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Warren Buffett sticks to business, avoids politics in his annual letter

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett always draws a big audience with his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, but this year’s edition didn’t break much new ground. 

The letter released Saturday describes the performance of the more than 90 companies that Berkshire owns. But aside from that, Buffett largely used the rest of the letter to reiterate points he has made before about the economy and investment fees. 

The outspoken 86-year-old has been known for his fierce criticism of Donald Trump but left politics out of his annual letter despite the Republican taking the White House. 

During a speech supporting Hillary Clinton on the campaign trial in August last year he called for Trump to release his tax returns – and did so himself several months later – as he said: “You’re only afraid if you’ve got something to be afraid about”.

“He’s not afraid because of the IRS. He’s afraid because of [the voters]”, he added.

Here are some highlights of what Berkshire’s 86-year-old chairman and CEO did say, and some of the top things investors wish he had addressed: 

Rosy outlook

Buffett reiterated his long-term outlook for a prosperous America, but he mostly steered clear of politics this year. 

“I’ll repeat what I’ve both said in the past and expect to say in future years: Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history,” wrote Buffett, who has said he thinks the economy will be OK under President Donald Trump. Buffett is a longtime Democrat. 

Without mentioning Trump’s immigration policies, Buffett did note that “a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants” played a significant role in the country’s prosperity. 

Fee fortunes

Buffett used the letter to again explain the advantages of low-cost index funds. He said he estimates that wealthy investors who use high-priced advisers have wasted more than $100 billion over the past decade. 

“The bottom line: When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients,” Buffett wrote. “Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.” 

And it can be extremely difficult for investors to determine whether a money manager has the rare ability to outperform the stock market. So Buffett said most investors are better off not trying. 

“The problem simply is that the great majority of managers who attempt to over-perform will fail. The probability is also very high that the person soliciting your funds will not be the exception who does well,” Buffett wrote. 

Investing insight

Investment manager Cole Smead said he felt that Buffett spent too much of the letter extolling Berkshire’s virtues instead of talking about how he’ll approach investing the company’s $86 billion cash or what went wrong with the failed $143 billion bid for Unilever that Berkshire took part in with 3G Capital. 

​Smead said Buffett and his investing partner, 93-year-old Charlie Munger, seem concerned about their legacies and how Berkshire is perceived. 

“This letter was more about Warren and Charlie’s epitaph even more so than prior letters,” said Smead, who is with Seattle-based Smead Capital Management. 

Smead said he wishes Buffett had devoted more of the letter to discussing the current investment environment. Even though Buffett won’t discuss what he might buy, Smead said he could have talked more about what he doesn’t like in the market today. 

Avoiding airlines

Buffett raised eyebrows last fall when he invested more than $9 billion in airline stocks after years of urging investors to stay away from the airline sector. 

Berkshire is now one of the biggest shareholders in American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Continental and Southwest, but he has offered little explanation for his change of heart other than to say airlines are better businesses after all the consolidation in the industry. 

american-airlines-profiling.jpg

Warren Buffett raised eyebrows last year when he became a major shareholder in several airlines including American Airlines Robyn Beck/Getty

But back in 2008, Buffett used his letter to label airlines as the worst kind of business because they grow rapidly and require significant investments to grow but earn little. 

“Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers,” Buffett wrote. “Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.” 

AP

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