Warren Buffett gave Berkshire Hathaway investors a few details on Saturday about how he spent more than US$50 billion (NZ$79b) earlier this year and again reassured them that the company he built will endure long after the 91-year-old billionaire is gone.
Tens of thousands of investors packed an Omaha, Nebraska arena on Saturday local time to listen to Buffett and Berkshire's vice chairmen answer questions at Berkshire's annual meeting that was back in person for the first time since the pandemic began, but the turnout was likely smaller than when it used to regularly attract more than 40,000.
Berkshire revealed in its earnings report on Saturday morning its mountain of cash shrank to US$106 billion (NZ$163b) in the first quarter from $147b ($227b) at the beginning of the year as Buffett invested $51b ($79b) in stocks and repurchased $3.2b ($4.9b) of its own shares.
Buffett told shareholders right after he told them in his annual letter on February 26 that he was having trouble finding anything to buy at attractive prices, Berkshire spent more than $40b ($61b) on stocks over the next three weeks.
Buffett didn't reveal everything he bought but did mention several highlights, including boosting Berkshire's stake in oil giant Chevron to $26b ($40b), up from $4.5b ($6.9b) at the beginning of the year to make it one of the conglomerate's four biggest investments. Berkshire also spent billions buying up 14 per cent of Occidental Petroleum's shares in the first half of March, and added to its already massive investment in Apple stock.
Edward Jones analyst Jim Shanahan said with the Chevron and Occidental investments combined Berkshire now has more than US$40 billion invested in the oil sector.
Even before Saturday, it was clear Buffett was on the hunt because he agreed to buy the Alleghany insurance conglomerate for $11.6b ($17.9b) and made another multibillion-dollar investment in HP Inc. Buffett said on Saturday he also bought three German stocks but didn't name them.
Buffett said Berkshire was able to take advantage of the fact Wall Street is largely run like a "gambling parlour" with many people speculating wildly on stocks.
"Occasionally, Berkshire gets a chance to do something, and it's not because we're smart. It's because we're sane." Buffett said.
Buffett revealed he has made a big bet on Microsoft's planned acquisition of Activision Blizzard. He said a couple months after one of Berkshire's other investment managers bought roughly 15 million Activision shares, he increased that stake to roughly 9.5 per cent of the company — or about 74 million shares — after Microsoft announced the deal in January because Activision stock was selling for less than the $95 ($146) per share deal price.
Both Buffett and his investing partner, Charlie Munger, reiterated their past criticisms of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin because they don't produce anything. Munger said cryptocurrencies are "stupid because they're likely to go to zero" and "evil because they undermine the Federal Reserve". Plus he said they make American leaders seem foolish for not banning them like China did.
Even though Berkshire is led by Buffett and the 98-year-old Munger, investors didn't ask much about succession planning perhaps because Buffett said a year ago vice-chairman Greg Abel, who oversees all of the company's non-insurance businesses now, will eventually replace him as CEO. Berkshire also has two other investment managers who will take over the company's portfolio.
Buffett said he thinks Berkshire's decentralised culture that relies heavily on trusting people to do the right thing and avoiding huge risks will help the company thrive well into the future and many of the companies it owns like BNSF railroad and its major utilities will remain stalwarts of the economy.
"Berkshire is built to forever. There is no finish point," Buffett said. "The new management — and the management after them and after them — are just custodians of a culture that's embedded."
Investor Harris Kupperman, who leads the Praetorian Capital hedge fund, said he's not worried about the Berkshire's future because the eclectic conglomerate has a solid foundation.
"He built it as well as he could build it. Nobody is ever going to be him. That's obvious," Kupperman said.
He said perhaps Buffett's eventual successor will be able to reevaluate some long-term Berkshire investments that Buffett has held for decades and decide whether it still makes sense to hang onto things like the company's huge Coca-Cola stake.
But Buffett's and Munger's ages are always in the back of Berkshire investors' minds because there may not be too many more meetings with both of them. Munger sat in a wheelchair during the meeting.
"Actuarially, I don't know how much longer they'll be able to do this," said Josu Elejabarrieta, 43, of Miami, who was attending his first meeting.
In response to concerns about the current high inflation, Buffett told investors the best thing they could do is invest in themselves so someone will always want to pay them for their services regardless of how much a dollar is worth. He said all of Berkshire's companies are paying extraordinarily higher prices for raw materials and products, but inflation should have been expected after all the money the government sent out during the pandemic.
Buffett said he thinks the country has become more polarised than it has been at any time since the 1930s when public opinion split sharply about President Franklin Roosevelt.
"I don't think it's a good development for society generally when people get tribal," he said.
After the question-and answer-period, Berkshire shareholders rejected several proposals backed by large pension funds, including one that would have required Buffett to give up his chairman role and ones that would have required the company to issue reports on the financial risks it faces related to climate change and on its diversity efforts. Berkshire and Buffett, who controls 32 per cent of the vote, opposed all the proposals partly because the company is so decentralised it requires few centralised reports.
Earlier, Berkshire said its first quarter earnings fell more than 53 per cent on a large swing in the paper value of its investments. Berkshire said it earned $5.46b (8.45b), or $3.702 ($5726) per Class A share, during the quarter. That's down from $11.7b ($18b), or $7.638 (11,815) per Class A share, a year ago.
Buffett says Berkshire's operating earnings are a better measure of the company's performance because they exclude investment gains and losses. By that measure, Berkshire's earnings remained steady at $7.04b ($10.89b), or $4,773.84 ($7,384.96) per Class A share, up from $7.018b ($10.856b), or $4,577.10 ($7,080.61) per Class A share, a year ago.
The four analysts surveyed by FactSet expected Berkshire to report operating earnings of $4,277.66 ($6,617.39) per Class A share.
In addition to investments, Berkshire Hathaway owns more than 90 business outright, including BNSF railroad, several major utilities, Geico insurance and an assortment of manufacturing and retail companies.
Janet Dalton of Overland Park, Kansas, said she had been attending the meetings for decades. Her family has an even longer association with the company because her dad bought stock in the Berkshire Hathaway textile company even before Buffett took it over in 1965 and began to convert it into the conglomerate it is today. They never sold the shares, which now sell for nearly $500,000 ($773,000) apiece.
Dalton said she misses the more detailed business answers Buffett used to give at the earlier meetings she attended.
"When I first came to the meetings, it was like getting a mini-MBA. Now it has become more general," Dalton said. But part of what keeps her coming back year after year is the chance to reconnect with friends and fellow investors she's met at past meetings.