Warren Buffett has got Berkshire Hathaway out of the airline business.
During a virtual address to shareholders for the company's annual shareholders meeting, the chairman and CEO called Berkshire's recent purchase of roughly 10% of four of the world's largest airlines - including American (AAL), United (UAL), Delta (DAL) and Southwest (LUV) - an "understandable mistake."
But the company has sold out of its entire interest in the airlines, worth at least £3.2bn. In doing so, the Oracle of Omaha admitted to a rare investment misstep, one that's he pinned on the coronavirus crisis hammering the global economy.
Warren Buffett through the years
Warren Buffett through the years
Investor Warren Buffett answers reporters' questions during a press conference to announce that Walt Disney will buy Capital Cities/ABC July 31.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett of Omaha makes a rare public appearance during an autograph session outside Borsheim's Jewelry Store in Omaha, May 4. Buffett was signing autographs for shareholders in his company, Berkshire Hathaway, which is having its annual meeting May 5.
Billionaire businessman Warren Buffett sits with his wife Susan (R) and daughter Susie, prior to the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha, May 5. This marks a rare public appearance for the reclusive Buffett.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican candidate for governor of California
in the October 7, 2003 recall election listens as world famous
investor, Warren Buffett (L), one of his financial advisors, speaks to
reporters after a meeting of Schwarzenegger's Economic Recovery Council
in Los Angeles August 20, 2003. REUTERS/Fred Prouser
Billionaire financier Warren Buffett looks on after a meeting with U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington June 29, 2005. Specter is the co-author of a bill seeking to create a $140 billion asbestos compensation fund. REUTERS/Shaun Heasley SH/TC
Billionaire Warren Buffett arrives at the Sun Valley Resort in Sun Valley, Idaho July 10, 2007. The world's biggest media chiefs gather this week at the 25th annual Allen & Co. conference at the resort starting today. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES)
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks at a Senate Finance Committee hearing about "Federal Estate Tax: Uncertainty in Planning Under the Current Law" on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 14, 2007. Billionaire Buffett warned of widening U.S. income disparity and endorsed the estate tax as a check on wealth accumulation, while two senior lawmakers said they want the tax repealed. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)
Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett greets shareholders during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska May 3, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (UNITED STATES)
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett laughs as he appears with Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates for a town hall style meeting with business students broadcast by financial television network CNBC at Columbia University in New York, November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett kisses his ukulele at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha May 1, 2010. Buffett played "I've Been Working on the Railroad." REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT)
Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett (L) and Microsoft founder Bill Gates gesture at the national launch ceremony for the BYD M6 vehicle in Beijing September 29, 2010. Chinese battery and car maker BYD, backed by Buffett, launched its first premium multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) in Beijing on Wednesday to tap rising demand in the world's biggest auto market. REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)
Billionaire Warren Buffett, wearing a traditional tikka or a red mark on the forehead, speaks during a news conference in Bangalore March 22, 2011. Buffett on Tuesday said he is looking to invest in large countries like India, China and Brazil, but added that restrictions on foreign ownership in India's insurance industry could be a deterrent. Buffett also said and the U.S. economy was improving and that the devastating earthquake in Japan would not hurt global growth. REUTERS/Stringer (INDIA - Tags: BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett tours the floor of the New York Stock Exchange September 30, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem, at the start of a 5km race sponsored by Brooks Sports Inc., a Berkshire-owned company, in Omaha May 5, 2013, a day after the company's annual meeting. Buffett at the meeting on May 4, 2013 gave the most extensive comments to date about the future of Berkshire Hathaway Inc after he is gone, saying he still expects the conglomerate to be a partner of choice for distressed companies. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SPORT ATHLETICS)
Warren Buffett, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, poses for a portrait in New York October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Roberta Buffett Elliott sits with her brother Warren Buffett as they attend an announcement ceremony at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, January 28, 2015. The sister of financial investor Warren Buffett has given Northwestern University more than $100 million to create the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies, the largest single gift in the school's 164-year history, the university said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EDUCATION SOCIETY)
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks at the Fortune's Most Powerful Women's Summit in Washington October 13, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, smiles before speaking with Bill Gates (not pictured), at Columbia University in New York, U.S., January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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"The world changed for airlines," the influential investor said at the meeting.
"It turned out that I was wrong about that business because of something that was not in any way the fault of four excellent CEOs," Buffett said of COVID-19's shock to air travel — adding that there was "no joy" in managing those companies right now.
"But the companies we bought were well managed. They did a lot of things right. It's a very, very, very difficult business because you're dealing with millions of people every day and if something goes wrong for 1% of them, they are very unhappy," Buffett added.
"People have been told not to fly. I've been told not to fly for a while. I'm looking forward to flying. I may not fly commercial but that's another question," Buffett remarked.
While he expressed hope that he could be wrong, Bufftett said the airline business changed in a major way, most obviously in the level of debt the companies will need to carry in order to stay alive.
The four companies will each need to borrow at least $9bn, and in some cases will need to rely on stock sales, which will take away from their upside, he said.
"I don't know whether two or three years from now that as many people will fly as many passenger miles as they did last year, " Buffett said. "They may and they may not, but the future is much less clear to me about how the business will turn out through absolutely no fault of the airlines themselves."