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Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway

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By John McCrank and Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Some Berkshire Hathaway shareholders are grappling with how Warren Buffett’s conglomerate will handle a thicket of post-pandemic challenges, including looming inflation, a dearth of acquisitions and demands for more environmental and social disclosures.

Making money at Berkshire used to be like “shooting fish in a barrel, but that’s gotten harder,” Buffett’s long-time business partner Charlie Munger said at the conglomerate’s annual meeting on Saturday.

Investors have long been happy to bet on Buffett outperforming markets, and many remain confident Berkshire’s growth will pick up if the U.S. economy continues roaring back from its pandemic-induced slump. Still, some worry the last year may have exacerbated Berkshire’s difficulties delivering faster growth.

“We have been reducing our position in Berkshire for a number of years because it appears that we can make more money than he can,” said Bill Smead, whose firm, Seattle-based Smead Capital Management has reduced its Berkshire holdings to about 2.2% of its $2.5 billion portfolio, from 5% a decade ago.

With unprecedented government stimulus and rock bottom interest rates threatening to lift inflation, Berkshire may be too big to pivot heavily to companies that could benefit from rising consumer prices, Smead said.

Several Berkshire shareholders expressed frustration that Buffett did not snap up more shares of companies at the beginning of the pandemic, a missed opportunity given the S&P 500’s nearly 90% surge from last year’s low.

Steve Haberstroh, a partner at Berkshire shareholder CastleKeep Investment Advisors, said it was “frustrating” Berkshire didn’t swoop in to buy distressed companies sooner.

Yet, he was gratified when the company announced share buybacks and new stakes in Verizon Communications Inc and Chevron Corp .

Another issue hampering Berkshire’s ability to generate money is historically low interest rates, which the Federal Reserve has pledged to leave at near-zero for years.

Berkshire now earns about $20 million annually on its more than $100 billion in Treasury bills, compared with about $1.5 billion before the pandemic, Buffett said.

“Imagine your wage is going from $15 an hour to $0.20 an hour,” Buffett said.

Still, Berkshire has outperformed the S&P 500 year to date, gaining 18.6% versus the index’s 11.84% gain. But it has trailed over the past decade, returning nearly 236% compared with just over 277% for the index.

As the economy improves, Berkshire is poised to benefit, said James Shanahan, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co.

“If it has a challenge, it relates to capital deployment,” he said. Berkshire’s $145.4 billion cash hoard could swell by $25 billion by year end, he said.

Buffett said he would like to put $70 billion to $80 billion to work through acquisitions.

But the growth of special purpose acquisintion companies, which take private companies public, has made buying whole companies pricey for Berkshire, Buffett said.

EYE ON SUCCESSION

As in previous years, investors have also been focused on Berkshire’s guidance regarding succession.

Among the biggest reasons for Berkshire’s success is the relationship between Buffett, 90, and Munger, 97, and the business culture they cultivate.

Both expressed confidence in Berkshire’s ability to stay on course once they’re gone, and had possible Buffett successors, Vice Chairmen Greg Abel and Ajit Jain, join them on stage at the annual meeting.

“This decentralization won’t work unless you have the right kind of culture accompanying it,” Buffett said about Berkshire.

“Greg will keep the culture,” Munger said of Abel.

Robert Miles, a shareholder who teaches a class on Buffett and Berkshire at The University of Nebraska, called Abel and Jain’s presence “a real value-add,” in that they fielded several questions and were more visible than in most prior years.

Jain said he and Abel talk every quarter about businesses they oversee.

Abel addressed Berkshire’s efforts around environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues topics that were on the meeting’s agenda, with two shareholder proposals asking the company’s board to publish annual reports on how each of its units addressed them.

Berkshire opposed the proposals, citing its decentralized business model.

Both proposals were rejected, but received support from around one quarter of the votes cast, suggesting greater discontent than Berkshire shareholders historically have demonstrated.

“These are complex topics that warrant ongoing dialogue,” said Caitlin McSherry, Director of Investment Stewardship at Neuberger Berman, a Berkshire shareholder that backed the proposals.

Smead, of Smead Capital Management, looks forward to when Berkshire will again become a frequent buyer of choice for companies looking to sell.

“We would (add) where they are back to shooting fish in a barrel,” he said.

 

(Reporting by John McCrank and Jonathan Stempel; additional reporting by Megan Davies; Editing by Ira Iosebashvili and Diane Craft)

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Wealthsimple hits $4 billion valuation on funding from Ryan Reynolds, Drake

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Wealthsimple

(Reuters) -Wealthsimple said on Monday it has raised C$750 million ($610.40 million) in its latest funding round, which more than doubled the Canadian fintech company‘s valuation to C$5 billion.

The latest funding round included participation from celebrities Drake, Michael Fox and Ryan Reynolds, according to the company.

The Toronto-based company that has helped make stock trading, peer-to-peer money transfers and tax filing easily accessible, said it will use the amount raised to further expand its market position, product suite and team.

The latest funding round, led by venture capital firms Meritech and Greylock, also includes investments from iNovia, Sagard, TSV and Redpoint.

The funding consists of C$250 million primary fundraising by Wealthsimple and a C$500 million secondary offering by holding company Power Corp of Canada, its largest shareholder.

Wealthsimple said it has seen rapid growth in the past 14 months as Canadians took an interest in stock trading during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, the company said it plans to grow revenue by adding premium features for its clients.

($1 = 1.2288 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Eva Mathews and Tiyashi Datta in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber and Shounak Dasgupta)

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Ethereum breaks past $3,000 to quadruple in value in 2021

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) –Cryptocurrency ether broke past $3,000 on Monday to set a new record high in a dazzling rally that has outshone the bigger bitcoin, as investors bet that ether will be of ever greater use in a decentralised future financial system.

Ether, the token transacted on the ethereum blockchain, rose 3% on the Bitstamp exchange to $3,051.99 by lunchtime in Asia. It is up more than 300% for the year so far, easily outpacing a 95% rise in the more popular bitcoin.

In part, the big rally is a catch-up to late 2020 gains in bitcoin, said James Quinn, managing director at Q9 Capital, a Hong Kong cryptocurrency private wealth manager.

It also reflects improvements to the ethereum blockchain, he said, and a growing shift towards “DeFi”, or decentralised finance, which refers to transactions outside traditional banking for which the ethereum blockchain is a crucial platform.

“At first, the rally was really led by bitcoin because as a lot of the institutional investors came into the space, that would be their natural first port of call,” Quinn said.

“But as the rally has matured over the last six months, you have DeFi and a lot of DeFi is built on ethereum.”

The launch of ether exchange-traded funds in Canada and surging demand for ether wallets to transact non-fungible tokens such as digital art have also pushed up the price.

The ether/bitcoin cross rate has soared more than 100% this year and hit a 2.5-year high on Sunday, pointing to a degree of rotation into the second-biggest cryptocurrency as investors diversify their exposure.

“Surging DeFi volumes continue to push ethereum prices higher as investors gain confidence in crypto and see ethereum as a safe second-place asset,” said Jehan Chu, managing partner at Hong Kong blockchain venture capital firm Kenetic Capital.

Illustrating the momentum for such new transactions, Bloomberg reported last week that the European Investment Bank plans on issuing a digital bond over the Ethereum blockchain, while JP Morgan plans a managed bitcoin fund.

Bitcoin, the world’s biggest crypto asset with more than $1 trillion in market capitalisation, regained the $50,000 mark last week and hovered around $58,000 on Monday, up about 3% but well below its record high at $64,895.22.

The U.S. dollar was broadly steady. [FRX/]

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Vidya Ranganathan; Editing by Himani Sarkar & Shri Navaratnam)

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As Bank of Canada turns hawkish, investors retool for higher rates outlook

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Bank of Canada expecting strong growth

TORONTO (Reuters) – Investors in Canada are shunning interest-rate sensitive stocks, seeking inflation protection and betting on a steeper yield curve as the Bank of Canada leads global central banks in shifting to a more hawkish stance.

Canada‘s central bank on Wednesday signaled it could hike interest rates as soon as next year and cut the pace of bond purchases, becoming one of the first major central banks to reduce stimulus.

Investors say they have been adjusting portfolios for some time to prepare for a higher rates outlook, but the BoC’s move has reinforced the focus on such an outcome.

“The fact that the Bank of Canada is now starting to take the foot off the gas… it is the first sign of what’s going to happen and be the big story for the second half of the year,” said Greg Taylor, a portfolio manager at Purpose Investments.

Taylor expects other central banks to follow the Bank of Canada‘s lead, making it more difficult for stock markets to rise later in 2021. Higher rates reduce the value of the future cash flows equities produce.

AGF Investments portfolio manager Mike Archibald is overweight technology shares and cyclicals, such as industrials and consumer discretionary, while underweight defensive sectors, including telecommunications, consumer staples and utilities.

“I am underweight (defensives) both on the expectation of better growth in the next 6-12 months as well as higher yields over time,” Archibald said.

Rising bond yields crimp the appeal of the high dividends defensive stocks tend to pay.

The Bank of Canada expects Canada‘s economy to grow 6.5% in 2021 and inflation to move over the coming months to the top of its 1% to 3% target range.

With inflation expectations rising, buying commodities could benefit a portfolio, said Michael White, a portfolio manager at Picton Mahoney Asset Management.

“Things like industrial metals and energy… you get the benefit of positive performance when economies are generally growing but they are also sensitive to inflation,” he said.

A more hawkish Bank of Canada has bolstered the Canadian dollar CAD=, and James Athey, investment director at Aberdeen Standard Investments in London is among investors who bought the currency on Wednesday, when it touched a one-month high at 1.2455 per U.S. dollar, or 80.29 U.S. cents.

He has also been betting that Canada‘s long-term yields will rise more than short-term yields, or that the curve will steepen.

That trade remains appropriate “as reducing asset purchases will happen a lot sooner and more easily than moving to tightening via higher rates,” Athey said.

The proposal in Monday’s federal budget to raise the share of long-term bond issuance to 42% from 15% before the crisis could also lead to a steeper curve, said Earl Davis, head of fixed income and money markets at BMO Global Asset Management.

While a punishing third wave of the coronavirus pandemic creates a headwind for Canada‘s economy, it may not change the big picture on the rate outlook.

“We believe this third wave and the renewed lockdowns are disruptive events to the economy but not destructive,” said Philip Petursson, chief investment strategist at Manulife Investment Management.

 

(Reporting by Fergal Smith; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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