Charlie Munger says "of course, I hate the Bitcoin success," calls the popular trading app Robinhood "deeply wrong" for encouraging what he sees as gambling on financial markets, and casually provides what could be a big clue in the mystery of who will succeed Warren Buffett as CEO. Buffett does a post-mortem on Berkshire's unsuccessful health care joint venture and light heartedly overrules his insurance chief on whether to write a policy for an Elon Musk mission to Mars.
BECKY QUICK: Right, this question comes from Denny Poland, a shareholder from Pittsburgh.
"A prominent senator (Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts) recently categorized share buybacks as a form of market manipulation. You've often said that repurchasing shares at prices below intrinsic value benefits continuing shareholders.
"Could you and Charlie please elaborate on the higher order effect that these share repurchases have on society?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, they're a way of — they're a way of, essentially, of distributing cash to the people that want the cash when other co-owners mostly want you to reinvest. And it's a savings vehicle.
If the four of us sitting at this table decided we'd buy a few Dairy Queen franchises, we form a little company, and we all put in a million dollars or something like that, and we buy the Dairy Queen franchises, and they're doing well.
And three of the four of us want to keep buying more Dairy Queen franchises. And we're not done building and saving for the future. And we're in the wealth creation business. And the fourth one says, "Listen, I've gotten rich enough. I'd rather take some money out."
And, well, there's only two ways to do it. We can pay dividends to all four of us, three of us — of whom don't want it. And we can repurchase the shares at a fair price — if it's just the four of us — we pick out a fair price and the fourth one gets bought out of his interest.
I find it almost impossible to believe some of the arguments that are made that it's terrible to repurchase shares from a partner if they want to get out of something (laughs) and you're able to do it at prices advantageous to the people who are staying. And it helps slightly the person that wants out.
And a majority of the Berkshire shareholders — a great majority — we had a vote on dividends one time — we've got savers.
Now, that's partly because we've advertised ourselves as being that sort of a vehicle. We've created that something. We've stuck with it for 57 years.
And people look — individuals — a huge number — look at Berkshire as something they're going to own till they die.
Now they may — their circumstances may change. Their needs may change. But the savers generally keep saving.
We just recently had somebody that (unintelligible) 60 years ago, and billions of dollars. And they just — they weren't saving, exactly, for their old age, just was sort of built into them that they liked to do it. Now, philanthropies will get a lot of money and so on.
It's the most — what could be more logical than, if a very small minority of your holders want to get out, and most of them want to stay in, and the person that wants to get out wants the money, you don't give the money to everybody. You give it to the one who wants it. And you do it at a price that is beneficial to most parties.
On a private deal, you'd work out the fair value. The market tells you the value, in the case of a publicly traded company.
Charlie, got anything?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, if you're repurchasing stock, just a bull it higher, it's deeply immoral.
But if you're repurchasing stock because it's a fair thing to do in the interest of your existing shareholders, it's a highly moral act. And the people who are criticizing it are bonkers.
BECKY QUICK: OK, this comes from Gary Gambino. He wants to know "if Berkshire would switch it's capital return policy to dividends from buybacks if the capital gains rate goes up to 43.4%. Dividends would be far more taxed-advertised for shareholders under that scenario."
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. We literally did have a vote by our shareholders.
Now, we've got a different group of shareholders than a REIT would have or, you know, an MLP might have. I mean there's different — people select what they go into. And people that go into SPACs are hoping the stock goes up next week, you know, I mean, basically, and —
We've got a bunch of people that were assembled over 55 years, but they started with a base of people that — it was a lifetime investment. And if they wanted to cash out, they thought they'd get a fair price at that time. But they really didn't — they bought it with no intentions like that.
So, we had a vote, and I think it was something like 97% or something of the shares said they don't want a dividend.
And now, that wouldn't be true at other companies. And it would be crazy to be paying a regular dividend, like Coca-Cola has done for many years, and then, all of a sudden, change the policy on millions of people who had bought it with one expectation in mind, and try and change it into a different animal.
But Coca-Cola isn't going to change to Berkshire, and Berkshire isn't going to change to Coca-Cola. We've got a different group of owners.
And it will keep self-selecting, because people have a choice every day: which do you want — sort of thing do you want to be in? And Berkshire is a certain kind of animal in that respect.
So, we will not — if they jig around the tax laws, I mean, that's really got nothing to do with the decision.
I mean we've got a very substantial majority of people that want us to reinvest the money. And what they're more concerned about is whether we find something to do with the money, the hundred billion or something.
And repurchasing shares is something that helps them in their — they own a larger percentage of Berkshire as they go along.
And they'd love to see us buy another business. But they don't mind us intensifying their interest in the present business.
BECKY QUICK: You had a lot of questions that came in on taxes. So, I'll run through a few of them. We'll see, kind of, how many of you answered them — how many you answer before we get to them.
But this one came from Arthur Lewis in Denver: "What are your thoughts on the new administration's capital gains, corporate tax, and stepped-up basis tax increases?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, if Charlie wants to answer that, I'll be glad to have him do it.
I, long ago, many times, have said that I don't put my political opinions or anything in a blind trust when I take this job. But I also don't speak for Berkshire Hathaway.
I mean we've got people that have very different views on taxes. And, you know, I've expressed some things in the past. I don't like to speak on behalf of — when I'm sitting in a Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, presumably, speaking for Berkshire, I don't really like to get into political questions, generally. I don't really think I should.
But I also think, if somebody asked me who I voted for the last election, on a personal basis, I voted for Biden.
But I don't — I've never asked a single employee of ours who they voted for, you know, anything of the sort — what religion — it just — it's — and I am not authorized to go around signing my name as chairman of Berkshire Hathaway to proposals. If I wrote op-ed pieces, I do it as an individual. I try and make it clear.
So, I don't think I'll use — I don't want to use the meeting to give a lot of views on taxes. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, but —
CHARLIE MUNGER: I think it's probably a mistake to be basically anti-capitalist. I think capitalism is what raises GDP for everybody. And so —
And I have also a feeling that Benjamin Franklin was right when he said that, "It's hard for an empty sack to stand upright."
And to some extent, the prosperity of leading American institutions helps them behave better.
Now, there are exceptions in promotional finance, and so on. But, by and large, Franklin was right.
And so, I'm a little wary of just constantly being mad at people because they have a little more money.
BECKY QUICK: Charlie, there was a question that came in specifically to you on the tax issue (from Tony G. Lee of El Monte, California).
"Over the years, and with emphasis in 2020, we've heard people leaving California for various reasons, such as high cost of living, high taxes, etc. I understand that you believe it's dumb for states to have policies and laws that provoke rich residents leaving. But are your thoughts — what are your thoughts on those people leaving? What keeps you in California?"
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, that's a very interesting question. I have frequently said I wouldn't move across the street to save my children 500 million in taxes.
And so, I have — that's my personal view on the subject.
But I do think it is stupid for states to drive out their wealthiest citizens.
The old people, they don't commit any crimes. They donate to the local charity. Who in the hell in their right mind would drive out the rich people?
I mean Florida, and places like that, are very shrewd. And places like California are being very stupid. It's contrary to the interests of the state.
BECKY QUICK: One more question for you. Jack Robbins asks, "How will a 25 to 28% corporate tax rate affect Berkshire's companies?"
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I don't think it would be the end of the world. We've adapted to the tax rate, whatever it is.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. I would say, if they raise the tax rate, they're owning a — the federal government's owning a larger percentage of the business. I'm not — but I'm not saying what the tax rate is.
But we have a Class A stock and a Class B stock. The U.S. government owns what I call the Class AA stock. And it's a very special stock.
They get a percentage of the earnings, but they don't own the assets. And they don't vote on who gets to run the place or anything else. But if the government wants to take — when I was first starting, they used to take 52%, the federal government did, of corporate profits.
And they've got — what would you pay to own the government's Class A — double-A — stock? If there was a public issue by the U.S. Treasury and they said this vehicle — give it a name like SPAC or something even sexier, but — and all it will do is it owns the future tax payments of Berkshire Hathaway forever. And how much is that stock now worth?
And it gets — and it'll pay a big cash dividend, and they'll go up as we retain earnings and build the company and everything else.
Well, it's worth more if it's — if the tax rate is 25% or 28% or 52%, than at 21%.
They own a special stock. And when people talk about how it all gets passed through to the customer and everything — in the utility business, it actually does. That's a special case.
But it doesn't — it doesn't in most of our businesses. I mean it's just — it's a corporate fiction when they put out statements about the fact that this will be terrible for all of you people who have — (laughs) — if we pay more taxes.
It hurts the Berkshire shareholders if rates are higher. And that may be quite appropriate.
But to say otherwise is just — it doesn't make any sense.
I would love to see the government actually issue — they could have — I mean they could set up a company. Just call it the Berkshire Hathaway Tax Company. And it would take all the taxes we paid every year. How much would they be able to sell that asset for?
They talk about unfunded obligations of the government. That's an unreported asset of the federal government.
They own part of Berkshire, and they get to determine how much. I mean, it's an interesting question.
BECKY QUICK: One last tax question. This one comes from William Barnard, who says, "In the Owner's Manual, a portion of your annual report, Warren, you state, 'On my death, none of my stock will have to be sold to take care of the cash bequests I've made or for taxes.'
"Would the recent Biden proposal to treat unrealized gains as sold and taxable at death at a 43.4% rate change the amount of stock required to be sold for payment of taxes upon your death?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. Well, the tax law can be changed tomorrow. And I don't — you know, it can be done a lot of different ways. And it's been done a lot of different ways in the past.
I can tell you — I can actually make a promise to society, that 99.7% of what I have when I die will either go to philanthropy or to the federal government.
And the federal government can actually determine the rules on that.
And no, I would prefer that it would go to philanthropy. I think it actually will accomplish more utility if it goes to be used by some smart people in philanthropy than if it simply reduces the federal debt by a hundred billion dollars or something when I die.
I don't think it makes a damn bit of difference (laughs) you know, if the federal debt is 100 billion higher or lower. It won't change anything in the world.
And in present days, it doesn't really save them anything, because they can borrow a hundred billion, and it doesn't cost them anything anyway. But that debt condition won't prevail.
But I don't — I would not regard — I'm just talking personally, I'm not really advocating as this public policy. But I wouldn't — if they took it all, you know, it would not bother me. I mean it —
CHARLIE MUNGER: I guarantee it won't bother you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah! (Laughter)
Charlie says, "You won't know." (Laughter)
You know, if you decide — if American democracy decides that it's better to take it all — which I don't think they will, and I don't think they should — but nevertheless, you know, so what, you know? (Laughs)
I would like to see it used to accomplish the most for humanity. I mean, and that means having smart people, properly motivated — and more importantly, not improperly motivated — distribute it in a way — and who knows what the hell it would be, 10, 20, 30, or 40 years from now?
I do know, if it goes to government, it basically reduces the national debt by that amount. I don't think it changes whether they change the minimum wage laws or does anything else. (Laughs)
I just think that little figure changes. It'll be — you know, it'll show up in the budget one day, you know, received from Buffett, you know, X, and then (laughs) some huge figure appears down below.
I don't think it really — so I would prefer it be used privately. But that's really up to the people in the United States to decide through their representatives.
BECKY QUICK: Now this next question's for Ajit. It comes from Professor Don Wunsch at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, who says, "Mr. Jain, what has COVID-19 taught us about systemic and correlated risk? And is there anything that we will do differently from now on?"
AJIT JAIN: Yeah. In the insurance business, we often think about pandemic risk as one of the risk factors that we need to cope with in our business.
Having said that, I think the big lesson for us, having gone through what we've gone through recently, is that, while we were aware of the fact that pandemic risk is a risk factor, it was totally, totally underpriced by all of us in the industry.
AJIT JAIN: Several of us thought it's an event that'll happen, at most, once in a hundred years. And even then, those odds are pretty high.
So, I think the big lesson for us is to recalibrate and rethink about what the return time is for something like a pandemic risk.
And separately, we haven't yet done a good enough job as an industry, I'm saying, in terms of correlating the risk and aggregating the risk and making sure we can deal with the aggregate numbers.
For example, pandemic risk has obviously taken the lives — taken people's lives. But then separately, a bunch of us used to write something called "event cancellation," or "contingency" policies.
And, in terms of pricing for the contingency policies, like the Olympics being canceled, NBC would buy insurance for their rights, which might suddenly be not worth much.
And when pricing something like that, we would think in terms of earthquake and risk and, more recently, terrorism. But we would never factor something like what portion of the price should come from the pandemic exposure.
So, I think the industry will become a lot more sophisticated, in terms of thinking through what is the impact of pandemic risk across the entire portfolio, as opposed to it just being localized to one or two areas.
BECKY QUICK: And I'm sorry, Don asked if anyone else on the stage wanted to comment after Ajit on that same topic.
WARREN BUFFETT: I missed that.
BECKY QUICK: Oh, he was just looking if anyone else on the stage wanted to comment on that.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, as Ajit mentioned, people were throwing in — well, in event cancellation, you know, I mean lots of people buy insurance against the Olympics being canceled, or the United States not participating. I mean they try to think of all kinds of risk because they have ad campaigns based upon all —
So, there's a lot of event cancellation insurance. And it was probably underpriced — the implicit part of that premium that was attributable to a pandemic risk.
I mean, you know, Bill Gates gave a terrific talk at Ted events five or six years ago, and people ignored it.
And it's very interesting, because this isn't a worst case, what we've seen. And yet, it's staggering, in terms of what has happened.
And people that wrote insurance, that — they may have found out, sometimes, that they were covering things they didn't want to — didn't even intend to cover and maybe the insured didn't think they were buying. But nevertheless, after the event occurs, that they get very inventive in coming after them.
There are certain risks, too, that are just too big. The nuclear risk, for example. I mean the federal government is, very early on, recognized it. The private insurance industry — they can't handle the risk involved in — the financial risk — that would be involved in terms of a massive nuclear strike or something like that. So, it's —
Pandemics — the wording will be much more careful (laughs) in future policies on trying to define it very precisely.
And incidentally, I mean, in the way the cases have come so far, in the United Kingdom — I mean, and I think there was one particular insurer — I mean, the cases are coming down much tougher on insurers than in the United States. I mean, the policies were just written differently.
You don't — you don't get insurance against something you don't buy (unintelligible) for. And generally, the court decisions have come down favorable to insurers.
And at Berkshire, it just so happens, we are not a big player. But that's — in commercial multiple peril — which might be where — it is not a huge factor for Berkshire.
BECKY QUICK: This follow-up question is from Martin Devine. And he asks both Ajit and Warren, "What's your best estimate of Berkshire's insurance claim exposure from the COVID-19 pandemic?"
AJIT JAIN: Well, in terms of reserves, starting from last year to the end of the first quarter this year, we have put up a billion-six and change, in terms of reserves.
Now, what that doesn't take into account is some of the frequency benefit because of COVID-19 that results because of fewer accidents. And GEICO has had a huge tailwind because of that.
But in terms of what the insurance operations collectively are going to be writing checks for, that number, as of now, is about a billion-six.
And my guess is that'll probably grow. Because if you look upon it — the industry as a whole has reserved — we reserved 1.6, as I mentioned — the industry as a whole has reserved about 25 to $30 billion for COVID-19 as of now.
If you believe the pundits in the industry, they will tell you that number is probably going to be closer to a hundred billion. So, there's another, about 70-75 billion dollars of COVID-19 losses that need to flow through insurance industry's balance sheet and income statement.
Our number, therefore, of 1.6 that we have as of now, is going to be a lot, lot higher. But it's not something that we cannot manage completely.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. We will not be in the top five payers of, my guess, of insurance claims, even though we're — it's —
And we write a much smaller amount of both life insurance and annuities, actually. And, you know, in the end, we get — we had more life insurance claims. But the annuities are not going to last. More people will have died that would have otherwise got payments on their annuities. It cuts a lot of ways.
It's — it's a — you know, one of the great human catastrophes of all time. But it is not that big in insurance.
And I would say this, if the insurance industry thinks they're going to lose a hundred billion dollars, the hundred billion ought to be up on their books now, I mean — (Laughs)
The idea of feeding in losses — you've got a liability. And our goal is not — our goal is to have — put up the liability when we think it's happened, and —
If — we should not be at a billion-six, I would say this, if we really think we're going to have some proportional share of a hundred billion. But —
But that's enough said on that. (Laughs)
BECKY QUICK: This next question is for Greg, but also for Warren and Charlie.
It's from Blair Miller, who asks, "What does the combination of Kansas City Southern with either Canadian Pacific or Canadian National mean to BNSF, in terms of competition?
"And do you think the synergies of the merger will justify the multiple paid?"
GREG ABEL: Sure. So, obviously, a transaction we followed very closely with both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific bidding to purchase Kansas City Southern.
Either of those companies acquiring Kansas City Southern will have an impact on BNSF. We — what they're basically proposing is to create a north/south railway that goes from Canada into Mexico.
We do have a strong presence in Mexico — not as strong as some of our competition. But we would feel competition there.
So, we'll follow that transaction very closely. As it goes before the Surface Transportation Board, the standard that will be applied is that competition has to be protected or enhanced.
So that's our opportunity to protect our franchise on behalf of our customers.
So, we move intermodal business both in and out of there on behalf of certain customers. We'll want to protect the rights of our customers there. So, we'll be active in the approval process. But there's no question, in the end, it impacts our franchise. Warren?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, it's not huge. But it affects both the Union Pacific and BNSF to a small degree — a relatively small degree.
But that's— that's not really the worry of the Surface Transportation Board. Their job is to do what's best for the shippers.
And in terms of the price that's being paid, you know, like you say, if you can borrow all the money at nothing — for nothing — you know, (laughs), it doesn't make much difference to people.
And this would not be being paid under a different interest rate environment. I mean it's very simple.
But it would make — there's no magic to the Kansas City Southern. It's got a — I think their deal with Mexico ends in 2047. It's — it's — you know, it will — the number of carloads carried and everything, it's not going to change that much.
But it is kind of interesting. There's only — there's two major Canadian — what they call Class I railroads. And there's five in the United States.
And this will result, you know, in essentially, three of the units being Canadian, four being U.S., which is not the way you normally think of (laughs) the way of the development of the railroad system would work in the United States.
But it's — you know, we've talked about it plenty. And CP — or either Canadian Pacific or Canadian National — is very likely to get it. I think the Surface Transportation Board will — voted four-to-one, didn't they, the other day? Didn't get —
GREG ABEL: They voted on an initial trust structure that they had to approve for Canadian Pacific. And that was a four-to-one vote, as you noted, Warren.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.
GREG ABEL: So, they're moving forward with the evaluation of it.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. And normally, railroad deals are very long — take a long time for them to evaluate.
But in this case, I think they have two opposing trust proposals. And in effect, by making a — if they make a quick decision on the — which trust proposal they allow — I don't see how you allow two proposals, exactly. So, it may be a very accelerated decision, not — I don't know.
But it's up to the Surface Transportation Board to do what's best for what their obligation is to the country to do.
BECKY QUICK: There was a follow-up question on that —
WARREN BUFFETT: Sure.
BECKY QUICK: — do you think the valuation that they're paying is worth it?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we — in a very, very mild way.
I mean, everybody's kind of played at making deals with different railroads, you know, ever since I've been in the railroad business. (Laughs)
So, you know, we've talked about it. When CP — when Hunter Harrison or — you know, came after — was it Hunter that bid on CP that kind of led the way?
And, you know, we looked at buying CP. I mean, everybody looks at everything, and —
We would not pay this price. And it implies a price for BNSF that's even higher than what the UP is selling for.
But, you know, it's kind of play money, to some degree.
I mean when interest rates are this low, and I'm sure from the standpoint of both CP and CN, there's only one KC Southern. And they're not going to get a chance to expand — they're not going to buy us, they're not going to buy the UP. And the juices flow, and the prices go up, and —
CHARLIE MUNGER: They're buying it with somebody else's money.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, it's somebody else's money. And you're going to retire —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah.
WARREN BUFFETT: — in five or 10 years. And people are not going to remember what you paid, but they're going to remember whether you built a larger system.
And the investment bankers are cheering you on at every move. You know, they're saying you could pay more, and this is the — you know, and they're moving the figures around, the spreadsheets are out, and the fees are flowing. (Laughs)
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from Asher Haft in Brooklyn, who says — Asher's been a shareholder since 2006. Says that he appreciates your honestly and candidness when it comes to explaining costly errors you made.
"In this year's chairman letter, you discussed that you made a mistake in 2016 when calculating Precision Castpart's average amount of future earnings, which resulted in Berkshire overpaying to acquire it.
"It appears that Precision's earnings declined substantially in 2020 because of the pandemic and the effect of airline and travel industry. What calculations could you have made in 2016 that might have altered your decision to acquire it? And secondly, are the problems Precision is currently facing larger than the pandemic?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, Berkshire didn't make the mistake, I made the mistake, incidentally. (Laughs)
No, any time we look at buying a business, we're evaluating the competitive strengths of the business, the price we have to pay, the management we get and everything.
And we didn't make a mistake on the management. But in terms of the earning power, on average, and, you know — when Boeing has troubles with the Max, well, that's a probability.
I mean, any time, any customers of big — I mean, all kinds of things can happen.
And we have seen some of those things happen. And therefore, I paid too much, in relation to average earnings. It's a terrific company. And, you know, it's — I'm happy with the management and everything, and —
But GE doesn't need as many engines as we thought they would need. (Laughs)
And they get into the power business, and a variety of things. And we knew they were in the businesses. But we did not think those businesses would necessarily be in something close to a depression when other businesses are — that we bought end up, sometimes, doing better than we think.
But we'll continue making mistakes. I mean — and I shouldn't say we will — I will.
But even these other —
CHARLIE MUNGER: The rest of us will help. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: And we'll — you know, we've got some wonderful deals, and some terrible deals.
And the nice thing about it is — as I pointed out, this doesn't really apply in the case of Precision, precisely — but when we're disappointed in a business, it usually becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of our business, just by the nature of things, because it isn't going anyplace.
And when we get a successful business, like a GEICO or something of the sort — GEICO's doing — they're doing 15 times as much business as when we bought control in 19 — they become a proportionally much more important part of our mix.
So, you really get, through just natural forces, you get more of your money in the things that have developed more favorably than you thought. You actually end up getting a greater concentration in the ones that work out.
It's not like — as Charlie would say, it's not like having children. I mean — (Laughs)
The one that — the bad ones cause you more problems. (Laughs)
But the — in this — in the children of businesses, the small ones kind of — by the way, we started with three businesses, Charlie and I. And Berkshire was textiles, Diversified Retailing was a department store, and trading stamps were Blue Chip's business. And those were the three companies we put together. And all three of the original businesses failed.
Which sort of gets me, in terms of the people that are worried about, don't we know that coal is going to be phased out over time? (Laughs)
Of course, we know coal's going to be — you know, but that doesn't mean we're going to be phased out over time. I mean that —
Every business has some things to think about, about that way.
WARREN BUFFETT: The biggest danger — they have that section in the prospectus called, what do they call that? About — certain —
GREG ABEL: Risk factors.
AJIT JAIN: Risk factors.
WARREN BUFFETT: Risk factors, yeah.
The number one risk factor — you never see it — the number one risk factor is that this business gets the wrong management. And you get a guy or a woman in charge of it that are — they're personable, the directors like them. They don't know what they're doing, but they know how to put on an appearance.
That's the biggest single danger that a business — and that that person stays and runs it for 10 or 15 years, and either stays in the textile business or department store business and expands. (Laughs)
And, you know, I've looked at a lot of businesses. And that's what's caused the number one problem. And it isn't the kind of thing where they list them all because the lawyers tell them to list them.
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from Raghu Baichwal, and it's for both Warren and Charlie.
"Now that the crypto market overall is valued at $2 trillion, do you still consider cryptos as worthless artificial gold?"
WARREN BUFFETT: (Laughs)
Well, I knew there'd be a question on Bitcoin or crypto. And I thought to myself, well, I've watched these politicians dodge questions all the time, you know. And I always find it kind of disgusting when they do it, but the truth is, I'm going to dodge that question, (laughs), because we've probably got hundreds of thousands of people watching this that own bitcoin, and we've probably got two people that are short.
So, we got a choice of making 400,000 people mad at us and unhappy and — or making two people happy. And that's just a dumb equation.
So, I thought about it. We had a governor one time in Nebraska — a long time ago — but he would get a tough question, you know, what do you think about property taxes? Or, you know, what should we do about schools?
And he'd look right at the person and he'd say, "I'm all right on that one!" (Laughter)
And then he'd just walk off. Well, I'm all right on that one, and maybe we'll see how Charlie is. (Laughs)
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, those who know me well are just waving the red flag at the bull. (Laughter)
Of course, I hate the Bitcoin success. And I don't welcome a currency that's so useful to kidnappers and extortionists and so forth, nor do I like just shoveling out a few extra billions and billions and billions of dollars to somebody who just invented a new financial product out of thin air.
So, I think I should say modestly that I think the whole damn development is disgusting and contrary to the interest of civilization. And I'll leave the criticism to others. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: I'm all right on that one! (Laughter)
BECKY QUICK: The next question that comes in — or the next series of questions — are from James Hernandez. He has two questions, one for Ajit and one for Greg. They both concern Elon Musk.
For Greg, this question is for you.
"Elon Musk has stated that Berkshire Hathaway's energy proposal for Texas, spending more than $9 billion for new generating capacity, is wrong. Instead, Mr. Musk argues that load balancing using battery storage is the appropriate course of action.
"Can you explain why the BHE proposal is the better course of action for Governor (Greg) Abbott and the state of Texas? Specifically, what amount of savings can the citizens of Texas expect above and beyond what Mr. Musk is proposing?"
GREG ABEL: Sure. So the — obviously, there is the very unfortunate event in Texas in February. And it basically lasted four days. Many lives were lost. The economic damage was significant. Texas has highlighted that anywhere from 80 to $130 billion in incurred losses over that period of time.
I think when you look at the power sector, it fundamentally let the citizens down. It didn't perform as they expected.
And then when it did perform, it was extremely expensive. They incurred billions and billions of dollars of energy costs versus a multiple of, basically, 10 times what they paid — they paid 10 times in energy costs over those four days what they paid in the past year.
So, a very substantial event for Texas.
We've gone to Texas with what we believe is a good solution. We spent a lot of time pulling it together, understanding the fundamental issues around it. And our proposal is really based upon the fact that the health and welfare of Texans were at risk.
And we needed to have, effectively, an insurance policy in place for them — that if they needed the power on very short notice, it would be able to be dispatched and it would be there for the four days — we're actually proposing it could be there for seven days.
And the fundamental concept of our proposal has always been, if there's a better proposal that's brought forward, we've accomplished our mission.
We've just been really there to — it's the best proposal or option we could come up with. And obviously if Texas or Elon or someone else comes up with a better proposition, we've always said, Texas, you should pursue it.
We strongly believe right now we have — what remains is a very good proposal for Texas. And it will continue to be discussed and evaluated.
The big difference between a battery proposal and our proposal is that we will have power that can be generated continuously for seven consistent days, where if you went to a battery solution, you may release that power that's been stored for four hours. But we're talking four days of a problem, not four hours. And it's just a completely different cost equation and solution.
So, very proud that our teams brought forward what I thought was a very unique solution. We've worked hard with our suppliers and Peter Kiewit & Sons to put together what we believe is a firm cost that can also be delivered by November of '23.
So again, we put a firm date on — it won't be ready next winter, unfortunately. It won't be ready this summer.
But it's a valuable solution and one that we hope, at least, leads to the right discussion and the right long-term solution for the state.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, and we're also willing to put up $4 billion that if we don't deliver when we say we're going to deliver, we'll pay it as a penalty, basically.
You know, we went to Kiewit, we went to General Electric and said, you know, how long can we get turbines in the — you know.
You know, if you're going to be prepared for 2023, you have to start at a point fairly soon. And you have inflation going on. And Kiewit's not going to change things on us in a month. We don't try to get the contracts all written out. But they had a hundred people working on it or —
GREG ABEL: Yeah, they have hundreds working on it — (Laughs)
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. And, you know, and GE's cooperative and everything —
But it doesn't mean we have the best solution. We just know what we can do. And if anybody can do it faster, they can do it cheaper, you know, whatever, that's terrific.
But they should have something to lose, though, if they don't do it, I mean —
And we will back our promise up by $4 billion, which —
You know, and we won't have any rinky-dink clauses in there that if this happens or that happens, we don't pay.
But we won't be able to do that a year from now. I mean, we can do it a year from now with the cost then from what they are then, and then it will be a year further out.
But we want Texas — Texas is a terrific place to do business. We do a lot of business there. It's where BNSF has its headquarters. And it's a great place.
And this was out of the blue, but one way or another — the nature of utility business is that you got to — you have to be prepared for something that probably isn't going to happen. (Laughs)
You know, you don't want to say, well, it's a one in 30-year event, you know, and people die. I mean, so —
You want — you want a margin of safety in it. And we've got one solution and other people may have other solutions. And we will cheer when a solution is reached of any kind. And we will cheer a little louder if it's ours. (Laughs)
BECKY QUICK: Ajit, your question from this gentleman.
"Suppose the hypothetical situation arises where Warren Buffett calls you on the phone to tell you that Elon Musk has contacted him about writing an insurance policy on his proposed mission to, and subsequent colonization of, Mars.
"Specifically, he wants insurance to insure his SpaceX heavy rocket capsule, payload, and human capital. Would you underwrite any portion of a venture like that?"
AJIT JAIN: This is an easy one. No, thank you. I'll pass. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I would say it would depend on the premium. (Laughter)
And I would say that I would probably have a somewhat different rate if Elon was on board or not on board. I mean, you know — (Laughter)
No, it makes a difference. I mean, if somebody's asking to insure something, you know. (Laughs)
So, I would — that's called getting skin in the game and — but if — you know. (Laughter)
AJIT JAIN: But in general, I would be very concerned about writing an insurance policy where Elon Musk is on the other side.
BECKY QUICK: OK.
WARREN BUFFETT: Tell Elon to call me instead of Ajit. (Laughter)
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from Michael Liu from California. This is for both Warren and Charlie.
"In your shareholder letter, you mention that the best investment results come from the companies that require minimum assets to conduct high-margin businesses.
"In today's world, many of these companies tend to be software-driven businesses. While Berkshire has avoided investing in high-growth technology companies in the past, this appears to be slowly changing with your investments in Apple and Snowflake.
"As shareholders, should we expect that high-margin businesses will begin to constitute a larger proportion of Berkshire's investment portfolio over time, particularly as (portfolio managers) Todd (Combs) and Ted (Weschler) take on larger roles in the investment decision process?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we've always known that the dream business is the one that takes very little capital (laughs) and grows a lot.
And — and Apple and Google and Microsoft and Facebook are terrific examples of that.
I mean, Apple has $37 billion in property plant equipment, you know. Berkshire has 170 billion or something like that, and they're going to make a lot more money than we do. They're in better — it's a much better business than we have. And so — and Microsoft's business is a way better business than we have. Google's business is a way better business, so —
We've always looked — we've known that a long time. We found that out with See's Candy in 1972. I mean, See's Candy just doesn't require that much capital. It doesn't have — you know, it has, obviously, a couple of manufacturing plants — they call them kitchens, and —
But it doesn't have big inventories, except very seasonably for a short period. It doesn't have a lot of receivables. So, you know, those are the kinds of businesses — they're the best businesses.
But they command the best prices, too. And there aren't that many of them. And they don't always stay that way, so —
We're looking for them all the time. And we've got — we've got a few that are pretty darn good. But we don't have anything as big (laughs) as the big guys.
But that's what everybody's looking for. That's what capitalism is about. People getting a return on capital. (Laughs)
And the way you get it is having something that doesn't take too much capital. I mean, if you have to really put out tons and tons of capital — utility business is that way. It's not a super-high return business. You just have to put out a lot of capital. You get a return on that capital, but you don't get fabulous return. You don't get Google-like returns, you know, or anything remotely close to it.
You know, we're proposing a return in the transaction — the proposition with Texas — I think it's 9.3%, isn't it —
GREG ABEL: Yeah, 9.3 —
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, and you know, that — but if you look at the return on most American businesses on net tangible assets, it's a lot higher than 9.3. But they aren't utility businesses, either.
BECKY QUICK: Charlie, did you want to add anything to that?
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, thank you.
BECKY QUICK: OK.
BECKY QUICK: This question is from Ryan Fusaro in New York City, who says, "(Portfolio managers) Todd (Combs) and Ted (Weschler) have taken on increased responsibility at Berkshire over the years, managing larger pools of capital, including the company's sizable Apple holdings, participating in M&A strategy, and even overseeing the company's now shuttered health care partnership with Amazon and JPMorgan.
"We are grateful for their efforts. But Todd and Ted are still not made available to shareholders at the annual meeting each year. Given their growing importance to the firm, can you discuss this policy and whether we can expect to hear from them more in the coming years?"
WARREN BUFFETT: They're both absolutely terrific. And that's one reason I don't want people quizzing them on stocks. (Laughter)
They are assets to Berkshire. And just —
There's no reason for them to be out educating other people on how to compete with us. You wouldn't — it always seems so silly that people expect — they don't expect you to — they don't expect Merck or Pfizer or something to tell them exactly what their scientists are working on, (laughs) you know, and where they stand and what the failures have been so they can eliminated those. And, you know —
If you've got talent that knows how to evaluate businesses — and those two fellows have been — they've gone far beyond that — they're terrific assets, and they love Berkshire, and they work extraordinary hours.
But we don't really want them going around with people asking them questions about why you like this industry better than that (laughs) industry or anything of the sort.
BECKY QUICK: This question's for Charlie. It comes from Stephen Tedder in Atlanta. He's been a Berkshire shareholder for 10 years and says, "You and your friend Li Lu have been very optimistic with respect to investing opportunities in China.
"BYD has performed spectacularly for Berkshire since its initial purchase in 2008 and it's currently valued at $5.8 billion.
"The Daily Journal recently bought a large position in Alibaba after founder Jack Ma had been reprimanded by the Chinese Communist Party and Ma's other company, Ant, was not allowed to proceed with its IPO.
"What are your current thoughts on China and whether the communist leaders will allow businesses with strong leadership to flourish in decades to come?"
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I think that the Chinese government will allow businesses to flourish.
It was one of the most remarkable things that ever happened in the history of the world, when a bunch of committed communists just looked at the prosperity of places like Singapore and said the hell with this, we're not going to stay here in poverty. We're going to copy what works.
And they changed communism. They just accepted Adam Smith and added it to their communism and said now we have communism with Chinese characteristics, which is China with a free market with a bunch of billionaires and so forth. And they made that shift. They deserve a lot of credit.
Warren and I are not quite as good at that as changing our minds, in many cases. (Laughs)
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.
CHARLIE MUNGER: And that was a remarkable change coming from such a place. And, of course, it's worked like gangbusters. That is enormous growth in the average income of the average Chinese.
They've lifted 800 million people out of poverty. Fast. There was never anything like it in the history of the world.
So, my hat is off to the Chinese. And I think they will continue to allow people to make money. They learned it works.
The Chinese — I loved what the guy (Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping) said in the first place. "I don't care whether the cat is black and white as long as it catches mice." That's my kind of talk.
WARREN BUFFETT: In that list of the 20 most valuable companies that just — three are Chinese.
Now if you're looking out 30 years, you know, how many do you think will be Chinese? My guess is more.
But I don't think it will top the United States. But who knows? It's amazing what has been accomplished.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, it's really amazing.
WARREN BUFFETT: And they found what works. I mean, there's (laugh) nothing like finding something that works in order to, sort of, reinforce ideas over time. And we'll see what happens.
But I would bet there will be more than three. But I will bet the United States has more than China has, too.
BECKY QUICK: This one comes from Tim Medley — (coughs) — Sorry — Tim Medley in Jackson, Mississippi, who's been a Berkshire shareholder since 1987.
He writes, "On March 19th, respected economist Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University and the former secretary of the treasury under President Obama, was critical of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue stimulus plan.
"In an interview with Bloomberg television he said, 'I am much more worried that we will have more inflation or that we will have a pretty dramatic fiscal monetary collision. This goes way beyond what is necessary.' He said also, 'This is the least responsible macroeconomic policy we've had in the last 40 years.' Your thoughts?"
WARREN BUFFETT: You're asking me on that? (Laughs)
BECKY QUICK: He didn't write to whom. So, I guess it's anybody on the stage —
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I would — I would say that Larry's been reading his uncle's book (laughs), which was Paul Samuelson.
But no, I think — Larry is a very, very, very smart fellow. And he's laying out possibilities, which actually now have probably been voiced a little more even since that March 19th — whatever date it was — that he made that — it's —
You can't just do one thing in economics.
And if we really could shovel out more and more debt, and the carrying cost turned out to be something very low —
People thought Japan couldn't do what they've done. But they — you know — they — it used to be called the widow-maker around Salomon (Brothers). And people were shorting Japanese bonds, but —
The answer is, we don't know, but Larry's view is an important view. And it's just as good as — in my — probably — the view on the other side might be.
We don't know what happens from the present policies.
We do know, as (Federal Reserve Chair) Jay Powell said the other day, the idea that a hundred percent of GDP was some terribly dangerous level for — in terms of debt — that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense now, and that used to be, kind of, accepted wisdom.
We've learned that a lot of things we thought before weren't true. But what we haven't learned yet (laughs) is whether what we're doing now is true.
And the best thing to do is recognize you don't know and proceed in a way where you get a decent result no matter what happens. And that's what we try and do at Berkshire Hathaway.
We do not think we can make money by making macroeconomic predictions. We do think we can — we do think we can pretty darn — be pretty darn sure we'll get a reasonable result under policies that will not maximize result, if we could do that sort of thing.
CHARLIE MUNGER: It's not at all clear whether Larry is right or wrong.
WARREN BUFFETT: He's a smart man, though.
CHARLIE MUNGER: He is a smart man. And it's courageous of him to be raising it, too. He's practically the only one talking that way, which I admire, by the way.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. It guarantees he won't get a position in the administration. (Laughs)
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yes. Well, that's one of the reasons I admire him.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Not that there's anything wrong with having a position in the administration, but I think people who kind of tell it the way they think it is, I like it.
BECKY QUICK: This question comes — it circles back to banking, which you touched on earlier.
But Jerome Bonnard from Switzerland writes, "Could you please explain why you decided to exit most of your bank stocks in 2020 except for Bank of America? And what's your view on the future of the banking industry?"
WARREN BUFFETT: I like banks generally, I just didn't like the proportion we had in it, compared to the possible risk if we got bad results that did not — so far, we haven't gotten. So, I just — and I —
We were over 10% of Bank of America. It's a real pain in the neck, both to the bank —more to the banks than to us, if we go over 10%, there's just a whole lot of —
And, I like the Bank of America. I mean — and I like (CEO) Brian Moynihan very much.
And I like the banking business fine, so we took that up, but we took the overall bank position down. We didn't want to go above 10 in any of the others. And we didn't want to increase the BofA position, but we, overall, didn't want as much in banks as we had.
We like — the banking business is way better than it was, in the United States, than 10 or 15 years ago.
The banking business around the world, in various places, might worry me.
But we — our banks are in far, far better shape than 10 or 15 years ago.
But when things froze for a short period of time, the biggest thing the banks had (laughs) going for them is that the Federal Reserve was behind them. And Federal Reserve is not — they're not behind Berkshire. It's up to us to take care of ourselves.
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from Matt in Los Angeles.
"You recently purchased a large stake in Verizon. For educational purposes, could you please explain your thinking behind this investment? In general, many people see telecoms as dumb pipes that have to spend heavily on CapEx, building out the 5G infrastructure, only for the other tech companies to take advantage and capture most of the value created from the infrastructure, like Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, and DoorDash."
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I think he's analyzed the situation well.
But we are not in a — in the business of explaining (laugh) why we own a stock, which we either might buy more of, or sell, or who knows what. So, he's on his own. But he sounds like he's very capable of thinking it through very well himself. (Laughs)
BECKY QUICK: Slaven Vukobrat writes in, "Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) recently unveiled a new antitrust proposal that would ban mergers and acquisitions by firms with a market capitalization over a hundred billion dollars.
"While this legislation is unlikely to go through, increasing antitrust regulation could represent a material risk for Berkshire.
"Has Berkshire's board already discussed what would happen to the company over the long term if Berkshire was to be prevented from acquiring controlled businesses?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we don't discuss that as a specific. But the board is very, very, very familiar with what Berkshire does — why they do it — you know, how we think in deploying capital. Buy we could — you know —
Everybody knows that if you change the antitrust laws, it can change things for Berkshire. If they change the tax laws, it can change things for Berkshire. You know, there's a lot of things, and — we can spend hours discussing them.
But in the end, you know, is it a 22.3% risk that, you know, something changes? (Laughs)
It's a good way to fill the time at board meetings, and if you're getting three or four hundred thousand dollars a year as a board director, you might want to spend your time doing that. But we really don't focus on that.
The main thing about Berkshire is how they preserve the culture, how they make sure that if you get the wrong person as the CEO, you can do something about it. That's the biggest risk a board has is if you pick the wrong CEO.
And I've been on 20 boards and it's happened more than once. And sometimes it's a terrible problem to get rid of them. You know, years go by and, you know —
If a dissident comes in, it's one thing, but if you just sit there and you collect your three or four hundred thousand a year and the chief executive keeps proposing you get increases (laughs) from time to time —
And it's worse yet if he's a nice person, you know, doing his best. (Laughs)
It's — but — we're not going to spend a lot of time — we may do it on a personal basis, but we're not going to take a lot of people and —
We want them to know more about what's going on with BNSF and how (CEO) Katie's (Farmer) doing and whether the KCS (Kansas City Southern railroad acquisition contest) thing can injure us in any material way and so on.
And we really don't, except maybe on a private side, we don't start talking about, you know, what the effects will be in 2050 if this projection or that projection is met. Charlie?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Nothing to add.
BECKY QUICK: This question was sent in by Don Graham during the meeting, based on something you said earlier today. And he says, "Why does Warren say Berkshire's ability to insure enormous risk quickly is a less valuable asset than it used to be?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, because the demand is less, I mean, basically on that.
If you take a period like happened after 9/11, I remember — I may be wrong on the details a little on this — but Cathay Pacific, for example, they couldn't land in Hong Kong, as I remember, unless they had an insurance policy by Monday of the following week.
Well, we can do it. I mean, Ajit (Jain) calls me up and he thinks of a price and I think of a price. (Laughs) And then —
But we can do it. We can take the loss if it happens.
They called us on the Sears Tower, I think, back — then after the, you know — nobody knew —
They didn't know whether, you know, bombs might be placed all over.
And they wanted more insurance all of a sudden. And we gave them a price, and —
So, that thing — that sort of an environment hasn't really persisted. I mean, there were times, I think — perhaps AIG, when Hank Greenberg was there, he would do the same thing.
But there weren't — 10 or 20 people — and they needed big limits, in some cases. And we were good for it. And they knew that if they bought insurance and it happened that we'd write a check and it would clear. (Laughs)
Ajit, you might have some —
AJIT JAIN: Yeah. In addition to the demand side, the supply side has become a lot more competitive as well. There are a lot of people who can put up big limits — not as much as we do — but they can syndicate a program and put up a billion dollar very easily.
So that competitive advantage we had, we still have, but it's no longer as big a deal as it used to be.
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from a shareholder in Scotland who wants to know Warren, Charlie, and Greg's views on how Kraft Heinz has performed over the last 12 months compared to the disappointing performance pre-COVID. And what are your current and longer-term views on Kraft Heinz' prospects?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I think that Greg's on the board. So, he — (laughs)
I don't know that we're in a position to give advice on Kraft Heinz. You know, we entered a, in effect, a semi-formal partnership with 3G many years ago when it was just the Heinz deal, and then went on to acquire Kraft with our partners.
And they've done more than — they hold up their share of things, you know. And we do what we said we'd do going in, which is to be a financial partner. And they're more of the operating partner, or we participate, to a degree, in any big decisions, and that they would listen to us.
But we're not making any — in terms of Kraft Heinz stock — that's up to somebody else to evaluate.
GREG ABEL: Yeah. The only thing I would add, Warren, is I think we're very comfortable with the fact that they put a strong manager in place in (CEO) Miguel (Patricio). And he's put a very good team in place at Kraft Heinz. So, we're pleased with the leadership and management team in place.
They're very focused on how they're executing as they've gone forward and rationalizing their capital structure and managing down their debt structure. So, very pleased with the path forward with the existing team —
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, we feel better about the —
WARREN BUFFETT: One of the — this is a more general subject, but —
One of the subjects— I might even write about it in one of the future annual reports — is the problems caused by the myths that people have about their own organization.
And I've seen that so many times in various forms. And to some extent, the problem has become accentuated in the last 20 or 30 years because the CEO often — and works with the investor relations (unintelligible) — and they say well, we have to have constant contact with the analyst community.
And of course — so they go on every couple of months, and they repeat certain things about their company, and it becomes part of, sort of, the catechism.
And nobody's going to go on two months after the CEO has said one thing and say, well, actually that really isn't the way. (Laughs)
They're not going to contradict themselves or change course.
And so, if you get these myths — and they can occur in a lot of different ways. I could give a lot of examples, which I won't do. As I tell my friends in corporate America, I'm really not going to squeal on them. (Laughs)
But there's a lot of mythology that gets handed down from one CEO to the next. Can the succeeding CEO say the guy that picked him, you know, was on the wrong course, or, he's been telling us something that isn't really quite true. He can't do it. You know, and then he starts repeating it.
And it leads to enormous errors. But it's hard to tell the story without giving examples, and I don't like to give examples. (Laughs)
So, we'll see when I write about it sometime.
Charlie, you've probably got some thoughts. We've —
He's been – he's had a ringside seat at a lot of — he's been on boards that I haven't been on, I mean. And it doesn't just extend to business. It goes beyond that into education, into — well, a lot of areas.
CHARLIE MUNGER: What's really interesting, is the way you prattle out all the time, you're pounding back in even if it's wrong.
And so, one of my favorite remarks in the history of human remarks was by Sir Cedrick Hardwicke who was a great British actor. And he said, "I have been a great actor for so long, that I no longer know what I truly think on any subject." And I think that happens to a lot of people. And it happens to virtually every politician.
WARREN BUFFETT: And it gets embedded in corporate —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Gets embedded and so on —
WARREN BUFFETT: And the trouble is now, the CEOs speak out so often. So, if they've got some crazy thing that they're saying about their company and they keep repeating it, the subordinates aren't going to contradict it. The — and as Charlie just said, they just believe it after a while. And it's dangerous.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. And of course, the young people get these ideas after their liberal educations and think that God has given them direct insights. And they're just as crazy as the politicians.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, there's some old people that have them, too.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, well — (Laughter)
But the old people are already crazy. But —
WARREN BUFFETT: They're going to die sooner, so —
CHARLIE MUNGER: We have our old insanities. The new insanities, the young get. (Laughter)
BECKY QUICK: All right, this question comes from Bill Begley, who said, "Could you tell us what happened to the (Haven) joint venture between Berkshire, JPMorgan, and Amazon to investigate what could be done about the current state of medical health care in the United States? The only item I read was that it was disbanded. Do you have any lessons to be learned from your effort?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we learned a lot about the difficulty of changing around an industry (laughs) that's 17% of GDP. And we're — we leaned —
We accomplished a lesser objective, which was probably more important to us, even, than either JPMorgan or to Amazon, because we knew less about our own system than they did.
They knew — they're a more centralized operation. So, we got some benefits in the sense that we looked at 60 or 70 different operations we had presently.
And that's one case where a certain amount of centralization, at least in certain aspects of it, can save real money. I mean, we found inefficiencies. And like I say, we probably saved more than the other two partners because they knew their situation better. We found some dumb things we were doing.
So, we got our money's worth. But in terms of the big picture of changing something that so many people have a vested interest in doing — and there's one additional factor to it, which is really interesting.
There's an ingenious aspect to it that goes back to a fellow named — which didn't have any direct connection — but Beardsley Ruml.
And nobody's ever heard of Beardsley Ruml, but Beardsley Ruml, in 1941, came up with the idea of the withholding tax.
So, people instead of April 15th having to write a check and thinking how much they hated their politicians, and hated the government and everything else, they actually looked at it as kind of a Christmas club, and there were overpayments involved, and they actually got a check when the final payment came due.
So, when you aren't writing the check yourself, you know — you may know that the health benefit from your company is worth $10,000 a year to you or 15,000, and may cost them that much, but — it may cost the company that much — but you don't see it. So, the company pays it.
And most of the people in that waiting room sitting next to me when — they are not sitting there thinking about whether I can afford to do this, you know, or what's this going to do? They're generally under some kind of a plan — not always, obviously.
But they don't think that if the company wasn't paying them that, they could pay them that in additional compensation. But of course, the weird system is the company gets a deduction if they pay it. But if you pay it yourself on a policy, I don't believe you get a deduction.
So, it's something that most of the people are not seeing as a cost to them. And they like that pretty well.
CHARLIE MUNGER: No kidding. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. Well, but that's true of the federal income tax. I mean, it was an act of genius, from the standpoint of the government, to go to a withholding system.
And if you didn't, just think of how many people on April 15th would have to sit down and write a pretty good-sized check. And they'd be mad. (Laughs)
They wouldn't like it, and they don't feel it now.
So, we were up — you know, that's an obvious point. But you also — people like their doctor, in general. And they don't like the fact that it's 17% of GDP. But one is just kind of a, you know, amorphous sort of thing. And the other is very, very real to them.
And the most prestigious people in the community are on the hospital boards. And, you know, a lot of people that — are fairly happy with the system.
So, we did not make inroads on that. And we are paying 17% of GDP for health care. And no major country is more than 11%.
And in the pandemic, you know, we've had a death rate — or a death total — as a percentage of population — that's way higher than the rest of the world. Not every single country, but way higher, so it —
You know, we've laid out more money and gotten a poorer result, in terms of this particular pandemic, in terms of deaths per capita. Now, that may not turn out to be the —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Oh, Warren, even though you shot at and missed, you were at least shooting at an elephant.
The cost of health care in Singapore is 20% of what it is in the United States. And their medical system works better.
So, you were shooting at a huge elephant. But as you found out, it's very hard to — people get very enthusiastic about losing part of their income.
WARREN BUFFETT: Oh, yeah. No, I said we were fighting a tapeworm —
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. You were —
WARREN BUFFETT: — in the American economy and the tapeworm won. (Laughs)
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, the tapeworm — the tapeworm —
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.
CHARLIE MUNGER: That's exact — good, wonderful phrase, the tapeworm —
I'll have to copy that.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, it wasn't a phrase we were looking — but — (Laughter)
BECKY QUICK: This question comes in from Mark Blakley in Tulsa.
"This is for Warren and Charlie. When we discuss Berkshire, we often focus on the insurance operations and the largest non-insurance businesses, the "Redwoods," as you mentioned in 2019.
"However, Berkshire owns a large number of subsidiary businesses, most of which are never mentioned. Is there a point at which Berkshire becomes too large to manage? And should we have any concern over the lack of information for most of Berkshire's companies? Is there a time that could come when Berkshire's too large and complex?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, it's too large to do certain things, that's for sure. I mean, you know, it's not — we can't spend our time looking for a hundred million-dollar acquisitions, but —
We have a couple — a wonderful company (TTI) in Fort Worth. And we had a marvelous man running it (Paul Andrews), and he died recently. But he ran it — he sold it to me 15 years ago, and he just basically ran it, you know. And I couldn't find my way to the company.
We've got this terrific company that makes recreational vehicles (Forest River), the Elkhart — based in Elkhart, Indiana. And we bought it 15 years ago. I've never been there, you know. Maybe there's some guy in a closet just making up numbers to send to me every month.
But I feel I understand the business pretty well. But I've never seen it. And the fellow that runs it (Peter Liegl) likes running it. And he likes me keeping my nose out of it. And he'll let Greg (Abel) in a little more than he'll let me because — (laughs)
But it's — we've got a system that will work with wonderful businesses and wonderful managers.
And it's up to us to find them. But it's also (up to) us to nurture them when we find them. And if you get somebody like Paul Andrews, who ran TTI, and who built it from nothing, absolutely nothing, and nobody ever heard of him, and the earnings have octupled during the period that he ran it for us.
And he was happy. The employees were happy. He was a wonderful man. We were happy. And I would call him at the end of the year, and I'd say, Paul, you know, this place is — you're shooting the lights out and everything, and you should take a raise — and he said — or bonus — he's say, "Well, we'll talk about that next year, Warren."
I mean, he just loved — he loved the business. I love Berkshire. He loved the business. And I wasn't going to add anything by having him fill out a bunch of reports about (laughs) how much he's using in the way of carbon or anything.
You know, it's just — it's ridiculous to think of a guy like Paul Andrews behaving in an antisocial manner (laughs) or anything of the sort.
And we'd love to have more of those. And obviously, if we get bigger, they get harder to buy.
But we've got a number in the place. And I don't think we've bought our last one, over time. But I certainly don't see anything in the near future at all.
But we're intensifying our interest a little bit in the ones we have by repurchasing shares. So, our shareholders own more of those companies every year while we're — assuming we're repurchasing shares, which is price-sensitive.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. I don't think we're getting too big to manage, because we're different from practically every other big corporation in the United States, in that we are so excessively decentralized.
We have decentralized so much, and we have so much authority in the subsidiaries, that we can keep doing it for a long, long time, as long as it keeps working.
And I would say, so far, that our decentralization has caused more benefits than defects. But nobody seems to copy us.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, but that's absolutely true. But I would say this. Decentralization won't work (laughs) unless you have the right kind of culture accompanying it.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, but we do.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, we do. But —
CHARLIE MUNGER: But Greg is —
WARREN BUFFETT: — and it's dependent on it. I mean —
CHARLIE MUNGER: And Greg will — and Greg will keep the culture.
WARREN BUFFETT: If we'd had the — if we had a culture of people who were trying to make a lot of money for themselves in the next five years at the top, it would not have worked.
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, of course not. And the culture is part of it. But assuming we keep the culture, it can go on quite a ways.
WARREN BUFFETT: For a long, long time.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Long, long time. I think it may amaze everybody. And by the way —
WARREN BUFFETT: Charlie (unintelligible) —
CHARLIE MUNGER: —the Roman Empire worked as long as it did because it was so decentralized.
WARREN BUFFETT: As Charlie says to me, you won't know. (Laughs)
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from Kevin Young. It's for Ajit and Greg.
"Warren spends his days reading, and his literature of choice is annual reports. How do each of you spend your days? What do you read? And how do you review investment decisions?"
AJIT JAIN: Well, in my job, I spend a lot of my time reading deals that people — brokers and people — send us, reading what they're proposing, trying to analyze them, and having a point of view, whether it is something that is of interest to us or not.
I might add, I do not spend a lot of time reading annual reports because I'm not in the stock picking business per se. But in terms of keeping track of what's going on in the insurance business, that's what 90% of my reading is all about.
GREG ABEL: Yeah. So generally, in a day, what I'm going to focus on when I'm reading is really around our businesses, what industries they're in. I'm trying to understand what our competitors are doing. What's the fundamental risks around those businesses? How they're going to get disrupted.
And then it always comes back to, are we allocating our capital properly in those businesses, relative to the risks we're seeing, both in our business and in the industry? So, a lot of time spent on that.
And as that knowledge is built, it's sharing it back and forth with our management teams of those relevant subsidiaries, and sort of fine-tuning it, is really the approach.
WARREN BUFFETT: Both of these fellows can absorb information to an extraordinary degree. I mean, they have — and for one thing, they're terribly interested in it. I mean, you know, and it's theirs.
So, I'm amazed at both of them, the degree (to) which they just, sort of, know everything. (Laughs)
And — but they enjoy it. I mean, they're not thinking about whether they'll get the next job that opens up at some huge place or anything like that.
Nobody leaves us, you know, basically, the ones we want.
But you really got to kind of be in love with your business. And that makes a huge difference. And that means that we've got to have the conditions that allow that love to flourish. And it wouldn't flourish under many — under many — with many organizations.
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from Robert Miles in Nebraska.
"The trading apps. What do you think about Robinhood and other trading apps, or fintech companies, enabling all ages and experience to participate in the stock market?"
WARREN BUFFETT: (Laughs) Well, I'm looking forward to reading the S-1 on Robin — that's the big thing you file with the SEC when you're going to be offering securities., and —
It's — you know, it's become a very significant part of the casino aspect — of the casino group — that has joined into the stock market in the last year or year and a half.
And I do want to say I'm concerned of how they handle the source of income when they say they don't charge the customer anything. I mean, you know, I'm — it'll just be interesting to watch how they describe it. I mean, but —
But they — they have attracted — maybe set out to attract — but they have attracted, I think I read where 12 or 13% of their casino participants were dealing in (option) puts and calls.
I looked up on Apple, you know, the number of seven-day calls and 14-day calls outstanding. And I'm sure a lot of that is coming through Robinhood. And that's a bunch of people writing — they're gambling on the price of Apple over the next seven days or 14.
There's nothing, you know — there's nothing illegal about it. There's nothing immoral.
But — I don't think you'd build a society around people doing it. I mean, if a group of — a group of us landed on a desert island, and we knew we would never be rescued, and I was one of the group, and I said, well, I'll set up the exchange over here. (Laughs) And I'll trade our corn futures and everything around —
I think — I think the degree to which a very rich society can reward people who know how to take advantage, essentially, of the gambling instincts of the — not only the American public — worldwide public — it's, you know, it's not the most admirable part of the accomplishment.
But I think what America's accomplished is pretty admirable overall. (Laughs)
And I think actually, you know, American corporations have turned out to be a wonderful place for people to put their money and save. But they also make terrific gambling chips.
And if you cater to those gambling chips when people have money in their pocket for the first time, and you tell them they can make 30 or 40 or 50 trades a day, and you're not charging them any commission, but you're selling your order flow or whatever, it —
I hope we don't have more of it, I'll put it that way. And I will be interested in reading the prospectus.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, that is really waving the red flag at the bull. (Laughter)
I think it's just God-awful that something like that would draw investment from civilized men and decent citizens. It's deeply wrong.
We don't want to make our money selling things that are bad for people.
WARREN BUFFETT: But we've got the states doing it with the lottery, you know.
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, but that's bad, too.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, I know. I understand, but I'm saying —
CHARLIE MUNGER: That's very bad. That's very bad —
WARREN BUFFETT: Once you —
CHARLIE MUNGER: That's one of the things that's wrong with it. It's getting respectable to do these things.
The states are just as bad as Robinhood.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, in a sense they're worse. I mean, they're really taxing the —
CHARLIE MUNGER: I know it's — I know, I know.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. They're taxing hope.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Not only that —
WARREN BUFFETT: And they don't get much in the way of taxes from me and Charlie than they do —
CHARLIE MUNGER: The states in America replaced the Mafia as the proprietor of the numbers game. That's what happened.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yep.
CHARLIE MUNGER: They pushed the Mafia aside and said that's our business, not yours. Doesn't make me proud of my government.
WARREN BUFFETT: When I was a kid, my dad (Howard Buffett) was in Congress. They had a numbers runner in the House office building (laughs), actually.
BECKY QUICK: I will ask this question from Chris Fried from Philadelphia, and whoever wants to take this on stage —
"From raw material purchases by Berkshire subsidiaries, are you seeing signs of inflation beginning to increase?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Let me answer that. Then, I think Greg can give more —
We're seeing very substantial infla — it's very interesting.
I mean, we're raising prices. People are raising prices to us.
And it's being accepted. I mean, it's not — if we get — well, you know, take home building.
I mean, you know, the cost of — we've got nine home builders, in addition to our manufactured housing thing — and then — operation, which is the largest in the country. So, we really do a lot of housing. (Laughs)
The costs are just up, up, up. Steel costs, you know, just every day, they're going up.
There hasn't yet been — because the wage stuff follows. I mean, the UAW writes a three-year contract, we got a three-year contract.
But if you're buying steel at General Motors or someplace, you're paying more every day.
So, it's — it's an economy, really — it's red-hot, I mean.
And we weren't expecting it. I mean, all our companies, when they — they thought when they were allowed to go back to work, you know, at — for various operations — we closed the furniture stores, I mentioned. You know, they were closed for six weeks or so, on average.
And they didn't know what was going to happen when they opened them. And, you know, they can't stop people from buying things. And we can't deliver them if they say, well, that's OK, (laughs) because nobody else can deliver them, either. And we'll wait for three months or something of the sort. But the backlog grows.
And then we thought it would end when the $600 payments ended in, I think, you know, around August of last year. It just kept going. And it keeps going, and it keeps going, and it keeps going.
And I get the figures. Every week I call — or (Nebraska Furniture Mart Chairman) Irv Blumkin calls me — and we go over day-by-day what happened at the three different stores in Chicago, and Kansas City, and Dallas.
And it just won't stop. People have money in their pocket. And they pay the higher prices. And when carpet prices go up in a month or two, you know — they announced a price increase for April — our costs are going up. Supply chains, all screwed up, you know, (laughs) for all kinds of people.
But it's a buying — it's almost a buying frenzy, except certain areas you can't buy yet. You know, you really can't buy international air travel, and there's —
So, the money is being diverted from a little — some — a piece of the economy into the rest. And everybody's got more cash in their pocket than — except for — meanwhile, you know, it's a terrible situation for a percentage of the people.
The — you know, this suit — I haven't worn a suit, you know, for a year, practically. And that means that the dry cleaner near us just went out of business. I mean, nobody's bringing in suits to get dry cleaned. And nobody's bringing in white shirts to the place where my wife goes.
The small businessperson — if you didn't have takeout and delivery services for restaurants — you got killed.
On the other hand, if you've got takeout facilities, it doesn't — you know, same-store sales at Dairy Queen are up a whole lot. And they adapted.
But it's — it is not a price-sensitive economy right now, in the least. And I don't know exactly how one shows up in different price indices. But there's more inflation going on than — quite a bit more inflation — going on than people would have anticipated just six months ago or thereabouts.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, and there's one very intelligent man who thinks it's dangerous. And that's just the start.
WARREN BUFFETT: Greg, you probably are in a good position to comment —
GREG ABEL: Yeah. Well, Warren, I think you touched on it. When we look at steel prices, timber prices, any petroleum input, you know, fundamentally there's pressure on those raw materials.
I do think something you've touched on, Warren, and it goes really back to the raw materials.
There's a scarcity of product right now of certain raw materials. It's impacting price and the ability to deliver the end product.
But, you know, that scarcity factor is also real out there right now, as our businesses address that challenge.
And it may that be some of that's contributed — or arisen — from the storm we previously discussed in Texas. When you take down that many petrochemical plants in one state that the rest of the country is dependent upon it, we're seeing it flow through, both on price, but overall, in scarcity of product, which obviously go together.
But there's challenges. That's for sure.
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from Bijay Koirala.
"What do you think of quants? Jim Simon's Medallion Fund has done 39% net of fees for three decades, which proves that it works. Will you consider hiring a quant lieutenant in Berkshire to work alongside with Ted (Combs) or Todd (Weschler)?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I'll say no to the second part, and I'll let Charlie handle the first part. (Laughter)
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, that's rather interesting. The (unintelligible) quant fund did fabulously on the short-term trading bit, they found little algorithms that worked to make them — they had predictive value. And as long as they kept working, they just kept doing it, as long as the money kept coming in.
When they got to using the same system just to finding some little algorithm and trying to do it mechanically for long-term stock predictions, the record was not nearly as good.
And in the short-term stuff, they found that if they tried to do it too much, they destroyed their own advantage. So, there was a limit on the amount they could make.
WARREN BUFFETT: But they were very, very smart.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yes, they got very rich.
WARREN BUFFETT: Very, very smart.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Very smart, and very rich, yes.
WARREN BUFFETT: And —
CHARLIE MUNGER: And very high grade, by the way.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Jim Simons.
WARREN BUFFETT: But we're not trying to make money trading stocks. I mean — (Laughs)
CHARLIE MUNGER: No.
WARREN BUFFETT: The answer — we don't think we know how to do it. I mean, it isn't — if we knew how to make a lot more money trading stocks, we'd probably be trading stocks, too. But we don't know how to do it. And we really don't trust anybody else to do it for us. That simple.
BECKY QUICK: This question comes from Richard Werner.
"Mr. Buffett has espoused for decades the philosophy of buy and hold — or hold forever was too short of a time period. Is it a misperception on my part, or has his philosophy changed? It seems to be a much greater turnover in the equity portfolio lately."
WARREN BUFFETT: I don't think there's that much turnover, I mean, with —
CHARLIE MUNGER: No, but there's too much.
WARREN BUFFETT: What?
CHARLIE MUNGER: There's way too much. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, the —
CHARLIE MUNGER: It's still too much. It's the same amount.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, I'd agree with that. (Laughs)
And the truth is, we own — our businesses are equities, so we own 400 or 500 billion in — maybe more — in businesses. We don't turn them over at all. We don't resell businesses.
We could probably — well, we won't even get into that — what we could do. But we don't do it.
And we do relatively little, and as Charlie says we'd do better if we — not if we — if I'd done less. (Laughter)
BECKY QUICK: This is from Daniel Gauthier.
"Warren Buffett's 2013 letter, in the middle of page 21, made a prediction that in the next decade you'll see lots of really bad news about pensions.
"Given recent events like COVID-19 and that 2023 is two years away, would Mr. Buffett like to comment or revise his 2013 prediction? Did COVID-19 delay, accelerate, eliminate or not change it?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well (laughs), in a very limited — I mean, in a terrible way, COVID improves the pension position, because — if you — it's, you know — you have less pensioners.
But the pension situation is terrible in a great many states. It's not so bad at the corporate level, and there are some multi-employer plans, obviously, that have got problems.
But basically, it's a terrible problem for the states — and, of course — some states — and states are going to go to Washington now and say, you know, we all want to get a lot of money because we had these terrible things happen to us during the pandemic, which they did.
But, some of those states have enormous pension deficits, and they'll come again if they get — (laughs) — if they get a check once.
It may turn out to be a federal obligation de facto or something than a state situation. It has not gotten better — it has not gotten better at all, and — obviously.
And to a certain extent, the pension managers get more and more desperate as interest rates go down. So, they'll listen to almost anybody that promises them — they've always had that tendency anyway — but they'll listen to people that promise them that they're going to, one way or another, solve their problem for them. And that isn't going to work.
So, it's a big, big, big problem. And of course, the real problem is — let's just take a hypothetical state that has a huge pension deficit and maybe even has a cost of living factor in it, which is going to really be a killer.
And you can move, if you're an individual. Charlie won't move to save that 500 million — he's not going to move to Nevada or someplace — but you can move, if you're an individual, to some degree, particularly if you're rich and old and retired.
And you can actually take away an asset from that kind of an environment and give it to another state that doesn't really need it as much. So, you'll get adverse selection over time.
But if you're a company and you put a plant there, you can't move the plant in five or 10 or 20 years.
So as the taxable base of individuals falls down, simply because people select out of being a part of the population, you can't select out very well as a corporation, so you have to be very careful and think a long time before you go into some state with a huge pension deficit and a declining population. Because you're going to be the last man left, and you're — and the pensions won't go away.
And I don't think — well, anybody with a short-term outlook doesn't worry about that. I mean, just get me past the next election, and I'm all right on that one, you know.
But the — you know, we don't want to be — we're not going to say our plant's going to be around for 50 years in someplace where the population gets halved and the richer part gets cut dramatically — even more dramatically — and we've still got a valuable plant there and we got to keep operating, and —
We're going — one way or another, we're going — it's not going to be a good place to be.
BECKY QUICK: And we're almost out of time, so I'll make this last question.
CHARLIE MUNGER: That's a good answer, Warren. It reminds me of my old Harvard law professor who used to say, "Let me know what your problem is, and I'll try and make it more difficult for you." (Laughter)
BECKY QUICK: So, this one comes from Jan Michael Ottlinger. It's for Warren and Charlie.
"I have one question, which is inspired by Charlie's mantra, 'You have to be a continuous learning machine.' So, here's my question. What's the biggest lesson both of you learned during the last year?"
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, my biggest lesson has been to listen more to Charlie. (Laughs)
He's been right on some things that I've been wrong on.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, I don't know. If you're not a little confused by what's going on, you don't understand it. (Laughter)
It is — we're in, sort of, uncharted territory.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. We enjoy, in a crazy way, actually seeing what happens. I mean, and —
This has — this has made us — halfway through the movie, much more interested (laughs) in watching even more of —
This is an unusual movie, but —
We — our basic principles of, you know — we start with the fact we don't want to disappoint the people who left their money with us, and things flow out of that.
And we may disappoint people that they don't make quite as much money as they want, but we don't —
And we've seen it — some strange things happen in the world in the last year, and 15 months, and we've always recognized the fact that stranger things are going to happen in the future.
And I would say, if anything, it's reinforced, you know, our desire — well — to figure out everything possible we can do to make sure that Berkshire is, 50 or 100 years from now, you know, every bit the organization and then some that it is now.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, of course that's the idea. I think it's pretty likely to work.
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, well, we wouldn't have spent 55 years at it unless we did.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. (Laughter)
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.
And Becky, is that — is that the last question?
BECKY QUICK: That's the last question.
WARREN BUFFETT: OK, well, in that case, we'll move on to the meeting.
The other three fellows here can leave. It's not going to be that exciting, but we've got a script here, even, somewhat. I don't like scripts, but they — (laughs) — not my nature.
And one of the proposers for the two items on the proxy is here in the building to present his argument personally, and the other one has recorded it.
So, we'll get to that in just a minute, but —
We offered both of — I mean, they either could record or come, and I'm happy one of them came.
So here we go, and the meeting will now come to order.
I am Warren Buffett — not that you didn't know by this time (laughs) — chairman of the board of directors of the company.
I welcome you to the 2021 Annual Meeting of Shareholders. Marc Hamburg is secretary of Berkshire Hathaway. He will make a written record of the proceedings.
Rebecca Amick has been appointed inspector of elections at this meeting. She will certify to the count of votes cast in the election of directors and the motions to be voted upon at this meeting.
The named proxy holders for this meeting are Walter Scott and Marc Hamburg.
WARREN BUFFETT: Does the secretary have a report of the number of Berkshire shares outstanding entitled to vote and represented at the meeting?
MARC HAMBURG: Yes, I do. As indicated in the proxy statement that accompanied the notice of this meeting that was sent to all shareholders of record on March 3rd, 2021, the record day for this meeting, there were 639,747 shares of Class A Berkshire Hathaway common stock outstanding, with each entitled to one vote on motions considered at the meeting, and 1,335,074,355 shares of Class B Berkshire Hathaway common stock outstanding, with each share entitled to 1/10,000th of one vote on motions considered at the meeting.
Of that number, 456,040 Class A shares and 663,442,069 Class B shares are represented at this meeting by proxies returned through Thursday evening, April 29th.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you. That number represents a quorum, and we will therefore directly proceed with the meeting.
WARREN BUFFETT: The first order of business will a reading of the minutes of the last meeting of shareholders.
I recognize Miss Debbie Bosanek, who will place a motion before the meeting.
DEBBIE BOSANEK: I move that the reading of the minutes of the last meeting of shareholders be dispensed with and the minutes be approved.
WARREN BUFFETT: Do I hear a second?
FEMALE VOICE: I second the motion.
WARREN BUFFETT: The motion is carried.
WARREN BUFFETT: The next item of business is to elect directors. I recognize Miss Debbie Bosanek to place a motion before the meeting with respect to election of directors.
DEBBIE BOSANEK: I move that Warren Buffett, Charles Munger, Gregory Abel, Howard Buffett, Steven Burke, Kenneth Chenault, Susan Decker, David Gottesman, Charlotte Guyman, Ajit Jain, Thomas Murphy, Ronald Olson, Walter Scott, and Meryl Witmer be elected as directors.
FEMALE VOICE: I second the motion.
WARREN BUFFETT: It has been moved and seconded that the 14 individuals named in Miss Bosanek's motion be elected as directors. The nominations are ready to be acted upon.
Mr. Hamburg, when you are ready, you may provide the voting results from Miss Amick's preliminary report.
MARC HAMBURG: Miss Amick has reported that the ballot of the proxy holders in response to proxies that were received through last Thursday evening cast not less than 473,474 votes for each nominee.
Miss Amick's report also states that this number exceeds a majority of the number of the total votes of all Class A and Class B shares outstanding. The report also states that the certification required by Delaware law of the precise count of the votes will be placed with the minutes of this meeting.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you Mr. Hamburg. The 14 nominees have been elected as directors.
WARREN BUFFETT: The next two items of business relate to two shareholder proposals that are each set forth in the proxy statement that can be accessed at BerkshireHathaway.com. If you haven't read those proposals, just go to BerkshireHathaway.com, because they're interesting proposals.
And the proponents' views are set forth well there, and I think our views are set forth. And I welcome you reading it.
To get back to the script, the first proposal requests that the company publish an annual assessment addressing how the company manages physical and transitional climate-related risks and opportunities.
The directors have recommended that the shareholders vote against the proposal.
I will now recognize Tim Youmans, a representative of Federated Hermes to present the proposal.
I think we're connected up with Mr. Youmans.
TIM YOUMANS: I thank the chair — I thank the chair of the board and fellow shareholders.
I'm Tim Youmans, Lead North America EOS at Federated Hermes, here today on behalf of item two cosponsors Federated Hermes, CalPERS, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, and CDPQ, Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec, and our combined millions of ultimate beneficiaries.
For well more than a year, the parent company has been unresponsive to the co-sponsors' requests to discuss the parent company's lack of climate-related financial disclosures.
In order to have some kind of dialogue with the parent company, we have co-filed a proposal that Berkshire Hathaway's board issue a report annually assessing how the company manages physical and transitional climate-related risks and opportunities, including climate-related financial reporting, where material, for subsidiaries and for the parent company, how the board oversees climate-related risks for the combined enterprise, and the feasibility of the parent company and its subsidiaries establishing science-based greenhouse gas reduction targets consistent with limiting climate change to well below 2 degrees.
We ask that the annual assessment follows the recommendations of the task force on climate-related financial disclosures, TCFD.
The board argues that since it manages its operating businesses on an unusually decentralized basis, and there are few centralized or integrated business functions, the board believes that the shareholder proposal is inconsistent with Berkshire's culture.
The co-sponsors note, despite Berkshire's culture and decentralized management, shareholders can only purchase shares in the combined parent company entity. Shares cannot be purchased in the individual subsidiaries that may or may not have the climate disclosures that the board cites in its opposition statement.
The company has more than a hundred billion dollars in cash equivalence. The co-sponsors, and many in the $54 trillion climate action 100-plus investor coalition, want the parent company to put more resources into sustainability and in mitigating the financial impact of climate change and the energy transition.
The company's sustainability website consists only of links to 15 subsidiaries. We note the parent company has 60 subsidiaries.
This is insufficient disclosure to shareholders who think that sustainability risks, especially climate risks, may be material to the parent company's long-term future prospects, of course, recognizing the company's strong past financial performance.
No doubt, climate change and the energy transition to a low-carbon economy pose a systemic risk to the economy. The company's auditor, Deloitte, says on its website, "Climate change is not a choice, it's billions of them. We are all compelled to act."
Deloitte does not assess climate change-related financial impacts in the company's audit. When asked by the co-sponsors why climate change impacts are excluded from audits like Berkshire's, Deloitte failed to provide any meaningful reply.
In his new book, former Berkshire director Bill Gates says, "Companies accepting more risk is needed to avoid climate disaster," and "shareholders and board members will have to be more willing to share in this risk, making it clear to executives that they'll back smart investments even if they don't ultimately pan out." This is the Gates position, and the chair is one of three Gates Foundation trustees.
We ask the board to take the cultural risk for a modest degree of centralization needed to issue the annual climate-related financial assessment. We all need to take action now to limit climate change impact on our long-term sustainability.
We strongly urge Berkshire Hathaway shareholders to support item two, as climate risk may be material to the parent company.
And we have a question for the chair. Will you please change your mind and vote your personal shares in support of item two? Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you, Mr. Youmans.
The proposal is now ready to be acted upon. Mr. Hamburg, when you're ready, you may provide the voting results disclosed in Miss Amick's preliminary report.
MARC HAMBURG: Ms. Amick's report states that the ballot of the proxy holders in response to proxies that were received through last Thursday evening cast 131,376 votes for the motion and 385,336 votes against the motion.
As the number of votes against the motion exceeds a majority of the number of votes of all Class A and Class B shares properly cast on the matter, the motion has failed.
The certification required by Delaware law of the precise count of the votes will be placed with the minutes of this meeting.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you, Mr. Hamburg. The proposal fails.
WARREN BUFFETT: The second shareholder proposal requests that Berkshire Hathaway companies annually publish reports assessing their diversity and inclusion efforts.
The directors have recommended that the shareholders vote against the proposal.
I will now ask that the audiotape provided by Meredith Benton, a representative of As You Sow, be played to present the proposal.
MEREDITH BENTON: Hello. I am Meredith Benton. I am speaking on behalf of the nonprofit advocacy organization, As You Sow, and I am also the CEO of the consultancy Whistle Stop Capital.
I formally move proposal number three, asking for Berkshire Hathaway to report on how it assesses diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, including the process that the board follows for determining the effectiveness of its diversity and inclusion programs, and how it assesses goals, metrics, and trends related to recruitment, promotion, and retention.
What would it mean if the majority of Berkshire's operating units weren't managing their diversity programs? It would mean that Berkshire companies are missing out on the benefits that an inclusive workplace culture can provide, such as, according to the studies, access to top talent, to good people, better understanding of consumer preferences, a stronger mix of leadership skills, informed strategy discussions, and improved risk management.
Best practices in diversity and inclusion reporting exist and are increasingly standardized across companies. Berkshire companies can publish their workforce composition through their consolidated EEO-1 form. This form is already submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, so it requires no additional effort on behalf of the companies to collect or reconcile.
It is a universally disliked form, but it is standardized, and companies will often publish their EEO-1 along with an explanation of their own internal structures and ways.
Seventy-two of the S&P 100 companies publicly share, or have committed to share, this form.
To my knowledge, no Berkshire company currently does — not one.
The release of workforce composition data is akin to a balance sheet detailing diversity at a single point in time. Just as a balance sheet would by itself be insufficient to identify the strength of a company's financials, so, too, the EEO-1, by itself, is insufficient in assessing effectiveness of DEI programs.
The company's inclusion data, the hiring, retention, and promotion rates of diverse employees must also be shared. Investors need to have a full understanding of the actual experience of Berkshire employees.
In theory, companies should want to share their retention data. If it's a good company to work for, people want to stay, and they should want to share their promotion data, in theory.
If it's a company that hires good people and treats them well, those good people will ascend, with mentorship and time.
Seventy percent of the S&P 500 currently share diversity and inclusion data at some level — 70%.
Only 22% of Berkshire companies do, at any level, and only four Berkshire companies speak to workplace equity with any meaningful depth.
Berkshire is a serious outlier here.
Berkshire's famously decentralized. Its units operate independently. Yet, if an issue isn't conveyed as important from headquarters, can we expect it to be prioritized by an operating unit?
Here's the thing. Mr. Buffett, Mr. Munger, board members, and the team headquarters, you may each individually truly and genuinely hire, mentor, and promote the best people for the job regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any immutable characteristic.
But we can't conclude that this is the mindset of each of your employees, managers, and hiring directors.
Berkshire headquarters can't sit passively and hope that their independent units are addressing bias and discrimination in their workplace. Active management, proactive attention, is needed.
In its statement in opposition to the proposal, the board said, "Mr. Buffett, Berkshire's chairman and CEO, has set the tone at the top for Berkshire and its employees for over 50 years." It also states, "Mr. Buffett has a record of opposing efforts seen or unseen to suppress diversity or religious inclusion."
Mr. Buffett holds extraordinary influence over his own companies and over the broader business community. He opposes efforts to suppress diversity. Given that, we ask for him to step forward decisively, in his own inimitable words, in his own inimitable way, to detail how important diversity and inclusion is to his companies, the expectations he has, and the efforts he expects to see, the metrics that will be used to judge success.
Actions speak louder than words, but silence here speaks volumes. Thank you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you. The proposal is now ready to be acted upon.
Mr. Hamburg, when you are ready, you may provide the voting results disclosed in Miss Amick's preliminary report.
MARC HAMBURG: Ms. Amick's report states that the ballot of the proxy holders in response to proxies that were received through last Thursday evening cast 124,842 votes for the motion and 391,662 votes against the motion.
As the number of votes against the motion exceeds a majority of the number of votes of all Class A and Class B shares properly cast on the matter, the motion has failed.
The certification required by Delaware law of the precise count of the votes will be placed with the minutes of this meeting.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you, Mr. Hamburg. The proposal fails.
DEBBIE BOSANEK: I move —
WARREN BUFFETT: Miss Bosanek? Yeah.
DEBBIE BOSANEK: I move that this meeting be adjourned.
FEMALE VOICE: I second the motion to adjourn.
WARREN BUFFETT: Motion to adjourn has been made and seconded.
This meeting is adjourned, and I would just like to add one final comment that I really hope, and I think the odds are very, very good that we get to hold this next year in Omaha.
And I hope that we get a record turnout of Berkshire shareholders, and we look forward to — we really look forward — to meeting you in Omaha — I guess it'll be next April 30th, but we'll be sure of that date a little later.
So, thank you for watching and we will see you next year, and hopefully, in Omaha.