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What We Learned From Berkshire Hathaway's Annual Meeting

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® – Updated May 8, 2020 at 2:13PM

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Warren Buffett spent several hours answering questions, and here's what we found out.

Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A 2.29%) (BRK.B 2.38%) Vice Chairman Greg Abel held the company's first-ever virtual annual meeting on Saturday, where we also got a look at Berkshire's first-quarter earnings report. In this episode of Industry Focus: Financials, host Jason Moser and contributor Matt Frankel, CFP cover the key takeaways from the meeting and earnings, and give their take on Buffett's decision to sell all of Berkshire's airline stocks. Then, Matt's got his eye on Southwest Airlines (LUV 2.95%) despite Buffett's airline sales, while Jason's watching PayPal (PYPL 6.26%) ahead of the company's earnings report.

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on May 4, 2020.

Moser: It's Monday, May 4th. I'm your host Jason Moser, and on today's financial show, we're digging into this past weekend's installment of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. Of course, we've got a couple of stocks we're watching this coming week. Joining me, as always, it's Certified Financial Planner, Berkshire Hathaway meeting know-it-all, I guess I could say, Matt Frankel. Matt, what's going on?

Matt Frankel: I hope not much. I was supposed to be in Omaha this past weekend. We all know what happened with that. I ordered some of the meeting tchotchkes that they normally sell there, like a pair of socks with Buffett's face on them and stuff like that. So, I'll at least feel like I was there.

Moser: Yeah, I had the good fortune to go to the meeting, it must have been seven years ago now or so; seven or eight years ago. And it obviously was in Omaha at the arena. And we were lucky, we got the press passes, so you get to go in there and sit up in the top row there, kind of, looking down on the entire meeting. It's really kind of overwhelming to see how many people this meeting attracts year-in and year-out. Calling it Woodstock for capitalists, I think is pretty apropos. Everybody is really excited to be there.

It's not just the meeting, it's everything leading up to the meeting. Nights before we went to Gorat's for dinner one night, we had the steak there. And now they've incorporated, I guess, what, that 5K run or whatever. So, they really are building this up to cater to an audience. That I think this is certainly going to extend well beyond the years where Charlie and Warren are running the show here. I mean, it really speaks to the culture they've built there.

Frankel: Yeah. And I'm planning to go next year. They're getting older, so I don't know how many are going to be with -- I mean, they might retire, you never know. At next year's meeting, Buffett will be 90 and Munger will be 97, so. [laughs]

Moser: Yeah. And speaking of that, you know, the age factor. Obviously, Warren was there, Charlie wasn't there this year. And Warren certainly made sure everybody knew that he was feeling OK and he just wasn't there. I thought it was pretty neat to hear that Charlie Munger has figured out how to use Zoom and he's zooming into some Berkshire meetings and helping get some stuff done just through the Zoom platform; that was pretty cool to see.

Frankel: Yeah, I'm wondering if just him being in the highest-risk group for the virus has anything to do with him not traveling.

Moser: It's a distinct possibility.

Frankel: I mean, at 96, that's the exact group that doesn't want to get this.

Moser: That is an at-risk population, that's the one that really needs to make sure they stay out of harm's way for sure. Well, let's dig into what went on this weekend, because I didn't sit down and watch the whole thing, but I caught it in dribs and drabs and saw a lot of the notes, I read a lot of the stuff that we put out on Matt, you wrote a great article there talking about earnings and more.

So, let's just open the discussion up here with the numbers first for the business. Let's look at the quarterly performance for the business, look at how Berkshire Hathaway as a company is doing. What stood out to you in the performance metrics, especially given the current situation?

Frankel: Well, the headline numbers, first of all, don't really matter in Berkshire's case. Berkshire reported a loss of almost $50 billion for the quarter, but the company didn't actually lose that money, that's just the performance of its stock portfolio by March 31st.

So, the better numbers, operating profit, meaning how Berkshire's actual operating businesses, like, GEICO, etc., did. Operating profit increased by 6% from last year. So, the operating businesses are OK. It's really important to note that just the declines in earnings and that giant loss I just mentioned are just due to unrealized profits and losses in the stock portfolio.

Moser: Yeah. And it's worth noting, Berkshire is a very insurance-heavy business. I mean, let's look beyond just its stock portfolio. I mean, when you talk about those wholly owned businesses, the two biggest, if I'm not mistaken, are Burlington Northern Santa Fe and GEICO. I think Burlington Northern actually is a little bit bigger, but for all intents and purposes, they're basically the same size. But I mean, that gives you an idea, beyond the stock portfolio, of the actual fundamentals of this business. I mean, this is an insurance business for the most part it seems.

Frankel: Yeah, Berkshire focuses on insurance; the railroad you said is a massive business; they also have their energy business, which is a huge component of it; I know they own a bunch of utility companies, which is a big Buffett favorite. And then a bunch of other kinds of smaller -- I say smaller, but I'm talking about, like, Duracell and Dairy Queen. And so, these aren't tiny businesses, and there's about 60 of them altogether right now. So, those are doing OK as a whole.

Some of them, like, obviously, the Berkshire's furniture stores are generally closed right now, so. Like, things like that. But for the most part, his businesses are pretty recession proof. And including this crash, which is decimating recession-proof businesses even, a lot of them are doing just fine, like, GEICO, you know, they're giving everybody a 15% refund on their auto insurance premiums. But I got to think that their exposure is declining by more than 15% because no one's driving.

Moser: Yeah, I would imagine that's a good way to look at it. I mean, it's certainly a nice way for businesses -- I mean, GEICO certainly isn't the only one doing that, but we're seeing a lot of insurance companies passing those savings along, and that's great to see. But to your point there, I mean, insurance, we look at as being, generally speaking, fairly recession-resistant. I mean, I don't think anything is really recession-proof, but insurance is a pretty reliable revenue stream, right? Whether it's homeowners or auto or life, whatever it may be, insurance is one of those things, this is a pretty reliable revenue stream. Which even when you look forward and you see the uncertainty in the insurance space. We talked about this with Travelers, of course, a couple of weeks ago, I guess. Plenty of uncertainty there as far as claims for this and otherwise. But still, insurance is a pretty stable business and I think that's going to make investors feel pretty good.

Now, when we talk about Berkshire Hathaway, we talk about these wholly owned businesses, the culture that they've built, we also talk about the investments that Buffett and Munger make and their deputies there, Todd and Ted, they are really good at investing. And we looked at them as sort of our North Star for a lot of reasons there.

It was a little bit surprising to me, for all of the talking and the action and the opportunities that we saw come up here over the past several weeks here, given the coronavirus situation, it really does look like Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway have been holding off on really putting a lot of that money to work, haven't they?

Frankel: Yeah, this really, really shocked me when I saw the numbers. Their cash hoard has actually grown, now it's at a new record, $137 billion. So, it looks like they did buy some stocks. The number goes up for other reasons, for example, the other operating businesses generate some money that gets thrown into the cash pile. That doesn't mean they sold stocks. But it looks like they bought about $3 billion worth of stock, just looking at the cost basis of the entire portfolio at the end of the year and then again on March 31st. So, it looks like they bought about $3 billion. We'll find out what they bought in a couple of weeks, but I got to say, I was disappointed at this.

The big thesis for owning Berkshire as opposed to a more exciting growth stock is that Warren Buffett and his team are really good at putting money to work at the right times. And so far anyway, again, this only covers through March 31st, but so far it doesn't look like that's really happened.

Moser: Now, why do you think that might be? Do you feel like maybe, given the chain of command there, I mean, it does seem like they give Todd and Ted pretty much, I don't want to say full autonomy, but it sure does feel like they have a lot of freedom to just kind of do what they really feel like is best at any given point in time. What do you feel like, is the trepidation more of a process thing or do you think -- like, I've seen all over Twitter, everybody talking about Buffett not buying stocks, building up that cash hoard.

Given the exposure Berkshire Hathaway has to such a cross-section of the economy, perhaps they see more pain to come, what do you think it is? Do you think it's a process thing or do you think maybe they're thinking there's another shoe to drop?

Frankel: Well, I mean, one thing Buffett and Munger both said is that they wanted to preserve their cash; in case anything bad happens, they want to have tons of cash. There's nothing that could happen that you need $137 billion for it. So, I buy that excuse for the first $40 billion or $50 billion of it.

However, I'm not saying Buffett sees another shoe to drop here, but I don't think he's convinced that the opportunities are going to be over any time soon. I mean, right now, the market is still pretty down in the dumps. And like I said that only covered through March 31st, so he could have been buying stuff in April and he could buy stuff in May as the dust settles.

And everyone always talks about his financial crisis investments, and I know you were going to bring that one up in a minute. But the Bank of America investment --

Moser: Well, yeah, jump into that for a minute, because we all looked at that at the time and thought, Bank of America was, kind of, just getting out of that whole mortgage-backed security crisis there, you know, nasty acquisition, really just almost basically write that thing to zero, was that Countrywide? I mean, it didn't seem like, it just kind of left a bad taste in your mouth. It took a little while for that play out.

Frankel: Yeah, definitely. And I mean, the thing that really people should remember, if you're disappointed about Berkshire's non-investment right now, as I kind of am, keep the timetable of that in mind. The Bank of America investment, even now, essentially quadrupled Buffett's money. He put in $5 billion, ended up with over $20 billion right now. So, it quadrupled, but keep the timetable in mind. He didn't even make that investment until 2011. Meanwhile, the financial crisis was 2008 to 2009. So, a lot of these companies are going to be hurt for a while.

And he mentioned the Fed's action. The Fed and the government have just been injecting money into businesses and the economy right now. So, a lot of businesses aren't knocking on the door yet, needing money or needing funding or anything like that, because they're getting it from the government. That's not going to last forever. So, I see kind of a longer tail to trickle of businesses running into capital problems as this plays out. We'll see how much the government keeps doing. I don't know if they're going to pass a $2 trillion spending bill every few weeks to keep this thing going.

Moser: [laughs] Well, I'd argue that if they intend on keeping things shutdown, they better just plan on keeping this as a revolving door, because as long as they want to keep things shut down, they're going to have to keep that spigot open.

Frankel: I agree. My worry is that they're going to let everything reopen, you know, two, three, four whatever months from now and then demand isn't going to come back 100% right away and that's what you're going to see some businesses start to hurt, and that's when Buffett's phone might ring.

Moser: And that's a good point there. I mean, I think we've talked about the two-sided nature of the recovery, whenever we see this recovery start to materialize. It is going to be a slow chug, it's not going to be something where you just open the doors and everybody's back out and at 'em. And we've seen a great example there, whether you agree or disagree with states reopening their economies and at least giving restaurants, for example, the opportunity to get their businesses back open. It's not saying you have to, it's saying there's the option, you have that option to do that if you want. If you feel like you can do it in a safe fashion, and we're certainly seeing some do it, but we're seeing plenty saying, you know what? I think I'd rather feel a little bit better just hang on for a little while longer, seeing how this plays out. So, I mean, I think it all speaks to it will be a slow recovery, it's not going to be something that just happens overnight.

Frankel: That's true. And South Carolina just opened its restaurants today for outdoor seating.

Moser: Oh, wow! Yeah, well, see? I mean that's --

Frankel: And a lot of places are being smart about it, they're like, blocking off half the parking lot and putting big tents up and putting tables under them. [laughs] So, they're being smart.

Moser: We're seeing a lot of great innovation, you know, we're seeing a lot of great innovation. And my mom and dad are down in Georgia, there they see both sides of it as well. I mean, it's a frustrating time, but by the same token you give people at least the choice to try something and you start to see some neat innovation there and new ways of doing things. And whether it's a restaurant or the doctor's office, we're certainly seeing innovation in all sorts of areas of the economy now.

I wanted to ask you about buybacks. We've seen Buffett's buyback philosophy evolve over time. I mean, they had that, I think, 1.2X book, sort of, measuring stick that they've always been using, they may kind of open it up to their discretion, have they been buying back much of their own stock lately?

Frankel: Uh! That's another one. [laughs] You're bringing up all the bad stuff, Jason.

Moser: Well, we'll get to some good stuff --

Frankel: [laughs] Berkshire spent $1.7 billion thereabouts on buybacks during the quarter, which is high compared to some recent quarters, but it's you know, 0.4% of their outstanding shares. Not doing big buybacks, and not just the amount of the buybacks, it's the timing that's been frustrating. Just to name the biggest part of the buyback, they spent a little over $1 billion in late-February, at an average price of $214, the company is currently trading for $177. Toward the end of March, Berkshire was trading in the $160s at one point, actually below book value, you mentioned the 1.2 multiple; they actually went below book value for a period. And the company didn't buy any at that time.

So, that's what's frustrating, and Buffett addressed this during the meeting. And the way he explained it, and it makes sense to some degree, is that they look at a snapshot in time and whether or not shares are trading for more or less than their intrinsic value. At the bottom of the collapse, the stock price had been down 40% or whatever or the stock portfolio that Berkshire owns. And, yes, while Berkshire's stock price had declined, so did the value of the assets it represents. And it didn't represent that much of a discount to the assets as it might have appeared. It's not just Berkshire stock price, it's the stock price relative to the asset value as they're hitting the buyback button.

Moser: I do get that, I mean, that does make sense, that does make sense, I do get it. I guess, it goes to show that even the great ones, it's still not always so cut-and-dry, and it's a marathon, not a sprint too. I think that's something that's always worth remembering. Your Bank of America point there, I think was really good one, in that, you see something there but we can never really nail down the actual time and that's why we take patience in that long view into such account [...]

Frankel: And like you said, the government's -- and I agree with you that as long as they're going to keep things shut down, the government will throw money at this thing. The fear is, you know, after this is over -- and same thing during the financial crisis with the big stimulus packages that came in '08 and '09, did you hear about any stimulus packages in 2010 when people were still going into foreclosure and things like that? No.

So, you're going to have this, kind of, long-tailed problem that people are going to start running out of money after this is over because demand is not going to come up right away and there's no more government help coming. So, Buffett said the phone is not ringing yet, there's a good reason for it, people don't need money or companies don't need money, and if they do, they're getting it from the government and at much better terms than Buffett would give them, I promise you that.

Moser: I would imagine. [laughs]

Frankel: Buffett usually wants, for a great investment opportunity, Buffett wants 6% to 7% return on capital. And that's for a fantastic opportunity. If he's taking risk, he wants even more than that. And right now, I think the CARES Act alone is worth what, 1% interest with a lot of it forgivable? Yeah, Buffett it's not going to give any of that.

So, as long as the government funding is available, it makes sense that there wouldn't be any big opportunities. I wish he would have put more money in the stock portfolio. I get why there's no acquisition opportunities, but I wish he would have put more of that money to work in stocks, especially when great companies like Apple were, like, down in the dumpster in the past month or so.

Moser: It's a good point. OK, Matt, I don't mean to harp on the bad news here, but we have to address really the elephant in the room here, and that is the airlines. This is one where, I'd imagine airlines probably built a pretty firm stance on whether you think airlines are a good investment or not, but the bottom-line is that Berkshire has, I think, liquidated their full positions in their four major airline investments that they had. And that was American, Delta, Southwest and United. They announced on Saturday, they've dumped those shares and are moving on to greener pastures.

Now, I don't hold that against them at all. I mean, I've certainly always sided on the one, I don't want to invest in airlines, just generally speaking I'm not a big fan and I've talked about why before.

Now, I personally think there's a great lesson here for investors. I think this is one of these times where we can still glean lessons from the old man here. And I think being able to look at a situation and change your mind when the facts change, admit that, hey, maybe you got it wrong and move forward. I mean, there's an opportunity cost to hanging on there, to see if this thing bounces back. And I think it's probably reasonable to assume that airlines aren't going to bounce back in a quick fashion regardless of the recovery timeline. But what was your take there? I mean, that was, I don't know, did you feel like those were good investments from the beginning? Or, I don't know, he seems so conflicted on airlines.

Frankel: I don't know if they were good investors from the beginning. I mean, this is an unprecedented situation, no one could have seen it coming. This just completely changes the dynamics of a thousand different stocks, not just the airlines, but having said that, I don't necessarily think that the airlines are a bad long-term investor right now. I mean, some of them are in bad shape, like, American, for example, I think, is in pretty terrible shape, but there are some good, long-term risk-reward profiles there.

The Buffett quote that this really reminds me of is the one that says, "it's better to buy a wonderful business at a fair price than a fair business at a wonderful price." And right now, airlines are fair businesses selling at wonderful prices, at best. So, Buffett doesn't like fair business at wonderful prices, so it makes sense that he would keep trying to pull out that capital and set it aside for when there are some wonderful businesses to buy at fair prices. It's, kind of ,where I think it's heads out with this. It's not that he doesn't think that United Airways is going to be worth more in 10 years than it is today, it's not that he doesn't think that, it's that he doesn't know enough to make that call at this point. And he's not willing to roll the dice with his investors' money.

Moser: Yeah. And I think that makes sense. I think a lot of us probably look at this and think that the airlines are going to be dealing with a tougher situation than a lot. They're not going to go away, but, yeah, just, I don't know, airlines have always struck me as, sort of, commodity-like, in that, people are just ultimately trying to get from point A. to point B. and they want to do it for a cheap price.

Frankel: They're historically poorly run in terms of capital. I think we talked about one on one of the other shows where they spent, like, what, 94%, 96% of their money on buybacks over the past few years, like, that's terrible. [laughs]

Moser: It is. And especially given the capital nature of those businesses. The heavy capital nature of those businesses. I mean, yeah, I do feel like that's one where you really want to build up that rainy-day fund. You want to have an exceptional rainy-day fund, because you got to figure that rainy-day is coming every once in a while.

Frankel: Right. It's like, I don't think stocks are a bad place to put your money, but if I spend 95% of what I make on the stock market, it wouldn't leave a whole lot of cushion if I needed money for anything else, so. [laughs]

Moser: No. Which is why we tell people not to do that, Matt. [laughs]

Frankel: [laughs] Right. There's a reason that airlines have been bankrupt a few times before, and that Buffett stayed away from them for so long, there's a reason for it, but I don't know, this just threw a wrench in his plans.

Moser: Yeah, I mean not the greatest investment, but I look at it from the glass half-full perspective. I just think this is a great lesson for younger investors to takeaway, is that, when the facts change, be willing to change your mind. And I think that gets easier the older you get, but there's always a little hubris there, you never really want to admit you got it wrong. And you can make the argument, oh, you hang on to those shares, just give it time, it'll come back. Maybe, maybe not, you know, there's an opportunity cost to hanging on to those shares, you could put that money to work elsewhere. And I bet you, they probably are thinking very long and hard about that right now as well.

The quote that you noted there earlier, the quote that just made me think of, was you hear from him and Sir Richard Branson, "You want to be a millionaire? Start with $1 billion and launch a new airline." You know that seems to be about how that market works out.

OK. Matt, before we wrap up the discussion here on Berkshire, I think everyone is always thinking about this going into the meeting and thinking about it probably even more as the meeting wraps up, where do we stand on the succession question, is there any more clarity there or we still, kind of like, just more or less guessing?

Frankel: Not really. I mean, the decision to have Greg Abel sitting in the chair next to him, instead of Munger, instead of some of the other candidates -- I think Abel is the younger of the two of the Vice Chairman, I'm not 100%, I'm pretty sure he's the younger of the two. The two stock pickers are not in the mix. Ted and Todd are going to be the stock pickers, they're not going to be the CEO.

Moser: And I imagine, they probably wouldn't want to be. They probably got their dream jobs [...] what they can do.

Frankel: [laughs] Right. They don't want to run Berkshire, they want to run some of its investments. So, in my opinion this is going to be Abel, but either of the two Vice Chairman would do just fine in the role. They've been with Berkshire for a while.

I mean, Abel has been with Berkshire through '99. He's been there 20 years, he's trusted. [laughs] Like, no one else has ever sat in that chair next to Warren Buffett during Berkshire's meetings. So, for him to be the first ...

Moser: Well, it's good to know that he's willing and able. [laughs]

Frankel: I see what you did there. [laughs]

Moser: All right. OK. Well, before we wrap up the show, of course, we want to jump into our ones to watch. Stocks that we've got on our radar here for the coming week. Matt, I'll let you take it here, what is the stock you are watching this week?

Frankel: Well, I mentioned that there are some opportunities long-term in the airlines. I'm watching Southwest Airlines, I've been a fan for a while, I've been thinking of buying shares at these lower prices. And not that I like to go against Buffett, but I don't think he sold Southwest because he thinks it's a terrible business.

I like it for two reasons. One, it's the best capital position of any of the four major airlines, meaning that they have the liquidity for a more extended shutdown than any of the other three. And two, they're pretty much exclusively dependent on domestic business, which I think, domestic air travel is going to come back a lot quicker than international travel.

Moser: I think that's probably a fair assumption; I think that's a fair assumption.

Frankel: So, yeah, like American and Delta, their international routes are going to be shut down for the foreseeable future. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin just said this morning that he didn't see international travel really making a rebound anytime soon, but it's a great time to explore America.

Moser: Yeah, it's a big country with a lot of cool stuff and probably a good time to keep on your radar as well. But is not the stock I'm going with, actually the one I'm keeping on my radar this week is PayPal. PayPal earnings come out on May 6th, so on Wednesday.

Ultimately, just looking at all of the usual suspects, in regard to the report, total accounts, money flowing through the networks, how Venmo is doing. There was a really good interview recently through Fortune with CEO Dan Schulman, who just talked about how this period of time has accelerated the move toward digital payments and what they're doing there with PayPal and other networks like Stripe and Square and what not. So, just really looking for, just sort of, a status update with how the company is doing, I'm sure they're doing really well. And I remain a very happy shareholder, but we will find out this week.

But that's going to do it for us this week, Matt. I appreciate you taking the time out to give us the lowdown on what happened with the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting this year. And fingers crossed for you, my man. I think that you'll be able to get to it next year, and I know that if you do, you're going to love it.

Frankel: Yeah, hopefully, we'll be having this conversation with me [laughs] at the arena or in a hotel room somewhere in Omaha next year.

Moser: Maybe I'll buy a ticket and come out there and join you. It's always worth the trip. It's a fun event.

Frankel: Just stay six feet away.

Moser: [laughs] Will do. And remember, folks, you can always reach out to us on Twitter @MFIndustryFocus, or drop us an email at [email protected].

As always, people on the program may have interests in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear.

Thanks, as always, to our man Austin Morgan for making the magic happen. For Matt Frankel, I'm Jason Moser, thanks for listening and we'll see you next week.

Jason Moser owns shares of Booking Holdings, PayPal Holdings, Square, and Twitter. Matthew Frankel, CFP owns shares of Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), and Square. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), Booking Holdings, Delta Air Lines, PayPal Holdings, Southwest Airlines, Square, Twitter, and Zoom Video Communications and recommends the following options: long January 2021 $200 calls on Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), short January 2021 $200 puts on Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), short May 2020 $120 calls on Zoom Video Communications, short September 2020 $70 puts on Square, short June 2020 $205 calls on Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), and long January 2022 $75 calls on PayPal Holdings. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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