Warren Buffett opened the 2020 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting on Saturday by acknowledging that he's never used slides in nearly 70 years of teaching. He didn't need many slides--or too many words--to get his main point across.
But he did use just one slide that had just four words summing up Buffett's key message. It read:
"Never bet against America."
Staying true to his long-held philosophy that no one can accurately predict what the stock market is going to do tomorrow, next week or next year, Buffett did remind people that--despite the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic--it would be wrong to bet against America and global progress in the long run.
Buffett chose the year 1789 as a start date, "the year America was organized and George Washington took office." He then gave the virtual audience a history lesson to explain why he remains convinced that, despite the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the economy's best days lie ahead.
Expect bumps on the road to progress.
"We haven't faced this exact problem, but we've faced tougher problems," Buffett said.
Buffett pointed out that our country's most serious fracture occurred just 72 years into the American experiment--the civil war. The war's uncertain outcome weighed on Abraham Lincoln who wondered aloud whether the young nation "can long endure."
The nation's progress would be interrupted again and again.
Buffett then gave a lengthy and vivid description of the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and its lasting psychological impact. From the day Buffett was born on August 30, 1930, it would take another twenty years for the stock market to climb back to pre-crash levels.
When stocks as measured by the Dow Jones index reached 400, many people didn't believe it could go higher. "People really had lost faith to some degree. They just didn't see the potential of what America could do."
Buffett reminds us that the stock market, even after its decline from a high in March, was sitting at 24,000 on the Friday before the meeting. "Nothing can stop America when you get right down to it," Buffett added.
Maintain a long-term perspective in extraordinary times.
Buffett's famous optimism comes from living through a lifetime of bumps in the road--and maintaining confidence in the future. Buffett said he bought his first stock at the age of 11. World War II was still raging and its outcome far from certain, but Buffett remained convinced that innovation and progress would continue to make the country better in the future than it was in the past.
Buffett maintained his optimism through wars, political unrest, severe economic shocks, and stock market declines. His attitude paid off over the long run.
"We've endured a few months" of the coronavirus crisis, Buffett said. And while we don't know how many more months we'll have to endure or how the economy will look when we come out, Buffett reminds us that those who lived through the Great Depression and other catastrophic events didn't know when those events would end, either.
"But they endured, persevered, and prospered."
Buffett was careful to point out that long term thinking doesn't mean acting impulsively in the moment. For example, Berkshire is sitting on a massive pile of cash ($137 billion) because Buffett doesn't see companies he's comfortable buying in this environment. And he sold his stake in four major airlines. But Buffett's uncertainty about the next few weeks, months or even years doesn't lessen his conviction that the long run is positive.
It's hard to maintain a long-term perspective in the middle of a crisis. Most people predict the future--and make decisions based on their forecasts-- based on what's happening right in front of them today. Wealthy investors like Buffett take a different approach: they make decisions with an eye on the long run.