OMAHA, Neb. -- For racing fans and gamblers, the dream ticket on the first Saturday in May is to Churchill Downs for a two-minute race. But for about 12,000 faithful value investors, this city on the Nebraska banks of the Missouri River has action with better odds than any horse out of the Derby starting gate. Like those addicted to playing the ponies, these devoted enthusiasts make the annual pilgrimage each year to hear the gospel of Warren Buffett.
Come Saturday, the comments of the Oracle of Omaha and chairman of
will resonate like a Reuter pipe organ at Sunday Mass. Contrast the
debacle, a sour market and the distrust of Wall Street with the perceived constancy of Buffett's ethic, and the pilgrimage becomes a sanctuary for longtime Berkshire faithful as well as a haven for converts.
Early returns suggest that new converts abound. Berkshire received more than 34,000 requests for annual meeting credentials, up 20% from last year. "We expect a record crowd this year," says Debbie Bosanek, Buffett's assistant. Last year's attendance was about 11,000. Unlike other perfunctory annual meetings, the Berkshire confab is a chance for shareholders to quiz Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger about Berkshire plus much more. The duo will take questions at a packed Omaha Civic Center for six hours Saturday.
The Buffett Mystique
Recent events reinforce the perception that Buffett sets the standards the best business executives and investors strive to emulate. "Undoubtedly, he is the single most visible representative of the ideals of integrity and ethics in the business and investment communities, and people go to pay homage to that," says Robert Hagstrom, author of
The Essential Buffett
. "In an era where even some of the best-thought-of executives have blemishes, he stands unblemished."
Although Buffett has an almost Machiavellian proclivity, his ethos is constant over his nearly 40 years at Berkshire's helm. "Buffett believes there are a hundred different ways to skin a cat -- you can get results and get rich in a lot of different ways -- but there are very few right ways," says Howard Alter, president of Alter Asset Management, a Princeton, N.J., investment management firm and longtime Berkshire shareholder. "Not only does he have a record very few can touch, he has accomplished it in a consistently ethical fashion."
Of course, his performance doesn't hurt. In the past year, Berkshire stock gained nearly 8% as the
lost nearly 15%. Over two years, Berkshire is approaching 30% gains, while the index has dropped by about the same percentage. And, over the past decade, Berkshire is up about 700%, compared with less than 200% for the broader market.
For many Berkshire first-timers, the chance to rub elbows with the Oracle and soak in the aura of capitalist Woodstock is reason enough to show up. But others have made the pilgrimage for years, and keep coming back for more. "The meeting provides a reinforcement of the discipline and the simple beauty of the Warren Buffett style of investing," says Alter. "You may hear the same thing for the eighth or ninth time, but the ability to take that thought and go somewhere new is always beneficial. It's like coming home again."
Many investors see the meeting as a signpost. "It serves as an instrument of the important things to do in investing," says Hagstrom. "Sometimes you have to go to church to know the right things to do."
The Right Things
Although Saturday's shareholder queries will be diverse, a large part of this year's confab will be devoted to talk of executive misdeeds, a favorite Buffett mantra that he highlighted this year in his annual letter to shareholders:
"Charlie and I are disgusted by the situation, so common in the last few years, in which shareholders have suffered billions in losses while the CEOs, promoters, and other higher-ups who fathered these disasters have walked away with extraordinary wealth. ... To their shame, these business leaders view shareholders as patsies, not partners."
And, if history is a guide, this will be a banner year for Munger's quick, devilish wit aimed at corporate executives and accountants. "While Charlie may be trying to slow down a bit, he's got plenty of material this year," says Hagstrom. "He'll be cantankerous with one-line zingers at bad management and accounting practices."
Interestingly, Hagstrom thinks Buffett could have been more forceful when it comes to corporate governance. "Warren had a golden opportunity to take a very visible role to establish best practices in corporate governance," Hagstrom says. "He could have been a leader, and he chose not to be a champion. He'll talk about it and tell people to treat shareholders respectfully, but the real missed opportunity was for him to put together a group of like-minded leaders to act. It would have had a lot of punch if Warren had jumped in."
Alter thinks Buffett's less visible approach has impact. "He's not the type of person who will shout from the rooftop and say I told you so," Alter says. "His approach is not to rub people's face in it but to teach. I don't think he wants to be public in that way."
A Capitalist Woodstock
The festivities begin Friday with a plethora of parties, including the lavish cocktail buffet at Berkshire's retail jewel, Borsheim's. All of Buffett's trappings are open to shoppers this weekend, from Borsheim's to Nebraska Furniture Mart and Dairy Queen. Attendees can even cough up $600,000 or so -- only about 85 Berkshire shares -- for a fractional share of an Executive Jet.
Saturday at 7 a.m. CDT, the doors to the Civic Auditorium open to reveal booths from nearly 30 Berkshire companies, peddling everything from Kirby vacuums to Benjamin Moore paint. But the exhibit hall empties with a rush when Buffett and Munger take the stage at 9:30 a.m. and answer shareholder questions until 3:30 p.m.
Saturday evening it's off to the ballpark as the Omaha Royals -- a minor league team partially owned by Buffett -- plays host to the Oklahoma Red Hawks in the team's only sellout of the season. Buffett will throw out the first pitch and sign hundreds of autographs for adorning fans. The weekend concludes on Sunday with a last chance to trade your Berkshire shares for diamonds and emeralds at Borsheim's.
It's a weekend where everyone feels like family, an aspect of the pilgrimage not lost on Hagstrom. "It's a big American capitalist block party," he quips. "People enjoy the festivities and rekindling friendships. It's about the experience, like a family reunion people don't want to miss."
We'll have complete coverage of the Buffett Revival, including reports from Friday's parties, Saturday's annual meeting and Sunday's festivities. Join us this weekend as we chronicle the highlights of this year's gathering. Plus, for
subscribers we'll have real-time comments on Saturday's meeting in the Columnist Conversation.
Christopher S. Edmonds is president of Resource Dynamics, a private financial consulting firm 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
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