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Buffett upbeat on US, Berkshire; faults handling of bank failures

2023-05-06T19:59:55Z

Investors and guests arrive for the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders’ meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. May 6, 2023. REUTERS/Rachel Mummey

Warren Buffett on Saturday offered a vote of confidence in the United States and his company Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N), but criticized the handling of recent tumult in the banking sector and said a debt ceiling showdown could bring “turmoil” to the global financial system.

Speaking at the annual meeting of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N), criticized how politicians, regulators and the press have handled the recent failures of Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank and First Republic Bank, saying their “very poor” messaging has unnecessarily frightened depositors.

“Fear is contagious,” and that “you can’t run an economy” when people worry if their money is safe in banks, he said.

Buffett also warned of a growing “tribalism” in Washington where partisanship causes people to talk past each other.

“We have to refine, in a certain way, our democracy as we go along,” he said. “But if I still had a choice, I would want to be born in the United States. It is a better world than we’ve ever had.”

Buffett spoke hours after Berkshire posted a $35.5 billion quarterly profit and said it bought back $4.4 billion of its own stock, a sign it considered the shares undervalued. In contrast, it sold $13.3 billion of other companies’ stocks.

The world’s sixth-richest person has run Berkshire since 1965, and its dozens of businesses include Geico car insurance, the BNSF railroad and consumer names such as Dairy Queen and Fruit of the Loom.

Berkshire also owns $328 billion of stocks, close to half in Apple Inc (AAPL.O).

The meeting featured Buffett, 92, who is Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger answering five hours of shareholder questions. Vice Chairmen Greg Abel, 60, and Ajit Jain, 71, joined in the morning.

Buffett said regulators were right to guarantee depositors of Silicon Valley Bank, saying that not doing so “would have been catastrophic.”

He also said bank shareholders and executives should bear the risks of mismanagement, with Munger criticizing executives concerned more with getting rich than with customers.

“A lighted match can be turned into a conflagration or can be blown out,” Buffett said. “You have to have punishment for people who do the wrong thing.”

Buffett also said he could not imagine politicians or regulators being willing to “disrupt the world’s financial system,” including if Washington failed to break its impasse on raising the debt ceiling, or how much the government could borrow.

Anticipating questions on banking, Buffett put a sign “AVAILABLE FOR SALE” in front of him and “HELD-TO-MATURITY” before Munger, prompting audience laughter.

Saturday’s meeting is the centerpiece of a weekend Buffett calls “Woodstock for Capitalists” that draws tens of thousands of people to Omaha, Nebraska, its hometown.

Attendance surged higher from 2022, with Berkshire receiving ticket requests from 45 countries. Unlike last year the downtown arena hosting the meeting was filled to capacity.

MUNGER: GET USED TO LESS

In discussing Berkshire’s performance, Buffett said perhaps a majority of its operating businesses may fare worse in 2023 than in 2022 as economic activity slows.

But he said Berkshire can offset this with more investment income, including from $7 billion of Treasury bills it bought in April and recently another $3 billion yielding close to 6%.

Buffett defended the size of Berkshire’s $151 billion Apple investment, saying consumers are less likely to shed their $1,500 iPhones than, for example, their $35,000 second cars.

“Apple is different than the other businesses we own,” Buffett said. “It just happens to be a better business.”

Munger prompted muffled groans by saying value investors like himself and Buffett–and much of the audience–“should get used to making less” in part because so many investors are following similar strategies.

A longtime China bull who spearheaded Berkshire’s investment in electric car company BYD Co , Munger also called for lowered tensions and increased trade between that country and the United States.

“It’s in our mutual interest,” he said.

Abel, who oversees Berkshire’s non-insurance businesses and is Buffett’s designated successor as CEO, also said BNSF takes seriously the recent spate industrywide of train derailments, and that “it comes down to responding properly.”

Prior to the meeting, dozens of uniform-clad pilots at Berkshire-owned NetJets demonstrated outside the arena, protesting low pay, long hours and fatigue.

Thousands more lined up outside the arena before its 7 a.m. CDT (1200 GMT). Many recognized it could be one of their last chances to see Buffett and Munger, given their ages.

Vidhya Vivekananda, an investment associate from Vancouver, Canada, said she and her husband showed up 30 minutes earlier for their first meeting.

“It has been on our bucket list for a long time,” she said. “We don’t know how long it will be with Warren and Charlie before they pass it on.”

Yongsheng Zhao, who lives in Shanghai and is a researcher for an asset management firm, said he showed up at midnight with a chair to see Buffett and Munger for an eighth time.

“I am inspired by their passion and normalcy,” he said. “I would hope they can go another five years, or more.”