Now we know why Warren Buffett has steered clear of Tesla, to Elon Musk’s chagrin

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.
Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images

Warren Buffett said this weekend that he admires Elon Musk for his “dedication to solving the impossible,” and the Tesla CEO has urged Berkshire Hathaway to invest in his electric vehicle maker. But while the Berkshire Hathaway CEO believes EVs will bring big changes to the auto market, he doubts any carmaker will be able to hold a dominant position.

“You will see a change in the vehicles, but you won’t see anybody that owns the market because they changed the vehicle,” Buffett said this weekend at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual conference. The investing legend and his partner, vice chairman Charlie Munger, shared their thoughts on EVs and the auto industry in general during a Q&A session.

They were asked whether they saw any opportunities in zero-emissions vehicles, which seemed to be on the cusp of widespread adoption. The audience member who asked the question didn’t mention Tesla specifically, nor did Buffett or Munger in their answers, but the EV maker is the dominant, headline-grabbing player in the field.

Musk has certainly made clear he’d like Berkshire Hathaway to invest in Tesla, and he’s noted the significant returns it would have seen had it done so. In February, Musk answered a Twitter user’s question about what Berkshire Hathaway should invest in, writing, “Starts with a T…”

Musk added, “Munger could’ve invested in Tesla at ~$200M valuation when I had lunch with him in late 2008.” Tesla’s market cap is now about $530 billion.

The replies by Buffett and Munger this weekend gave a glimpse into their reasoning on not investing in Tesla, Rivian, and other EV makers in the U.S. They also noted while answering a question about their thoughts on Musk, that they were far more cautious than he: “We’re different,” Munger said. “Warren and I are looking for the easy job that we can identify.”

“The electric vehicle is coming big-time, and that’s a very interesting development,” said Munger. But, he added, “at the moment, it’s imposing huge capital costs and huge risks—and I don’t like huge capital costs and huge risks.”

“Charlie and I for long have felt that the auto industry is just too tough,” Buffett said. “It’s just a business where you’ve got a lot of worldwide competitors, they’re not going to go away. And it looks like there are winners at any given time, but it doesn’t get you a permanent place.”

The Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate includes all kinds of companies—Duracell, Dairy Queen, and Fruit of the Loom are among the brands under its umbrella—but Buffett and Munger have never been especially enthusiastic about carmakers. It does own General Motors shares and one of the largest car dealers in the U.S., Berkshire Hathaway Automotive.

And in China, Berkshire Hathaway has invested in Tesla rival BYD. Earlier this year, Munger said it’s “almost ridiculous” how much BYD was beating Tesla in China, and he called BYD his best investment at Berkshire Hathaway. Musk has unleashed a price war in China.

Musk has also slashed Tesla prices in the U.S., forcing rivals to follow suit. Ford, for example, this week announced price cuts for the Mustang Mach-E, the bestselling EV last year not built by Tesla. That marked the second time this year that Ford cuts costs after Tesla did so. 

Musk warned on an April 19 earnings call that he might be prepared to accept zero profit per vehicle sold, drawing swift backlash from investors worried about a damaging race to the bottom.

Buffett did express confidence in one carmaker this weekend. “I would say Ferrari is in a special place, but they only sell 11,000 or 12,000 cars a year,” he said. According to Reuters, the Italian luxury sports car maker reached 13,221 deliveries in a strong 2022.

“I think I know where Apple’s going to be in five or 10 years,” Buffett added, but “I don’t know what the car companies are going to be in five or 10 years.”

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