Going through my notes from the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, there are so many gems it’s hard to know where to start.
That meeting, celebrating 50 years since Warren E. Buffett took over as chairman, took place on Saturday in Omaha. The attendance was estimated at more than 40,000 people, in the CenturyLink Center arena, overflow space in the adjacent ballrooms and even across the street at the Hilton.
This is quite a cultural event, a celebration of American business, and the highlight is the question-and-answer session. It gets going at about 9:30 AM and goes until after 3 PM, with a short break for lunch.
As always, Buffett was joined on stage by his vice chairman, Charlie Munger. A age 91, Munger appears to have slowed a bit, so now he’s maybe just three times more clever than the rest of us.
Don’t ask Munger for an economic forecast, for this is the way he would characterize the wisdom of doing that: “Since we failed to predict what we have now, why would anybody ask us about the future?”
Buffett, who munched on See’s Candies peanut brittle throughout the Q&A session, was unapologetic about the sugar content of prepared foods. He’s a well-known fan of the products of locally based Dairy Queen, owned by Berkshire since the late 1990s. On Saturday he estimated that 25 percent of the calories in his lifetime have come from drinking Coca-Cola, and he enjoyed every one.
“I don’t see smiles on the faces of people at Whole Foods,” he added.
The Q&A session went on like that for hours, and in section 217 of the main arena, very few left their seats even for a coffee break, for fear of missing another nugget. There’s enough material in a notebook for several columns this week.
For instance, Buffett and Munger explained, as they’ve certainly had too many times in the past, that they were not interested in Berkshire borrowing money to grow faster. 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, invested in things like treasury bills, for periods like late 2008. That’s when the CEOs of some of America’s major companies were wondering how to cover the next payroll. Having a financial cushion allows them to sleep well.
“It’s crazy to sweat at night,” Munger said.
“Over financial things,” Buffett quickly added.
Buffett is 84. He hasn’t slowed down a bit.