While millions watched Smarty Jones win the Run for the Roses on Saturday, more than 15,000 investors trekked to Omaha to watch Warren Buffett answer the call to the post at
However, many parts of the spectacle were reruns from past years. "It seemed like a lot of basic material he covered in past meetings," said Nashville resident Jason Neff. "But it is an amazing event for investors."
This year's meeting attracted a near-record number of attendees as it moved into Omaha's new state-of-the-art Qwest Center, but those who came looking for stock advice were likely disappointed. Buffett rarely talks about Berkshire's individual portfolio. Even if he did, Berkshire's involvement in publicly traded securities has shrunk over the past several years. As Berkshire's float -- the amount of cash available to invest from insurance premiums before it's paid out in claims -- has mushroomed, it has become increasingly difficult for Buffett to find public-company investments that will impact Berkshire's performance.
Instead, Buffett has taken the insurance profits and turned Berkshire into a conglomerate of aircraft, home improvement and consumer concerns such as
Benjamin Moore Paint
The Pampered Chef
. Berkshire's largest capital investments in the coming years may well be in energy, through the company's majority interest in
MidAmerican Energy Holdings
, a power and pipeline company that Berkshire has been steadily building since acquiring it in 1999.
Now, however, even acquisitions of whole companies that can make a difference to Berkshire have become more challenging. "It gets harder all the time to deploy all the funds that come into Omaha," Buffett told his shareholders. "Our hope is we can deploy the money in businesses that are just as good as the ones we have."
The difficulty in finding businesses in which to invest may have caused Berkshire's acquisition mindset to become a bit more aggressive in recent years. The company faced dissension as it completed its purchase of
Fruit of the Loom
as it emerged from bankruptcy. More recently, Buffett faced criticism from shareholders of
as he acquired the manufactured-housing concern.
Maybe more important to Berkshire shareholders is the future of Berkshire in a post-Buffett world. While a spry 74 (Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger is 80) and not likely to slow down anytime soon, management succession becomes a more salient issue with each additional year. This year, shareholders again quizzed Buffett on the topic.
According to Buffett, three people will fill his shoes: one chairman, one investment officer and one person to run Berkshire's operating companies. It has been reported that Buffett's son, Howard, will serve as chairman after his father's tenure ends.
Although the Berkshire organization has plenty of capable managers, the company will still undergo changes. More importantly for investors, much of the aura that attracts investors to Berkshire will probably dissipate when Buffett leaves. No one can effectively replace the impact that he has had on Berkshire and its shareholders.
What makes the Berkshire annual meeting special for so many is Buffett's ability to simplify a complex world. This year, he once again took on derivatives, suggesting as he did last year that derivatives will be the cause of a meaningful financial glitch. "Sometime in the next 10 years, you will have a huge problem that will either be caused by or accentuated by people's activities in derivatives," he said.
He was also critical of hedge funds, suggesting they were a "fad" and predicting investors would be disappointed in overall returns over time. He was especially critical of fees charged by the largely unregulated investment vehicles, which have recently come under more scrutiny.
He also defended his role on the
board. Buffett, whose Dairy Queen subsidiary does business with Coke, also owns more than 8% of Coca-Cola shares. As a result, investor groups, including the California state pension fund, voted against his re-election to the Coke board. Buffett suggested a checklist shouldn't replace common sense in selecting members of corporate boards.
While Buffett is usually reluctant to talk about macroeconomic issues, he did hint that early signs of inflation are "heating up" in the U.S. He also spoke well of
, but indicated Berkshire would not be an investor. "It's a fabulous business," he explained, "but my guess is that it comes at a fabulous price."
Christopher S. Edmonds is vice president and director of research at Pritchard Capital Partners, a New Orleans energy investment firm. He is based in Atlanta. At time of publication, neither Edmonds nor his firm held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. While Edmonds cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback and invites you to send it to