Why Warren Buffett Doesn’t Invest in Tech Companies (And yet his largest holding is Apple)

Ben Lengerich
4 min readJun 8, 2023

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Investing genius Warren Buffett is renowned for his successful investment strategy and the remarkable returns he has generated. However, one aspect of his approach that often raises eyebrows is his reluctance to invest in tech companies. Buffett claims he “doesn’t understand tech companies” and prefers to leave them in the “too hard” pile, but his largest holding is Apple. Does he really think that tech companies are “too hard” to value properly, or is there some other reason why he avoids tech companies? The truth lies in Buffett’s perspective on durable competitive advantages and the role of innovation within tech companies.

Buffett’s Strategy

Warren Buffett is a value investor whose investment approach revolves around identifying undervalued companies with strong fundamentals and long-term potential. His investment philosophy revolves around identifying companies with sustainable competitive advantages, also known as economic moats:

The key to investing is not assessing how much an industry is going to affect society, or how much it will grow, but rather determining the competitive advantage of any given company and, above all, the durability of that advantage. The products or services that have wide, sustainable moats around them are the ones that deliver rewards to investors.

These advantages create barriers to entry for competitors and enable companies to maintain profitability and market dominance over an extended period. Buffett believes that durable competitive advantages are essential for long-term value creation. These advantages can stem from various factors, such as brand reputation, economies of scale, regulatory barriers, and intellectual property. The key aspect is that they provide a lasting edge over competitors and enable companies to generate consistent profits.

The reasons forWarren Buffett’s stance on tech companies

In the case of tech companies, their competitive advantage often relies heavily on research and development efforts. Technological innovation drives their growth and success, and thus many tech companies must continuously innovate to stay ahead of the competition. The fast-paced nature of the tech industry means that companies need to keep pushing boundaries, investing in R&D, and introducing groundbreaking products or services to maintain their market position. These are negative aspects to Buffett.

While tech companies may enjoy temporary advantages through innovation, Buffett questions whether these advantages can truly be considered durable. If a company’s competitive edge primarily relies on constant innovation, it may not possess the same level of long-term stability as businesses with more traditional competitive advantages.

Buffett’s argument is essentially that if a company needs to continually innovate just to keep up, it is akin to running faster on a treadmill rather than standing on a higher plane. He prefers to invest in businesses with moats that allow them to maintain their competitive position without constantly sprinting to stay ahead. Buffett liked to quote Peter Lynch as saying:

“Invest in businesses any idiot could run because someday one will.”

Clearly, businesses that rely on constant innovations to keep up with competition fail the idiot-proof test.

In 2005, Buffett stated this clearly to a business school trip:

Technology is clearly a boost to business productivity and a driver of better consumer products and the like, so as an individual I have a high appreciation for the power of technology. I have avoided technology sectors as an investor because in general I don’t have a solid grasp of what differentiates many technology companies. I don’t know how to spot durable competitive advantage in technology. To get rich, you find businesses with durable competitive advantage and you don’t overpay for them. Technology is based o­n change; and change is really the enemy of the investor. Change is more rapid and unpredictable in technology relative to the broader economy. To me, all technology sectors look like 7-foot hurdles.

Buffett’s view is clear: tech companies are based on change, and Buffett seeks stability.

This perspective is also borne out by how Buffett analyzes income statements. While some investors “add back” a portion of R+D spend to estimate normalize earnings, Buffett never does this. He instead considers R+D spend a necessary cost to maintain the business rather than giving credit for future improvements derived from R+D. As such, most tech companies don’t pass Buffett’s bar for investment.

Is Apple a contradiction?

Understood in light of the real reasons for Buffett’s aversion to tech investments, Apple is not a contradiction to Buffett’s investment strategy.

Firstly, Apple has strong and durable competitive advantages:

  1. Brand strength and customer loyalty: Apple’s trusted brand commands premium pricing and retains loyal customers.
  2. Product ecosystem and integration: Seamless integration of hardware, software, and services creates a unique user experience.
  3. Financial stability and cash flow: Apple’s financial strength is another factor that makes it an attractive investment for Warren Buffett. The company consistently generates substantial cash flow, has a robust balance sheet, and maintains a sizable cash reserve.

Secondly, Apple is differentiated from other tech companies:

  1. Emphasis on consumer products and user experience: Apple focuses on user-friendly consumer products.
  2. Ability to innovate while maintaining competitive advantages: Apple has demonstrated its ability to innovate continuously while still maintaining its competitive advantages. The company has successfully launched groundbreaking products, such as the iPhone and iPad, while leveraging its existing brand strength and ecosystem.
  3. Apple’s position as a leader in its industry: Apple’s dominance reinforces durable competitive advantages, as Apple’s market presence and customer loyalty act as barriers to entry for competitors.

While Warren Buffett may have reservations about investing in tech companies as a whole, his investment in Apple can be seen as an exception due to its strong and enduring competitive advantages. Apple’s ability to combine innovation with the sustainability of its moats aligns with Buffett’s investment principles, making it a compelling investment for the legendary investor.

Conclusion

Warren Buffett’s approach to investing in tech companies is rooted in his focus on durable competitive advantages and his skepticism about the sustainability of R&D-based advantages. While Buffett sometimes claims not to understand tech companies, his largest holding, Apple, stands as a testament to the exception he made for a company that exhibits strong and lasting competitive advantages. Apple’s brand strength, product ecosystem, financial stability, and differentiation within the tech industry make it an attractive investment opportunity that aligns with Buffett’s investment philosophy.

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Ben Lengerich

Postdoc @MIT | Writing about ML, AI, precision medicine, and quant econ