Warren Buffett Discusses Apple, Cash, Insurance, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and More at Berkshire Hathaway's Annual Meeting

Berkshire is bolstering its cash reserves and passing on riskier bets.

Tens of thousands of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A -0.56%) (BRK.B 0.07%) investors flocked to Omaha this past week for the annual tradition of listening to Warren Buffett muse over the conglomerate’s business, financial markets, and over 93 years of wisdom on life. But this year’s meeting felt different.

Longtime vice chairman Charlie Munger passed away in late November. His wry sense of humor, witty aphorisms, and entertaining rapport with Buffett were missed dearly. But there were other noticeable differences between this meeting and those of past years — namely, a sense of caution.

Let’s dive into the key takeaways from the meeting and how it could influence what Berkshire does next.

Berkshire Hathaway CEO, Warren Buffett.

Image source: The Motley Fool.

Berkshire sells roughly 13% of its Apple position

The elephant in the room was Berkshire’s decision to trim its stake in Apple (AAPL 5.98%) during the first quarter. Berkshire sold over 116 million shares of Apple in Q1, reducing its position by around 12.9%. It marks the company’s largest sale of Apple stock since it began purchasing shares in 2016 — far larger than the 10 million or so shares Berkshire sold in Q4.

Buffett addressed the sale with the first answer in the Q&A session: “Unless something dramatic happens that really changes capital allocation and strategy, we will have Apple as our largest investment. But I don’t mind at all, under current conditions, building the cash position. I think when I look at the alternatives of what’s available in equity markets, and I look at the composition of what’s going on in the world, we find it quite attractive.”

In addition to valuation concerns, market conditions, and wanting to build up the cash position, Buffett also mentioned the federal rate on capital gains, which Buffett said is 21% compared to 35% not long ago and even as high as 52% in the past. Fears that the tax rate could go up based on fiscal policies and a need to cut the federal deficit is another reason why Buffett and his team decided to book gains on Apple stock now instead of risking a potentially higher tax rate in the future.

Hoarding a treasure trove of cash

Buffett has long spoken about the faith Berkshire shareholders entrust in him and his team to safeguard and grow their wealth. Berkshire is known for being fairly risk-averse, gravitating toward businesses with stable cash flows like insurance, railroads, utilities, and top brands like Coca-Cola (KO 0.29%), American Express (AXP -0.74%), and Apple. Another asset Berkshire loves is cash.

Berkshire’s cash and U.S. treasury position reached $182.3 billion at the end of the first quarter, up from $163.3 billion at the end of 2023. Buffett said he expects the cash position to exceed $200 billion by the end of the second quarter.

You may think Berkshire is stockpiling cash because of higher interest rates and a better return on risk-free assets. But shortly before the lunch break, Buffett said that Berkshire would still be heavily in cash even if interest rates were 1% because Berkshire only swings at pitches it likes, and it won’t swing at a pitch simply because it hasn’t in a while. “It’s just that things aren’t attractive, and there are certain ways that could change, and we will see if they do,” said Buffett.

The commentary is a potential sign that Berkshire is getting even more defensive than usual.

A complex but profitable insurance landscape

Berkshire’s underlying business is doing exceptionally well. Berkshire’s Q1 operating income skyrocketed 39.1% compared to the same period of 2023 — driven by larger gains from the insurance businesses and Berkshire Hathaway Energy (which had an abnormally weak Q1 last year). However, Buffett cautioned that it would be unwise to simply multiply insurance income by four for the full year, considering it was a particularly strong quarter and Q3 tends to be the quarter with the highest risk of claims.

A great deal of the Q&A session was spent discussing the future of insurance and utilities based on new regulations; price increases due to climate change and higher risks of natural disasters; and the potential impact of autonomous driving reducing accidents and driving down the cost of insurance.

Ajit Jain, Berkshire’s chairman of insurance operations, answered a question on cybersecurity insurance, saying the market is large and profitable and will probably get bigger but just isn’t worth the risk until there are more data points. There was another question on rising insurance rates in Florida, which Berkshire attributed to climate change, increased risks of massive losses, and a difficult regulatory environment, making it harder to do business in Florida.

An advantage is that Berkshire prices a lot of its contracts in one-year intervals, so it can adjust prices if risks begin to ramp and outweigh rewards. Or as Jain put it, “Climate change, much like inflation, done right, can be a friend of the risk bearer.”

As for how autonomous driving affects insurance, Buffett said the problem is far from solved, that automakers have been considering insurance for a while, and that insurance can be “a very tempting business when someone hands you money, and you hand them a little piece of paper.” In other words, it isn’t as easy as it seems. Accident rates have come down, and it would benefit society if autonomous driving allowed them to drop even further, but insurance will still be necessary.

Opening the Pandora’s Box of AI

Buffett’s response to a question on the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) was similar to his response from the 2023 annual meeting. He compared it to the atomic bomb and called it a genie in a bottle in that it has immense power, but we may regret we ever let it out.

He discussed a personal experience he had where he saw an AI-generated video of himself that was so lifelike that his kids nor his wife would be able to discern if it really was him or his voice except for the fact that he would never say the things in the video. “if I was interested in investing in scamming, it’s going to be the growth industry of all time,” he said.

Ultimately, Buffett stayed true to his longtime practice of keeping within his circle of competence, saying he doesn’t know enough about AI to predict its future. “It has enormous potential for good and enormous potential for harm, and I just don’t know how that plays out.”

Limitless opportunities

Despite the cautious sentiment, Buffett’s optimism about the American economy and the stock market’s ability to compound wealth over time was abundantly clear.

Oftentimes, folks pay too much attention to Berkshire’s cash position as a barometer of its views on the stock market. While Berkshire keeping a large cash position is certainly defensive, it’s worth understanding the context of its different business units and the history of a particular position like Apple.

Berkshire probably never set out to have Apple make up 40% of its public equity holdings. Taking some risk off the table, especially given the lower tax rate, makes sense for Berkshire, especially if it believes it will need more reserve cash to handle changing dynamics in its insurance business.

In terms of life advice, the 93-year-old Buffett said that it’s a good idea to think of what you want your obituary to read and start selecting the education paths, social paths, spouse, and friends to get you where you want to go. “The opportunities in this country are basically limitless,” said Buffett.

We can all learn a lot from Buffett’s steadfast understanding of Berkshire shareholders’ needs and the hard work that goes into selecting few investments and passing on countless opportunities.

In investing, it’s important to align your risk tolerance, investment objectives, and holdings to achieve your financial goals and stay even-keeled no matter what the market is doing. In today’s fast-paced world riddled with rapid change, staying true to your principles is more vital than ever.

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