Every year, thousands of investors flock to Omaha to hear the wisdom of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. For as long as six hours, with only one break for lunch, the two business legends take questions from investors, the press, and analysts.
Appropriately for a shareholder meeting, the focus is the business of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) but it's not the only topic they discuss. This year, Buffett discussed technological disruption in response to a question from financial journalist Becky Quick of CNBC.
Following are my notes on Quicks' question, along with responses from Buffett and Munger.
Becky Quick: Energy Future Holdings is likely going into bankruptcy due to fracking and the low-price of natural gas. What effect do you think technological disruption could have on other companies in your portfolio?
Warren: I would be unwilling to share the credit for my decision to invest in Energy Future Holdings with anyone else. That was just a mistake — a significant mistake. All businesses should be thinking about the risk for their businesses. In Energy Futures' case, the expectation was that energy prices would stay higher. Future prices kept them alive. That was just a basic error.
We look at all our businesses as subject to change. Geico set out in 1936 to pass low costs on to customers. Originally by the U.S. Postal Service, and they had to adapt over the years, first to widening classifications. They went from mail to telephone, and later to Internet, then to social media. They stumbled one time, when they left government employees they almost... they really did go broke.
So there's changes going on with all of our businesses. We want managers to think about change, and what's going to be needed for the future. We know things aren't going to look the same 5-10 years from now. BNSF is now looking at gas for their locomotives.
Our businesses generally deal from strength and are not subject to rapid change, but slow change is harder to perceive and call lull you to sleep. So I would say, I will make mistakes in the future, guaranteed. But, we will not make anything like "bet the company" decisions that will ever cause us real anguish. That just doesn't happen at Berkshire. You're not going to make a lot of decisions without making an occasional mistake.
Charlie and I and Sandy Gottesman bought a department store in the 1960s, one of four in Baltimore in 1966. None of them are there today. Fortunately, Sandy did well in selling it. So the $6 million invested in that department store became about $45 billion in Berkshire stock because we did other things with the money. It's something Charlie and I are going to think about, as well as our managers.
Charlie: Imagine Berkshire a textile business, sure to be put out of business, and that turns into Berkshire of today. Imagine what we would have had if we had a better start!
Warren: The point as driven home by my great-grandfather and grandfather, in a letter. In 1929, he wrote the day of the chain store is over. And that's why we had only one store that went out of business.