By JOSH FUNK
AP Business Writer
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Billionaire Warren Buffett assured investors Wednesday that Berkshire Hathaway will be fine when he’s no longer around to lead the conglomerate.
Buffett said that after Vice Chairman Greg Abel takes over, Berkshire will still follow the same model of allowing its subsidiaries to largely run themselves while looking for other companies to buy with the substantial cash reserves it keeps on hand at all times.
“The problem for our board of directors is the day I’m not around and Greg’s running it, I am not giving him some envelope that tells him what to do next,” Buffett said.
Buffett said Berkshire is “so damn lucky” to have Abel ready to take over as CEO. The 92-year-old says he has no plans to retire, but Abel has been designated as the successor ever since Buffett’s partner Charlie Munger let it slip at the 2021 annual meeting. Abel already oversees all of Berkshire’s non-insurance businesses.
Buffett and Abel appeared together Wednesday on CNBC from Tokyo where they are checking on several companies Berkshire has invested in, and to promote the conglomerate Buffett leads.
Wednesday’s appearance was the first extended television interview Buffett has done since before the pandemic. He used to regularly appear on the cable business news network to answer questions for three hours at a time, several times a year. Buffett and Abel fielded a variety of questions Wednesday, including regarding the recent bank failures and whether railroads, including Berkshire’s BNSF railroad, need to improve safety in the wake of several recent high-profile derailments.
Buffett said more banks will fail over time because some managers will continue to do “dumb things” to boost short-term profits, but most people shouldn’t worry because their money is protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which is paid for by the banks — not the federal government.
“We’re not over bank failures, but depositors haven’t had a crisis,” Buffett said. “Banks go bust, but depositors aren’t going to be hurt.”
Berkshire sold off most of its bank investments in recent years — except for a major Bank of America stake — because of Buffett’s concerns.
“I don’t like it when people get too focused on the earnings number and forget what in my view is basic banking principles,” he said.
There has been an intense focus on improving railroad safety in the wake of the fiery Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment outside East Palestine, Ohio, that prompted evacuations and lingering health concerns after hazardous chemicals were released.
Buffett said Norfolk Southern “handled it terribly” and was “tone deaf” in their initial response to that derailment. He pointed out that after a recent BNSF derailment, CEO Katie Farmer was on a plane right away to respond to the crash. Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw has repeatedly promised to make things right in East Palestine, but he was slow to meet with residents after the derailment and the railroad missed one of the initial community meetings to answer residents’ questions.
Norfolk Southern didn’t respond directly to Buffett’s comments, but a spokesman noted that Shaw was in East Palestine in the days right after the derailment when officials decided to release chemicals from several tank cars and burn them to prevent an explosion.
Buffett and Abel said it’s impossible to ensure there will be no derailments because of everything that’s involved in running a railroad in all sorts of conditions, but the industry is generally getting safer over time, and it will get better now.
“There’s no question there’s lessons to be learned for the industry as a whole and there’s room for improvement,” Abel said.
Addressing the broader economy, Buffett said inflation remains a concern and that the reports he sees from Berkshire’s businesses point to a economic slowdown.
But he reiterated his longstanding philosophy that Berkshire doesn’t make investing decisions based on macroeconomic factors.
“We haven’t changed our course in 58 years,” Buffett said. “We want to buy good businesses that are run by people we like and trust at a decent price, and we’ll keep doing that. And we’ll keep buying treasury bills every Monday.”
Buffett did reconsider a $4 billion investment he made last year in chipmaker Taiwan Semiconductor after he said he re-evaluated the geopolitical risk that China could intervene in that country and disrupt the company’s operations.
But Buffett remains one of Apple’s biggest backers even though that company relies heavily on Chinese suppliers because he believes that most iPhone users would refuse to give up their Apple devices even if someone offered them $10,000. That customer loyalty makes Apple, which is Berkshire’s biggest investment, attractive.
The famously tech-averse Buffett said thanks to his longtime friendship with Bill Gates, he did have a chance to play around with one of the latest artificial intelligence tools, ChatGPT, a few months ago. He came away impressed after asking ChatGPT to rewrite the song “My Way” in Spanish, but unsure about the implications of the technology.
“I think this is extraordinary, but I don’t know if it is beneficial,” he said.
One thing Buffett is pretty sure is a bad idea is Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. He said people are essentially gambling on cryptocurrencies that he doesn’t believe have much value, but he can’t predict when the speculation driving those prices up will end.
“I’ve seen people do stupid things all my life,” he said.
Berkshire owns dozens of businesses besides BNSF, including Geico insurance, a number of large utilities and an assortment of manufacturing and retail businesses. It also holds more than $300 billion of investments, including major stakes in Occidental Petroleum and Coca-Cola.