Warren Buffett. Picture: REUTERS
Warren Buffett. Picture: REUTERS

New York — Warren Buffett on Saturday appeared to fault US President Donald Trump for taking too much credit for the nation’s economic growth, while acknowledging that market conditions are making it tough for his Berkshire Hathaway to find more big companies to buy.

Buffett lamented these states of affairs in his widely read annual letter to Berkshire shareholders.

Accompanying the letter was more bad news, that sinking stock prices and a big write-down for the company’s Kraft Heinz investment fuelled a $25.39bn fourth-quarter net loss, and caused Berkshire to post its lowest annual profit since 2001.

But many of Berkshire’s more than 90 businesses, such as the Geico car insurer and BNSF railroad, performed well, and quarterly operating profit rose 71%.

Buffett uses his shareholder letters to focus on Berkshire’s operating businesses, tout the strength of the US economy, and criticise thinking and business practices that get in the way.

The 88-year-old said Berkshire’s success has been in part a product of “the American tailwind” that has enabled the country to enjoy “almost unbelievable prosperity.”

He said that since he began investing in 1942, that prosperity has been overseen by seven Republican and seven Democratic presidents, through times of war and financial crisis, and gained in a bipartisan manner.

Trump often takes credit for upbeat news on the economy and stock market, sometimes tying them to his economic policies.

Buffett, who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in her 2016 White House run, said no one person should claim credit when things go well.

“It is beyond arrogance for American businesses or individuals to boast that they have ‘done it alone’,” Buffett wrote.

Buffett also made a possible oblique criticism of Trump’s bragging about US economic performance, including relative to other countries such as China, where Berkshire invests in electric carmaker BYD.

The US, according to Buffett, should “rejoice” when other countries have bright futures.

“Americans will be both more prosperous and safer if all nations thrive,” he wrote. “At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders.”

The White House was not immediately available for comment. Berkshire did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thomas Russo, a partner at Gardner Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and longtime Berkshire investor, said: “It sent an extraordinarily strong message about how open markets and free trade end up helping all participants do better.”

Looking for elephants

Part of the reason Buffett may be looking to invest abroad is that he is struggling to find big investments at home, and does not expect that to change soon.

Berkshire has not make a major acquisition since paying $32.1bn for aircraft parts maker Precision Castparts in January 2016.

Buffett said the near-term prospects for more acquisitions were “not good,” because prices are “sky-high” for businesses that had decent long-term prospects.

While Buffett said the thought of an “elephant-sized” acquisition causes his heart to beat faster, the “disappointing reality” was that Berkshire would likely in 2019 use some of its $111.9bn of cash to buy more stocks.

Berkshire ended 2018 with $172.8bn of equities, but many of these suffered double-digit price declines in the quarter, including a 30% slide in its largest holding, iPhone maker Apple.

Those declines were a major factor in Berkshire’s huge quarterly loss, and its 91% drop in full-year net income to $4.02bn from $44.94bn the prior year, when it benefited from a lower corporate tax rate.

Accounting rules require Berkshire to report unrealised stock gains and losses with net income, causing huge quarterly swings that Buffett says are usually meaningless.

Operating profit in the quarter totalled $5.72bn, or $3,484 per Class A share, topping analyst forecasts, and for the year rose 71% to $24.78bn.

The operating businesses are overseen by vice-chair Greg Abel and Ajit Jain, freeing Buffett and vice-chair Charlie Munger, 95, to focus on capital allocation.

Results also were hurt by a $3.02bn writedown for intangible assets that Buffett said was “almost entirely” attributable to Kraft Heinz, in which Berkshire owns a 26.7% stake.

The packaged food company on Thursday shocked investors when it reported a $15.4bn writedown for Kraft, Oscar Mayer and other assets, slashed its dividend, and said the US Securities and Exchange Commission was examining its accounting practices.

While dated on Saturday, Buffett’s shareholder letter is written well in advance, and did not discuss Kraft Heinz’s travails or the day-to-day management of that company by 3G Capital, the Brazilian firm and Buffett business partner.

Berkshire bought back about $418m of its stock in the quarter. It has recouped some losses on its stock holdings this year, though the Standard & Poor’s 500 remains 4% below where it was at the end of September.

Reuters