Warren Buffett: America can survive crisis

Buffett said the US' capacity to withstand crises provides a silver lining as it combats the novel coronavirus.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett on Saturday said the United States’ capacity to withstand crises provides a silver lining as it combats the novel coronavirus, even as he acknowledged that the global pandemic could significantly damage the economy and his investments.

Over more than four-and-a-half hours at the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, Buffett said his conglomerate has taken many steps responding to the pandemic, including providing cash to struggling operating units, and throwing in the towel on a multi-billion-dollar bet on US airlines.

Buffett also said he remains keen on making a big acquisition, which he has not done since 2016, but has not provided financial support to companies as he did during the 2008 financial crisis because he saw nothing attractive enough, even after the recent bear market.

The 89-year-old opened the meeting in Omaha, Nebraska with lengthy remarks to soothe anxious investors, urging them to stay committed to stocks despite this year’s bear market, even if the pandemic gets a second wind late this year.

Illustrating his remarks with dozens of plain black-and-white slides, Buffett called dealing with the pandemic “quite an experiment” that had an “extraordinarily wide” range of possible economic outcomes.

But he said Americans have persevered and prospered through such crises as the Civil War in the 1860s, the influenza pandemic a century ago and the Great Depression. American “magic” prevailed before and would do again, he said.

“Nothing can stop America when you get right down to it,” Buffett said. “I will bet on America the rest of my life.”

The meeting was virtual for the first time because of the pandemic, without shareholders in attendance, and streamed by Yahoo Finance.

Buffett and Vice Chairman Greg Abel, 57, answered shareholder questions posed by a reporter.

Abel has day-to-day oversight of Berkshire’s non-insurance businesses, and is considered by many analysts and investors a top candidate to eventually succeed Buffett.

The meeting began several hours after Berkshire reported a record US$49.75 billion first-quarter net loss, reflecting huge unrealized losses on common stock holdings such as Bank of America Corp and Apple Inc during the market meltdown.

While quarterly operating profit rose 6 percent, several larger businesses including the BNSF railroad posted declines, hurt by the negative impact of COVID-19.

Buffett said operating earnings will, through at least this year, be “considerably less” than they would have been had the pandemic not occurred.

Berkshire’s cash stake ended the quarter at a record US$137.3 billion, although Buffett said “We’re willing to do something very big,” perhaps a US$30 billion to US$50 billion transaction.

But it won’t be in US airlines, after Buffett confirmed that Berkshire in April sold its “entire positions” in the four largest: American Airlines Group Inc, Delta Air Lines Inc, Southwest Airlines Co and United Airlines Holdings Inc.

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