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Buffett’s Berkshire pressured to be more environmentally and socially responsible


Warren Buffett defended the decision by Berkshire Hathaway to not put out reports from its many subsidiaries about how the company is addressing the risks of climate change.

Buffett claimed at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Los Angeles Saturday that Berkshire Hathaway already has a good track record for investing in renewable energy through its utility businesses and that it would be “asinine” to make all of its numerous business publish reports.

The meeting was held online for the second straight year due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was broadcast online via Yahoo Finance.

Berkshire vice chairman Charlie Munger, who is 97, lives in Los Angeles and did not attend last year’s meeting in Buffett’s and Berkshire’s hometown of Omaha.

Buffett and Munger were joined by Berkshire’s other vice chairmen, Ajit Jain and Greg Abel. Jain oversees Geico and the company’s insurance businesses while Abel runs everything else for the sprawling conglomerate, which owns the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, several energy businesses and consumer products like Duracell and Benjamin Moore.

Berkshire Hathaway and Buffett have been scrutinized more closely by investors during the past five years, largely because the stock has lagged the market.

Berkshire Hathaway did report a nearly $12 billion profit for the first quarter earlier Saturday, reversing a $50 billion loss from a year ago.

But Berkshire Hathaway stock is up about 90% in the past five years while the S&P 500 has more than doubled and the Nasdaq has soared nearly 200%.

Some investors are concerned that the 90-year-old billionaire is losing his touch.

Berkshire Hathaway has come under pressure from investors to be a more environmentally and socially responsible company.

Along those lines, activist investing firm As You Sow is behind a proposal asking Berkshire to publish annual reports about diversity and inclusion. Buffett didn’t address those concerns during the meeting and Berkshire recommended that investors vote against it. The proposal failed.

Pension fund California Public Employees Retirement System and investment firms Federated Hermes and Caisse Et Placement Du Quebec submitted another proposal asking Berkshire to address climate change more directly. Berkshire recommended that investors vote against this, and that measure failed as well.

Berkshire says it is already addressing climate change

Abel said during the meeting that “there’s been a clear commitment to decarbonizing our businesses.” He added that Berkshire Hathaway has met Paris Agreement targets to reduce carbon emissions last year, five years ahead of schedule. Abel said the company plans to retire all of its coal units by 2050.

Still, one investor asked Buffett about the company’s decision to own a big stake in oil giant Chevron, given climate change concerns.

Buffett said he “has no compunction” about owning Chevron and that he would hate to have all hydrocarbons banned quickly, but he noted that the world is quickly moving away from them.

He praised actions by the Federal Reserve and the federal government that helped revitalize the economy and the stock market after the pandemic brought financial activity to a near-halt last year.

“The economy went off a cliff in March and it was resurrected in an extraordinarily effective way by Federal Reserve actions and later on the fiscal front by Congress,” Buffett said.

“Our businesses have done really quite well. This has been a very, very, very unusual recession,” Buffett said, adding that Fed chair Jerome Powell acted quickly and decisively to avoid a much longer downturn.

Buffett and Munger had high praise for Apple, which is Berkshire’s top stock holding, and other large tech companies like Microsoft, which Berkshire does not own. (Berkshire has a small stake in Amazon.) Munger said he was hoping that the government does not break up Big Tech.

“I personally would not like to see our present giants brought down to some low level by some anti-competitive reasonings,” Munger said, adding that the tech leaders are a “credit” to America.

And Munger also once again bashed bitcoin, which he and Buffett have both criticized during the past few years. Buffett has called it “rat poison squared” and Munger has been similarly dismissive.

“Of course, I hate the bitcoin success,” Munger said, adding that the rise of bitcoin is “disgusting and contrary to the interests of civilization.”

Buffett took a more polite tack, joking that there were probably a lot more bitcoin bulls listening to the Berkshire webcast than people betting against it. So he declined to double down on previous comments.

Article Topic Follows: Money

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