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Warren Buffett calls American progress "discouraging," but isn't betting against it

Warren Buffett called progress in America "slow, uneven and often discouraging," but retained his long-term optimism in the country, in his closely watched annual shareholder letter released Saturday morning.

Why it matters: It breaks months of uncharacteristic silence from the 90-year-old billionaire Berkshire Hathaway CEO — as the fragile economy coped with the pandemic and the U.S. saw a contentious presidential election.

What they're saying: "We retain our constitutional aspiration of becoming 'a more perfect union.' Progress on that front has been slow, uneven and often discouraging. We have, however, moved forward and will continue to do so," Buffett wrote.

  • "Our unwavering conclusion: Never bet against America."

Of note: Buffett said Berkshire's annual meeting — long an Omaha, Nebraska-based event that typically draws thousands of shareholders — will be held in Los Angeles this year.

  • It will be virtual again, as it was last year.
  • Buffett, who has received both doses of the vaccine, said he hopes to convene the in-person event in 2022.

Other highlights from the letter:

On the stock market: "Investing illusions can continue for a surprisingly long time. Wall Street loves the fees that deal-making generates, and the press loves the stories that colorful promoters provide."

  • "Eventually, of course, the party ends, and many business 'emperors' are found to have no clothes."

On the bond market: "Bonds are not the place to be these days ... Fixed-income investors worldwide – whether pension funds, insurance companies or retirees – face a bleak future."

On economy: "Despite some severe interruptions, our country’s economic progress has been breathtaking."

On energy: "[O]ur country’s electric utilities need a massive makeover in which the ultimate costs will be staggering."

Other details: Buffett's letter came alongside financial results for his sprawling business empire, which owns GEICO, BNSF Railway, Dairy Queen and more.

  • Soaring prices in the company's stock bets — including its 5% stake in Apple — helped overall profit.
  • But operating profit — which excludes those gains — came in at $21.9 billion for 2020, a 9% decline from the previous year.

Between the lines: Berkshire Hathaway has increasingly bought back more of its own stock in recent years — with hints of more to come.

  • It spent $24.7 billion in 2020 on share repurchases, a record for the company.
  • On buybacks, Buffett borrowed a line from late Hollywood star Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be ... wonderful.”

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