Warren Buffett bought more than $1 billion in Coca-Cola (KO) shares in 1988, an amount that was then equivalent to 6.2% of the company. The purchase made it the single largest position in Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway's portfolio at the time.
It remains one of Berkshire Hathaway's biggest holdings today. As of the end of March 2021, the holding company owned a 9.2% stake worth more than $22 billion in the company.
But what made the Berkshire Hathaway chair make the purchase at that time, when the stock was still reeling after the 1987 market crash? And why has he held onto it for so long?
- Coca-Cola stock was hit hard by the 1987 stock market crash, along with many others.
- Buffett & Co. determined it was a good company, had great value, could withstand competition, and was poised to recover.
- The Coca-Cola stake marked a significant change in Buffett's investing philosophy.
- Today, Coca-Cola is Berkshire's third-biggest holding.
Good Stocks Sunk by the Crash
Coca-Cola was an example. It was (and is) the dominant company in the beverage industry. As of 2021, it sells 500 brands of beverages, from Costa Coffee to vitamin water, in 200 countries.
In marketing parlance, Coca-Cola's iconic name and global reach created a "moat" around its core soft drink product. A successful brand builds the name recognition, the distributor network, and the retail relationships that protect it from encroachment by competitors.
Warren Buffett understood that no competitor was going to appear and take away Coca-Cola's market share. On the contrary, over the years the company has steadily absorbed potential competitors and expanded into new trends through purchases such as Ayataka green tea and Dasani waters.
An Evolving Investing Philosophy
The Coca-Cola purchase suggested that Buffett's investing philosophy had evolved from Benjamin Graham and a focus on finding companies that had a value exceeding their market prices.
This adjustment was necessary to account for the growing size of Buffett's portfolio, which made it more difficult to take advantage of market inefficiencies. Its sheer size also hindered any attempts at active management and reduced the number of opportunities he could consider that would have a meaningful impact on the portfolio's performance.
Coca-Cola heralded a change in Buffett's approach from "buying bad companies at great prices" to "buying great companies at good prices." By the end of 2020, Buffett's continuing investments in Coca-Cola had returned 1,550%, not including dividends.
Coca-Cola is Berkshire Hathaway's third-largest holding, more than 30 years after it was first added to the portfolio.
Buffett's Top 10 Holdings
Warren Buffett continues to be an investor in Coca-Cola today. The Berkshire Hathaway stock investment portfolio's top 10 stocks—by number of shares—based on an SEC filing in November 2020 are as follows:
- Bank of America (BAC), 1.01 billion
- Apple (AAPL), 944.3 million
- Coca-Cola (KO), 400 million
- Kraft Heinz (KHC), 325.6 million
- American Express (AXP), 151.6 million
- U.S. Bancorp (USB) 131.9 million
- Wells Fargo (WFC), 127.4 million
- General Motors (GM), 80 million
- Bank of New York Mellon (BK), 72.4 million
- Sirius XM (SIRI), 50 million