Buffett says that while BNSF and GEICO have fallen behind competitors, he's confident they'll be able to make improvements. He also says Kraft Heinz is still a good business, despite a big reduction in the value of its brands and some accounting issues. Charlie Munger suggests Buffett's big buy of Apple shares may be "atonement" for missing the chance to buy Google in its early days.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you.
Good morning and welcome to Berkshire Hathaway.
And for those of you who have come from out of state, welcome to Omaha. The city is delighted to have you here at this event.
And for those of you who came from outside of the country, welcome to the United States.
So, we've got people here from all over the world. We've got some overflow rooms that are taking care of people. And we will just have a few preliminaries and then we will move right into the Q&A period.
We'll break about noon for about an hour. We'll come back and do more Q&A until about 3:30. Then we'll adjourn for a few minutes, and then we'll conduct the meeting.
I understand that in the room adjacent, that Charlie has been conducting a little insurgency campaign.
I don't know whether you've seen these, but these are the buttons that are available for those of you — you keep asking questions about succession. And Charlie wants to answer that question by getting your vote today. So, it says — this one says, "Maturity, experience, why accept second best? Vote for Charlie." (Laughter)
I, however, have appointed the monitors who have — collect the votes, so I feel very secure. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: The first thing I'd like to do — Charlie is my partner of 60 years, a director and vice chairman, and we make the big decisions jointly. It's just that we haven't had any big decisions. So, (laughter) we haven't — we're keeping him available for the next big one.
But now at the formal meeting today, we'll elect 14 directors, and you're looking at two of them. And I'd like to introduce the 12 that will be on the ballot at 3:45.
And I'm going to proceed alphabetically. And if they'll stand. If you'll withhold your applause because some of them get sensitive if certain people get more applause than others, and (Laughter) they'll — and if you'll withhold it till I'm finished, then you can applaud or not, as you see fit, having looked at these directors. (Laughter)
So, we'll start on my left. Greg Abel, who's both a chairman and a director. Greg? Yeah, oh, there we are. Right, OK. And going along alphabetically, Howard Buffett, Steve Burke, Sue Decker, Bill Gates, Sandy Gottesman— (applause) — Charlotte Guyman, Ajit Jain, who is also a vice chairman, Tom Murphy, Ron Olson, Walter Scott, and Meryl Witmer. Now you can applaud. (Applause)
WARREN BUFFETT: Now, this morning we posted on our website the quarterly, the 10Q that's required to be filed with the SEC. We published it at 7 o’clock Central Time. And we also published an accompanying press release.
And if we'll put slide one up — these figures as usual require some explanation. As we've mentioned in the annual report, the new GAAP rule of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles require that we mark our securities to market and then report any unrealized gains in our earnings.
And you can see, I've warned you about the distortions from this sort of thing. And, you know, the first quarter of 2019 actually was much like the first quarter of 2018, and I hope very much that newspapers do not read headlines saying that we made $21.6 billion in the first quarter this year against a loss of last year.
These — the bottom line figures are going to be totally capricious, and what I worry about is that not everybody studied accounting in school, or they can be very smart people but that doesn't mean that they've spent any real time on accounting.
And I really regard these bottom line figures, particularly if they're emphasized in the press, as doing — as potentially being harmful to our shareholders, and really not being helpful. So, I encourage you now, and I encourage all the press that's here, focus on what we call our operating earnings, which were up a bit. And forget about the capital gains or losses in any given period.
Now, they're enormously important over time. We've had substantial capital gains in the future; we have substantial unrealized capital gains at the present time; we expect to have more capital gains in the future.
They are an important part of Berkshire, but they have absolutely no predictive value or analytical value on a quarterly basis or an annual basis. And I just hope that nobody gets misled in some quarter when stocks are down and people say, "Berkshire loses money," or something of the sorts. It's really a shame that the rules got changed in that way, but we will report.
But we will also explain, and we will do our best to have the press understand the importance of focusing on operating earnings, and that we do not attract shareholders who think that there's some enormous gain because in the first quarter the stock market was up.
There's one other footnote to these figures that I should point out. It's already been picked up by the wires from our 7 o’clock filing.
We report on Kraft Heinz, of which we own about 27 percent or so. We report on what they call the equity method. Now, most stocks, when you get dividends, that goes into our earnings account, and their undistributed earnings don't affect us. They affect us in a real way, but they don't affect us in an accounting way.
We are part of a control group at Kraft Heinz, so instead of reporting dividends, we report what they call equity earnings.
Kraft Heinz has not filed their 10K for the 2018 year with the SEC. And therefore, they have not released the first quarter of 2019 earnings. Now, normally, we would include our percentage share of those earnings, and we've done that every quarter up till this quarter. But because we do not have those figures, we've just — we've not included anything.
We received 40 cents times — $130 million of dividends in the first quarter from our shares, but that reduces our carrying basis and it is not reflected in the earnings. So, that's an unusual item which we have mentioned, specifically pointed out in our press release as well as included in our own.
But there is nothing in here, plus or minus, for Kraft earnings, Kraft Heinz earnings this year, whereas there was last year. And when we have the figures, obviously we will report them. Let's see what beyond that I want to tell you.
WARREN BUFFETT: I think — oh yes, I'd wanted to mention to you, the Kiewit Company, which has been our landlord since 1962 — 57 years — has owned the building in which Berkshire is headquartered.
Kiewit Company is moving their headquarters and, in the process, will be doing something with the building. And they very generously, as they always have been, they came and said, "What kind of a lease would you like? Since we're leaving, and we've always sort of worked these things out as we've gone along." And so Bruce Grewcock, who runs Kiewit, said, "You just sort of — you name your terms and what you'd like. So, you — no matter with happens with the building, you're all set."
So, I was about to sign a ten-year lease for the present space, but Charlie said, "Ten years might be long enough for me but," he said he would like me to sign one for 20 years, considering.
And — so we are entering a 20-year lease, and I confess to you that we now occupy one full floor, as we have for decades, and the new lease provides for two floors. So, I just want you to know that your management is loosening up just a little bit. (Laughter)
And whether or not we fill them is another question. But we will have that, and I would like to say to Omaha that I think the fact that Berkshire has signed up for 20 years is very good news for the city over time. It — (Applause) OK.
WARREN BUFFETT: And now I would like to tell you something about the people that make all of this possible. This is totally a — this is a homegrown operation.
We started with a few people, meeting in the lunchroom at National Indemnity many years ago. And I think we will probably set another record for attendance today. Yesterday afternoon, 16,200 people came in five hours, and that broke the previous record by a couple thousand.
On Tuesday, the Nebraska Furniture Mart did $9.3 million worth of business. And if any of you are in the retail business, you'll know that that's the yearly volume for some furniture stores, and here in Omaha, the 50th or so largest market in the country, maybe even a little less, $9.3 billion (million) I think probably exceeds anything any home furnishing store's ever done in one day.
And we have people pitching, and we have all the people, virtually all of the people from the home office, some of them, you know, are — they'll take on any task. We have a bunch of people from National Indemnity, for example, that come over, and they've been some of the monitors around.
And in terms of the exhibit hall, more than 600 people from our various subsidiaries give up a weekend to come to Omaha, work very hard, and tomorrow, 4:00 or 4:30, or I should say today at 4:00 or 4:30, they will start packing up things and heading back home. And they come in, and I saw them all yesterday, and they were a bunch of very, very happy, smiling faces. And, you know, they work hard all year, and then they come in and help us out on this meeting.
And then, finally, if we could get a spotlight, I think Melissa Shapiro is someplace here — she runs the whole show. I mean, we — Melissa, where are you? (Applause)
Melissa's name was Melissa Shapiro before she got married, then she married a guy named Shapiro, so now she's Melissa Shapiro Shapiro. So — (Laughter) but she can handle that sort of thing. She handles everything, and never — totally unflappable. Totally organized. Everything gets done. Everybody likes her when they get through. So, I — it's marvelous to get a chance to work with people like this.
I think it's a special quality that — at Berkshire. I think other people would hire some group to put on the meeting and all be very professional and all of that. But I don't think you can get — I don't think you can buy the enthusiasm and energy and help-the-next-guy feeling that you've seen out on that exhibition floor, and you'll see as you meet people here at the hall, and as you meet the people around Omaha. They're very, very happy that you're here.
WARREN BUFFETT: And with that, I would like to start on the questions. We'll do it just as we've done it in recent years. We'll start with the press group. They've received emails from a great many people — perhaps they can tell you how many — and selected the questions they think would be most useful to the Berkshire shareholders.
Yahoo is webcasting this as they've done for several years now, they've done a terrific job for us.
So, this meeting is going out, both in English and in Mandarin, and I hope our results translate well, or our — (laughs) our comments translate well. Sometimes we have trouble with English. But we're going to — we'll start in with Carol Loomis, my friend of 50 years, but you'll never know it by the questions she's going to ask me. (Laughter)
CAROL LOOMIS: I'm going to start, very briefly — this is for the benefit of people who send us questions next year. There are kind of two things that you get wrong a lot of the time. You can't send two-part questions or three-part, et cetera. We need a one-part question. And the other thing is the questions all need to have some relevance to Berkshire, because Warren said when he started it that his hope was that shareholders would come out of the questions with a further education about the company. So, keep those in mind for next year.
CAROL LOOMIS (RETIRED FORTUNE MAGAZINE EDITOR): Many people — a number of people — wrote me about repurchases of stock. And, hence, the question I picked for my first one.
The question, this particular question comes from Ward Cookie (PH), who lives in Belgium and who was still emailing me this morning in reference to the first quarter report.
And he asked, "My question concerns your repurchase of Berkshire shares. In the third quarter of last year, you spent almost 1 billion buying Berkshire B stock at an average price of $207.
"But then you got to a period between December 26th and April 11th when the stock languished for almost four months under 207. And yet, you purchased what I think of as a very limited amount of stock, even as you were sitting on an enormous pile of 112 billion.
"My question is why you did not repurchase a lot more stock? Unless, of course, there was for a time an acquisition of, say, 80 billion to 90 billion on your radar."
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, the question — whether we had 100 billion or 200 billion would not make a difference — or 50 billion — would not make a difference in our approach to repurchase of shares.
We repurchase shares — we used to have a policy of tying it to book value. But that became — really became obsolete. It did not —
The real thing is to buy stock — repurchase shares — only when you think you're doing it at a price where the remaining shareholders have had — are worth more the moment after you repurchased it than they were the moment before.
It's very much like if you were running a partnership and you had three partners in it and the business was worth 3 million, and one of the partners came and said, "I'd like you to buy back my share of the partnership for a billion" — I started out with millions, so I'll stay with millions — "for $1.1 million?" And we said, "Forget it." And if he said, "1 million?" we'd probably say, "Forget it," unless — and if he said, "900,000," we'd take it because, at that point, the remaining business would be worth 2-million-1, and we'd have two owners, and our interest in value would have gone from a million to a million and fifty-thousand.
So, it's very simple arithmetic. Most companies adopt repurchase programs and they just say, "We're going to spend so much." That's like saying, you know, "We're going to buy XYZ stock, and we're going to spend so much here." "We're going to buy a company." "We're going to spend whatever it takes."
We will buy stock when we think it is selling below a conservative estimate of its intrinsic value. Now, the intrinsic value is not a specific point, it's probably a range in my mind that might have a band maybe of 10 percent. Charlie would have a band in his mind, and it would probably be 10 percent. And ours would not be identical, but they'd be very close. And sometimes he might figure a bit higher than I do, a bit lower.
But we want to be sure, when we repurchase shares, that those people who have not sold shares are better off than they were before we repurchased them. And it's very simple.
And in the first quarter of the year, they'll find we bought something over a billion worth of stock, and that's nothing like my ambitions. But it — what that means is that we feel that we're OK buying it, but we don't salivate over buying it.
We think that the shares we repurchased in the first quarter leave the shareholders better off than if we hadn't — the remaining shareholders — better off than if we hadn't bought it. But we don't think the difference is dramatic.
And you will — you could easily see periods where we would spend very substantial sums if we thought the stock was selling at, say, 25 or 30 percent less than it was worth, and we didn't have something else that was even better.
But we have no ambition in any given quarter to spend a dime unless we think you're going to be better off for us having done so. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I predict that we'll get a little more liberal in repurchasing shares. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: I was going to give you equal time, but then — (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, Jon Brandt.
JONATHAN BRANDT (RESEARCH ANALYST, RUANE, CUNNIFF & GOLDFARB): Hi, Warren and Charlie. Thanks for having me, as always.
Every major North American railroad other than Burlington Northern has adopted at least some aspects of precision-scheduled railroading, generally to good effect to their bottom line.
Some believe that point-to-point schedule service and minimal in-transit switching is good for both returns on capital and customer service.
Others believe precision railroading has done little for on-time performance, and its rigidity has jeopardized the compact that railroads have had with both regulators and customers.
Do you and current BNSF management believe that it's now a good idea for BNSF to adopt precision railroading playbook? Or do you agree with its critics?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, precision railroading, as it's labeled, was probably invented by a fellow named Hunter Harrison. I think maybe he was at the Illinois Central Railroad at the time; there's a book that came out about Hunter, who died maybe a year ago or thereabouts. And it describes the — his procedure toward railroading. It's an interesting read if you're interested in railroading.
And he took that to Canadian National, CN. There are six big railroads in North America, and he took that to CN, and he was very successful.
And actually, Bill Gates is probably the largest holder of CN, and I think he's done very well with that stock.
And then later, Canadian Pacific was the subject of an activist, and when they — as they proceeded, they got Hunter to join them and brought in an associate, Keith Creel, who — and they instituted a somewhat similar program. Now the same thing has happened at CSX.
And all of those companies dramatically improved their profit margins, and they had varying degrees of difficulty with customer service in the implementing of it.
But I would say that we watch very carefully — Union Pacific is doing a somewhat modified version. But the — we are not above copying anything that is successful. And I think that there's been a good deal that's been learned by watching these four railroads, and we will — if we think we can serve our customers well and get more efficient in the process, we will adopt whatever we observe.
But we don't have to do it today or tomorrow, but we do have to find something that gets at least equal, and hopefully better, customer satisfaction and that makes our railroad more efficient. And there's been growing evidence that — from the actions of these other four railroads — there's been growing evidence that we can learn something from what they do. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I doubt that anybody is very interested in un-precision in railroading. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, Jonny, has Charlie answered your question? (Laughter)
JONATHAN BRANDT: Yes, thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. Station number 1, from the shareholder group up on my far right.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. My name is Bill Moyer and I'm from Vashon Island, Washington. And I'm part of a team called "The Solutionary Rail Project."
Interestingly, only 3.5 percent of the value of freight in the U.S. moves on trains. Berkshire Hathaway is incredibly well positioned with its investments in the northern and southern trans-con through BNSF to grab far more of that freight traffic off of the roads and get diesel out of our communities, as well as harness transmission corridors for your Berkshire renewable energy assets, for which you're obviously very proud.
Would you consider meeting with us to look at a proposal for utilizing your assets and leveraging a public/private partnership to electrify your railroads and open those corridors for a renewable energy future?
WARREN BUFFETT: No, I — we've examined a lot of things in terms of LNG. I mean, they're — obviously, we want to become more energy efficient, as well as just generally efficient.
And I'm not sure about the value of freight. You mentioned 3 1/2 percent. I believe — I mean, I'm not sure what figure you're using as the denominator there.
Because if you look at movement of traffic by ton miles, rails are around 40 percent of the U.S. — we're not talking local deliveries or all kinds of things like that — but they're 40 percent, roughly, by rail.
And BNSF moves more ton miles than any other entity. We move 15 percent-plus of all the ton miles moved in the United States.
But if you take trucking, for example, on intermodal freight, we're extremely competitive on the longer hauls, but the shorter the haul, the more likely it is that the flexibility of freight, where a truck can go anyplace and we have rails. So, the equation changes depending on distance hauled and other factors, but distance hauled is a huge factor.
We can move a ton mile 500 — we can move 500-plus ton miles of freight for one gallon of diesel. And that is far more efficient than trucks.
So, the long-haul traffic, and the heavy traffic, is going to go to the rails, and we try to improve our part of the equation on that all the time.
But if you're going to transport something ten or 20 or 30 miles between a shipper and a receiver, and they're — you're not going to move that by rail.
So, we look at things all the time, I can assure you.
Carl Ice is in — well, he's probably here now, and he'll be in the other room — and he's running the railroad. You're free to talk to him, but I don't see any breakthrough like you're talking about. I do see us getting more efficient year-by-year-by-year.
And obviously, if driverless trucks become part of the equation, that moves things toward trucking. But on long-haul, heavy stuff, and there's a lot of it, you're looking at the railroad that carries more than any other mode of transportation. And BNSF is the leader. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, over the long term, our questioner is on the side of the angels. Sooner or later, we'll have it more electrified. I think Greg (Abel) will decide when it happens.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. But we're all working on the technology but —
And we're considerably more efficient than ten, 20, 30 years ago, if you look at the numbers. But it —
One interesting figure, I think right after World War II, when the country probably had about 140 million people against our 330 million now, so we had 40 percent of the population. We had over a million-and-a-half people employed in the railroad industry. Now there's less than 200,000 and we're carrying a whole lot more freight.
Now, obviously there's some change in passengers. But the efficiency of the railroads compared to — and the safety — compared to what it was even immediately after World War II has improved dramatically. Charlie, anything more?
CHARLIE MUNGER: No.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, Becky?
BECKY QUICK (CNBC): This is a question that comes from Mike Hebel. He says, "The Star Performers Investment Club has 30 partners, all of whom are active or retired San Francisco police officers. Several of our members have worked in the fraud detail, and have often commented after the years-long fraudulent behavior of Wells Fargo employees, should have warranted jail sentences for several dozen, yet Wells just pays civil penalties and changes management.
"As proud shareholders of Berkshire, we cannot understand Mr. Buffett's relative silence compared to his vigorous public pronouncement many years ago on Salomon's misbehavior. Why so quiet?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, I would say this. The — (applause) — problem, well, as I see it — although, you know, I have read no reports internally or anything like that — but it looks like to me like Wells made some big mistakes in what they incentivized. And as Charlie says, there's nothing like incentives, but they can incentivize the wrong behavior. And I've seen that a lot of places. And that clearly existed at Wells.
The interesting thing is, to the extent that they set up fake accounts, a couple million of them, that had no balance in them, that could not possibly have been profitable to Wells. So, you can incentivize some crazy things.
The problem is — I'm sure is that — and I don't really have any inside information on it at all — but when you find a problem, you have to do something about it. And I think that's where they probably made a mistake at Wells Fargo.
They made it at Salomon. I mean, John Gutfreund would never have played around with the government. He was the CEO of Salomon in 1991. He never would have done what the bond trader did that played around with the rules that the federal government had about government bond bidding.
But when he heard about it, he didn't immediately notify the Federal Reserve. And he heard about it in late April, and May 15th, the government bond auction came along. And Paul Mozer did the same thing he'd done before, and gamed the auction.
And at this point, John Gutfreund — you know, the destiny of Salomon was straight downhill from that point forward. Because, essentially, he heard about a pyromaniac, and he let him keep the box of matches.
And at Wells, my understanding, there was an article in The Los Angeles Times maybe a couple years before the whole thing was exposed, and, you know, somebody ignored that article.
And Charlie has beaten me over the head all the years at Berkshire because we have 390,000 employees, and I will guarantee you that some of them are doing things that are wrong right now. There's no way to have a city of 390,000 people and not need a policeman or a court system. And some people don't follow the rules. And you can incentivize the wrong behavior. You've got to do something about it when it happens.
Wells has become, you know, exhibit one in recent years. But if you go back a few years, you know, you can almost go down — there's quite a list of banks where people behaved badly. And where they — I would not say — I don't know the specifics at Wells — but I've actually written in the annual report that they talk about moral hazard if they pay a lot of people.
The shareholders of Wells have paid a price. The shareholders of Citicorp paid a price. The shareholders of Goldman Sachs, the shareholders of Bank of America, they paid billions and billions of dollars, and they didn't commit the acts. And of course, nobody did go — there were no jail sentences. And that is infuriating.
But the lesson that was taught was not that the government bailed you out because the government got its money back, but the shareholders of the various banks paid many, many billions of dollars.
And I don't have any advice for anybody running a business except, when you find out something is leading to bad results or bad behavior, you know, you — if you're in the top job, you've got to take action fast.
And that's why we have hotlines. That's why we get — when we get certain anonymous letters, we turn them over to the audit committee or to outside investigators.
And we will have — I will guarantee you that we will have some people who do things that are wrong at Berkshire in the next year or five years, ten years, and 50 years. It's — you cannot have 390,000 people — and it's the one thing that always worries me about my job, but — because I've got to hear about those things, and I've got to do something about them when I do hear about them. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I don't think people ought to go to jail for honest errors of judgment. It's bad enough to lose your job. And I don't think that any of those top officers was deliberately malevolent in any way. I just — we're talking about honest errors in judgment.
And I don't think (former Wells Fargo CEO) Tim Sloan even committed honest errors of his judgment, I just think he was an accidental casualty that deserve the trouble. I wish Tim Sloan was still there.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, there's no evidence that he did a thing. But he stepped up to take a job that — where he was going to be a piñata, basically, for all kinds of investigations.
And rightfully, Wells should be checked out on everything they do. All banks should. I mean, they get a government guarantee and they receive trillions of dollars in deposits. And they do that basically because of the FDIC. And if they abuse that, they should pay a price.
If anybody does anything like a Paul Mozier did, for example, with Salomon, they ought to go to jail. Paul Mozier only went to jail for four months. But if you're breaking laws, you should be prosecuted on it.
If you do a lot of dumb things, I wish they wouldn't go away — the CEOs wouldn't go away — so rich under those circumstances. But people will do dumb things. (Applause)
I actually proposed — think it may have been in one of the annual reports even. I proposed that, if a bank gets to where it needs government assistance, that basically the responsible CEO should lose his net worth and his spouse's net worth. If he doesn't want the job under those circumstances, you know (Applause)
And I think that the directors — I think they should come after the directors for the last five years — I think I proposed — of everything they'd received.
But it's the shareholders who pay. I mean, if we own 9 percent of Wells, whatever this has cost, 9 percent of it is being borne by us. And it's very hard to tie it directly.
One thing you should know, incidentally though, is that the FDIC, which was started — I think it was started January 1st, 1934 — but it was a New Deal proposal.
And the FDIC has not cost the United States government a penny. It now has about $100 billion in it. And that money has all been put in there by the banks. And that's covered all the losses of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of financial institutions.
And I think the impression is that the government guarantee saved the banks, but the government money did not save the banks. The banks' money, as an industry, not only has paid every loss, but they've accumulated an extra $100 billion, and that's the reason the FDIC. assessments now are going back down. They had them at a high level. And they had a higher level for the very big banks.
When you hear all the talk about — the political talk — about the banks, they had not cost the federal government a penny. There were a lot of actions that took place that should not have taken place. And there's a lot fewer now, I think, than there were in the period leading up to 2008 and '09. But some banks will make big mistakes in the future. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: I've got nothing to add to that.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. Jay Gelb from Barclays. Barclays just had a proxy contest of sorts, didn't it?
JAY GELB (INSURANCE ANALYST, BARCLAYS): That's right, Warren. (Laughs)
I also have a question on Berkshire Hathaway — I'm sorry — on share buybacks.
Warren, in a recent Financial Times article, you were quoted as saying that the time may come when the company buys back as much as $100 billion of its shares, which equates to around 20 percent of Berkshire's current market cap. How did you arrive at that $100 billion figure? And over what time frame would you expect this to occur?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. I probably arrived at that $100 billion figure in about three seconds when I got asked the question. (Laughter)
It was a nice round figure and we could do it. And we would like to do it if the stock was — we've got the money to buy in $100 billion worth of stock.
And bear in mind, if we're buying in $100 billion stock, it probably would be that the company wasn’t selling at 500 billion. So, it might buy well over 20 percent.
We will spend a lot of money. We've been involved in companies where the number of shares has been reduced 70 or 80 percent over time. And we like the idea of buying shares at a discount.
We do feel, if shareholders — if we're going to be repurchasing shares from shareholders who are partners, and we think it's cheap, we ought to be very sure that they have the facts available to evaluate what they own.
I mean, just as if we had a partnership, it would not be good if there were three partners and two of them decided that they would sort of freeze out the third, maybe in terms of giving him material information that they knew that that third party didn't know.
So, it's very important that our disclosure be the same sort of disclosure that I would give to my sisters who are the imaginary — they're not imaginary — but they're the shareholders to whom I address the annual report every year.
Because I do feel that you, if you're going to sell your stock, should have the same information that's important, that's available to me and to Charlie.
But we will — if our stock gets cheap, relative to intrinsic value, we would not hesitate.
We wouldn't be able to buy that much in a very short period of time, in all likelihood. But we would certainly be willing to spend $100 billion. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: I think when it gets really obvious, we'll be very good at it. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Let me get that straight. What'd you say, exactly?
CHARLIE MUNGER: When it gets really obvious, we'll be very good at it.
WARREN BUFFETT: Oh, yeah. I was hoping that's what you said. (Laughter)
Yeah, we will be good at it. We don't have any trouble being decisive. We don't say yes very often. But if it's something obvious — I mean, Jay, if you and I are partners, you know, and our business is worth a million dollars and you say you'll sell your half to me for 300,000, you'll have your 300,000 very quickly.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, station two.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning. My name is Patrick Donahue from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and I'm with my ten-year-old daughter, Brooke Donahue.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, Warren. Hi, Charlie.
WARREN BUFFETT: Hi. It's Brooke, is it?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It is.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: First, I'm a proud graduate of Creighton University. And I need to say a personal thank you for coming over the years to share your insights. And it's been a tradition since I graduated in 1999 to come to the annual meeting, and thank you for a lifetime of memories.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you. (Applause)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Brooke is a proud Berkshire shareholder and read the letter and had some questions regarding investments that have been made in the past. And she had made some interesting comments about what she thought was a lot of fun.
So, our question for both of you is: outside of Berkshire Hathaway, what is the most interesting or fun personal investment you have ever made? (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, they're always more fun when you make a lot of money off of them. (Laughter)
Well, one time, I bought one share of stock in the Atled Corp. That's spelled A-T-L-E-D. And Atled had 98 shares outstanding and I bought one. And not what you call a liquid security. (Laughter)
And Atled happened to be the word "delta" spelled backwards. And a hundred guys in St. Louis had each chipped in 50 or $100 or something to form a duck club in Louisiana and they bought some land down there.
Two guys didn't come up with their — there were a hundred of them — two of them defaulted on their obligation to come up with a hundred dollars — so there were 98 shares out. And they went down to Louisiana and they shot some ducks.
But apparently somebody shot — fired a few shots into the ground and oil spurted out. And — (laughter) — those Delta duck club shares — and I think the Delta duck club field is still producing. I bought stock in it 40 years ago for $29,200 a share.
And it had that amount in cash and it was producing a lot, and they sold it. If they kept it, that stock might've been worth 2 or $3 million a share, but they sold out to another oil company.
That was certainly — that was the most interesting —
Actually, I didn't have any cash at the time. And I went down and borrowed the money. I bought it for my wife. And I borrowed the money. And the loan officer said, "Would you like to borrow some money to buy a shotgun as well?" (Laughter)
Charlie, tell them about the one you missed. (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I got two investments that come to mind. When I was young and poor, I spent a thousand dollars once buying an oil royalty that paid me 100,000 a year for a great many years. But I only did that once in a lifetime.
On a later occasion, I bought a few shares of Belridge Oil, which went up 30 times rather quickly. But I turned down five times as much as I bought. It was the dumbest decision of my whole life. So, if any of you have made any dumb decisions, look up here and feel good about yourselves. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: I could add a few, but — Andrew?
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN (NEW YORK TIMES/CNBC): Warren and Charlie, this is a question — actually, we got a handful of questions on this topic. This is probably the best formulation of it.
Warren, you have been a long-time, outspoken Democrat. With all the talk about socialism versus capitalism taking place among Democratic presidential candidates, do you anticipate an impact on Berkshire in the form of more regulations, higher corporate taxes, or even calls for breakups among the many companies we own if they were to win?
And how do you think about your own politics as a fiduciary of our company, and at the same time, as someone who has said that simply being a business leader doesn't mean you’ve put your citizenship in a blind trust?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. I have said that you do not put your citizenship in a blind trust. But you also don't speak on behalf of your company. You do speak as a citizen if you speak. And therefore, you have to be careful about when you do speak, because it's going to be assumed you're speaking on behalf of your company.
Berkshire Hathaway certainly, in 54 years, has never — and will never — made a contribution to a presidential candidate. I don't think we've made a contribution to any political candidate. But I don't want to say, for 54 years, that — (Applause)
We don't do it now. We operate in several regulated industries. And our railroad and our utility, as a practical matter, they have to have a presence in Washington or in the state legislatures in which they operate.
So, we have some — a few — I don't know how many — political action committees which existed when we bought it — when we bought the companies at subsidiaries.
And I think, unquestionably, they make some contributions simply to achieve the same access as their competitors. I mean, if the trucking industry is going to lobby, I'm sure the railroad industry's going to lobby.
But — the general — well, the rule is, I mean, that people do not pursue their own political interests with your money here.
We've had one or two managers over the years, for example, that would do some fundraising where they were fundraising from people who were suppliers of them or something of the sort. And if I ever find out about it, that ends promptly.
My position, at Berkshire, is not to be used to further my own political beliefs. But my own political beliefs can be expressed as a person, not as a representative of Berkshire, when a campaign is important.
I try to minimize it. But it's no secret that in the last election, for example, I raised money.
I won't give money to PACs. I accidentally did it one time. I didn't know it was a PAC. But I don't do it.
But I've raised substantial sums. I don't like the way money is used in politics. I've written op-ed pieces for the New York Times in the past on the influence of money in politics.
I spent some time with John McCain many years ago before McCain-Feingold, on ways to try to limit it. But the world has developed in a different way.
WARREN BUFFETT: On your question about the — I will just say I'm a card-carrying capitalist. (Applause)
But I — and I believe we wouldn't be sitting here except for the market system and the rule of law and some things that are embodied in this country. So, you don't have to worry about me changing in that manner.
But I also think that capitalism does involve regulation. It involves taking care of people who are left behind, particularly when the country gets enormously prosperous. But beyond that, I have no Berkshire podium for pushing anything. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I think we're all in favor of some kind of a government social safety net in a country as prosperous as ours.
What a lot of us don't like is the vast stupidity with which parts of that social safety net are managed by the government. It'd be much better if — (applause) — we could do it more wisely. But I think it also might be better if we did it more liberally.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, one of the reasons we're involved in this effort along with J.P. Morgan and Amazon — with (J.P. Morgan CEO) Jamie Dimon and (Amazon CEO) Jeff Bezos — on the medical question, is we do have as much money going — 3.3 or 3.4 trillion — we have as much money going to medical care as we have funding the federal government.
And it's gone from 5 to 17 percent — or 18 percent — while actually the amount going to the federal government has stayed about the same at 17 percent.
So, we hope there's some major improvements from the private sector because I generally think the private sector does a better job than the public sector in most things.
But I also think that if the private sector doesn't do something, you'll get a different sort of answer. And I'd like to think that the private sector can come up with a better answer than the public sector in that respect.
I will probably — it depends who's nominated — but I voted for plenty of Republicans over the years. I even ran for delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1960. But — we are not —
I don't think the country will go into socialism in 2020 or in 2040 or 2060.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, Gregg Warren.
GREGG WARREN (FINANCIAL SERVICES ANALYST, MORNINGSTAR RESEARCH SERVICES): Warren, my first question, not surprisingly, is on share repurchases.
Stock buybacks in the open market are a function of both willing buyers and sellers. With Berkshire having two shares of classes, you should have more flexibility when buying back stock. But given the liquidity difference that exists between the two share classes — with an average of 313 Class A shares exchanging hands daily the past five years, equivalent to around $77 million a day, and an average of 3.7 million Class B shares doing the same, equivalent to around 622 million — Berkshire's likely to have more opportunities to buy back Class B shares than Class A, which is exactly what we saw during the back half of last year and the first quarter of 2019.
While it might be more ideal for Berkshire to buy back Class A shares, allowing you to retire shares with far greater voting rights, given that there's relatively little arbitrage between the two share classes and the number of Class B shares increase every year as you gift your Class A shares to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and your children's foundations, can we assume that you're likely to be a far greater repurchaser of Class B shares, going forward, especially given your recent comments to the Financial Times about preferring to have loyal individuals on your shareholder list, which a price tag of $328,000 of Class A shares seems to engender?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, we will - when we're repurchasing shares, if we're purchasing substantial amounts, we're going to spend a lot more on the Class B than the Class A, just because the trading volume is considerably higher.
We may, from time to time — well, we got offered a couple blocks in history, going back in history from the Yoshi (PH) estate and when we had a transaction exchanging our Washington Post stock for both a television station and shares held — A shares — held by the Washington Post.
So, we may see some blocks of A. We may see some blocks of B. But there's no question. If we are able to spend 25, 50, or a hundred billion dollars in repurchasing shares, more of the money is almost certainly going to be spent on the B than the A.
There's no master plan on that other than to buy aggressively when we like the price. And as I say, the trading volume in the B is just a lot higher than the A in dollar amounts. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: I don't think we care much which class we buy.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. (Laughter)
We would like — we really want the stock — ideally, if we could do it if we were small — once a year we'd have a price and, you know, we'd do it like a private company. And it would be a fair price and people who want to get out could get out. And if other people wanted to buy their interest, fine. And if they didn't, and we thought the price was fair, we'd have the company repurchase it.
We can't do that. But that’s — we don't want the stock to be either significantly underpriced or significantly overpriced. And we're probably unique on the overpriced part of it. But we don't want it.
I do not want the stock selling at twice what's it worth because I'm going to disappoint people, you know. I mean, we can't make it — there's no magic formula to make a stock worth what it's selling for, if it sells for way too much.
From a commercial standpoint, if it's selling very cheap, we have to like it when we repurchase it.
But ideally, we would hope the stock would sell in a range that more or less is its intrinsic business value. We have no desire to hype it in any way. And we have no desire to depress it so we can repurchase it cheap. But the nature of markets is that things get overpriced and they get underpriced. And we will — if it's underpriced, we'll take advantage of it.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, station 3.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, (unintelligible). I am Terry (PH) from Shanghai (unintelligible), which aims to catch the best investment opportunities in that era.
So, my question is, as we all know, 5G is coming. It is said that the mode of all industry will be challenged in 5G era. So, what is the core competence that we should master, if (unintelligible) wants to catch the best investment opportunities in this era? Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, there's no core competence at the very top of Berkshire. (Laughter)
The subsidiaries that will be involved in developments relating to 5G, or any one of all kinds of things that are going to happen in this world, you know, the utility of LNG in the railroad, or all those kinds of questions, we have people in those businesses that know a lot more about them than we do.
And we count on our managers to anticipate what is coming in their business. And sometimes they talk to us about it. But we do not run that on a centralized basis.
And Charlie, do you want to have anything to add to that?
Do you know anything about 5G I don't know? Well, you probably know a lot about 5G.
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, I know very little about 5G.
But I do know a little about China. And we have bought things in China. And my guess is we'll buy more. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. But I mean, we basically want to have a group of managers, and we do have a group of managers, who are on top of their businesses.
I mean, you saw something that showed BNSF and Berkshire Hathaway Energy and Lubrizol all aware of that. Those people know their businesses. They know what changes are likely to be had.
Sometimes, they find things that they can cooperate on between their businesses. But we don't try to run those from headquarters.
And that may mean — that may have certain weaknesses at certain times. I think, net, it's been a terrific benefit for Berkshire.
Our managers, to a great degree, own their businesses. And we want them to feel a sense of ownership. We don't want them to be lost in some massive conglomerate, where they get directions from this group, which is a subgroup of that group.
And I could tell you a few horror stories from companies we bought, when they tell us about their experience under such an operation.
The world is going to change in dramatic ways. Just think how much it's changed in the 54 years that we've had Berkshire. And some of those changes hurt us.
They hurt us in textiles. They hurt us in shoes. They hurt us in the department store business. Hurt us in the trading stamp business. These were the founding businesses of this operation. But we do adjust. And we've got a group, overall, of very good businesses.
We've got some that will be, actually, destroyed by what happens in this world. But that’s — I still am the card-carrying capitalist. And I believe that that's a good thing, but you have to make changes.
We had 80 percent of the people working on farms in 1800. And if there hadn't been a lot of changes, and you needed 80 percent of the people in the country producing the food and cotton we needed, we would have a whole different society.
So, we welcome change. And we certainly want to have managers that can anticipate and adapt to it. But sometimes, we'll be wrong. And those businesses will wither and die. And we'd better use the money someplace else. Charlie? OK, Carol.
Charlie, you haven’t had any peanut brittle lately, you know. (Laughs)
CAROL LOOMIS: This question comes from Vincent James of Munich, Germany. "There has been a lot written about the recent impairment charge at Kraft Heinz. You were quoted as stating that you recognize that Berkshire overpaid for Kraft Heinz. Clearly, major retail chains are being more aggressive in developing house brands.
"In addition, Amazon has announced intentions to launch grocery outlets, being that, as Mr. Bezos has often stated, 'Your margin is my opportunity.' The more-fundamental question related to Kraft Heinz may be whether the advantages of the large brands and zero-based budgeting that 3G has applied are appropriate and defensible at all in consumer foods.
"In other words, will traditional consumer good brands, in general, and Kraft Heinz, in particular, have any moat in their future? My question is, to what extent do the changing dynamics in the consumer food market change your view on the long-term potential for Kraft Heinz?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, actually, what I said was, we paid too much for Heinz — I mean Kraft — I'm sorry — the Heinz part of the transaction, when we originally owned about half of Heinz, we paid an appropriate price there. And we actually did well. We had some preferred redeemed and so on.
We paid too much money for Kraft. To some extent, our own actions had driven up the prices.
Now, Kraft Heinz, the profits of that business, 6 billion — we'll say very, very, very roughly, I'm not making forecasts — but 6 billion pretax on 7 billion of tangible assets, is a wonderful business. But you can pay too much for a wonderful business.
We bought See's Candy. And we made a great purchase, as it turned out. And we could've paid more. But there's some price at which we could've bought even See's Candy, and it wouldn't have worked. So, the business does not know how much you paid for it.
I mean, it's going to earn based on its fundamentals. And we paid too much for the Kraft side of Kraft Heinz.
Additionally, the profitability has basically been improved in those operations over the way they were operating before.
But you're quite correct that Amazon itself has become a brand. Kirkland, at Costco, is a $39 billion brand. All of Kraft Heinz is $26 billion. And it's been around for — on the Heinz side — it's been around for 150 years. And it's been advertised — billions and billions and billions of dollars, in terms of their products. And they go through tens of thousands of outlets.
And here's somebody like Costco, establishes a brand called Kirkland. And it's doing 39 billion, more than virtually any food company. And that brand moves from product to product, which is terrific, if a brand travels. I mean, Coca Cola moves it from Coke to Cherry Coke and Coke Zero and so on.
But to have a brand that can really move — and Kirkland does more business than Coca Cola does. And Kirkland operates through 775 or so stores. They call them warehouses at Costco. And Coca Cola is through millions of distribution outlets.
So, brands — the retailer and the brands have always struggled as to who gets the upper hand in moving a product to the consumers.
And there's no question, in my mind, that the position of the retailer, relative to the brands, which varies enormously around the world. In different countries, you've had 35 percent, even, maybe 40 percent, be private-label brands in soft drinks. And it's never gotten anywhere close to that in the United States. So, it varies a lot.
But basically, retailers — certain retailers — the retail system — has gained some power. And particularly in the case of Amazon and Walmart and their reaction to it, and Costco — and Aldi and some others I can name — has gained in power relative to brands.
Kraft Heinz is still doing very well, operationally. But we paid too much. If we paid 50 billion, you know, it would've been a different business. It'd still be earning the same amount.
You can turn any investment into a bad deal by paying too much. What you can't do is turn any investment into a good deal by paying little, which is sort of how I started out in this world.
But the idea of buying the cigar butts that are declining or poor businesses for a bargain price is not something that we try to do anymore. We try to buy good businesses at a decent price. And we made a mistake on the Kraft part of Kraft Heinz. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, it's not a tragedy that, out of two transactions, one worked wonderfully, and the other didn't work so well. That happens.
WARREN BUFFETT: The reduction of costs, you know — there can always be mistakes made, when you've got places, and you're reorganizing them to do more business with the same number of people.
And we like buying businesses that are efficient to start with. But the management — the operations — of Kraft Heinz have been improved over the present management overall. But we paid a very high price, in terms of the Kraft part. We paid an appropriate price, in terms of Heinz.
WARREN BUFFETT: Jonathan?
JONATHAN BRANDT: Internet-based furniture retailers, like Wayfair, appear willing to stomach large current losses acquiring customers in the hope of converting them to loyal online shoppers.
I've been wondering what this disruptive competition might do to our earnings from home-furnishing retail operations like Nebraska Furniture Mart.
If we have to transition to more of an online model, might we have to spend more heavily to keep shoppers without a corresponding increase in sales? The sharp decline in first-quarter earnings from home furnishings suggest, perhaps, some widening impact from intensifying competition.
Do you believe Wayfair's customers first, profits later model is unsustainable? Or do you think our furniture earnings will likely be permanently lower than they were in the past?
WARREN BUFFETT: I think furnishings — the jury's still out on that, whether the operations which have grown very rapidly in size but still are incurring losses, how they will do over time.
It is true that in the present market, partly because of some successes, like, most dramatically, Amazon, in the past, that investors are willing to look at losses as long as sales are increasing, and hope that there will be better days ahead.
We do a quite significant percentage of our sales online in the furniture operation. That might surprise you. We do the highest percentage in Omaha.
And what's interesting is that we — I won't give you the exact numbers, but it's large — we do a significant dollar volume, but a very significant portion of that volume, people come to the store to pick up, so that they will order something from us online, but they don't seem to mind at all — and they don't have to do it — but they get a pick up at the store.
So, you know, you learn what customers like, just like people learned in fast food, you know, that people would buy a lot of food by going through a drive-in, that they don't want to stop and go into the place. We learn about customer behavior as it unfolds.
But we did do, now — on Tuesday, we did 9.2 million of — or 9.3 million of profitable volume at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. And I think that company had paid-in capital of $2,500. And I don't think anything's been added since. So, it's working so far.
The first quarter — It's interesting — the first quarter was weak at all four of our furniture operations.
But there are certain other parts of the economy — well, just home building, generally — it's considerably below what you would've expected, considering the recovery we have had from the 2008-9 period. I mean, if you look at single-family home construction, the model has shifted more to people living in apartment rentals.
I think it's gone from 69-and-a-fraction percent. It got down to 63 percent. It's bounced up a little bit. But people are just not building — or moving to houses as rapidly as I would have guessed they would have, based on figures prior to 2008 and '09, and considering the recovery we've had, and considering the fact that money is so cheap. And that has some effect on our furniture stores.
But I think we've got a very good furniture operation, not only with the Nebraska Furniture Mart, but at other furniture operations. And we will see whether the models work over the long run.
But I think, you know, they have a reasonable chance. Some things people — we're learning that people will buy some things that they've always gone to the mall or to a retail outlet to buy, that they will do it online. And others don't work so well. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: I think that we'll do better than most furniture retailers.
WARREN BUFFETT: I think that's a certainty overall, overall. But we've got some good operations there.
But we don't want to become a showroom for the online operations and have people come and look around the place and then order someplace else. So, we have to have the right prices. And we're good at that at the Furniture Mart.
WARREN BUFFETT: Station 4.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Warren and Charlie, my name is Brent Muio. I'm from Winnipeg, Canada.
First, thank you for devoting so much time and energy to education. I'm a better investor because of your efforts. But more important, I'm a better partner, friend, son, brother, and soon-to-be first-time father.
There's nothing more important than these relationships. And my life is better, because you're willing to pass on your experience and wisdom.
My path into finance was unconventional. I worked as an engineer for 12 years, while two years ago, I began a career in finance, working for the Civil Service Superannuation Board, a $7 billion public pension fund in Winnipeg.
I work on alternative investments, which include infrastructure, private equity, and private credit. I go to work every day knowing that I'm there to benefit the hardworking current and future beneficiaries of the fund.
Like most asset classes, alternative purchase multiples have increased. More of these assets are funded with borrowed money. And the terms and covenants on this debt are essentially nonexistent.
With this in mind and knowing the constraints of illiquid, closed-end funds, please give me your thoughts on private, alternative investments, the relevancy in public pension funds, and your view on long-term return expectations.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, if you leveraged up investments in just common stocks, and you'd figured a way so that you would have staying power, if there were any market dip, I mean, you'd obviously retain extraordinary returns.
I pointed out, in my investing lifetime, you know, if an index fund would do 11 percent, well, imagine how well you would've done if you'd leveraged that up 50 percent whatever the prevailing rates were over time.
So, a leveraged investment in a business is going to beat an unleveraged investment in a good business a good bit of the time. But as you point out, the covenants to protect debtholders have really deteriorated in the business. And of course, you've been in an upmarket for businesses. And you've got a period of low interest rates. So, it's been a very good time for it.
My personal opinion is, if you take unleveraged returns against unleveraged common stocks, I do not think what is being purchased today and marketed today would work well.
But if you can borrow money, if you can buy assets that will yield 7 or 8 percent, you can borrow enough money at 4 percent or 5 percent, and you don't have any covenants to meet, you're going to have some bankruptcies. But you're going to also have better results in many cases.
It's not something that interests us at all. We are not going to leverage up Berkshire. If we'd leveraged up Berkshire, we'd have made a whole lot more money, obviously, over the years.
But both Charlie and I, probably, have seen some more high-IQ people — really extraordinarily high-IQ people — destroyed by leverage. We saw Long-Term Capital Management, where we had people who could do in their sleep math that we couldn't do, at least I couldn't do, you know, working full time at it during the day and, I mean, really, really smart people working with their own money and with years and years of experience of what they were doing.
And you know, it all turned to pumpkins and mice in 1998. And actually, it was a source of national concern, just a few hundred people. And then we saw some of those same people, after that happened to them once, go on and do the same thing again.
So, I would not get excited about so-called alternative investments. You can get all kinds of different figures. But there may be — there’s probably at least a trillion dollars committed to buying, in effect, buying businesses. And if you figure they're going to leverage them, you know, two for one on that, you may have 3 trillion of buying power trying to buy businesses in — well, the U.S. market may be something over 30 trillion now — but there's all kinds of businesses that aren't for sale and that thing.
So, the supply-demand situation for buying businesses privately and leveraging them up has changed dramatically from what it was ten or 20 years ago.
And I'm sure it doesn't happen with your Winnipeg operation, but we have seen a number of proposals from private equity funds, where the returns are really not calculated in a manner than — well, they're not calculated in a manner that I would regard as honest.
And so I — it's not something — if I were running a pension fund, I would be very careful about what was being offered to me.
If you have a choice in Wall Street between being a great analyst or being a great salesperson, salesperson is the way to make it.
If you can raise $10 billion in a fund, and you get a 1 1/2 percent fee, and you lock people up for ten years, you know, you and your children and your grandchildren will never have to do a thing, if you are the dumbest investor in the world. But —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I think what we're doing will work more safely than what he's doing. And — but I wish him well.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, Brent, you sound — actually, you sound like a guy that I would hope would be working for a public pension fund. Because frankly, most of the institutional funds, you know — well, we had this terrible — right here in Omaha — you can get a story of what happened with our Omaha Public Schools' retirement fund. And they were doing fine until the manager started going in a different direction. And the trustees here — perfectly decent people — and the manager had done OK to that point, and —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, but they are smarter in Winnipeg than they are here.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. Well — (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: That was pretty bad here.
WARREN BUFFETT: It's not a fair fight, actually, usually, when a bunch of public officials are listening to people who are motivated to really just get paid for raising the money. Everything else is gravy after that.
But if you run a fund, and you get even 1 percent of a billion, you're getting $10 million a year coming in. And if you've got the money locked up for a long time, it's a very one-sided deal.
And you know, I've told the story of asking the guy one time, in the past, "How in the world can you — why in the world can you ask for 2-and-20 when you really haven't got any kind of evidence that you are going to do better with the money than you do in an index fund?" And he said, "Well, that's because I can't get 3-and-30," you know. (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: What I don't like about a lot of the pension fund investments is I think they like it because they don't have to mark it down as much as it should be in the middle of the panics. I think that's a silly reason to buy something. Because you're given leniency in marking it down.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. And when you commit the money — in the case of private equity often — you — they don't take the money, but you pay a fee on the money that you've committed.
And of course, you really have to have that money to come up with at any time. And of course, it makes their return look better, if you sit there for a long time in Treasury bills, which you have to hold, because they can call you up and demand the money, and they don't count that.
They count it in terms of getting a fee on it. But they don't count it in terms of what the so-called internal rate of return is. It's not as good as it looks. And I really do think that when you have a group sitting as a state pension fund —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Warren, all they're doing is lying a little bit to make the money come in.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. Yeah, well, that sums it up. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Becky?
BECKY QUICK: This question is from Ken Skarbeck in Indianapolis. He says, "With the full understanding that Warren had no input on the Amazon purchase, and that, relative to Berkshire, it's likely a small stake, the investment still caught me off guard.
"I'm wondering if I should begin to think differently about Berkshire looking out, say, 20 years. Might we be seeing a shift in investment philosophy away from value-investing principles that the current management has practiced for 70 years?
"Amazon is a great company. Yet, it would seem its heady shares ten years into a bull market appear to conflict with being fearful when others are greedy. Considering this and other recent investments, like StoneCo, should we be preparing for change in the price-versus-value decisions that built Berkshire?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. It's interesting that the term "value investing" came up. Because I can assure you that both managers who — and one of them bought some Amazon stock in the last quarter, which will get reported in another week or ten days — he is a value investor.
The idea that value is somehow connected to book value or low price/earnings ratios or anything — as Charlie has said, all investing is value investing. I mean, you're putting out some money now to get more later on. And you're making a calculation as to the probabilities of getting that money and when you'll get it and what interest rates will be in between.
And all the same calculation goes into it, whether you're buying some bank at 70 percent of book value, or you're buying Amazon at some very high multiple of reported earnings.
Amazon — the people making the decision on Amazon are absolutely as much value investors as I was when I was looking around for all these things selling below working capital, years ago. So, that has not changed.
The two people — one of whom made the investment in Amazon — they are looking at many hundreds of securities. And they can look at more than I can, because they're managing less money. And their universe — possible universes — is greater.
But they are looking for things that they feel they understand what will be developed by that business between now and Judgement Day, in cash.
And it's not — current sales can make some difference. Current profit margins can make some difference. Tangible assets, excess cash, excess debt, all of those things go into making a calculation as to whether they should buy A versus B versus C.
And they are absolutely following value principles. They don't necessarily agree with each other or agree with me. But they are very smart. They are totally committed to Berkshire. And they're very good human beings, on top of it.
So, I don't second guess them on anything. Charlie doesn't second guess me. In 60 years, he's never second guessed me on an investment.
And the considerations are identical when you buy Amazon versus some, say, bank stock that looks cheap, statistically, against book value or earnings or something of the sort.
In the end, it all goes back to Aesop, who, in 600 B.C., said, you know, that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
And when we buy Amazon, we try and figure out whether the — the fellow that bought it — tries to figure out whether there's three or four or five in the bush and how long it'll take to get to the bush, how certain he is that he's going to get to the bush, you know, and then who else is going to come and try and take the bush away and all of that sort of thing. And we do the same thing.
And it really, despite a lot of equations you learn in business school, the basic equation is that of Aesop. And your success in investing depends on how well you were able to figure out how certain that bush is, how far away it is, and what the worst case is, instead of two birds being there, and only one being there, and the possibilities of four or five or ten or 20 being there.
And that will guide me. That will guide my successors in investment management at Berkshire. And I think they'll be right more often than they're wrong. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well I — Warren and I are a little older than some people, and —
WARREN BUFFETT: Damn near everybody. (Laughs)
CHARLIE MUNGER: And we're not the most flexible, probably, in the whole world. And of course, if something as extreme as this internet development happens, and you don't catch it, why, other people are going to blow by you.
And I don't mind not having caught Amazon early. The guy is kind of a miracle worker. It's very peculiar. I give myself a pass on that.
But I feel like a horse's ass for not identifying Google better. I think Warren feels the same way.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.
CHARLIE MUNGER: We screwed up.
WARREN BUFFETT: He's saying we blew it. (Laughter)
And we did have some insights into that, because we were using them at GEICO, and we were seeing the results produced. And we saw that we were paying $10 a click, or whatever it might've been, for something that had a marginal cost to them of exactly zero. And we saw it was working for us. So —
CHARLIE MUNGER: We could see in our own operations how well that Google advertising was working. And we just sat there sucking our thumbs. (Laughter)
So, we're ashamed. We're trying to atone. (Laughter)
Maybe Apple was atonement. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: When he says, "Sucking our thumbs," I'm just glad he didn't use some other example. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, Jay?
JAY GELB: This question is on Berkshire's intrinsic value. Warren, in your most-recent annual letter, you discussed a methodology to estimate Berkshire's intrinsic value. However, a major component of Berkshire's value that many investors find challenging to estimate is that of the company's vast and unique insurance business.
Could you discuss how you value the company's insurance unit, based on information Berkshire provides, especially since GAAP book value is not disclosed, of the insurance unit?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, our insurance business gives us a float that's other people's money, which we're temporarily holding, but which gets regenerated all the time, so as a practical matter, it has a very, very long life. And it's probably a little more likely to grow than shrink.
So, we have $124 billion that people have given us. And that's somewhat like having a bank that just consists of one guy. And people come in and deposit $124 billion and promise not to withdraw it forever.
And we've got a very good insurance business. It's taken a very long time to develop it, very long time. In fact, I think we probably have the best property-casualty operation, all things considered, in the world, that I know of, of any size. So, it's worth a lot of money.
It's probably — we think it's worth more to us, and we particularly think it's worth more while lodged inside Berkshire. We'd have a very, very high value on that. I don't want to give you an exact number, because I don't know the exact number. And any number I would have given you in the past would've turned out to be wrong, on the low side.
We have managed to earn money on money that was given to us for nothing and have (inaudible) earnings from underwriting and then have these large earnings from investing. And it's an integral part of Berkshire.
There's a certain irony to insurance that most people don't think about. But if you really are prepared, and you have a diversified property-casualty insurance business — a lot of property business in it — if you're really prepared to pay your claims under any circumstances that come along in the next hundred years, you have to have so much capital in the business that it's not a very good business.
And if you really think about a worst-case situation, the reinsurance — that's insurance you buy from other people, as an insurance company, to protect you against the extreme losses, among other things — that reinsurance probably — could likely be — not good at all.
So, even though you'd think you're laying off part of the risk, if you really take the worst-case examples, you may well not be laying off the risk. And if you keep the capital required to protect against that worst-case example, you'll have so much capital in the business that it isn't worthwhile.
Berkshire is really the ideal form for writing the business. Because we have this massive amount of assets that, in many cases, are largely uncorrelated with natural disasters. And we can — we don't need to buy reinsurance from anybody else. And we can use the money in a more efficient way than most insurance companies.
It's interesting. The three — In the last 30 years, the three largest reinsurance companies — and I'm counting Lloyd's as one company — although it isn't — it's a group of brokers assembled in — underwriters assembled at a given location. But people think of Lloyd's as a massive reinsurance market, which it is, not technically one entity. But if you take the three largest companies — and they're all in fine shape now, they're first-class operations — but all three of them came close to extinction sometime in the last 30 years, or reasonably close.
And we didn't really have any truly extraordinary natural catastrophes. The worst we had was Katrina in, whatever it was, 2006 or thereabouts, 2005. But we didn't have any worst-case situation. And all three of those companies, which everybody looks at as totally good on the asset side, if you show a recoverable from them, two of the three actually made some deals with us to help them in some way. And they're all in fine shape now.
But it's really not a good business if you keep your — as a standalone insurer — if you keep enough capital to really be sure you can pay anything that comes along, under any kind of conditions.
And Berkshire can do that. And it can use the money in ways that it likes to use.
So, it's a very valuable asset. I don't want to give you a figure on it. But we would not sell it. We certainly wouldn't want to sell it for its float value. And that float is shown on the balance sheet as a liability. So, it's extraordinary.
And it's taken a long time to build. It'd be very, very, very hard for anybody to — I don't think they could build anything like it. It just takes so long.
And we continue to plow new ground. If you went in the next room, you would've seen something called "THREE," which is our movement toward small and medium business owners for commercial insurance. And there's an online operation.
And it will take all kind — we'll do all kinds of mid-course adjusting and that sort of thing — and we've only just started up in four states.
But we'll, you know — ten or 20 years from now, that will be a significant asset of Berkshire, just like Geico has grown from two and a fraction billion of premium to, you know, who knows, but well into the mid-30 billion, just with Tony Nicely. And when I said, in the annual report, that Tony Nicely, who's here today —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Warren, is there anybody in the world who has a big casualty insurance business that you'd trade our business for theirs?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, oh, no, it's taken a long time. And it's taken some tremendous people. And Tony Nicely has created more than 50 billion — with his associates, and he's got 39,000 of them, probably more now, because he's growing this year — he's created more than $50 billion at GEICO — of value — for Berkshire. (Applause)
CHARLIE MUNGER: It's pretty much what you'd expect. It's such an easy business, taking in money now in cash and just keeping the books and giving a little of it back.
There's a lot of stupidity that gets into it. And if you're not way better than average at it, you're going to lose money in the end. It's a mediocre business for most people. And it's good at Berkshire only because we're a lot better at it. And if we ever stop being a lot better at it, it wouldn't be safe for us, either.
WARREN BUFFETT: And Ajit Jain has done a similar thing. He's done it in a variety of ways within the insurance business. But I would not want to undo — somebody would have to give me more than $50 billion to undo everything he has produced for Berkshire.
And he walked into my office on a Saturday in the mid-1980s. He'd never been in the insurance business before. And I don’t think there's anybody in the insurance world that doesn't wish that he'd walked into their office instead of ours, at Berkshire. It's been extraordinary. It's truly been extraordinary.
But we have Tom Nerney. We have Tim Kenesey at MedPro. We have Tom Nerney at U.S. Lability.
We have — at GUARD Insurance — we only bought that a few years ago, and that's a terrific operation. It's based in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Who would expect to find a great insurance operation in Wilkes-Barre?
But we've got a great insurance — really great — insurance operation right here in Omaha, about two miles from here. And it was bought by us in 1967. And you know, it changed Berkshire. We built on that base.
We've got a — we really got a great insurance business. And I won't give you a number, but it's probably a bigger number than you've got in your head for — and it's worth more within Berkshire than it would be worth as an independent operation.
Somebody can say, "Well, this little gem, if it was put out there, would sell at a higher multiple," or something of the sort. It works much better as being part of a whole, where we have had two tiny operations — two tiny insurance operations — many, many years ago. And they both went broke. The underwriting was bad. But we paid all the claims. We did not walk away. We paid every dime of claims.
And nobody worries about doing any kind of financial transaction with Berkshire. And you know that today — on Saturday — about 9 in the morning, I got a phone call. And we made a deal the next day committing Berkshire to pay out $10 billion, come hell or high water, no outs for, you know, material adverse change or anything like that. And people know we'll be there with $10 billion.
And they know, in the insurance business, when we write a policy that may come — be payable during the worst catastrophe in history, or may be payable 50 years from now, they know Berkshire will pay. And that's why we've got $124 billion of float.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, station 5.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hey, Warren and Charlie. I'm Neil Nerrono (PH). I'm 13 years old and from San Francisco.
I feel like I see you in our living room a lot. My dad is constantly playing these videos of you at these meetings. And he teaches me a lot of lessons about you guys. But many of them require the delayed gratification skill. (Laughter)
I want to know, is there any way that kids can develop the delayed gratification skill? (Laughter and applause)
CHARLIE MUNGER: I'll take it, if you want me to, Warren.
WARREN BUFFETT: Go to it.
CHARLIE MUNGER: I'll take that, because I'm a specialist in delayed gratification. I've had a lot of time to delay it. (Laughter)
And my answer is that they sort of come out of the womb with the delayed gratification thing, or they come out of the womb where they have to have everything right now. And I've never been able to change them at all. So, we identify it. We don't train it in.
WARREN BUFFETT: Charlie's had eight children, so he's become more and more of a believer in nature versus nurture. (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: You'll probably see some nice, old woman of about 95 out there, in threadbare clothing. And she's delaying gratification right to the end and probably has 4,000 A shares. (Laughter)
It's just these second- and third-generation types that are buying all the jewelry.
WARREN BUFFETT: It's interesting. If you think about — we'll take it to a broader point. But if you think of a 30-year government bond paying 3 percent, and you allow for, as an individual, paying some taxes on the 3 percent you'll receive, and you'll have the Federal Reserve Board saying that their objective is to have 2 percent inflation, you'll really see that delayed gratification, if you own a long government bond, is that, you know, you get to go to Disneyland and ride the same number of rides 30 years from now that you would if you did it now.
The low interest rates, for people who invest in fixed-dollar investments, really mean that you really aren't going to eat steak later on if you eat hamburgers now, which is what I used to preach to my wife and children and anybody else that would listen, many years ago. (Laughs)
So, it's — I don't necessarily think that, for all families, in all circumstances, that saving money is necessarily the best thing to do in life. I mean, you know, if you really tell your kids they can —whatever it may be — they never go to the movies, or we'll never go to Disneyland or something of the sort, because if I save this money, 30 years from now, you know, well, we'll be able to stay a week instead of two days.
I think there's a lot to be said for doing things that bring you and your family enjoyment, rather than trying to save every dime.
So, I — delayed gratification is not necessarily an unqualified course of action under all circumstances. I always believed in spending two or three cents out of every dollar I earn and saving the rest. (Laughter)
But I've always had everything I wanted. I mean, one thing you should understand, if you aren't happy having $50,000 or a hundred-thousand dollars, you're not going to be happy if you have 50 million or a hundred million.
I mean, a certain amount of money does make you feel — and those around you — feel better, just in terms of being more secure, in some cases.
But loads and loads of money — I probably know as many rich people as just about anybody. And I do not — I don't think they're happier because they get super rich. I think they are happier when they don't have to worry about money.
But you don't see a correlation between happiness and money, beyond a certain place. So, don't go overboard on delayed gratification. (Applause)
WARREN BUFFETT: Andrew?
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: This question comes from a shareholder of yours for more than 20 years, who asked to remain anonymous, but wanted me to start by saying, "Warren and Charlie, I want to preface this question by saying it comes from a place of love for both of you and the beautiful painting you've drawn for us in the form of Berkshire."
WARREN BUFFETT: But. (Laughter)
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: "Now, please update us on succession planning. And as you think about succession, would you ever consider having Greg (Abel) and Ajit (Jain) join you onstage at future annual meetings and allow us to ask questions of them and Ted and Todd, as well, so we can get a better sense of their thinking?"
WARREN BUFFETT: That's probably a pretty good idea. And we've talked about it. (Applause)
We have Greg and Ajit here. And any questions that anybody wants to direct to them, it's very easy to move them over.
So, we thought about having four of us up here. And this format is not set in stone at all.
Because you — I can tell you that, actually, the truth is, Charlie and I are afraid of looking bad. Those guys are better than we are. (Laughs)
You could not have two better operating managers than Greg and Ajit. I mean, they are — it is just fantastic, what they accomplished.
They know the businesses better. They work harder, by far. And you are absolutely invited to ask questions to be directed over to them at this meeting. I don't think —
Yeah, this format will not be around forever. And if it's better to get them up on the stage, we'll be happy to do it.
Ted (Weschler) and Todd (Combs), they're basically not going to answer investment questions. We regard investment decisions as proprietary, basically. They belong to Berkshire. And we are not an investment advisory organization. So, that is counter to the interests of Berkshire for them to be talking about securities they own. It's counter to the interests of Berkshire for Charlie or me to be doing it.
We've done better because we don't publish every day what we're buying and selling. I mean, if somebody's working on a new product at Apple, or somebody's working on a new drug or they're assembling property or something of the sort, they do not go out and tell everybody in the world exactly what they're doing every day.
And we're trying to generate ideas in investment. And we do not believe in telling the world what we're doing every day, except to the extent that we're legally required. But it's a good idea. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, one of the reasons we have trouble with these questions is because Berkshire is so very peculiar. There's only one thing like it.
We have a different kind of unbureaucratic way of making decisions. There aren't any people in headquarters. We don't have endless committees deliberating forever and making bad decisions. We just — we're radically different. And it's awkward being so different. But I don't want to be like everybody else, because this has worked better. So, I think you're just going to have to endure us. (Laughter and applause)
WARREN BUFFETT: We do think that it's a huge corporate asset, which may only surface very occasionally and depending very much on how the world is around us. But to be the one place, I think, in the world, almost, where somebody can call on a Saturday morning and meet on Sunday morning and have a $10 billion commitment.
And nobody in the world doubts whether that commitment will be upheld. And it's not subject to any kind of welching on the part of the company that's doing it. It's got nothing involved over than Berkshire's word. And that's an asset that, every now and then, will be worth a lot of money to Berkshire. And I don't really think it will be subject to competition.
So — and Ted and Todd, in particular, are an additional pipeline, and have proven to be an additional pipeline, in terms of facilitating the exercise of that ability. I mean they — things come in through them that, for one reason or another, I might not hear about otherwise.
So, they have expanded our universe. In the markets we've had in recent years, that hasn't been important. I can see periods where they would be enormously valuable. Just take the question that was raised by the fellow from Winnipeg about weak covenants and bonds.
I mean, we could have a situation — who knows when, who knows where, or who knows whether — but we could have a situation where there could be massive defaults in the junk-bond-type market. We've had those a couple times. And we made a fair amount of money off of them.
But Ted and Todd would multiply our effectiveness in a big way, if such a period comes along, or some other types of periods come along. They are very, very, very useful to Berkshire.
The call happened to come in on Friday from Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America. And he's done an incredible job. But we have a better chance of getting more calls and having them properly filtered and everything — appropriately filtered — the next time conditions get chaotic than we did last time. And that's important.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I do think it's true that if the world goes to hell in a hand basket, that you people will be in the right company. We've got a lot of cash and we know how to behave well in a panic. And if the world doesn't go to hell, are things so bad now?
CHARLIE MUNGER: And I also want to report that your vice chairman is getting new social distinction.
I've been invited during this gathering to go to a happy hour put on by the bitcoin people. (Laughter)
And I've tried to figure out what the bitcoin people do in their happy hour, and I finally figured it out. They celebrate the life and work of Judas Iscariot. (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: Is your invitation still good? (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Bitcoin — actually — on my honeymoon in 1952, my bride, 19, and I, 21 — stopped in Las Vegas. We just got in — my aunt Alice gave me the car and said, "Have a good time," and we went west.
So, we stopped in the Flamingo, and I looked around, and I saw all of these well-dressed — they dressed better in those days — well-dressed people who had come, in some cases, from thousands of miles away. And this was before jets, so transportation wasn't as good.
And they came to do something that every damn one of them knew was mathematically dumb. And I told Susie, I said, "We are going to make a lot of money." (Laughter)
I mean, imagine people going to stick money on some roulette number with a zero and a double-zero there and knowing the percent. They all could do it, and they — they just do it. And I have to say, bitcoin has rejuvenated that feeling in me. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, Gregg?
GREGG WARREN: Warren and Charlie. While I understand Berkshire's need to trim its stake in Wells Fargo and any other banks you hold, each year, in order to bring Berkshire's ownership stake below the 10 percent threshold required by the Federal Reserve for bank holdings, given the ongoing share repurchase activity that's taking place in the industry.
I was kind of surprised, though, to see you move to trim all of your holdings, where possible, on a regular basis to eliminate the regulatory requirements that come with ownership levels above 10 percent, which in my view limits the investment universe that Berkshire, or at least Warren, can meaningfully invest in longer term, given that Warren manages a large chunk of Berkshire's $200 billion equity portfolio.
Could you elaborate more on the regulatory impact for Berkshire of holding more than 10 percent of any company's stock, as well as how you feel about the Fed's recent proposal to allow investors like Berkshire to own up to 25 percent shares of a bank without triggering more restrictive rules and oversight?
Basically, if that proposal were to come to fruition, would you be willing to forego that 10 percent threshold self-imposed that you've done, and put money to work in names that you're already fairly comfortable with?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, the 10 percent, there's a couple reasons —
CHARLIE MUNGER: That's the right answer. Yeah. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: We will — there's two factors beyond in the case of banks. There's the Federal Reserve requirement there. But many people probably don't even — might not know about this, but if you own over 10 percent of a security — common stock — and you sell it within six months at a profit, you give the money over to the company, the short-swing profit that you give them.
And you match your — any sale against your lowest purchase. And I think if you sell it and then buy it within six months — I'm not as positive about that, because I haven't reread the rule for a lot of years. But I think if you sell and then buy within six months, and the purchase is below the price at which you made the sale, you owe the money to the company.
There used to be lawyers that would scan that monthly SEC report that I used to get 30 or 40 years ago. They would scan it to find people that inadvertently had broken that rule, and they would get paid a fee for recovering it for the company.
So, it restricts enormous — it restricts significantly your ability to reverse a position or change your mind or something of the sort.
Secondly, I think you have to report within two or three business days every purchase you make once you're in that over 10 percent factor. So, you're advertising to the world, but the world tends to follow us some, so it really — it has a huge execution cost attached to it.
Nevertheless — and those are both significant minuses, and they're both things that people generally don't think about.
We did go over recently, for example, in Delta Airlines, that was actually an accident, but I don't mind the fact at all that we did.
And if the Federal Reserve changes its approach, we won't have to trim down below that. We don't want to become a bank holding company and we don't want to —
We went in many years ago and got permission with Wells, but then our permission expired, and we went in again a few — a couple years ago. And we spent a year or so, and there were just a million questions that Wells got asked about us and so on.
So, it's been a deterrent. It'll be less of a deterrent in the future, but it does have those two —
The short-swing thing is less onerous to us than it would be to most people who buy and sell stocks, because we don't really think in terms of doing much.
CHARLIE MUNGER: But if we didn't have all these damn rules, we would cheerfully buy more, wouldn't we?
WARREN BUFFETT: Sure, sure. Well, any time we buy we do it cheerfully, but —
Yeah. And we will — you'll probably see us at more than 10 percent in more things. And if the Fed should change its rules, there will be companies where we drift up over 10 percent simply because they're repurchasing their shares. That's been the case with Wells, and it's been the case with an airline or two in the last year or so.
So, if we like 9.5 percent of a company, we'd like 15 percent better, and you may see us behave a little differently on that in the future.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, one more awkward disadvantage of being extremely rich.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. (Laughter)
And it really is. Yeah, and people following you. I mean, the followers problem can be a real problem.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, station 6.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. I'm Jeff Malloy (PH) from San Francisco. And this is my first shareholders meeting.
Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger, I'm 27 years old and aspire to be a great money manager like you two one day.
I'm considering starting my own investment fund, but I also recognize that I am young and have a lot to learn. My question to both of you is, how did you know you were ready to manage other people's money? And what general advice would you give to someone in my shoes? Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, that's a very interesting question, because I've faced that. And I sold securities for a while, but in May of 1956, I had a number of members of my family — I'd come back from New York, and they wanted me to help them out with stocks as I had earlier before I'd taken a job in New York. And I said, I did not want to get in the stock sales business, but I wanted to — I enjoyed investing. I was glad to figure out a way to do it, which I did through a partnership form.
But I would not have done that, if I thought there was any chance, really, that I would lose the money.
And what I was worried about was not how I would behave, but how they would behave, because I needed people who were in sync with me. So, when we sat down for dinner in May of 1956 with seven people who either were related to me, or one was a roommate in college and his mother.
And I showed them the partnership agreement, and I said, "You don't need to read this." You know, there's no way that I'm doing anything in the agreement that is any way that — you know, you don't need a lawyer to read it or anything of the sort.
But I said, "Here are the ground rules as to what I think I can do and how I want to be judged, and if you're in sync with me, I want to manage your money, because I won't worry about the fact that you will panic if the market goes down or somebody tells you to do something different. So, we have to be on the same page."
"And if we're on the same page, then I'm not worried about managing your money. And if we aren't on the same page, I don't want to manage your money, because you may be disappointed when I think that things are even better to be investing and so on."
So, I don't you want to manage other people's money until you have a vehicle and can reach the kind of people that will be in sync with you. I think you ought to have your own ground rules as to what your expectations are, when they should you roses and when they should throw bricks at you.
And you want to be on the same — and that's one reason I never — we didn't have a single institution in the partnership, because institutions meant committees, and committees meant that —
CHARLIE MUNGER: You had some aunts that trusted you.
WARREN BUFFETT: What's that?
CHARLIE MUNGER: You had some aunts who trusted you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, well, and a father-in-law who gave me everything he had in the world, you know. And I didn't mind taking everything he had in the world, as long as he would stick with me and wouldn't get panicked by headlines and that sort of thing.
And so, it's enormously important that you don't take people that have expectations of you that you can't meet. And that means you turn down a lot of people. It means you probably start very small, and you get an audited record.
And when you've got the confidence, where if your own parents came to you and they were going to give you all their money, and you were going to invest for them, I think that's the kind of confidence that you'll say, "I may not get the best record, but I'll be sure that you get a decent record over time," that's when you're ready to go on the —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Let me tell you story that I tell young lawyers who frequently come to me and say, "How can I quit practicing law and become a billionaire instead?" (Laughter)
So, I say, well, it reminds me of a story they tell about Mozart. A young man came to him, and he said, "I want to compose symphonies. I want to talk to you about that."
And Mozart said, "How old are you?" And the man said, "Twenty-two." And Mozart said, "You're too young to do symphonies." And the guy says, "But you were writing symphonies when you were ten years old." He says, "Yes, but I wasn't running around asking other people how to do it." (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Carol?
We wish you well. (Laughter)
And we, and actually, we really do, because the fact you asked that sort of a question is to some extent indicative of the fact you got the right attitude going in.
CHARLIE MUNGER: It isn't that easy to be a great investor. I don't think we'd have made it.
CAROL LOOMIS: This question is from Franz Traumburger (PH) of Austria and his son, Leon, who are both Berkshire shareholders. And it's interesting to me that in the years we've been doing this, nobody has ever asked this question, as far as I know.
Their question is, "Mr. Buffett, I believe it is correct that in its SEC filings — that is the Securities and Exchange Commission — Berkshire does not have to give information about foreign stocks it holds.
"Assuming we hold foreign stocks, could you please tell us what our five largest positions are?"
WARREN BUFFETT: No, the fellow wants investment information. We really aren't in the investment information business. We disclose what we have to disclose, but we could set up an investment advisory firm and probably take in a lot of money, but we haven't done it. And we aren't giving away what belongs to our shareholders for nothing.
But he's correct that — I'm 99 percent sure he's correct, and Marc Hamburg can correct me from our office — but we do not have to report foreign stocks.
And we do have — in certain important countries, there's lower thresholds at which we have to report our holdings, as a percentage of the company stock outstanding — there's lower thresholds than there are in the United States.
So, in a sense — in certain stocks. I think when we bought Munich Re stock or bought Tesco stock, or there are certain stocks we've had to report at — before we would have had to report in the United States.
But we will never unnecessarily advise if we plan to buy some land some place, if we plan to develop a business — we are not about giving business information that's proprietary to Berkshire. We don't give it unless we're required by law.
And he is correct that, I'm virtually certain that we do not have to report our foreign stocks on the SEC filings. And he'll have to find his own holdings in Austria.
But I think this Mozart story may have encouraged that particular question from Austria, what stocks we're going to own in Austria. OK, Charlie, do you have any comments on that?
CHARLIE MUNGER: No.
WARREN BUFFETT: No, I didn't think you would. (Laughs)
WARREN BUFFETT: Jonny?
JONATHAN BRANDT: Precision Castparts' pre-tax profit margins, while perfectly fine relative to American industry as a whole, continue to be almost 10 percentage points below where they were in the years preceding the acquisition. And I'm guessing they're lower than contemplated when the purchase price was determined.
The annual report hints that unplanned shutdowns, the learning curve on new plane models, and a shift of oil and gas capacity to aerospace, might all be temporarily depressing margins. But it's unclear what a reasonable, long-term margin expectation is for this unit.
Now, I know you won't want to issue a specific margin target or forecast, but I do have a question that I hope you can answer.
Is the downward trend in earning since 2015 mostly due to these transitory items, or have the competitive structure of the industry and Precision's relationship with its customers changed to the point that meaningful increases from current margin levels are probably unlikely?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. Your prelude is quite correct. I mean, they are below what we projected a few years ago. And my expectation — but I would have told you this a year ago — and they have improved somewhat.
My expectation is, based on the contracts we have and the fact that the initial years in anything in the aircraft industry, for example, tend to be less profitable as you go further down the learning curve and the volume curve, tend to be lower in the near-term. My expectation is that the earnings of Precision will improve fairly significantly.
And I think I mentioned maybe to you last year, in those earnings, there is about $400 million a year of purchase amortization, which are economic earnings in my viewpoint.
So — but even including that 400 million a year, which they would be reporting if they were independent, and we don't report, because we bought them and there's a purchase amortization charge. Even without that, they are below what I would anticipate by a fair margin within a year or two. That's the present expectation on my part. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, I don't have anything.
WARREN BUFFETT: You'll have that question for me next year, and I think I'll be giving you a different answer.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, station 7.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good morning Mr. Buffett, Mr. Munger. My name is JC. (PH) I am 11 years old, and I came from China. This is my second year at the meeting.
Mr. Munger, it's great to see you again after the Daily Journal meeting in February.
Mr. Buffett, you mentioned that the older you get, the more you understood about human nature. Could you elaborate more about what you've learned, and how can the differences of human nature help you make a better investment? I would also like Mr. Munger to comment on that, please. Thank you very much. (Applause)
WARREN BUFFETT: You should wait for Charlie's answer, because he's even older. (Laughter)
He can tell you more about being old than I can even.
It's absolutely true that virtually any yardstick you use, I'm going downhill. And, you know, if I would take an SAT test now, and you could compare it to a score of what I was in my early 20s, I think it'd be quite embarrassing. (Laughs)
And Charlie and I can give you a lot of examples, and there's others we won't tell you about how things decline as you get older.
But I would say this. It's absolutely true in my view that you can and should understand human behavior better as you do get older. You just have more experience with it. And I don't think you can read — Charlie and I read every book we could on every subject we were interested in, you know, when we were very young. And we learned an enormous amount just from studying the lives of other people.
And — but I don't think you can get to be an expert on human behavior at all by reading books, no matter what your I.Q. is, no matter who the teacher is. And I think that you really do learn a lot about human behavior. Sometimes you have to learn it by having multiple experiences.
I actually think I, despite all the other shortcomings — and I can't do mental arithmetic as fast as I used to, and I can't read as fast as I used to.
But I do think that I know a lot more about human behavior than I did when I was 25 or 30 —
CHARLIE MUNGER: I'll give you — do you want one mantra? It comes from a Chinese gentleman who just died, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the greatest nation builder probably that ever lived in the history of the world.
And he said one thing over and over and over again all his life. "Figure out what works, and do it." If you just go at life with that simple philosophy from your own national group, you will find it works wonderfully well. Figure out what works, and do it.
WARREN BUFFETT: And figuring out what works means figuring out how other people —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Of course.
WARREN BUFFETT: — behave.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Of course.
WARREN BUFFETT: And Charlie and I have seen the extremes in human behavior, in so many unexpected ways.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Now we get it every night, extremes in human behavior. All you got to do is turn on the television.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. I'm glad he used that example. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, Becky?
BECKY QUICK: Warren, you mentioned, in response to an earlier question, that Ajit (Jain) and Greg (Abel) are both here to answer questions, and so I thought I'd ask this question that comes from Will in Seattle. He says, his question is for Mr. Ajit Jain and Mr. Warren Buffett.
"You have said that you communicate regularly about unconventional insurance contracts that expose the company to extremely unlikely but highly costly events. I'm curious about how you think about and safely price these unconventional insurance contracts. What analyses and mental checks do you run through your head, to make sure that Berkshire Hathaway will profit without being unduly exposed to catastrophic risk?
"Furthermore, Mr. Buffett, would you want a future CEO to continue a similarly close collaboration with the chief underwriter?"
WARREN BUFFETT: We will get a microphone to Ajit and a spotlight in just a second. And there he is.
Ajit, why don't you answer first, if you'd like to?
AJIT JAIN: Hi. Obviously, the starting point, I mean, these situations where there's not enough data to hang your hat on, it's more of an art than a science.
We start off with as much science as we can use, looking at historical data that relates to the risk in particular, or something that comes close to relating to the risk that we're looking at.
And then beyond that, if there's not enough historical data we can look at, then clearly, we have to make a judgment in terms of, what are the odds of something like that happening?
We try — we absolutely, in situations like that, we absolutely make sure we cap our exposure. So, that if something bad happens or we've got something wrong, we absolutely know that how much money we can lose and whether we can absorb that loss without much pain to the income statement or the balance sheet.
In terms of art, it's a difficult situation. More often than not, it's impossible to have a point of view, and we end up passing on it.
But every now and then, we think we can get a price where the subjective odds we have of something like that happening has a significant margin of safety in it. So, we feel it's a risk that's worth taking.
Then finally, the absolute acid test is, I pick up the phone and call Warren. "Warren, here's a deal. What do you think?" (Laughter) OK. Your turn, Warren.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. (Applause)
CHARLIE MUNGER: It's not easy, and you wouldn't want just anybody doing it for you.
WARREN BUFFETT: No, no. In fact, the only one I would want doing it for us on the kind of things we have sometimes received is Ajit. I mean, it's that simple. There isn't anybody like him.
And as Ajit said, we'll look at a worst case, but we are willing, if we like the odds, and like you say, there's no way to look these up.
We can tell you how many 6.0 or greater earthquakes have happened in the last hundred years in Alaska or California or so on. And there's a lot of things you can look up figures on. Sometimes those are useful, and sometimes they aren't. But there's a lot where you can get a lot of data.
And then there's others that — well, after 9/11, you know, was that going to be the first of several other attacks that were going to happen very quickly? There were planes flying that couldn't — well they couldn't land in Hong Kong, as I remember. I think it was Cathay Pacific couldn't land in Hong Kong the following Monday unless they had a big liability coverage placed with somebody.
I mean, the world had to go on. The people that held mortgages on the Sears Tower all of a sudden wanted coverage. —I think that actually was one — but they were just pouring in, of people that hadn't been worried about something a week earlier, and now they were worried about things involving huge sums.
And there were really only a couple people in the world that would even listen and had the capacity to take on a lot of the deals we were proposed. And there's no book to look up. So, you do — there's a big element of judgment.
Ajit and I — I mean, Ajit's a hundred times better at this than I am, but we do tend to think alike on this sort of thing. You don't want to think too much alike, but we think alike. I've got a willingness to lose a lot of money.
And most, well, virtually every insurance company if they get up to higher limits, they've got treaties in place, and they can only take this much. So, the world was paralyzed on that.
We don't get those, but now obviously. But we do occasionally get inquiries about doing things that really nobody else in the world can do. It's a little like our investment situation, only transferred over to insurance. We don't build a business around it, but we are ready when the time comes.
And Ajit is an asset that no other company in the world has. And we work him. And we actually enjoy a lot talking to each other about these kind of risks, because he'll ask me to think about what the price should be. And he'll think about — we don't tell each other ahead of time. And then I'll name it, and then he'll say, "Have you lost your mind, Warren?" (Laughs)
And then he'll point something out to me that I've overlooked. And it's a lot of fun, and it's made us a lot of money.
And the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway are extraordinarily lucky. You can't hire people like Ajit. I mean, you get them once in a lifetime. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: I don't think we helped him very much. It's really difficult.
WARREN BUFFETT: There will be a time when — I mean, I probably won't be around then — but there will be a time occasionally, just like in financial markets, when things are happening in the insurance world, and basically, Berkshire will be the only one — virtually the only one — people turn to.
CHARLIE MUNGER: But in the past, Ajit, talking to you, has added more than $50 billion to the balance sheet at Berkshire, by making these oddball calls.
WARREN BUFFETT: And if he hadn't talked to me, it'd be probably 49.9 billion, you know? (Laughs)
But you don't want to try — don't try this at home.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, that doesn't mean it's easy.
WARREN BUFFETT: No. And it's not very teachable.
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, it isn't very teachable, you're right.
WARREN BUFFETT: No, it is not something that Berkshire has some secret formula someplace for it. It basically is a very unusual talent with Ajit, and —
CHARLIE MUNGER: We're not holding anything back. It's hard.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, Jay? (Applause)
JAY GELB: This question is on Berkshire's relationship with 3G Capital. Kraft Heinz's recent challenges have raised questions about whether Berkshire's partnership with 3G has become a weakness for Berkshire.
Warren, what are your thoughts on this? And would Berkshire be open to partnering again with 3G in a major acquisition?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, they are our partners, and we joined them. We had a one-page agreement, which I haven't even actually ever reread. I mean, Jorge Paulo, I mean, is a good friend of mine. I think he's a marvelous human being. And I'm pleased that we are partners. It's conceivable that something would come up.
They have more of a taste for leverage than we do, and they probably have more of a taste for paying up, but they also are, in certain types of situations, they'd be way better operators than we would.
I mean, they go into situations that need improvement, and they have improved them. But I think both they and we, I know we did underestimate, not what the consumer is doing so much, but what the retailer is.
And at See's Candy, we sell directly to the consumer, but at Kraft Heinz, they're intermediaries. And those intermediaries are trying to make money. We're trying to make money.
And the brand is our protection against the intermediaries making all the money.
Costco tried to drop Coca-Cola back in, I think 2008, and you can't drop Coca-Cola, you know, and not disappoint a lot of customers.
Snickers bars are the number one candy that Mars makes. And they've been number one for 30 or 40 years. And if you walk into a drugstore, and the guy says, "The Snickers are 75 cents or whatever it might be, and I've got this special little bar my wife and I make in the back of the store, and it's only 50 cents, and it's just as good," you don't buy it, you know. When you're at some other place the next time, you buy the Snickers bar.
So, brands can be enormously valuable, but many of the brands are dependent, most of them — Geico is not, Geico goes directly to the consumer. If we save the consumer money on insurance, they're going to buy it from us.
And our brand, you know — and we'll spend well over a billion and a half on advertising this year, and you think, my God, we started this in 1936, and we were saying the same thing then about saving 15 percent in 15 minutes or something of the sort — not exactly the same — but that brand is huge, and we have to come through on the promise we give, which is to save people significant money on insurance — a great many people. That brand is huge, and we're dealing directly with the consumer.
And when you're selling Kool-Aid or ketchup or, you know, Heinz 57 sauce or something, you are going through a channel, and they would — the phrase was used earlier today. You know, our gross margin is their opportunity, and we think that the ultimate consumer is going to force them to have our product, and that we will get the gross margin.
And that fight, that tension, has increased in the last five years and I think is likely to increase the next five or ten years. And Charlie is a director of a company that has caused me to think a lot about that subject. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well. What I think is interesting about the 3G situation, it was a long series of transactions that worked very well, and finally there was one transaction at the end that didn't work so well.
That is a very normal outcome of success in a big place with a lot of young men who want to get rich quick. And it just happens again and again. And you do want to be careful.
It's so much easier to take the good ideas and push them to wretched excess.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, that is — no idea is good at any price, and the price settlement is probably something that we worry more about generally than our partners, but we are their partners in Kraft Heinz. And it's not at all inconceivable that we could be partners in some other transaction in the future.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK. Station 8.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello Warren and Charlie. Consumer tastes are changing. I think if we asked how many people here in the arena have eaten Velveeta cheese in the last year or so, there'd be only a small handful, maybe more for Jell-O.
3G's playbook of cutting R&D looks to have stifled new product development amidst changing preferences.
So, here's my question. Why continue to hold when the moat appears to be dry? Or do you think it is filling back up?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I don't think the problem was that they cut research or something. I think the problem was, they paid a little too much for the last acquisition.
WARREN BUFFETT: That Jell-O — I can't give you the exact figures. There are certain brands that may be declining 2 percent a year or 3 percent a year in unit sales, and there's others that are growing 1 or 2 percent. There's not dramatic changes taking place at all. I mean, Kraft Heinz is earning more money than Kraft and Heinz were earning six or seven years ago.
I mean, and the products are being used in a huge way. Now it's true that certain — that there are always trends going to some degree, but they have not fallen apart, remotely. And they have widened the margin somewhat.
But it is tougher, in terms of the margin and the price negotiations, probably to go through to the actual consumer. It's become a somewhat tougher passageway for all food companies, than it was ten years ago. It's still a terrific business.
I mean, you know, you mentioned Jell-O or Velveeta. Charlie worked at my grandfather's grocery store in 1940, I worked there in '41. And they were buying those products then, and they buy the products now. The margins are still very good. They earn terrific returns on invested capital. But we paid too much in the case of Kraft.
You can pay too much for a growing brand. I mean, you can pay way too much for a growing brand, probably be easier to be sucked into that. So, I basically don't worry about the brands.
A certain number are very strong, and a certain number are declining a bit. But that was the case 10 years ago. It'll be the case 10 years from now. There's nothing dramatic happening in that.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, we'll take one more, and then we'll break for lunch. Andrew.
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Thank you, Warren. Question on technology and the company's biggest holding now.
"Given that Apple is now our largest holding, tell us more about your thinking. What do you think about the regulatory challenges the company faces, for example? Spotify has filed a complaint against Apple in Europe on antitrust grounds. Elizabeth Warren has proposed ending Apple's control over the App Store, which would impact the company's strategy to increase its services businesses. Are these criticisms fair?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, again, I will tell you that all of the points you've made I'm aware of, and I like our Apple holdings very much. I mean, it is our largest holdings.
And actually, what hurts, in the case of Apple, is that the stock has gone up. You know, we'd much rather have the stock — and I'm not proposing anything be done about it — but we'd much rather have the stock at a lower price so we could buy more stock.
And importantly, if Apple — I mean, they authorized another 75 billion the other day — but let's say they're going to spend a hundred billion dollars in buying in their stock in the next three years. You know, it's very simple. If they buy it at 200, they're going to get 500 million shares. They've got 4 billion, 600 million out now. And so they'll end up with 4.1 billion under that circumstance.
If they're buying at 150, they buy in 667 million shares. And instead of owning what we would own in the first case, we'd now — the divisor would be less than 4 billion, and we'd own a greater percentage of it.
So, in effect, a major portion of earnings — at least possibly, it's at least been authorized — will be spent in terms of increasing our ownership without us paying out a dime, which I love for a wonderful business.
And the recent development, when the stock has moved up substantially, actually hurts Berkshire over time. We'll still do — In my opinion, we'll do fine, but we're not going to dissect our expectations about Apple, you know, for people who may be buying it against us tomorrow or something of the sort. We don't give away investment advice on that for nothing.
But we have — all the things you've mentioned, obviously we know about, and we've got a whole bunch of other variables that we crank into it. And we like the fact that it's our largest holding. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, in my family, the people who have Apple phones, it's the last thing they'll give up. (Laughter)