Never been to Mardi Gras. Doubt I will get to Burning Man. And Woodstock happened when I was 8 years old. But I now have taken in a Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting.
My feet have yet to fully reconnect with the sidewalk.
The Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting is the closest thing to a national celebration of common-sense American business as this country has. This year’s event was special, too, marking 50 years since Warren Buffett was put in charge.
In its early days, the Berkshire annual meeting was the kind of perfunctory affair we’ve seen at other companies, but as Berkshire Hathaway’s stock continued to surge, so did appreciation for the wit and wisdom of Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive.
Twenty-five years ago about 1,300 shareholders made their way into the Orpheum Theater in downtown Omaha for the meeting. It went to the far larger Omaha Civic Auditorium and finally, in 2004, Buffett moved it to a sports arena now called CenturyLink Center.
The arena’s seating capacity is about 19,000 and that was easily overwhelmed by the roughly 40,000 people who showed up on Saturday. The crowd spilled into adjacent ballrooms and even the Hilton’s ballrooms across the street.
That kind of interest means getting lodging in Omaha for Berkshire weekend is no longer a simple trick. A friend scored rooms at a Quality Inn well out of downtown. After eating like Warren — T-bones at Gorat’s Steak House on Friday night — I set the alarm to 5:05 a.m. to be up for the next morning’s meeting.
By 6:10 a.m., I was standing in the nearby Ramada parking lot in time for the early shuttle. A half-hour later, I joined the line outside CenturyLink Center.
Thousands of people had beaten me there. When the doors opened and the shareholders surged in, one wrong turn put me in the third row of the upper deck section 217 — a long, long way from the main stage. Thousands more didn’t get into the arena at all.
What people are so eager to see is the question-and-answer session that starts at about 9:30 a.m. It went until after 3 p.m., with a short break for lunch. Buffett is joined on stage by his vice chairman, Charlie Munger.
What’s the appeal? Think of it as a revival meeting for business people. The shareholders want to hear that old-time religion: Invest for the long haul. Build a business that lasts. Treat capital like a scarce resource. Keep learning.
Or, as Munger put it Saturday, there is no reason to “stay stupider than you need to be.”
Buffett has a gentler style then Munger, but it’s clear both of them see plenty of stupidity every day in corporate America.
Neither can explain why companies continue to buy back their own stock when it reaches premium prices, for example. Buy when the market price is below the stock’s intrinsic value, stop buying when it’s not. It’s that simple.
They can’t imagine why investors “talk up” a stock they had just bought. Buffett said if he and Munger talked about new investments, they’d probably sound pessimistic. After all, companies they own pieces of, like IBM, are buying their own shares. Why talk it up?
Munger replied, “If people weren’t so often wrong, we wouldn’t be so rich.”
Economic forecast? Waste of time. They said they can’t even explain how we got the low-interest-rate environment we have now. Economic booms mean growth, and downturns mean better opportunities to buy. Be prepared for either.
“Any company that has an economist has one employee too many,” Buffett said.
Buffett, who munched on See’s Candies peanut brittle throughout the Q&A session, also didn’t see the point of overreacting to bad press about sugar content in foods. Good companies sell what their customers want and adjust when tastes change.
Besides, he said, he gets 25 percent of his calories from drinking Coca-Cola, and he’s enjoyed every one. “I don’t see smiles on the faces of people at Whole Foods,” he added.
When glancing through the notes circulating through a group of Minnesotans who traveled to the meeting, this was a meeting highlight, but it seems a favorite moment was a matter of personal taste. For me, it was the seventh-grader who had come from Florida to ask what it would take to be liked. Buffett took this question seriously.
Buffett had once decided that he, too, would enjoy being better liked and admired. His idea was to look at the people who were well-liked, and note three or four things they did that seemed to be admirable. Then look closely at the people who were not all that well liked, and note a few things they did.
Then he acted more like the people everyone liked and a little less like the people no one liked. “That actually works pretty well,” he said.
Not sure what a portfolio manager would get from this teaching, but it was a memorable part of a Q&A session that rolled on for hours.
To the first-time observer, it’s a remarkable sight to see the 84-year-old Buffett and the 91-year-old Munger still getting so much satisfaction from their work. Actuarial tables suggest they can’t possibly keep this up much longer, but we can certainly lean in and listen to what they have to say while they’re still around.
I’ll certainly remember a conversation from Saturday on the wisdom of borrowing money to grow faster. They agreed financial leverage could have led to much faster growth. It might also have led to a financial implosion.
They like to keep plenty of cash on hand — $58.2 billion as of March 31 — for periods like fall 2008, when the credit markets basically shut down. That’s when the CEOs of some of America’s other major companies learned that short-term loans can’t always be refinanced.
“It’s crazy to sweat at night,” Munger said.
“Over financial things,” Buffett quickly added.