Warren Buffett didn’t disappoint at this weekend’s annual shareholder meeting of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), the multinational conglomerate he has built up over 50 years. Some 40,000 shareholders showed up to hear 84-year-old Buffett and his vice chairman, 91-year-old Charlie Munger, answer questions and talk about the company, whose shares have soared 2.85 million percent since Buffett and his investment partnership first began buying them up in the early 1960s.
Over the past year shares of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B), which the general public can buy, gained 20.25 percent — twice as much as the S&P 500. Year-to-date, however, shares are down 2.7 percent, while the S&P 500 is up 2.75 percent.
A day before the annual shareholder meeting, Berkshire Hathaway reported that first-quarter profit rose 10 percent, helped by improved results in its BNSF railroad unit and gains from derivatives. Net income rose to $5.16 billion, or $3,143 per share, from $4.71 billion, or $2,862.
Here are some nuggets of wisdom from the Oracle of Omaha compiled from reports by various news outlets who attended the annual meeting, including The Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, CNNMoney and Business Insider.
If interest rates remain low, “stocks will look very cheap.” But he admitted he had been wrong on the direction of interest rates, worrying that the Fed’s quantitative easing program would end badly. “It is so hard for me to believe that you can drop money from a helicopter and not have inflation, but we haven’t,” he said.
Buffett said he wasn’t worried about the high level of corporate profits because they indicate how “wonderfully well” American businesses have done.
In answer to a shareholder question, Buffett said he doesn’t have a list of five characteristics when first buying the stock of a company in a sector he hadn’t invested in before but likes companies that have a reasonable idea of how they might look in five years. He asks himself whether Berkshire Hathaway really wants to be in partnership with this person and can count on them to behave well in the future. “That stops a fair number of deals,” he said.
On interest rates
“If I had an easy way, and a non-risk way, of shorting a whole lot of 20- or 30-year bonds, I’d do it,” Buffett said Monday on CNBC. “… But that’s not my game, and it can’t be done in the kind of quantity that would make sense for us. But I think that bonds are very overvalued…”
On real estate
“Real estate is a good investment in periods of rising inflation.” So is “a brand” name whose stock value rises when inflation does. The best businesses are those “you buy once” and no longer have to invest more capital.
On hedge funds
Buffett has a 10-year running bet with the money managers at Protégé Partners about whether hedge funds can beat money in a low-cost S&P index fund, and the bet is now in its eighth year. The hedge funds Protégé picked started out strong when the bet got underway, but they’ve been underperforming badly since. In 2014, the S&P index fund returned 13.6 percent while the hedge funds posted a 5.6 percent return after fees. Cumulatively The S&P 500 was up more than 63 percent, while the hedge funds gained 19.6 percent.
“Hedge funds haven’t done badly. They’ve been collecting their 2-and-20 in fees,” said Buffett. “The investors in the hedge fund have paid a pretty big price.”
On the future of Berkshire Hathaway
In response to a question about whether Berkshire’s culture will continue once Munger and Buffett are gone, Buffett said the investor is right to be concerned, but “Berkshire’s culture runs as deep as any large company” and will “continue and become even stronger.” He added that once he and Munger are gone, it will become clear that “it’s not the force of personality” that’s driving Berkshire. “It’s institutionalized.” And it will “continue for decades and decades and decades to come. Culture is everything at Berkshire.”
As for any activist push to break up the company when that happens, Buffett said, “The market value of Berkshire is going to be so great that, even if all the activists got together, they couldn’t do much about it.” (Berkshire Hathaway controls over 100 companies with 340,000 employees.)
On the Eurozone
“I think the euro can and probably should survive, but it’s going to take some real transitions for it to do so,” Buffett says. “In its present form, it’s not going to work.”
He said the eurozone had “lowered its standards” by letting in some members into the monetary union, without naming names. Munger said countries like Greece and Portugal were causing strains and “You can’t form a business partnership with your frivolous, drunken brother-in-law.”
Buffett said what China has done so far is “totally miraculous,” adding, “I would have not believed a country of that size could move so far, so fast. They found a way to unlock their potential.” He expects China and the U.S. are going to be the two superpowers going forward, and both countries are better off if they’re both doing well.
On the Internet
“I love it,” Buffett said, adding that it has been a huge change in his life. He said if he has to choose between giving up the Internet, which costs him about $100 a year, or a plane that costs about $1.5 million, he would give up the plane.
Munger was rather optimistic about the outlook for renewable energy. “We’re going to use a lot more renewable energy because fossil fuels aren’t going to last forever,” he said. ”It’s not a threat, it’s a huge benefit to humanity, and I think it’ll be a huge benefit to [Berkshire]. There will be more opportunity in the storage business than disruption.”
Buffett and Munger said that wind and solar at present are dependent on tax credits because a free-market system wouldn’t produce solar under today’s economics, but because Berkshire’s energy unit is part of the company’s consolidated tax return of Berkshire, it has been able to invest far more money than would make sense if it had to do it on a standalone basis.
Greg Abel, widely considered to be a possible successor to Buffett, said 58 percent of the company’s energy will come from wind by end of 2016 and the company has more than $18 billion committed to renewable assets.
On Coca-Cola and sugar
When asked if the “moat is narrowing” for Coca-Cola — one of Berkshire’s top holdings — and other sugary products given the health effects and changing consumer habits, Buffett said, “No company ever does well ignoring its consumer,” but 20 years from now he predicts there will be more Coke cases consumed than now.
”If I lived my whole life eating broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I probably wouldn’t live as long…,” he said. “I don’t see smiles on the faces of people at Whole Foods, so I like the brands we’re buying.”