Covering the Berkshire annual meeting
As financial journalists and investors descending on Omaha to hear the words of their favorite mogul, there were several different takes on the meeting.
Anupreeta Das and Erik Holm had this story for the Wall Street Journal.
Warren Buffett is widely celebrated for his plain-spoken, straight-shooting manner, but the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. BRKB -0.75% showed on Saturday before thousands of shareholders that he sometimes values degrees of nuance.
At the Berkshire annual meeting, which brought throngs of Mr. Buffett’s biggest fans to Omaha, Neb., for the weekend, shareholders alternated with preselected analysts and journalists to ask questions of Mr. Buffett and Charles Munger, Berkshire’s vice chairman.
The questions reflected the topics that were at the top of shareholders’ minds, including a few pointed queries on some of Mr. Buffett’s recent decisions.
With more than 38,000 people attending, the event dubbed “Woodstock for capitalists” lived up to its name again.
When the meeting got under way in the cavernous CenturyLink arena, the first question came from Carol Loomis, a longtime writer for Fortune and Mr. Buffett’s friend.
Ms. Loomis, with two other journalists, selects some of the questions from investors.
The New York Times story by Michael J. de la Merced focused on Buffett’s signal to Coke by not voting on a payment plan for executives:
The question-and-answer session is the highlight of one of the biggest annual celebrations of American capitalism, as Berkshire shareholders come from around the world to partake in three days of revelry. Nearly every year’s iteration is light and buoyant, with questions usually efforts to seek advice from one of the most famous businessmen in the world.
This year proved largely the same, with no major controversy hanging over the proceedings. The closest was Mr. Buffett’s abstention from voting over a proposal by Coke to bolster stock-option grants to top management. The move was notable given the Berkshire chief’s longstanding opposition to such plans, though critics asked why the executive did not take stronger action.
With roughly 9 percent of Coke’s stock, Berkshire is the drinks giant’s biggest investor, and its voice would carry significant weight. Moreover, its leader is regarded as one of the foremost advocates for good corporate governance.
Mr. Buffett responded that he had indeed found the plan “excessive” and had taken action – but behind the scenes, expressing his displeasure with Coke’s chief executive, Muhtar Kent. The beverage company reportedly is weighing alterations to the proposal.
When asked why he didn’t raise the issue publicly, the Berkshire chief said that he had no desire to go to war with Coke, drawing a clear delineation between himself and activist investors who loudly agitate for change at corporate targets.
“It was the most effective way of communicating for Berkshire,” Mr. Buffett said. “We had no desire to go to war with Coca-Cola.”
The Reuters story by Luciana Lopez highlighted a complaint about Wall Street and the lack of prosecution for actions during the financial crisis:
Wall Street also came under the spotlight from a person complaining about why more individuals were not being held criminally responsible for recent misconduct, such as from the 2008 financial crisis.
“I don’t think there’s anything that changes behavior more than prosecuting individuals,” Munger said.
Buffett agreed, recalling his experience at Salomon Inc more than two decades ago, when he became chairman to help clean up a Treasury auction rigging scandal.
“I may be biased from my experiences at Salomon, but I lean more toward prosecution of individuals than corporations,” he said. “It’s way easier to prosecute corporations – it’s somebody else’s money, and the prosecution knows it’s going to get a win. (Corporations’) calculus is such that it just doesn’t make sense to fight if you can just write a check, while the individual is fighting to stay out of jail.”
The questions came a day after Berkshire posted first-quarter results that just missed analyst forecasts.
Jen Wieczner wrote for Fortune that she learned six things while attending the meeting. Here’s one:
Ted and Todd are being groomed for management.
As shareholders get increasingly restless for Buffett to name a successor, speculation has focused on his two portfolio managers, Ted Weschler and Todd Combs, who have outperformed Buffett himself for the last several years, but have yet to make an appearance at the annual meeting. Buffett continued to be demure about his pick, but said Weschler and Combs, who currently manage roughly $7 billion, “will be handling more money in the future than they are now.” Buffett also noted that he has relied on the managers to help with other parts of the business, such as negotiating with companies and executing ideas Buffett doesn’t “feel like carrying out myself.” Hinting further about Combs and Weschler’s expanding role, Buffett said, “They’ll be more important factors as the years go by.”
USA Today’s Laura Petrecca ended her story on a lighter note:
She, and many others, also tweeted about a videotaped skit with Buffett and singer Paul Anka performing “My Way” with their own lyrics.
That duet was one of many offbeat performances and activities for attendees. On Saturday morning, there was a “newspaper tossing challenge” to see who was best at tossing the Omaha World-Herald to a doorstep that was part of an exhibit for Berkshire subsidiary Clayton Home. Microsoft co-founder and Berkshire Hathaway board member Bill Gates was one of the participants.
There was also an array of unusual products for shareholders to purchase during their weekend.
The hype around the meeting is certainly justified given the number of people who descend on Omaha each year. What is most interesting is that many of the people just want advice and little bit of insight and they’re willing to travel to Nebraska to get it.