Warren Buffett said he remains convinced that nothing can stop the United States and that America will recover from the Covid-19 pandemic – just as it did following other crises of the past century.
But the billionaire Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) CEO disclosed Saturday that Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) recently sold its entire stakes in the four airline stocks that company had owned, calling it a mistake to invest in the industry.
Berkshire Hathaway revealed in early April that it trimmed its stakes in Delta (DAL) and Southwest (LUV). But in response to a question from a Berkshire shareholder, Buffett said the company sold all its shares in Delta (DAL) and Southwest (LUV), as well as United (UAL) and American (AAL), because he believes it will take years for air travel to recover.
Buffett, who has long been bullish on the US economy and stock market, spoke at the company’s annual shareholder meeting from a virtually empty CHI Health Center in Omaha Saturday. The remarks were webcast by Yahoo Finance.
The shareholder meeting comes on the same day the company released its first quarter results, a nearly $50 billion loss, the worst in the company’s history.
Buffett began the meeting by discussing prior times of hardship he’s lived through, such as the Cuban missile crisis and the Cold War, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Great Recession of 2008. Every time it seemed that times were bleak, he said, America eventually recovered.
The Oracle of Omaha conceded that the coronavirus outbreak is a vastly different challenge than those other national emergencies. But Buffett remains upbeat.
“This country, in 231 years, has exceeded anybody’s dreams.” Buffett said.
Buffett, who backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, also said he would not talk about politics at the meeting.
But he praised Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for his handling of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Bullish but cautious
Buffett did not share any thoughts on when he thinks the US will recover from the worst of the pandemic. But he is convinced that better days lie ahead, and he urged investors to be cautious.
“You can bet on America but you’re going to have to be careful about how you bet,” he said. “Markets can do anything.”
He also stressed that investors need to stay in stocks over a long period of time since they will continue to be better bets than bonds.
“America’s tailwind is not exhausted,” Buffett said.
Buffett also lavished praise on Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell for the actions the central bank has taken since March – cutting rates to zero and launching several lending programs for consumers, businesses and municipalities – to help support the economy.
Buffett conceded that these moves could eventually lead to problems down the road because of the swelling of the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. But the Fed had no alternative, he said.
“We do know the consequences of doing nothing,” Buffett said, adding that Powell’s actions are the equivalent of “whatever it takes, squared.”
That’s a reference to a 2012 quote by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, about the ECB’s moves to do everything it could to prop up the eurozone during the that year’s sovereign debt crisis.
An empty arena
Tens of thousands of people typically descend on the Nebraska city for the Berkshire shareholder meeting in order to listen to Buffett and vice chairman Charlie Munger discuss the market and economy.
But Munger, who is 96, was not at the meeting Saturday. Buffett was joined on stage by another Berkshire vice chairman, Greg Abel.
Buffett said Saturday that Munger is in fine shape and joked that he is now even using Zoom (ZM). He vowed that Munger would be back at the next meeting in 2021.
Abel, who runs Berkshire’s non-energy businesses, is one of two executives viewed as likely successors to Buffett, who turns 90 in August, as CEO. The other is Ajit Jain, the vice chairman who runs the insurance operations.
Berkshire Hathaway’s first quarter losses were mainly due to the significant drop in value of Berkshire’s big investments, such as Kraft Heinz (KHC), Bank of America (BAC), Apple (AAPL) and Coca-Cola (KO), the company said.
But many of its consumer businesses, which include Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, Duracell and Benjamin Moore paints, have been hit hard by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Buffett has also talked frequently over the past few years about his desire to make another big acquisition, and he certainly has the money to do so. As of the end of the first quarter Berkshire Hathaway had $137.3 billion in cash on its balance sheet. His last major purchase was the 2015 deal for aerospace equipment company Precision Castparts.
Buffett had been concerned that prices were too high for many takeover targets.
Berkshire turned down a chance to buy jeweler Tiffany earlier this year. LVMH (LVMHF) wound up buying it instead. Berkshire also lost a bidding war for software and hardware distributor Tech Data to private equity firm Apollo Global Management (APO).