“The moment the doors open at 7 am, it’s like the running of the bulls. People wait outside starting at about 3 am, like they might for concert tickets, to make sure they get as close to Warren Buffett as they can.”
That’s how Jeff Hull describes attending this year’s Berkshire Hathaway annual general meeting. Hull, a senior financial advisor with Manulife Securities Incorporated in Mississauga, Ont., has owned Berkshire stock for more than 20 years—and he never misses an AGM.
Read: Berkshire investor shares AGM highlights, from 2016
Everyone covets an in-person view for Buffett’s Q&A, Hull explains, since watching a broadcast from an overflow room “is kind of sterile.” In the main arena, “there’s a vibe. That’s why people travel from [places like] China, Germany, the Netherlands and Venezuela. […] Everybody is a like-minded shareholder, and it’s a celebration of what Berkshire is and of its culture.”
Of the approximately 40,000 attendees at this year’s AGM, about 17,000 people were in the main arena, according to Yahoo Finance, which made that estimate during its live streaming of the meeting–this was the second year in a row this was done.
This year, like usual, Hull entered Berkshire’s AGM at 5 am. “I go into the press pool, and it’s kind of like a Leafs game where you’re in a private box and watching the chaos below,” says Hull, who notes 86-year-old Buffett and 93-year-old Charlie Munger refer to their AGMs as “like Mardi Gras.”
This year, people were eager to hear from Buffett and Munger on everything from whether Berkshire will continue to grow, to what they think about markets and the political landscape. Hull shares the following highlights from the 2017 AGM.
Ignore tech at your peril
Buffett reflected on his investment wins and losses, says Hull. In particular, Buffett referred to Berkshire’s buy of Sees Candy in 1972 as “one of its watershed moments. […] He knew that high quality candy would endure, and […] Sees has made them a lot of money over the years.” Hull says Buffett paid $25 million for Sees in 1972, net of cash, “and he’s pulled out $2 billion pre-tax since then.”
At the AGM, Buffett noted that the deal “helped them understand the power of a brand and how to scale to the next level,” says Hull. “[Buffett and Munger] both stated if they didn’t do the Sees Candies deal, they may not have done their deal with Coca-Cola, for instance.”
Not all of Buffett’s decisions have worked out. Despite what Hull “would almost classify as [Buffett’s] man crush” on Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, both Buffet and Munger admit they “didn’t believe in the capabilities of Bezos” while he was building his businesses.
Says Hull: “They stated that [Bezos] is this generation’s genius. […] Buffett said, ‘I was too dumb to realize [what] was going to happen. I didn’t think [Bezos] could succeed on the scale that he has.’”
As for IBM, which Buffett recently devalued by selling a third of Berkshire’s stake, Buffett shared that “while he hasn’t lost money on IBM, it definitely has not worked out as well as he thought. […] He’s hoping his big bet on Apple, which he sees as a consumer company, will continue to pay off,” says Hull.
Buffett also regrets not buying into Alphabet (Google’s parent company, launched in 2015). Buffett admitted he and his colleagues have been “tech averse,” despite their use of the Google ad platform to build up businesses like GEICO, says Hull.
Buffett says that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet, if combined, “have a market value of $2.5 trillion, or nearly 10% of the value of all the publicly traded companies in America. Plus, businesses like Amazon don’t require a big capital investment,” says Hull—and this is why Munger says “Buffett’s willingness to invest in Apple last year was a good sign for Berkshire’s future.”
One challenge for Berkshire will be the emergence of autonomous cars and transport trucks. Says Hull: “[Buffett’s] railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, could be hurt in the longer term when there are self-driving trucks that can ship things around. Also, self-driving cars could hurt GEICO a bit,” leading to a possible impact on Berkshire’s earnings.
Buffett has three CEOs picked out to succeed him, says Hull, but won’t name them since “it would put undue pressure on [those successors]. Things could also change, and people could misinterpret any shifts.”
At the 2016 AGM, Buffett and Munger provided ample detail on how Buffett’s job will be split into three parts when he retires or dies, and about what role his son Howard will play when he’s gone.
While Buffett says there’s “a chance that one day an outside CEO could be chosen, whoever takes on the role must have strong asset allocation skills and have a ‘money mind.’” Buffett also hopes “the new CEO would already be very wealthy, so they would not be money motivated.”
While Berkshire “is doing well,” says Hull, Buffett reiterated that the company won’t continue to outperform. “As Berkshire gets bigger and bigger, it’s harder to keep strong momentum going,” says Hull.
But Buffett expects the company’s stock “will go up upon his death, not down like people speculate,” says Hull. “When he passes away, [Buffett believes] there will be a lot of speculation that Berkshire will be broken up. They have seven companies, as of last year, that would be [big enough to be] on the S&P 500,” and they’ve made major acquisitions since.
Hull says Berkshire has “US$96 billion in cash lying around,” which is “the most they’ve ever had.” Hull expects Buffett will keep looking for “companies that want to be taken over” and those that complement his current lineup of companies (e.g., he wouldn’t buy Pepsi since he has Coca-Cola).
Still, “Buffett’s looking to do big deals. He would also do more deals with 3G Capital if the opportunity arose,” given Buffett like its cost-cutting approach to increasing efficiency as well as its innovation.
President Donald Trump was only mentioned in relation to corporate taxes. Hull says, “If Trump lowers corporate taxes by 10%, that will save Berkshire Hathaway, immediately, over $9 billion. Berkshire has a lot of cumulative capital gains that have grown over the years and if corporate taxes drop, […] that would be even more of a cost savings. Meanwhile, they may take their tax losses on certain situations now while taxes are higher.”