By Trevor Hunnicutt and Jonathan Stempel
OMAHA, Neb. (Reuters) – Warren Buffett on Saturday signaled his commitment to Kraft Heinz Co and defended his actions toward Wells Fargo & Co, two of the largest investments at his Berkshire Hathaway Inc, despite mistakes at both that have caused many investors to sour on them.
Buffett, 88, spoke before tens of thousands of people at Berkshire’s annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, the centerpiece of a weekend of shareholder events, where he and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 95, were fielding several hours of shareholder and analyst questions.
Kraft Heinz has been a thorn for Berkshire, which in February took a $3 billion writedown on its 26.7 percent stake, because of the packaged food company’s inability to keep up with changing consumer tastes and reliance on older brands such as Oscar Mayer and Jell-O.
The company was created from the 2015 merger of Kraft Foods and H.J. Heinz, the latter of which had been owned by Berkshire and Brazil’s 3G Capital, which runs Kraft Heinz day-to-day.
Buffett defended 3G’s management, saying the combined company is doing well operationally, and that its current problems cannot be blamed on a lack of investment.
But he also maintained that “we paid too much money” for Kraft.
“You can turn any investment into a bad deal by paying too much,” he said, while adding it was “not inconceivable” Berkshire could partner with 3G again on a transaction.
He said 3G had more willingness to take on leverage and “pay up,” but in many cases also had “way better operators.”
‘MISTAKES’ AT WELLS FARGO
Buffett, who became famous in 1991 for criticizing Salomon Inc’s practices and becoming interim chairman to right the mess, also faced a question about his relative silence about Wells Fargo, where Berkshire owns a nearly 10-percent stake.
Wells Fargo has spent more than 2-1/2 years addressing fallout from mistreating its customers, including by creating fake accounts, losing two chief executives in the process, including Tim Sloan in March.
Buffett repeated that Wells Fargo “made some big mistakes” in its sales practices, and that “when you find a problem, you have to do something about it.” He also said chief executives who make big mistakes shouldn’t walk away with their wealth.
But many questionable Wells Fargo practices long predated Sloan’s becoming chief executive, and Buffett and Munger have defended him.
“I don’t think people ought to go to jail for honest errors of judgment,” Munger said, calling Sloan an “accidental casualty.”
BIG PROFITS, BIG BUYBACKS
Berkshire also reported on Saturday that gains in its stock investments fueled a $21.66 billion profit in the first quarter.
Operating income, a better measure of Berkshire’s business performance, rose 5 percent, helped by the Geico auto insurer and BNSF railroad, though it fell just shy of analyst forecasts.
Buffett said margins at Precision Castparts, which Berkshire bought for $32.1 billion in 2016, have been lower than he had expected, but he projected they would improve.
Results excluded Kraft Heinz because that company has not released its own quarterly results, Buffett said.
Berkshire also repurchased $1.7 billion of stock, reflecting Buffett’s difficulty in finding better uses for the company’s $114.2 billion cash hoard.
Buffett acknowledged he would be willing to repurchase $100 billion of stock if it became cheap enough, and Munger predicted Berkshire would become “more liberal” with buybacks.
Mario Gabelli, chief executive of GAMCO Investors Inc, said Buffett is struggling with “how do I buy a business with the uncertainty that the multiples I’m paying today are sustainable five to seven years from now.”
Munger also lamented Berkshire’s failure to invest in Google, now part of Alphabet Inc, saying “I feel like a horse’s ass for not identifying Google earlier.”
Berkshire’s more than 90 businesses and roughly 389,000 employees make the company a barometer for the U.S. economy, and a report card for one of the world’s most revered investors.
NOT JUST BUSINESS
The shareholder weekend is not all business.
Buffett on Saturday morning made his usual slow-motion crawl, with a crowd of reporters and photographers in tow, through an exhibit hall where shareholders could buy Berkshire-owned products, including 20,000 pounds of See’s candies and 28,752 Dairy Queen bars.
“We love you Warren,” shareholders shouted as Buffett nibbled a Dairy Queen vanilla orange bar.
People lined up before midnight to get early access to the best seats at the arena, which opened at 7 a.m.
Daphne Kalir-Starr, 9, a fourth-grader from New York City, lined up with her father at 11 p.m. on Friday night, along with her sleeping bag. It’s her third time to see Buffett.
“I really like hearing from great investors,” she said. “Even though he wasn’t really recognized at the beginning, he kept working at it.”
Bela Chowdhury, 49, came from Kolkata, India, with other students from a nonprofit group that promotes financial literacy for women. “He is the ultimate guru,” she said.
Meanwhile, Luke On, a University of Toronto finance undergraduate, said he lined up at 10 p.m. on Friday.
“I have no place to stay and wanted to save money, but I wanted to see Warren and Charlie,” he said.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Jonathan Stempel in Omaha, Nebraska; Editing by Jennifer Ablan and Nick Zieminski)