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Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting 2021: Highlights and storylines

·Reporter
·17-min read
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Warren Buffett addressed investors around the world on Saturday at Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK-A, BRK-B) 2021 Annual Shareholder Meeting

In an hours-long event, the investing legend fielded questions on Berkshire's business and investment decisions, offered advice for first-time investors and touted the strength of American corporations in a characteristically optimistic tone. Buffett nodded to the Federal Reserve and Congress for their swift response to the COVID-19 crisis, and underscored the rebound in the U.S. economy. And the Oracle of Omaha also addressed the recent rise in retail trading and online brokerage firms like Robinhood, the rally in bitcoin and the boom in SPAC mergers. 

In many ways, this year's meeting looked different from those in the past. The annual event took place in a hotel conference room in Los Angeles rather than in an arena in Omaha, Nebraska, due to the ongoing pandemic. 

Buffett's long-time business partner Charlie Munger also returned onstage this year to co-lead the event, after sitting out last year because of the pandemic. And in a new move, Buffett and Munger were joined by Berkshire's Vice Chairmen Gregory Abel and Ajit Jain, in a signal of potential succession plans at the company.

Here were some of the highlights from the event.

(screenshot/Yahoo Finance)
(screenshot/Yahoo Finance)

5:03 p.m. ET: 'We're seeing substantial inflation,' Buffett says 

Buffett said Berkshire Hathaway is seeing signs of rising price pressures during the COVID-19 recovery, corroborating many market participants' concerns about increasing inflationary pressures.

"We're seeing substantial inflation. We're raising prices, people are raising prices to us. And it's being accepted," Buffett said. "We really do a lot of housing. The costs are just up, up, up. Steel costs. You know, just every day they're going up."

"It's an economy – really, it's red hot. And we weren't expecting it," he added.

4:54 p.m. ET: Robinhood has been a driver of the 'casino aspect' that has permeated the stock market in the last year and a half: Buffett

Buffett said trading apps like Robinhood have contributed to the "casino aspect" of the stock market as of late, exploiting individuals' inclinations to gamble. 

“It’s become a very significant part of the casino aspect, the casino group, that has joined into the stock market in the last year, year and a half," Buffett said of Robinhood. "There’s nothing, you know, there’s nothing illegal about it, there’s nothing immoral. But I don’t think you’d build a society around people doing it."

"I think the degree to which a very rich society can reward people who know how to take advantage, essentially, of the gambling instincts of the American public, the worldwide public – it’s not the most admirable part of the accomplishment," Buffett added. "But I think what America has accomplished is pretty admirable overall. And I think actually American corporations have turned out to be a wonderful place for people to put their money and save. But they also make terrific gambling chips, and if you cater to those gambling chips when people have money in their pocket for the first time and you tell them take my 30 or 40 or 50 trades a day and you’re not charging commission ... I hope we don’t have more of it.”

4:26 p.m. ET: Buffett on paring positions in bank stocks

Buffett explained that Berkshire's move to unload many of its bank shares last year was not due to a lack of confidence in the banking industry, but more a decision to re-balance the portfolio and avoid being too heavily tilted toward one area. 

"I like banks generally, I just didn't like the proportion compared to the possible risk," Buffett said. "We were over 10% of Bank of America. It's a real pain in the neck, more to the banks than us." 

Berkshire held 1,032,952,006 shares of Bank of America as of the end of 2020, after adding 85.1 million shares in the third quarter alone. This gave Berkshire Hathaway an ownership stake of 11.9%. Berkshire cut its holdings of Wells Fargo from 345.7 million shares at year-end 2019 to 52.4 million by year-end 2020, and completely exited its holdings in JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and M&T Bank Corp (MTB).

"The banking business is way better than it was in the United States 10 or 15 years ago," he added. "The banking business around the world in various places might worry me, but our banks are in far, far better shape than 10 or 15 years ago."

4:15 p.m. ET: Jain on whether he'd write an insurance policy for a SpaceX flight for Elon Musk's proposed colonization on Mars: 'No thank you, I'll pass'

A shareholder asked Jain, who leads Berkshire's insurance business, whether he would be hypothetically willing to write an insurance policy for SpaceX founder Elon Musk for his proposed colonization of Mars. 

"This is an easy one. No thank you, I’ll pass," Jain said. 

“Well I would say it would depend on the premium,” Buffett interjected with a laugh. "And I would say that I would probably have a somewhat different rate if Elon was on board or not on board. It makes a difference if someone is asking to insure something.”

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 29:  SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks at the International Astronautical Congress on September 29, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia. Musk detailed the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved in order to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars.  (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks at the International Astronautical Congress on September 29, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

4:07 p.m. ET: Bitcoin is 'contrary to the interest of civilization': Munger

Warren Buffett declined to directly offer an opinion in response to a question on bitcoin, an asset he previously likened to "rat poison squared."

"I knew there’d be a question on bitcoin or crypto and I thought to myself well, I watch these politicians dodge questions all the time … The truth is, I’m going to dodge that question," Buffett said. "Because the truth is, we’ve probably got hundreds of thousands of people that are watching this that own bitcoin. And we’ve probably got two people that are short. So we’ve got a choice of making 400,000 people mad at us and unhappy, and making two people happy. And it’s just a dumb equation." 

Munger, however, issued a more direct attack. 

"Those who know me well are just waving the red flag at the bull. Of course I hate the bitcoin success," he said. "And I don’t welcome a currency that’s so useful kidnappers and extortionists and so forth. Nor do I like shoveling out a few extra billions and billions and billions of dollars to somebody who just invented a new financial product out of thin air. So I think I should say modestly that the whole damn development is disgusting and contrary to the interest of civilization." 

3:35 p.m. ET: 'The people who are criticizing it are bonkers,' Munger says of those condemning stock buybacks 

Both Buffett and Munger issued strong words of support for share repurchases, especially after Berkshire reported repurchasing an additional $6.6 billion in stock in the first three months of 2021. 

"They're a way, essentially, of distributing the cash to the people that want the cash when other co-owners mostly want you to reinvest," Buffett said. "It's a savings vehicle."

"I find it almost impossible to believe some of the arguments that are made that it's terrible to repurchase shares from a partner if they want to get out of something, and you're able to do it at prices that are advantages to the people that are staying," Buffett said. "And it helps slightly the person that wants out."

Munger offered a similar view. 

"You're repurchasing stock. Just a bullet higher, it's deeply immoral," Munger said. "But if you're repurchasing stock because it's a fair thing to do in the interest of your existing shareholders, it's a highly moral act and the people who are criticizing it are bonkers." 

3:29 p.m. ET: 'Bernie Sanders has basically won': Munger

Low interest rates have catalyzed a surge in valuations across equities, giving those who invest in the markets an opportunity to create wealth, Munger said during the Berkshire Hathaway question and answer segment. 

"I think one consequence of this present situation is, Bernie Sanders has basically won," Munger says. "Because with everything boomed out so high and interest rates so low, what's going to happen is, the millennial generation is going to have a hell of a time getting rich compared to our generation ... He did it by accident, but he won."

"And so the difference between the difference between the rich and the poor in the generation that's rising is going to be a lot less," he added. "So Bernie has won." 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., smiles as he walks on stage to applause at a campaign rally Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) smiles as he walks on stage to applause at a campaign rally Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

3:20 p.m. ET: Buffett says of SPACs are similar to a 'gambling-type market' 

Buffett received a question around special purpose acquisition companies, or blank-check companies, which have become a hugely popular means for firms to go public over the past year. 

"The SPACs generally have to spend their money in two years, as I understand it. If you have to buy a business in two years, you put a gun to my head and said you've got to buy a business in two years, I'd buy one but it wouldn't be much of one," Buffett. 

"If you're running money from somebody else and you get a fee and you get the upside and you don't have the downside, you're going to buy something," he added. "And frankly we're not competitive with that." 

"It's an exaggerated version of what we've seen in kind of a gambling-type market," he added. 

3:03 p.m. ET: Selling some Apple stock last year was 'probably a mistake' 

Buffett conceded that selling some of Apple's stock in 2020 was "probably a mistake," with shares rising even further this year following the tech-led 2020 in the markets. 

"The brand and the product — it's an incredible product," Buffett said of Apple. "It is indispensable to people." 

"I sold some stock last year, although our shareholders still saw their shares go up because we repurchased shares," he added. "But that was probably a mistake."

Berkshire owned 907,559,761 shares of Apple as of the end of December for a total market value of $120.4 billion. By contrast, the firm spent just $31 billion accumulating this stake since late 2016.

2:51 p.m. ET: 'There's no question the relationship Warren has with Charlie is unique,' Jain says

A shareholder directed a question to Ajit Jain and Greg Abel asking about the relationship the two likely next leaders of Berkshire Hathaway have with one another, given how iconic the relationship between Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger has been over the course of the company's history. 

"There's no question the relationship Warren has with Charlie is unique," Jain said. "It's not going to be duplicated, certainly not by me and Greg. I can't think of anybody that can duplicate it." 

"I certainly have a lot of respect, both at a professional level and personal level, in terms of what Greg's abilities are," Jain added. "We do not interact with each other as often as Warren and Charlie do. But every quarter we will talk to each other about our respective decision." 

"Even though the interaction may be different than say how Warren and Charlie do it ... we make sure we're always following up with each other but it goes beyond that," Abel said. "Ajit has a great understanding of the Berkshire culture. I strongly believe I do too." 

(screenshot/Yahoo Finance)
(screenshot/Yahoo Finance)

2:27 p.m. ET: Buffett defends investment in Chevron says he has 'no compunction about owning it in the least' 

One shareholder asked Buffett about Berkshire's decision to invest in the oil and gas industry, and queried whether we might have "build our own unrealistic consensus on the pace of change" to clean energy solutions. Buffett defended the company's investment in the industry and in Chevron specifically, which was a relatively recent investment for the firm.

"I would say that people are on the extremes of both sides are a little nuts. I would hate to have all the hydrocarbons banned in three years," Buffett said. "You wouldn't want a world — it wouldn't work. And on the other hand, what's happening will be adapted to over time just as we've adapted to all kinds of things." 

"We have no problem owning Costco or Walmart and a substantial number of their stores. And they sell cigarettes, it's a big item," he added as an analogy. "It's a very tough situation ... It's a very tough time to decide what companies benefit societies more than others." 

"I don't like making the moral judgments on stocks in terms of actually running the businesses, but there's something about every business that you knew that you wouldn't like," he added. "If you expect perfection in your spouse or in your friends or in companies you're not going to find it." 

"Chevron is not an evil company in the least, and I have no compunction about owning it in the least, about owning Chevron," Buffett concluded. "And if we owned the entire business I would not feel uncomfortable about being in that business." 

Answering a subsequent question about the Berkshire board of directors' recommendation to vote against reporting climate-related risks, Munger added, "I don't know we know the answer to all these questions about global warming." 

"The people who ask the questions think they know the answer. We're just more modest."

2:17 p.m. ET: 'I recommend the S&P 500 index fund ... I've never recommended Berkshire to anybody,' Buffett says 

Most investors would benefit from simply purchasing an S&P 500 index fund over the long run rather than picking individual stocks, even including Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett said during the question-and-answer session Saturday. 

"I recommend the S&P 500 index fund … I’ve never recommended Berkshire to anybody because I don’t want people to buy it because they think I’m tipping them into something," he said. "On my death there's a fund for my then-widow and 90% will go into an S&P 500 index fund." 

"I do not think the average person can pick stocks," he added. "We happen to have a large group of people that didn't pick stocks but they picked Charlie and me to manage money for them 50, 60 years ago. So we have a very unusual group of shareholders I think who look at Berkshire as a lifetime savings vehicle and one that they don’t have to think about and one that they'll, you know, they don't look at it again for 10 to 20 years." 

Charlie Munger, on the other hand, had a different perspective. 

"I personally prefer holding Berkshire to holding the market," he said in response to the same question. "I’m quite comfortable holding Berkshire. I think our businesses are better than the average in the market." 

1:59 p.m. ET: In the 18th century the U.S. 'had one-half of 1% of the world’s population' but now has five of the six top companies in the world, Buffett highlights 

Buffett reiterated a staunchly supportive stance of U.S. corporations and capitalism in his opening remarks, highlighting that five of the six largest companies in the world by market capitalization currently comprise domestic companies. Those five companies are Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook, with only Saudi Aramco of Saudi Arabia coming in as a non-U.S. mega-cap company in the top six. 

But only a couple hundred years ago, the U.S. looked like the underdog. 

"In 1790 we had one-half of 1% of the world's population," Buffett said. "600,000 of them were slaves. Ireland had more people than the United States had. Russia had five times as many people. Ukraine had twice as many people." 

"But here we were. What did we have? We had a map for the future, an aspirational map that somehow now only 232 years later, leaves us with five of the top six companies in the world," he said. "It's not an accident. And it's not because we were way smarter, way stronger or anything of the sort. We had good soil, decent climate, but so did some of the other countries I named. This system has worked very well."

1:53 p.m. ET: Economy was 'resurrected in an extraordinarily effective way' by Federal Reserve, congressional actions, Buffett says 

In opening remarks at the start of Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholder meeting, Buffett credited the U.S. economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis to swift action by the Federal Reserve and Congress.

"The economy went off a cliff in March. It was resurrected in an extraordinarily effective way by Federal Reserve action and later on the fiscal front by Congress," Buffett said in opening remarks at Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting." 

He added that Berkshire Hathaway's own business has picked up tremendously alongside the broader economy, and suggested businesses like airlines were still among those most deeply affected by lingering effects from the pandemic. 

"Our businesses have done really quite well. This has been a very, very, very unusual recession in that it's been localized ... to an extraordinary extent. Right now business is really very good in a great many segments of the economy," he added. "But there's still problems if you're in a few types of businesses that have been decimated such as international air travel or something of the sort." 

1:20 p.m. ET: 'This has been the longest decade of my life': See's Candies CEO on operating during the pandemic

The CEO of See's Candies, one of the longstanding companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway, told Yahoo Finance that the company has seen a strong rebound at the start of 2021. However, last year, business virtually ground to a halt. 

"This has been the longest decade of my life. We've been through a lot. Last year – it's a tale of a couple of different quarters. The first quarter was tremendous," See's Candies CEO Pat Egan said in an interview with Yahoo Finance's Julia La Roche ahead of the start of Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting. "In the middle of March, when this [pandemic] really hit, we shut down all of our stores in a span of five days. So about 245 stores we closed in a matter of days. And then about a week and a half later, we closed our e-commerce fulfillment center down in Southern California. So for a period of time there, we essentially completely stopped."

"We just said, we're not going to reopen stores or reopen plants until we can create a safe operating environment for our employees," he added. "That took a while, and by the time we restored over the summer we saw customers coming back in. But for that period of time, it was pretty rough." 

See's Candies just completed its "best first quarter ever" at the start of 2021, Egan added.

8:20 a.m. ET: Berkshire Hathaway reports 20% jump in Q1 operating profit, additional stock buybacks

Berkshire Hathaway reported first-quarter results Saturday morning, underscoring a rebound in profits across the firm's businesses amid the COVID-19 recovery. Berkshire also reported that it conducted another $6.6 billion of stock buybacks, extending its ramped-up share repurchase program from 2020. 

Operating income during the first three months of the year increased to $7.02 billion, rising 19.5% compared to the $5.87 billion posted in the first quarter of 2020. Net earnings attributable to Berkshire shareholders swung back to a profit of $11.71 billion, compared to a loss of $49.75 billion in the same quarter last year. 

Consolidated shareholders' equity rose by $4.8 billion to $448 billion by the end of March compared to the fourth quarter of 2020. 

Read more on Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway

Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck