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Tim Cook and Warren Buffett

Getty Images (L) | CNBC (R)

Berkshire Hathaway‘s Warren Buffett was still using a flip phone as late as 2020, four years after his investment behemoth started amassing a huge stake in the company that makes iPhones.

“I don’t understand the phone at all, but I do understand consumer behavior,” Buffett said last year at Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.

He’s emerged in recent years as one of Apple’s top evangelists.

At the end of 2023, Berkshire owned about 6% of Apple, a stake worth $174 billion at the time, or about 40% of Berkshire’s total value. That’s about four times bigger than Berkshire’s second-biggest public stock holding, Bank of America, and makes Berkshire the No. 2 Apple shareholder, behind only Vanguard.

As Berkshire investors and fanboys of the 93-year-old Buffett flood Omaha this weekend for the 2024 annual meeting, Apple is likely to be a hot topic of discussion. The tech giant on Thursday reported a 10% year-over-year decline in iPhone sales, leading to a 4% drop in total revenue. But the stock had its best day since late 2022 on Friday due largely to a $110 billion stock buyback plan and increased margins that result from a growing services business.

The bet on Apple and CEO Tim Cook, has paid off handsomely for Buffett, who said in 2022 that the cost of Berkshire’s Apple stake was only $31 billion. His firm is up almost 620% on its investment since the start of 2016.

Despite being a self-described luddite, Buffett has long had a coherent non-techie thesis for loving Apple. He’s seen how devoted Apple users are to their devices, and has viewed the iPhone as an extraordinary product that could keep its customers spending inside the Apple ecosystem. He calls it a moat, one of his favorite words for describing his preferred businesses.

“Apple has a position with consumers that they’re paying $1,500 or whatever it may be for a phone, and these same people pay $35,000 for a second car,” Buffett said at last year’s meeting. “And if they had to give up their second car or give up their iPhone, they’d give up their second car!”

Apple's stock could be poised for more run-up, says Bernstein's Toni Sacconaghi

Data is in his favor. According to a study from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, Apple has 94% customer loyalty, meaning that nine out of 10 current U.S. iPhone owners choose another iPhone when buying a new device.

Buffett has also hailed Apple’s ability to return billions of dollars to shareholders annually through share buybacks and dividends, a capital allocation strategy for which Buffett may have himself to thank. When asked in a 2016 interview with The Washington Post who he turns to for advice at pivotal moments, Cook offered up a story about his relationship with Buffett.

“When I was going through [the question of] what should we do on returning cash to shareholders, I thought who could really give us great advice here? Who wouldn’t have a bias?” Cook said. “So I called up Warren Buffett. I thought he’s the natural person.”

Apple has shown its appreciation for the Oracle of Omaha in other ways.

In 2019, the company published an original iPhone game called “Warren Buffett’s Paper Wizard” in which a paperboy bikes from Omaha to Apple’s hometown of Cupertino, California.

But with Apple’s business having declined in size in five of the past six quarters and with the company expecting just low-single digit growth in the current quarter, Buffett may face questions this weekend about whether he still sees the same power in the moat, particularly with regulatory pressures building around tech’s megacap companies.

Buffett trimmed his stake in Apple late year, though only by about 1%. Even after Friday’s rally, the stock is down 3.8% in 2024, while the S&P 500 is up 7.5%.

‘Very, very, very locked in’

Berkshire’s initial foray into Apple in 2016 was not Buffett’s idea. Rather, the investment was led by Ted Weschler, one of Buffett’s top deputies, and was seen as a passing of the torch to the next generation of Berskhire investment mangers.

But the following year, Berkshire started purchasing even more Apple, and Buffett began talking it up. He said he liked the stock and the company’s “sticky” product, although he didn’t use it.

In 2018, he said Apple users are “very, very, very locked in, at least psychologically and mentally” to the product and the ecosystem.

“Apple has an extraordinary consumer franchise,” he said.

At last year’s annual meeting, when asked how Berkshire can defend having Apple make up so much of its public portfolio, Buffett said, “It just happens to be a better business than any we own.” He also hailed Cook, calling him one of the “best managers in the world.”

A number Apple likes to use to tout the health of its business, despite the declining revenue, is 2.2 billion. That’s how many devices the company says are currently in use and points to the massive customer base available as Apple rolls out new subscription services.

“Once customers get into the ecosystem, they don’t leave. So it’s not a a speculative tech play,” said Dan Eye, chief investment officer at Fort Pitt Capital Group, which owns Apple shares. “It’s kind of more like an annuity and I think that’s what Warren Buffett really sees as well.”

In addition to the drop in revenue, Apple faces new challenges from regulations and weak overseas markets, as well as from Microsoft and Google’s advancements in artificial intelligence. For regulators, the concern surrounds the very moat that Buffett finds so attractive, and whether its give the company monopolistic control in the smartphone market.

The U.S. government in March alleged that Apple designs its business to keep customers locked in. The Justice Department’s lawsuit claimed that products like Apple Card, the Apple Arcade game subscription, iMessage, and Apple Watch work best or only with an iPhone, creating illegal barriers to competition and making it harder for consumers to switch when it’s time for an upgrade.

However, the litigation is expected to take years, pushing any potential penalties to Apple and its products well into the future. In the meantime, there’s no sign that the iPhone is becoming less important as new devices like virtual reality goggles have found only niche audiences, while consumer AI products have failed to take off.

DOJ's Apple suit not a reason to sell, says Satori Fund's Dan Niles

Buffett hasn’t voiced his view publicly on Apple’s regulatory hurdles, and this will be the first opportunity for investors to ask him about the issue since the DOJ’s lawsuit. But Buffett knows a little something about regulation — two markets where he’s most active are railroads and insurance.

In a note to clients earlier this month, Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi didn’t go deep on regulatory concerns, but mentioned that he doesn’t believe the DOJ suit will “seriously threaten” the strength of Apple’s ecosystem. He also said that following Buffett’s lead on getting in and out of Apple is a solid strategy for making money.

“Despite his reputation as a long term buy and hold investor, Warren Buffett has been remarkably disciplined at adding to his Apple position when it is relatively cheap and trimming when it is relatively expensive,” Sacconaghi wrote. He encouraged investors to “be like Buffett.”

More money back

Odds are that Buffett was thrilled with Apple’s announcement this week regarding its expanded repurchase program. It’s a practice he’s long adored.

“When I buy Apple, I know that Apple is going to repurchase a lot of shares,” he said in 2018. 

And he likes to note how buybacks result in getting a bigger stake in the company without buying more shares.

“The math of repurchases grinds away slowly, but can be powerful over time,” Buffett said in 2021.

Apple also increased its dividend by 4%, and signaled that it would continue to lift it annually.

Buffett was effusive about Apple’s capital return strategy at the company’s annual meeting last year, pointing out that it helped Berkshire own a bigger piece of the pie. Unlike insurance company Geico and homebuilder Clayton Homes, which his firm owns in their entirety, Berkshire can continue to increase its stake in Apple, a fact he reminded investors of at the meeting.

“The good thing about Apple is that we can go up,” Buffett said.

WATCH: Warren Buffett’s stake in Japanese trading houses helps them focus on capital efficiency

Warren Buffett's stake in Japanese trading houses helps them focus on capital efficiency: Analyst

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Britain expands AI safety institute to San Francisco amid scrutiny over regulatory shortcomings

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Britain expands AI safety institute to San Francisco amid scrutiny over regulatory shortcomings

An aerial view of the city of San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge in California, October 28, 2021.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

LONDON — The British government is expanding its facility for testing “frontier” artificial intelligence models to the United States, in a bid to further its image as a top global player tackling the risks of the tech and to increase cooperation with the U.S. as governments around the world jostle for AI leadership.

The government on Monday announced it would open a U.S. counterpart to its AI safety summit, a state-backed body focused on testing advanced AI systems to ensure they’re safe, in San Francisco this summer.

The U.S. iteration of the AI Safety Institute will aim to recruit a team of technical staff headed up by a research director. In London, the institute currently has a team of 30. It is chaired by Ian Hogarth, a prominent British tech entrepreneur who founded the music concert discovery site Songkick.

In a statement, U.K. Technology Minister Michelle Donelan said the AI Safety Summit’s U.S. rollout “represents British leadership in AI in action.”

“It is a pivotal moment in the U.K.’s ability to study both the risks and potential of AI from a global lens, strengthening our partnership with the U.S. and paving the way for other countries to tap into our expertise as we continue to lead the world on AI safety.”

The expansion “will allow the U.K. to tap into the wealth of tech talent available in the Bay Area, engage with the world’s largest AI labs headquartered in both London and San Francisco, and cement relationships with the United States to advance AI safety for the public interest,” the government said.

San Francisco is the home of OpenAI, the Microsoft-backed company behind viral AI chatbot ChatGPT.

The AI Safety Institute was established in November 2023 during the AI Safety Summit, a global event held in England’s Bletchley Park, the home of World War II code breakers, that sought to boost cross-border cooperation on AI safety.

The expansion of the AI Safety Institute to the U.S. comes on the eve of the AI Seoul Summit in South Korea, which was first proposed at the U.K. summit in Bletchley Park last year. The Seoul summit will take place across Tuesday and Wednesday.

The government said that, since the AI Safety Institute was established in November, it’s made progress in evaluating frontier AI models from some of the industry’s leading players.

It said Monday that several AI models completed cybersecurity challenges but struggle to complete more advanced challenges, while several models demonstrated PhD-level knowledge of chemistry and biology.

Meanwhile, all models tested by the institute remained highly vulnerable to “jailbreaks,” where users trick them into producing responses they’re not permitted to under their content guidelines, while some would produce harmful outputs even without attempts to circumvent safeguards.

Tested models were also unable to complete more complex, time-consuming tasks without humans there to oversee them, according to the government.

It didn’t name the AI models that were tested. The government previously got OpenAI, DeepMind, and Anthropic to agree to opening their coveted AI models up to the government to help inform research into the risks associated with their systems.

The development comes as Britain has faced criticism for not introducing formal regulations for AI, while other jurisdictions, like the European Union, race ahead with AI-tailored laws.

The EU’s landmark AI Act, which is the first major legislation for AI of its kind, is expected to become a blueprint for global AI regulations once it is approved by all EU member states and enters into force.

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$9 billion travel tech firm Navan on track to hit profitability this year and ‘not far’ from IPO, CEO says

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 billion travel tech firm Navan on track to hit profitability this year and 'not far' from IPO, CEO says

TripActions CEO Ariel Cohen

TripActions

The boss of travel and expense management platform Navan told CNBC he’s preparing the company to get its business into shape for an eventual initial public offering this year, in another sign leaders of privately-held startups are getting more optimistic about their prospects in the public markets.

Asked about when Navan would choose to go public, the firm’s CEO and co-founder Ariel Cohen said the company is close to reaching that milestone. “We can see the signals,” he said, adding that Navan has been adjusting its leadership structure and making changes to its board in a signal of maturity.

Last month saw Navan announce the return of Rich Liu, formerly Navan’s chief revenue officer and “an expert on scaling companies from seed to IPO and beyond,” to the business as CEO of Navan Travel, the company’s travel division.

Amy Butte, the former chief financial officer of the New York Stock Exchange who oversaw the U.S. exchange operator’s transition to a public company in 2006, was also appointed to Navan’s board of directors as audit committee chair.

“I don’t want to give a date,” Cohen told CNBC, adding that he’s not even told his own family a date for when he expects Navan to go public — let alone his board and Navan employees. “At the end of the day, there are things that are out of my control.”

“The market can collapse. There are elections in the U.S. There are wars. So I never actually promise things to people if I don’t know that the delivery is in my control,” he added.

While Cohen wouldn’t commit to a date for Navan’s eventual IPO, he said the business was “not far” from being ready for a stock market listing. The company is on track to become cash-flow positive and achieve profitability for the first time this year, he said.

“The timing will need to include several things,” he said. “Today, in this market, to be public, you need to be profitable. We are not far from that, but we are not there. We’re going to be there this year. And it’s not easy to do it while you’re growing fast.”

Cohen said he’s also keeping a wary eye on the market — but added that although, previously, investors would have seen a company like his as dependent on buoyant market sentiment surrounding technology, today he sees the firm as “mature enough” to go public independent of the market backdrop.

Navan CEO Ariel Cohen talks partnering with Citi

Navan is now growing revenues by around 40% on average, according to Cohen, with the company’s fintech business seeing faster growth (100%) than its travel business (30%).

Founded in 2015 as TripActions, Navan began life as a travel management platform for businesses, seeking to provide a smoother experience to travel agents and incumbent players like American Express, BCD Travel, and SAP Concur. The company counts the likes of Unilever and Christie’s as clients.

The firm subsequently expanded into expensing and payments with solutions for automating linking credit cards to a single platform and automating expenses.

Navan is backed by major investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue, Goldman Sachs, and Lightspeed. Navan has raised more than $1.5 billion in venture funding to date and was last valued at $9.2 billion. It competes with Spanish startup TravelPerk, which was most recently valued at $1.4 billion.

Navan introduced a big evolution of that product last year with the arrival of Navan Connect, a new expensing product.

Most corporate card startups, like Brex and Ramp, offer users their own branded corporate smart cards. But Navan’s Connect feature, which it’s rolled out in partnership with Citi, lets businesses offer automated expense management and reconciliation without having to change corporate card provider.

Like other tech firms, Navan has been making a big investment into artificial intelligence. The company rolled out its own AI personal assistant, called Ava, last year. The tool uses generative AI to help travelers, travel admins, and finance managers make travel plans and budget effectively.

Ava — which stands for automated virtual assistant — now processes around 150,000 monthly chats, more than 35% of which are managed to completion as of April 2024, according to Navan.

Cohen said Navan is planning to roll out an even more personalized version of Ava’s AI assistant, which can generate travel plans for someone based on their past behavior, to even greater accuracy in six months’ time.

Navan was named on the 2024 edition of CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list.

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Musk launches SpaceX’s Starlink internet services in Indonesia, says more investments could come

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Musk launches SpaceX’s Starlink internet services in Indonesia, says more investments could come

Tech billionaire Elon Musk (2nd L) speaks next to Indonesia’s Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin (L) during a ceremony held to inaugurate satellite unit Starlink at a community health center in Denpasar on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali on May 19, 2024. Musk launched on May 19 his Starlink service on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali as the country aims to extend internet to its remote areas. Millions of people in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, are not currently hooked up to reliable internet services. (Photo by SONNY TUMBELAKA / AFP) (Photo by SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP via Getty Images)

Sonny Tumbelaka | Afp | Getty Images

Elon Musk has launched SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet services in Indonesia as the Southeast Asian nation seeks to boost internet connectivity in remote areas.

The inauguration took place at a community health center in Bali on Sunday, with the SpaceX founder telling local media he was “very excited” to bring internet services to areas with limited or no connectivity and that internet connectivity can be “a life-saver to remote medical clinics.”

“It is really important to emphasize the importance of internet connectivity and how much of a life-changer and a life-saver it can be,” Musk told local media on Sunday.

SpaceX, which manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft, is also a developer of Starlink satellites which provide internet connectivity to remote locations. Starlink is already available in Southeast Asia in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago with more than 17,000 islands, faces an urban-rural connectivity divide where millions of people living in rural areas have limited or no access to internet services.

Communication and Informatics Minister Budi Arie Setiadi previously said Starlink would help Indonesia extend internet access to regions not covered by local internet providers, according to Indonesian news agency Antara.

Elon Musk meets with China's Premier Li Qiang to discuss Tesla, full-self driving and restrictions

The minister also tried to dispel concerns that Starlink’s entry would hurt local internet providers.

“When you have access to the internet, you can learn anything,” said Musk, who is also the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla. “But if you don’t have internet connectivity, it is very difficult to learn.”

“And if you have goods and services you wish to sell to the world, and even if you are in a remote village, you can now do so with internet connection. So you can bring a lot of prosperity to [remote] communities,” said Musk.

When asked about whether he has plans to invest in Indonesia’s electric vehicle sector as well, Musk said he was focused on Starlink first.

“It’s very likely that my companies will invest in Indonesia,” said Musk.

Indonesia minister Luhut Pandjaitan said Musk is considering to set up an EV battery plant in the country, after the tech leader met with President Joko Widodo on Monday, according to Reuters.

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