Warren Buffett sees ‘significant’ inflation amid ‘red hot’ US recovery

Berkshire Hathaway leaders talk down Spacs, cryptocurriencies and climate reporting

Berkshire Hathaway chairman and chief executive Warren Buffett  (left) and vice-chairman Charlie Munger during the virtual Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Berkshire Hathaway chairman and chief executive Warren Buffett (left) and vice-chairman Charlie Munger during the virtual Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

 

Warren Buffett told Berkshire Hathaway shareholders on Saturday that he was surprised by the “red hot” US economic rebound and warned the company was being hit by inflationary pressures.

“We’re seeing very substantial inflation,” the 90-year-old chairman said in his address to investors that was held virtually for the second consecutive year because of the pandemic. “It’s very interesting. We’re raising prices. People are raising prices to us and it’s being accepted.”

Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Geico, the insurer, railroad BNSF and Benjamin Moore, the paint maker, reported robust $11.7 billion in profits earlier in the day, with some divisions disclosing price rises to keep pace with the increased costs of raw materials.

“This has been a very unusual recession,” Mr Buffett said. “Right now, business really is very good in a great many segments of the economy.”

US household incomes rose by the most in recorded history in March as the country’s economic expansion accelerated, lifted by government stimulus and a healing labour market. That has sent reverberations throughout financial markets, with investors’ inflation expectations over the next decade rising to an eight-year high.

“It just won’t stop,” Mr Buffett added. “People have money in their pocket and they’ll pay the higher prices.”

Mr Buffett had to defend his decisions over the past year, particularly his reluctance to make an acquisition even as other asset managers had moved to put their cash to work. He said that before the Federal Reserve intervened last March, the company was focused on maintaining and financing its own businesses.

Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway vice-chairman, added that it would have been “crazy” to expect an acquisition at the nadir of the crisis.

Mr Buffett warned that the company would continue to struggle to compete on purchases, a persistent theme at recent annual meetings, particularly as other well-funded rivals enter the fray.

Spacs

Berkshire is also now vying with so-called special purpose acquisition companies (Spacs) as it looks for takeover targets.

“Spacs generally have to spend their money in two years,” he said. “If you put a gun to my head and said you have to buy a business in two years, I’d buy one but it wouldn’t be much of one.”

“I call it fee-driven buying,” said Mr Munger. “In other words, they’re not buying because it’s a good investment. They’re buying it because the adviser gets a fee. And of course, the more of that you get, the sillier your civilisation is getting”

Mr Munger also railed against the rise of cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin.

“I hate the bitcoin success. And I don’t welcome a currency that’s so useful to kidnappers and extortionists and so forth,” he said. “So I think I should say modestly that I think the whole development is disgusting and contrary to the interest of civilisation.”

Mr Buffett also explained the company’s decision to sell its airline stakes last year, a move that has been criticised given the bounceback in the industry’s fortunes. He said many of the companies, which included American and Delta, would not have received the same government financing if they were backed by a wealthy shareholder such as Berkshire.

The two men were joined on stage by Greg Abel and Ajit Jain, vice-chairmen of Berkshire who have been tipped by shareholders as potential successors to the company’s longtime leaders.

Climate disclosure

Mr Abel joined Mr Buffett in defending the board’s advice that shareholders vote down two stockholder proposals that would push Berkshire to disclose its efforts on climate change and diversity and inclusion in the workforce.

He said the company’s large energy division that he chairs had already made a strong push to decarbonise its business. He noted that the unit had planned to close 16 coal-fired power plants by 2030 and shutter all such facilities by 2050.

Mr Buffet was more emphatic in his disagreement with the proposal. “It’s asinine frankly in my view,” he said.

The two proposals won backing from several large investors, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, asset manager Neuberger Berman and Norges Bank, one of Berkshire’s biggest backers. More than a quarter of the votes cast in the election were in favour of the first proposal on climate change disclosures.

However, neither carried enough support to overcome the sway Mr Buffett’s high vote class A stock holds. It was a reminder of who has the power at the $631 billion conglomerate. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021