Billionaire Warren Buffett said artificial intelligence may change the world in all sorts of ways, but new technology won’t take away opportunities for investors, and he’s confident America will continue to prosper over time.
Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger are spending all day Saturday answering questions at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting inside a packed Omaha arena.
“New things coming along doesn’t take away the opportunities. What gives you the opportunities is other people doing dumb things,” said Buffett, who had a chance to try out ChatGPT when his friend Bill Gates showed it to him a few months back.
Buffett reiterated his long-term optimism about the prospects for America even with the bitter political divisions today.
“The problem now is that partisanship has moved more towards tribalism, and in tribalism you don’t even hear the other side,” he said.
Both Buffett and Munger said the United States will benefit from having an open trading relationship with China, so both countries should be careful not to exacerbate the tensions between them because the stakes are too high for the world.
“Everything that increases the tension between these two countries is stupid, stupid, stupid,” Munger said. And whenever either country does something stupid, he said the other country should respond with incredible kindness.
The chance to listen to the two men answer all sorts of questions about business and life attracts people from all over the world to Omaha, Nebraska. Some of the shareholders feel a particular urgency to attend now because Buffett and Munger are both in their 90s.
“Charlie Munger is 99. I just wanted to see him in person. It’s on my bucket list,” said 40-year-old Sheraton Wu from Vancouver. “I have to attend while I can.”
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Chloe Lin, who traveled from Singapore to attend the meeting for the first time and learn from the two legendary investors.
One of the few concessions Buffett makes to his age is that he no longer tours the exhibit hall before the meeting. In years past, he would be mobbed by shareholders trying to snap a picture with him while a team of security officers worked to manage the crowd. Munger has used a wheelchair for several years, but both men are still sharp mentally.
But in a nod to the concerns about their age, Berkshire showed a series of clips of questions about succession from past meetings dating back to the first one they filmed in 1994. Two years ago, Buffett finally said that Greg Abel will eventually replace him as CEO although he has no plans to retire. Abel already oversees all of Berkshire’s noninsurance businesses.
Buffett assured shareholders that he has total confidence in Abel to lead Berkshire in the future, and he doesn’t have a second choice for the job because Abel is remarkable in his own right. But he said much of what Abel will have to do is just maintain Berkshire’s culture and keep making similar decisions.
“Greg understands capital allocation as well as I do. He will make these decisions on the same framework that I use,” Buffett said.
Abel followed that up by assuring the crowd that he knows how Buffett and Munger have handled things for nearly six decades and “I don’t really see that framework changing.”
Although not everyone at the meeting is a fan. Outside the arena, pilots from Berkshire’s NetJets protested over the lack of a new contract and pro-life groups carried signs declaring “Buffett’s billions kill millions” to object to his many charitable donations to abortion rights groups.
Berkshire Hathaway said Saturday morning that it made $35.5 billion, or $24,377 per Class A share, in the first quarter. That’s more than 6 times last year’s $5.58 billion, or $3,784 per share.
But Buffett has long cautioned that those bottom line figures can be misleading for Berkshire because the wide swings in the value of its investments — most of which it rarely sells — distort the profits. In this quarter, Berkshire sold only $1.7 billion of stocks while recording a $27.4 billion paper investment gain. Part of this year’s investment gains included a $2.4 billion boost related to Berkshire’s planned acquisition of the majority of the Pilot Travel Centers truck stop company’s shares in January.
Buffett says Berkshire’s operating earnings that exclude investments are a better measure of the company’s performance. By that measure, Berkshire’s operating earnings grew nearly 13% to $8.065 billion, up from $7.16 billion a year ago.
The three analysts surveyed by FactSet expected Berkshire to report operating earnings of $5,370.91 per Class A share.
Buffett came close to giving a formal outlook Saturday when he told shareholders that he expects Berkshire’s operating profits to grow this year even though the economy is slowing down and many of its businesses will sell less in 2023. He said Berkshire will profit from rising interest rates on its holdings, and the insurance market looks good this year.
This year’s first quarter was relatively quiet compared to a year ago when Buffett revealed that he had gone on a $51 billion spending spree at the start of last year, snapping up stocks like Occidental Petroleum, Chevron and HP. Buffett’s buying slowed through the rest of last year with the exception of a number of additional Occidental purchases.
At the end of this year’s first quarter, Berkshire held $130.6 billion cash, up from about $128.59 billion at the end of last year. But Berkshire did spend $4.4 billion during the quarter to repurchase its own shares.
Berkshire’s insurance unit, which includes Geico and a number of large reinsurers, recorded a $911 million operating profit, up from $167 million last year, driven by a rebound in Geico’s results. Geico benefitted from charging higher premiums and a reduction in advertising spending and claims.
But Berkshire’s BNSF railroad and its large utility unit did report lower profits. BNSF earned $1.25 billion, down from $1.37 billion, as the number of shipments it handled dropped 10% after it lost a big customer and imports slowed at the West Coast ports. The utility division added $416 million, down from last year’s $775 million.
Besides those major businesses, Berkshire owns an eclectic assortment of dozens of other businesses, including a number of retail and manufacturing firms such as See’s Candy and Precision Castparts.
Berkshire again faces pressure from activist investors urging the company to do more to catalog its climate change risks in a companywide report. Shareholders were expected to brush that measure and all the other shareholder proposals aside Saturday afternoon because Buffett and the board oppose them, and Buffett controls more than 30% of the vote.
But even as they resist detailing climate risks, a number of Berkshire’s subsidiaries are working to reduce their carbon emissions, including its railroad and utilities. The company’s Clayton Homes unit is showing off a new home design this year that will meet strict energy efficiency standards from the Department of Energy and come pre-equipped for solar power to be added later.