The annual shareholders’ meeting of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A; BRK-B) lived up to attendees’ expectations and provided a lot of fodder for analysts and journalists to chew over and dispute between now and the next annual meeting.
For example, are deep, wide moats still necessary to ensure a product’s success? Buffet thinks so, but Tesla CEO Elon Musk does not. “I think moats are lame,” Musk said earlier this week.
Buffett’s comeback at Saturday’s meeting was typical:
Certainly you should be working at improving your own moat, defending your own moat, all of the time. And Elon may turn things upside down in some areas. I don’t think he’d want to take us on in candy.
Buffett was referring to Berkshire Hathaway’s See’s Candies business. Musk responded with a tweet that he is starting a candy company and “its going to be amazing.” Musk said he was “super super serious” about the promise. Will Buffett start an electric car company? Nah.
On a more sedate note, Buffett “very much” approves of the recently announced $100 billion Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) share buyback. Berkshire Hathaway acquired another 75 million Apple shares in the first quarter of the year and now owns about a 5% stake in the company. The repurchases may lead Berkshire to add to that position in the future leading ultimately to a stake of 6% or 7% in the Cupertino giant.
What about Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN), of which Berkshire owns none? Buffett said he had a good reason for not investing in Amazon:
The truth is that I’ve watched Amazon from the start, and I think what Jeff Bezos has done is something close to a miracle. The problem is if I think something will be a miracle, I tend not to bet on it.
As for Google and Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL), not investing there was a “mistake” Buffett admits.
Buffett is no fan of cryptocurrencies either. The digital currencies are not “productive” assets which means they are worth only what someone is willing to pay for them. In that regard, his comments are similar to comments he has long made about buying gold and echo the annual letter to shareholders from February where Buffett lamented that Berkshire was sitting on a cash pile of $116 billion:
This extraordinary liquidity earns only a pittance and is far beyond the level Charlie [Munger] and I wish Berkshire to have. Our smiles will broaden when we have redeployed Berkshire’s excess funds into more productive assets.
Buffett also stuck by his long-term commitment to Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC) which now amounts to about 10% of the bank’s outstanding stock. He almost seemed to excuse the fake account scandal with a comment that what happened at Wells Fargo could have happened to any bank. The scandal was the result of heavy corporate pressure on branch managers to increase sales. As a result, said Buffett, “Wells Fargo is a company that proved the efficacy of incentives and it’s just that they had the wrong incentives.”
There was more, lots more, on everything from foreign trade to the health insurance project Berkshire has created with JPMorgan and Amazon to Berkshire’s commitment to women in management. That’s why the annual event is known as Woodstock for capitalists.