Saturday is Berkshire Hathaway Inc. earnings day, but don’t count on there being many insights from Warren Buffett himself.
As Berkshire prepares to report its latest operating results and an update to its even more closely followed cash figure, what investors want most of all is to hear from the Oracle of Omaha. But unlike other companies, Berkshire’s quarterly earnings aren’t that illuminating. They usually entail only a perfunctory statement of the overarching numbers, with no prepared remarks or chance to ask questions.
Berkshire’s longstanding tradition of not hosting earnings calls has always made it an outlier in Corporate America — that and the unconventional practice of reporting on weekends. But not having any regular forum to hear from Buffett and Berkshire’s other executives is especially unfortunate during a global pandemic and recession in which shareholders are seeking direction.
Buffett has lived through numerous crises, and each time he remained sanguine about America’s economic prospects, while the conglomerate and reputation he built always emerged relatively unscathed. Covid-19 changed that. Shares of Berkshire have fallen 10% this year, while the S&P 500 index is back in positive territory.
The last time shareholders heard directly from Buffett, he was in a lonely auditorium sounding dispirited during what should have been Berkshire’s annual investor summit. The company, which in the past has taken advantage of downturns to vacuum up good companies, was instead selling stocks as the virus worsened. Meanwhile, some of the most resilient members of the market have been technology companies and dividend payers — Berkshire is adamantly neither. Buffett did warm to two tech giants in recent years: Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., investments valued at $108 billion and $1.7 billion, respectively. But Buffett was a latecomer to the space, which has boasted a 208% return over the past five years, compared with Berkshire’s 42% gain. Increasingly, observers are questioning whether Buffett has lost his touch.
Berkshire’s operating results, which are fairly predictable, have become less relevant to its shareholders over time. That’s not just because its stock-market investments now account for more than half the company’s value. It’s also that so much of the reason for owning Berkshire stock is the prospect of what Buffett does with the company’s cash. Lately, that’s been very little.
Berkshire did buy more shares in Bank of America Corp. in recent days, after ditching most of its Goldman Sachs Group Inc. stake, but investors won’t find out what else Berkshire bought and sold until next week. Last month, it agreed to acquire $10 billion of natural-gas assets and associated debt from Dominion Energy Inc., a deal that had strategic logic, but fell well short of the fireworks moment investors have long awaited. (In June, I wrote that Costco Wholesale Corp. should be Buffett’s next takeover target — now that would set off fireworks.) Bill Ackman, the widely followed hedge-fund manager, even exited a position in Berkshire in May after determining Buffett’s reluctance to do deals may hold back its stock price.
If not a deal, there’s at least one other announcement investors are bracing for: Buffett stepping down. He’s set to turn 90 years old at the end of the month, which he jokes is “urgent” territory. He has taken notable steps in recent years to line up his succession, such as elevating Greg Abel from the energy side of the business and Ajit Jain from the reinsurance side to vice chairmen. Abel also joined Buffett on stage during the virtual May meeting, as opposed to Charlie Munger, who is 96.
Earnings calls can be mundane, especially when executives waste the time rattling off a financial report card that can be found in public filings. But they can also be fascinating opportunities to hear from people with a special vantage point in the broader economy. In the case of Berkshire, it would also be a chance for shareholders to get better acquainted with Abel or whoever is tasked with someday filling Buffett’s shoes, as well as the many other executives that run Berkshire’s dozens of businesses. And plus, how can Buffett retire without ever getting to hear “Nice quarter, guys?”
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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