Big tobacco, big oil and Buffett join Fed's portfolioBig tobacco, big oil and Buffett join Fed's portfolio
The Federal Reserve on Mayday in Washington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve bought $428 million in bonds of individual companies through mid-June, making investments in familiar household names like Walmart and AT&T as well in major oil firms, tobacco giant Philip Morris International Inc, and a utility subsidiary of billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company.

The transactions disclosed Sunday are the first individual company bond purchases made by the Fed under new programs set up to nurse the economy through the coronavirus pandemic. The Fed also added $5.3 billion in 16 corporate bond exchange traded funds, including a newly added sixth high yield fund.

The initial round of purchases included bonds from 44 corporate issuers, all bought on the secondary market. That is a small slice of the more than 790 issuers whose bonds the Fed has said in a separate release were eligible for purchase as of early June.

Those bought so far are spread broadly across the U.S. economy — with more than a third coming from consumer companies like PepsiCo Inc and Coca-Cola Co. The largest investments were in AT&T and the United Health Group, with Fed purchases of around $15 million in bonds each from those two issuers.

Issuers in the energy industry accounted for about 8.45% of the bonds purchased, about a percentage point less than their representation in a broad market index that the Fed says its purchases are intended to track.

Still, the Fed’s first foray into buying individual corporate bonds, given the high profile list of companies involved, may draw questions from lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing before the House Financial Services committee with Fed chair Jerome Powell. The Fed’s Main Street Lending Program, for example, only recently opened its doors and has yet to make a loan even though the crisis is seen as hitting small and medium sized companies the hardest.

The central bank’s programs have so far seen modest use. Beyond the corporate bond buying detailed in Sunday’s release, the central bank’s overall balance sheet has declined for the past two weeks, falling to $7.08 trillion more recently as foreign governments made less use of Fed dollar swap lines.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Alistair Bell)