Warren Buffett Says Markets Have Become a ‘Gambling Parlor’

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Berkshire Hathaway chief addresses shareholders at annual meeting in Omaha

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After a yearslong deal drought, Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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is opening up the spending spigot again. It forged an $11.6 billion deal to buy insurer Alleghany Corp,

, poised to be Berkshire’s biggest acquisition in six years. It bought millions of shares of HP Inc,

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and Occidental Petroleum Corp,

And it dramatically ramped up its stake in Chevron Corp,

making the energy company go from a relatively small holding to one of Berkshire’s top four stock investments.

The big question: Why?

“It’s a gambling parlor,” Mr. Buffett said Saturday of the markets over the past few years. He added that he blamed the financial industry for motivating risky behavior among investors. While he finds speculative bets “obscene,” the pickup in volatility across the markets has had one good effect, he said: It has allowed Berkshire to find undervalued businesses to invest in again following a period of relative quiet.

Mr. Buffett, 91 years old, shared his thoughts on the state of the markets, Berkshire’s insurance business and recent investments at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in downtown Omaha. Saturday marked Mr. Buffett’s first time speaking to shareholders in person since 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic forced Berkshire to hold its meetings virtually the past two years.

Shareholders eager to score prime seats lined up for hours before the doors opened in the arena where Mr. Buffett; right-hand-man Charlie Munger, 98; and Vice Chairmen Greg Abel, 59, and Ajit Jain, 70, took the stage. As Mr. Buffett entered, a lone audience member took the opportunity to send a message. “We love you,” the person shouted.

Mr. Buffett appeared equally enthused to see the thousands of shareholders sitting before him.

It was a lot better being able to be with everyone in person, he said.

Berkshire had been in a relative period of quiet before this year. Its business thrived; a recovering economy and roaring stock market helped push net earnings to a record in 2021. But it didn’t put much cash to work, something that led many analysts and investors to wonder about its next moves. Berkshire ended the year with a near record amount of cash on hand.

Mr. Buffett’s feeling that there were no appealing investment opportunities for Berkshire quickly gave way to excitement in late February, he said Saturday, when he got a copy of Alleghany Chief Executive Joseph Brandon’s annual report.

The report piqued his interest. He decided to follow up with Mr. Brandon, flying to New York City to talk about a potential deal over dinner.

If the chief executive hadn’t reached out, “it wouldn’t have occurred to me to write to him and say, ‘Let’s get together,'” Mr. Buffett said.

Berkshire’s decision to build up a 14% stake in Occidental also came about with a report. Mr. Buffett said he had read an analyst note on the company, whose stock is still trading below its 2011 high, and decided the casino-like market conditions made it a good time to buy the stock.

Over the course of just two weeks, Berkshire scooped up millions of shares of the company.

“I don’t think we ever had anything quite like we have now in terms of the volumes of pure gambling activity going on daily,” Mr. Munger said. “It’s not pretty.”

But the amount of speculation in the markets has given Berkshire a chance to spot undervalued businesses, Mr. Munger said, allowing the company to put its $106 billion cash reserve to work.

Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger didn’t specifically address Berkshire’s decision to increase its Chevron stake during the meeting’s morning session. It was worth $25.9 billion as of March 31, up from $4.5 billion at the end of 2021, according to the company’s filing. That makes Chevron one of Berkshire’s four biggest stockholdings, alongside Apple,

American Express Co. and Bank of America Corp.

Yet Mr. Buffett said he was happy that American businesses are able to produce more oil in the US It is “keeping the American industrial machine working,” he said.

Berkshire doesn’t try to make its investments based on what it believes the stock market will do when it opens Monday, Mr. Buffett said.

“I can’t predict what the stock will do… We don’t know what the economy will do,” he said.

Fundamentally, Berkshire tries to do what it can to keep derived returns for its shareholders, Mr. Buffett said. Berkshire produced 20% compounded annualized gains between 1965 and 2020 compared with the S&P 500, which returned 10% including dividends over the same period.

“The idea of ​​losing permanently other people’s money… that’s just a future I don’t want to have,” Mr. Buffett said.

Write to Akane Otani at [email protected]

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Credit: www.wsj.com /

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