Warren Buffett May Want to Buy Southwest Airlines

As billionaire investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A) looks to drive earnings with a massive acquisition, Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) looks like one of its most logical targets, according to one team of analysts on the Street. 

“Warren Buffett recently said he might buy a whole airline and that he wants to do a 'huge' deal while bemoaning market valuations," wrote Wolfe Research analyst Hunter Keay in a note to clients Friday. "We speculate on which airline BRK [Berkshire Hathaway] may buy, too, using BRK's historical buying patterns as a guide through a data-driven analysis, ranking each one relative to others.”

Keay referenced a comment made by Buffett on CNBC in February wherein he indicated that he "wouldn't rule out owning an entire airline." The analyst noted that Buffett screens potential takeouts for solid cash flows, strong competitive advantages and "high-grade" management teams. While he noted that Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) scores well across these metrics, he indicated that discount airline Southwest does better than its Atlanta-based rival.

Boosting Non-Insurance Earnings 

Last year, following decades of warning shareholders against betting on what he saw as a slim-profited industry, Berkshire started aggressively buying airline stocks, applauding stronger balance sheets, higher profit margins and more consistent capex spending, coupled with lower fuel costs and the benefits of industry consolidation. Buffett bought stakes in all four major U.S. carriers in 2017, including American Airlines Group Inc. (AAL), Delta, Southwest and United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL), in an investment now worth north of $9 billion. 

As of Berkshire's 2017 annual letter, the firm already owned over $3 billion of LUV. In the letter, chair and CEO  Buffett indicated that while he would like to execute a major acquisition in order to boost the earnings of its non-insurance group, doing so has been hard due to historically high company valuations. At the end of the year, Berkshire was flush with $116 billion in cash and short-term Treasury bills, a jump from the $86.4 billion the company held at the end of 2016. 

"This extraordinary liquidity earns only a pittance and is far beyond the level Charlie and I wish Berkshire to have," Buffett said, referencing his long-time business partner Charlie Munger. "Our smiles will broaden when we have redeployed Berkshire's excess funds into more productive assets." (See also: Airlines' Malaise Could Produce Winners: JPMorgan.)

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