Woodstock for capitalists begins at buoyant time for BerskshireBusiness | 1 May 2021 11:48 pm
Warren Buffett will begin Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting on Saturday (US time) riding high, with shares of the conglomerate at a record and its myriad of operating businesses and equity investments primed to benefit from the U.S. economy reopening from the pandemic, CNBC reports.
The event will be held virtually (1:30 pm ET) without attendees for a second time because of Covid-19. This year, however, the 90-year-old Buffett is taking the meeting to Los Angeles so he can be by 97-year-old Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger’s side once again. Munger resides in Los Angeles and missed the last annual meeting due to travel restrictions. It will be the first time that the annual meeting will take place outside of Omaha, Nebraska.
While “Woodstock for Capitalists” will be missing the capitalists once again, the tone of the meeting may more likely resemble the meetings of old with shareholders clamoring for Buffett’s outlook on the world following an unprecedented year.
“I hope there would be a pretty sharp contrast in the overall demeanor of the folks at Berkshire,” said Cathy Seifert, a Berkshire analyst at CFRA Research. “Last year, there was a degree of an alarm just because this was an event that was very difficult to price. It was kind of written all over his face. This annual meeting, the tone from an underlying operational perspective should be more relaxed.”
Berkshire’s other vice chairmen, Ajit Jain and Greg Abel, will also be on hand to answer questions during the 3½-hour event. Berkshire’s B shares were up more than 1% on the week, bringing their 12-month gain to 50%.
Here are some of the big topics shareholders will want answers on:
Airlines: His thoughts on the industry after revealing at last year’s meeting he sold his entire stake (with the shares then subsequently roaring back)
Deploying the $138 billion cash pile: Why he’s been buying back a record amount of Berkshire’s stock instead of making one large acquisition and what his plan is going forward
Market outlook: His thoughts on the stock market’s overall valuation following the pandemic comeback
Bubbles?: Cryptocurrencies and the other possible market manias that have popped up amid the huge rush of retail investors into markets
Life after Buffett and Munger: Berkshire’s succession plan
At the last annual meeting, Buffett revealed Berkshire sold the entirety of its equity position in the U.S. airline industry. This included stakes in United, American, Southwest and Delta Air Lines, which were worth north of $4 billion combined.
“The world has changed for the airlines. And I don’t know how it’s changed and I hope it corrects itself in a reasonably prompt way,” Buffett said at the time. “I don’t know if Americans have now changed their habits or will change their habits because of the extended period.”
The sale conveyed a pessimistic view on the industry from the legendary buy-and-hold investor. Many Buffett watchers were left disappointed, however, as shares of those carriers soon embarked on an epic rebound, rallying triple digits from 2020 lows. Even former President Donald Trump weighed in on the trade back then, saying that Buffett has been right “his whole life” but made a mistake selling airlines.
“He might acknowledge that the velocity of this recovery was greater than anticipated,” CFRA’s Seifert said. “The airline disposal may have been a function of their belief that what’s going on in the airline industry may be secular and not cyclical. That’s the one fine distinction that investors may want him to make.”
While airline stocks have rebounded drastically over the past year, many argue that the industry may have indeed changed fundamentally due to the economic fallout and the road to a full recovery remains bumpy. United Airlines said this month that business and international travel recovery is still far off even as the economy continues to reopen.
“He may still be right about the airline industry with travel coming back slowly and there being too many planes,” Edward Jones analyst James Shanahan said. “Arguably he could still be right about that, but he’s certainly wrong on the stocks.”
New stock moves
Berkshire bought back a record of $24.7 billion in its own shares last year. Buffett also did some bargain-hunting amid the market comeback, taking sizable positions in big dividend payers Chevron and Verizon.
Apple was still the conglomerate’s biggest common stock investment as of the end of 2020. Buffett’s conglomerate also appeared to dial back its exposure to financials. Berkshire exited its JPMorgan Chase and PNC Financial positions at the end of last year, while cutting the Wells Fargo stake was cut by nearly 60%.
“When you think about the legacy of Berkshire Hathaway and all the operating businesses, including railroads, manufacturing, retail, utilities, it’s all old economy type companies,” Shanahan said. “The way the portfolio is comprised now after the selling of airline stocks and selling of the financial stocks, together with huge performance in Apple, it looks a lot more new economy now.”
Shanahan estimated that Berkshire bought back another $5 billion of its own shares in the first quarter, based on proxy filings.
The conglomerate was still sitting on a huge cash war chest with more than $138 billion at the end of 2020. Buffett has yet to make the “elephant-sized acquisition” he’s been touting for years. At last year’s meeting, the legendary investor gave a simple reason for his inaction.
“We have not done anything because we haven’t seen anything that attractive,” Buffett said. “We are not doing anything big, obviously. We are willing to do something very big. I mean you could come to me on Monday morning with something that involved $30, or $40 billion or $50 billion. And if we really like what we are seeing, we would do it.”
The deal-making environment has only become all the more competitive over the past year with the meteoric rise of SPACs, or special purpose acquisition companies. More than 500 blank-check deals with over $138 billion funds are seeking their target companies currently, according to SPAC Research.
“This is a significant company with a significant cash position. Investors have the right to know what they intend to deploy the cash,” Seifert said. “They are entitled to have more than just an excuse. Investors are going to start to grow a bit weary if it’s just the same old story. But the stock has recovered nicely, so they are not going to be grumbling too much.”
When it comes to a concrete succession plan, shareholders might not get much more from Buffett and Munger even though they are now both nonagenarians.
Abel, vice chairman of noninsurance operations at Berkshire, is seen as a top contender as Buffett’s successor.
“I do not expect him to talk about succession in any more detail than he already had,” Shanahan said. “Elevating the status of Abel and Jain to the roles of vice chairmen and having them available and participating in annual meeting speaks volume. I don’t think he necessarily has to say more than that.”