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As has been the case in years past, Buffett is fielding questions on Berkshire’s business, markets and the economy in an hours-long event. These remarks have been known to move markets, in securities both included and absent from the famed Berkshire portfolio. Last year, Buffett disclosed at the annual meeting that Berkshire had sold out of its entire interest in the airline stocks American Airlines (AAL), United Airlines (UAL), Delta Air Lines (DAL) and Southwest Airlines (LUV) in the first quarter of 2020, sparking a drop in the stocks at the time.
The Oracle of Omaha has typically also used his remarks to impart broader advice about finding success and living a well-rounded life, with these maxims offered in a characteristically optimistic tone.
But in many ways, this year’s meeting looks different from those in the past. The annual event is taking place in a hotel conference room in Los Angeles rather than in an arena in Omaha, Nebraska, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Buffett’s long-time business partner Charlie Munger also returned onstage this year to co-lead the event, after sitting out last year due to 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.
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.”
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.
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Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck