It's Warren vs. Wall Street over Anheuser-Busch
The brewer's shares are going nowhere, and analysts are dubious--but not Buffett.
By Oliver Ryan

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Who's right about Anheuser-Busch (BUD, $46): Wall Street or America's most admired investor? Analysts say the company is mired in the flat U.S. beer market and has largely missed the boat on international expansion. Baby-boomers, it seems, prefer wine, and the rest of America is busy worrying about its weight or drinking cosmopolitans. And Anheuser-Busch's s now-global nemesis, SABMiller, is more able than ever to put up a tough fight in the U.S. BUD shares have dropped 15% from a high last June, following a slew of analyst downgrades.

But we had good things to say about the stock in early April (see Sure, U.S. growth is slow, we wrote, but the company was selling at a 12% discount to the S&P 500; it has a promising long-term play in China; and it's as safe as they come.

A few weeks later came the investing equivalent of a papal blessing. Anheuser-Busch announced that Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway had become a "significant shareholder." BUD shares jumped 7% on the news before giving back more than half their gains.

Buffett declined to comment, but the purchase seemed to fit his profile: a major brand with a fortress-like 51% U.S. market share and a proven management team. And it's a place you can put a lot of money to work, a key consideration for someone with $43 billion in cash to invest.

Most analysts were unimpressed. "Buffett can't wave a magic wand over the U.S. beer market and make it grow faster," says Carlos Laboy of Bear Stearns. But Laboy also has a theory. Noting that some of Anheuser-Busch's competitors are integrating beer and soft drink distribution in foreign markets, Laboy wonders, "Is it coincidental that we have an investor who thinks about operating issues [and] who has a large equity position in both Coke and Anheuser-Busch?" Whether or not that's Buffett's plan, the question remains: Do you want to put your money on Wall Street--or on Buffett? We know who we'd pick. -- Oliver Ryan