BofA, others out as Berkshire trims portfolio

By Dow Jones Newswires
Posted Feb. 14 at 5:13 p.m.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.  added to its holdings of Wells Fargo & Co.  in the fourth quarter, while eliminating positions in several other stocks including Bank of America Corp., according to a regulatory filing Monday.

Besides Bank of America, Berkshire sold all its shares of Becton Dickinson & Co., Comcast Corp. , Fiserv Inc., Lowe’s Cos. , Nalco Holding Co., Nike Inc.  and American depository receipts of Nestle SA.

The positions that Berkshire exited appeared to be part of the  portfolio of car insurer Geico Corp., long managed by Louis Simpson, who retired from the company late last year. Simpson, who is in his 70s, worked at Geico for more than 30 years and had autonomy over the subsidiary’s $4 billion stock portfolio.

The stock sales are part of a passing of the guard to Todd Combs, a former hedge-fund manager who is taking over a portion of the investment duties at Berkshire. The 40-year-old Combs, who recently joined Berkshire as an investment manager, is expected to get $2 billion to $3 billion to invest initially.

Berkshire’s $52.6 billion U.S. equity portfolio now includes just 25 stocks, the fewest in years. At the end of the third quarter, Berkshire held $48.6 billion in stocks after exiting investments in companies including CarMax Inc. , Home Depot Inc. and NRG Energy Inc., stocks that were in Geico’s accounts. The increase in the size of the portfolio reflects substantial gains in the value of major holdings, including Wells Fargo.

The Wells Fargo stake rose about 1.8 percent, to about 342.6 million shares. Berkshire is the San Francisco bank’s largest shareholder.

Buffett’s company, like other firms that control an investment portfolio of more than $100 million, is required to report its U.S. stock holdings 45 days after the end of a quarter, giving the public its freshest possible glimpse at the investing decisions of the “Oracle of Omaha.” The filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is scrutinized by professional money managers and amateur investors alike, and Buffett’s stock picks have the power to move the shares of the companies he’s buying and selling.

But Buffett, Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive, has long warned investors who want to piggyback on his stock picks that not all moves in the portfolio are his.

Combs, tapped for the job in October, was a little-known manager of a Connecticut hedge fund called Castle Point.

Berkshire’s stakes in American Express Co. , Coca-Cola Co. and Kraft Foods Inc.  remained unchanged. Buffett’s firm appeared to remain the largest shareholder in each, though other money managers were also reporting the contents of their portfolios after the close of trading Monday, making an exact determination difficult.

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