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Warren Buffett says AI may be better for scammers than society. And he’s seen how

Warren Buffett has come face to face with the downside of AI

By JOSH FUNK, AP Business Writer
Published: May 6, 2024, 8:40am

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Warren Buffett cautioned the tens of thousands of shareholders who packed an arena for his annual meeting that artificial intelligence scams could become “the growth industry of all time.”

Doubling down on his cautionary words from last year, Buffett told the throngs he recently came face to face with the downside of AI. And it looked and sounded just like him. Someone made a fake video of Buffett, apparently convincing enough that the so-called Oracle of Omaha himself said he could imagine it tricking him into sending money overseas.

The billionaire investing guru predicted scammers will seize on the technology, and may do more harm with it than society can wring good.

“As someone who doesn’t understand a damn thing about it, it has enormous potential for good and enormous potential for harm and I just don’t know how that plays out,” he said.

EARNINGS BEFORE MUSINGS

The day started early Saturday with Berkshire Hathaway announcing a steep drop in earnings as the paper value of its investments plummeted and it pared its Apple holdings. The company reported a $12.7 billion profit, or $8,825 per Class A share, in first the quarter, down 64% from $35.5 billion, or $24,377 per A share a year ago.

But Buffett encourages investors to pay more attention to the conglomerate’s operating earnings from the companies it actually owns. Those jumped 39% to $11.222 billion, or $7,796.47 per Class A share, led by insurance companies’ performance.

None of it that got in the way of the fun.

Throngs flooded the arena to buy up Squishmallows of Buffett and former Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, who died last fall. The event attracts investors from all over the world and is unlike any other company meeting. Those attending for the first time are driven by an urgency to get here while the 93-year-old Buffett is still alive.

“This is one of the best events in the world to learn about investing. To learn from the gods of the industry,” said Akshay Bhansali, who spent the better part of two days traveling from India to Omaha.

A NOTABLE ABSENCE

Devotees come from all over the world to vacuum up tidbits of wisdom from Buffett, who famously dubbed the meeting ‘Woodstock for Capitalists.’

But a key ingredient was missing this year: It was the first meeting since Munger died.

The meeting opened with a video tribute highlighting some of his best known quotes, including classic lines like “If people weren’t so often wrong, we wouldn’t be so rich.” The video also featured skits the investors made with Hollywood stars over the years, including a “Desperate Housewives” spoof where one of the women introduced Munger as her boyfriend and another in which actress Jaimie Lee Curtis swooned over him.

As the video ended, the arena erupted in a prolonged standing ovation honoring Munger, whom Buffett called “the architect of Berkshire Hathaway.”

Buffett said Munger remained curious about the world up until the end of his life at 99, hosting dinner parties, meeting with people and holding regular Zoom calls.

“Like his hero Ben Franklin, Charlie wanted to understand everything,” Buffett said.

For decades, Munger and Buffett functioned as a classic comedy duo, with Buffett offering lengthy setups to Munger’s witty one-liners. He once referred to unproven internet companies as “turds.”

Together, the pair transformed Berkshire from a floundering textile mill into a massive conglomerate made up of a variety of interests, from insurance companies such as Geico to BNSF railroad to several major utilities and an assortment of other companies.

Munger often summed up the key to Berkshire’s success as “trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” He and Buffett also were known for sticking to businesses they understood well.

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“Warren always did at least 80% of the talking. But Charlie was a great foil,” said Stansberry Research analyst Whitney Tilson, who was looking forward to his 27th consecutive meeting.

NEXT GEN LEADERS

Munger’s absence, however, created space for shareholders to get to know better the two executives who directly oversee Berkshire’s companies: Ajit Jain, who manages the insurance units; and Abel, who handles everything else and has been named Buffett’s successor. The two shared the main stage with Buffett this year.

The first time Buffett kicked a question to Abel, he mistakenly said “Charlie?” Abel shrugged off the mistake and dove into the challenges utilities face from the increased risk of wildfires and some regulators’ reluctance to let them collect a reasonable profit.

Morningstar analyst Greggory Warren said he believes Abel spoke up more Saturday and let shareholders see some of the brilliance Berkshire executives talk about.

Abel offered a twist on Munger’s classic “I have nothing to add” line by often starting his answers Saturday by saying “The only thing I would add.”

“Greg’s a rock star,” said Chris Bloomstran, president of Semper Augustus Investments Group. “The bench is deep. He won’t have the same humor at the meeting. But I think we all come here to get a reminder every year to be rational.”

A LOOK TO THE FUTURE

Buffett has made clear that Abel will be Berkshire’s next CEO, but he said Saturday that he had changed his opinion on how the company’s investment portfolio should be handled. He had previously said it would fall to two investment managers who handle small chunks of the portfolio now. On Saturday, Buffett endorsed Abel for the gig, as well as overseeing the operating businesses and any acquisitions.

“He understands businesses extremely well. and if you understand businesses, you understand common stocks,” Buffett said. Ultimately, it will be up to the board to decide, but the billionaire said he might come back and haunt them if they try to do it differently.

Overall, Buffett said Berkshire’s system of having all the noninsurance companies report to Abel and the insurers report to Jain is working well. He himself hardly gets any calls from managers anymore because they get more guidance from Abel and Jain.

“This place would work extremely well the next day if something happened to me,” Buffett said.

Nevertheless, the best applause line of the day was Buffett’s closing remark: “I not only hope that you come next year but I hope that I come next year.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the company reported a profit equaling “$8.825 per Class A share”. The correct figure is “$8,825 per Class A share”.

For more AP coverage of Warren Buffett look here: https://apnews.com/hub/warren-buffett. For Berkshire Hathaway news, see here: https://apnews.com/hub/berkshire-hathaway-inc. Follow Josh Funk online at https://www.twitter.com/funkwrite and https://www.linkedin.com/in/funkwrite.

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