OMAHA, Neb. — Warren Buffett gave Berkshire Hathaway investors a few details Saturday about how he spent more than $50 billion 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 arena Saturday 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 Saturday morning that its mountain of cash shrank to $106 billion in the first quarter from $147 billion at the beginning of the year as Buffett invested $51 billion in stocks.
Buffett told shareholders Saturday that right after he wrote to them in his annual letter on Feb. 26 that he was having trouble finding anything to buy at attractive prices, Berkshire spent more than $40 billion on stocks over the next three weeks, including one day in early March when he spent $4.6 billion at the peak.
Buffett didn't reveal everything he bought but did mention several highlights, including boosting Berkshire's stake in oil giant Chevron to $26 billion, up from $4.5 billion at the beginning of the year to make it one of the conglomerate's four biggest investments. Berkshire also spent billions buying up 14% 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 that with the Chevron and Occidental investments combined Berkshire now has more than $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 $11.6 billion and made another multibillion-dollar investment in HP Inc. Buffett said Saturday that he also bought three German stocks but didn't name them.
Buffett said Berkshire was able to take advantage of the fact that Wall Street is largely run like a “gambling parlor” 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’s investing partner, Charlie Munger, said there is an insane amount of speculation in the stock market over the last couple years as the market soared.
“We have people who know nothing about stocks being advised by stockbrokers who know even less,” Munger said.
Buffett emphasized to shareholders that even with his track record of successful investments, he's not an expert on timing his investments to the market. Instead he just tries to buy things that are selling for less than they are worth.
Buffett revealed Saturday that 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% 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 per share deal price.
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 that 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 decentralized 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 especially worried about the future of Berkshire after Buffett 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 Saturday's meeting.
“Actuarily, 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.
Many of the questions Buffett and Munger received Saturday covered themes they have been asked about before and they largely stuck to the kind of general life lessons and advice that has become the hallmark of the shareholders meeting in recent years.
In response to concerns about the current high inflation, Buffett told investors that the best thing they could do is invest in themselves so that someone will always want to pay them for their services regardless of how much a dollar is worth.
Buffett wasn't asked directly about the war in Ukraine, but he told investors he remains concerned about the risks nuclear weapons pose to the world. But Buffett said he doesn't have any solution to the problem.
“It's a very, very, very dangerous world,” he said.
Earlier Saturday, Berkshire said its first quarter earnings fell more than 53% on a large swing in the paper value of its investments. Berkshire said it earned $5.46 billion, or $3.702 per Class A share, during the quarter. That’s down from $11.7 billion, or $7.638 per Class A share, a year ago.
Buffett says that 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 $7.04 billion, or $4,773.84 per Class A share, up from $7.018 billion, or $4,577.10 per Class A share, a year ago.
The four analysts surveyed by FactSet expected Berkshire to report operating earnings of $4,277.66 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 has 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 apiece.
Dalton said she misses the more detailed business answers that 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.