
Mr. Buffett's use of “non-trivial” amounts of leverage — an average of 1.6-to-1, according to AQR's analysis — has been one pillar of the strategy he employs to achieve superior returns at higher risk, the paper argues.
With leverage a dirty word for many pension executives struggling with crisis-level funding gaps, the fact that Mr. Buffett is “a very big user of leverage” should serve as a reminder that the returns he enjoys aren't possible “without taking a lot of risk,” Mr. Kabiller said.
One period exemplifying that willingness to take — and bear — risk was mid-1998 to Feb. 29, 2000, the final stage of the Internet bubble, when Berkshire's stock price dropped 44% even as the broad Russell 3000 index was climbing 26%, according to AQR.
Mr. Kabiller said Mr. Buffett's skill in structuring Berkshire Hathaway as an investment vehicle may be almost as important as his skill in making specific investments. In particular, the company's insurance affiliates accrue premium payments years before the policies pay out, strengthening Mr. Buffett's ability to maintain leverage in environments where less deep-pocketed investors would have to resort to fire sales, he noted.
According to the paper, Mr. Buffett's “low-cost insurance and reinsurance businesses have given him a significant advantage in terms of unique access to cheap, term leverage.”
The float from that insurance business has provided, on average, 36% of the funding Berkshire Hathaway uses to lever up its portfolio, at a cost AQR estimates at more than three percentage points below the average T-bill rate.