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Buffett’s ‘Tone Deaf’ Annual Letter Skirts Major Controversies

(Bloomberg) — Warren Buffett’s 15-page annual letter to shareholders on Saturday made mention of the pandemic that ravaged the globe in 2020 exactly once: One of his furniture companies had to close for a time because of the virus, the billionaire noted on page nine.Buffett likewise steered clear of politics, despite the contested presidential election and riots at the U.S. Capitol, and never touched on race or inequality even after protests and unrest broke out in cities across the nation last year. He also avoided delving into the competitive deal-making pressures faced by his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a topic routinely dissected in past year’s letters.“Here you have a company with such a revered leader who’s held in such high regard — whose opinion matters, who has businesses that were directly impacted by the pandemic, insurance companies that were influenced by global warming and social inflation — and there was not one word about the pandemic,” Cathy Seifert, an analyst at CFRA Research, said in a phone interview. “That to me was striking. It was tone deaf and it was disappointing.”Buffett, 90, has been unusually quiet since last year’s annual meeting in May amid a multitude of issues facing Americans. His annual letters are often seen as a chance to offer investors help in understanding his thinking on broad topics and market trends, in addition to details on how his conglomerate is faring.But the Berkshire chief executive officer carefully weighs his words, and some topics, such as the pandemic, risk veering into highly controversial political territory, Jim Shanahan, an analyst at Edward D. Jones & Co., said in an interview.“There’s been a lot of comments about the pandemic and the impact on the businesses, but by not saying something in the letter, I think it’s just a way to try and avoid saying something that could be perceived as a political statement, which he’s been less willing to do in recent years,” Shanahan said.A representative for Buffett didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment placed outside routine office hours.Buffett also stayed quiet on topics that are key to his conglomerate, such as the market environment amid a tumultuous year — and the work of key investing deputies like Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, according to Cole Smead, whose Smead Capital Management oversees investments in Berkshire.“There’s more found by what’s not in the letter,” said Smead, the firm’s president and portfolio manager. “I think just time and time again in this letter were sins of omission.”Here are other key takeaways from Buffett’s letter and Berkshire’s annual report:1. Buffett Relies on Buybacks Instead of DealsBerkshire repurchased a record $24.7 billion of its own stock as Buffett struggled to find better ways to invest his enormous pile of cash.And there’s more where that came from:…

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