OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) – Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett downplayed on Saturday the idea of a first-ever dividend for shareholders, as he opened his conglomerate's annual meeting for tens of thousands of people.
Berkshire, which some estimate will have a cash pile of $50 billion by the end of this year, does not offer shareholders a yield, which most people have accepted for years. But lately, some have said shareholders might like the company to return cash.
"I'm not sure how many would," Buffett said, responding to a question from a scrum of reporters and shareholders following him through the exhibit floor of the Qwest Center in Omaha. Many of Berkshire's portfolio companies have booths on the floor, demonstrating and selling their products.
Berkshire Hathaway shares have underperformed the broader S&P 500 since the depth of the credit crisis, raising the volume on the dividend question.
Yet Buffett was in a light-hearted mood as his walked the exhibits, despite questions about performance and the scandal over investments by former Berkshire executive David Sokol.
As is his custom, he made a beeline for the Dairy Queen booth to get an orange cream bar, which he continued to munch on as he admired a model train set at the Burlington Northern booth.
Though Buffett is expected to be grilled over the course of the day about Sokol, the meeting began, as it does annually, on a lighter note.
The early highlight was the ice-cream-to-insurance conglomerate's annual movie. This year, the animated short featured Buffett defeating an evil trading machine called "MBA" from the year 2085 with the help of "the Governator," former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger and Larry King were among the celebrities who made voice cameos in the movie.
(Reporting by Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Eric Beech and Toni Reinhold)
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama declared Saturday that oil companies are profiting from rising gasoline prices and urged Congress once again to end $4 billion a year in oil and gas company tax breaks.
"These tax giveaways aren't right," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. "They aren't smart. And we need to end them."
Obama has been sparring with congressional Republicans over the skyrocketing cost of gasoline, which has topped $4 a gallon in some regions of the country, more than $1 dollar higher than a year ago. The rising prices have contributed to a slowdown in economic growth and have hurt Obama's public approval ratings.
The Exxon Mobile Corp. this week reported nearly $11 billion in profits for the first quarter of this year but said it had no control over oil prices. Other oil companies also reported huge gains.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says he plans to consider Obama's proposal as early as next week.
The president said money recouped from ending the oil and gas tax subsidies should be used on new energy resources and research. He said he refuses to cut spending on clean energy initiatives.
"An investment in clean energy today is an investment in a better tomorrow," he said. "And I think that's an investment worth making."
Obama's critics say his call to end such subsidies is merely support for new tax increases that would end up costing jobs.
"The president may think he's punishing CEOs of big companies, but his plan will hurt the everyday consumer of energy and imperil the jobs of millions of hardworking people in American-based companies," Rep. James Lankford, a first-term congressman from Oklahoma, said in the Republicans' weekly address.
In his address, Obama said the economy was growing again and took note of nearly 2 million new private sector jobs in the last 13 months. But the president did not mention that the pace of the recovery slowed significantly in the first three months of this year. The nation's economy grew at a 1.8 percent annual rate during that quarter, a much slower pace than the 3.1 percent rate reported in the previous three months.
High gasoline prices, bad winter weather and steep government spending cuts were responsible for the slowdown.
Eager to show action on gas costs, Obama has repeatedly called for ending the tax subsidies to oil and gas companies, even while conceding that they would not have an immediate effect on prices. He has also called for the Justice Department to investigate possible price fixing and said this week that he was also prodding OPEC nations such as Saudi Arabia to increase production.
"I also believe that instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, we should invest in tomorrow's," he said.
Lankford also warned that Republicans would not vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling — now at $14.3 trillion — in the coming weeks unless the measure also includes steps to cut government spending. Presidents have agreed to such deals in the past, and Obama this month, in an interview with The Associated Press, conceded that some spending restrictions might be necessary to win an increase in the debt ceiling. Without raising that limit, the government would default on its debts.
Obama address: www.whitehouse.gov
GOP address: http://www.youtube.com/RepublicanConference
WASHINGTON (AFP) – Babies who are exposed before birth to ethyl benzene, a toxic component in crude oil, may have a higher risk of developing congenital heart disease, US researchers said Saturday.
Another chemical used as an industrial metal degreasing agent, trichloroethylene (TCE), also boosted heart risks, said the research to be presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Denver, Colorado.
Congenital heart disease occurs when the heart is malformed before birth, and is the most common of all birth defects. Previous studies have suggested it could be caused by chemicals in the environment.
"Congenital heart disease is a major cause of childhood death and life-long health problems," said D. Gail McCarver, lead author of the study and professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
"Thus, identifying risk factors contributing to CHD is important to public health."
Researchers collected stool samples from 135 newborn babies with the heart condition and 432 infants without it. A full 82 percent of all the infants showed exposure to at least one of the 17 solvents measured in the study.
White, but not black, infants who showed exposure to ethyl benzene had four times the risk of CHD.
Black infants exposed to trichloroethylene showed an eight-fold risk for the heart condition, and white infants with the traces in their stool had a two-fold higher risk, said the findings.
"This is the first report that exposure to ethyl benzene, a compound present in crude oil, was associated with CHD," McCarver said, noting that more studies are needed to confirm the link.
Some residents of the US Gulf Coast have expressed concern about their health in the aftermath of the BP oil spill last year, though no studies have been completed yet to determine the effects of exposure to the spilled oil.
Other sources of ethyl benzene include vehicle exhaust, petrol pump vapors and cigarette smoke.