Playing to a Packed House

The fun's over, and now the work begins as Buffett and Munger submit themselves to shareholders' grilling.
Author:
Publish date:

OMAHA, Neb. -- The morning gridlock in this town of 500,000 moved from downtown to the corner of 72nd and Dodge, the location of

Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum

and site of this year's

Berkshire Hathaway

(BRK.A) - Get Report

annual meeting.

The Berkshire meeting attracts shareholders from all 50 states and scores of foreign countries as shareholders gather for a glimpse of the Oracle of Omaha,

Warren Buffett

, chairman of Berkshire. It's a chance for shareholders to heap praise on the man who has made many of them wealthy -- Berkshire stock has jumped from $7,455 per share at the start of 1990 to a closing price of $76,900 on Friday, a gain of 932%. It's also a chance for them to question Buffett about the Berkshire portfolio, his investment philosophy and anything else they want. Buffett and his sidekick, Vice Chairman

Charlie Munger

, will take questions from the eager audience for nearly eight hours beginning at 9 a.m. CDT.

As an added bonus, shareholders can wander the concourse of Ak-Sar-Ben and purchase a wide assortment of Berkshire's wares, including

See's Candy

,

Kirby Vacuums

,

WorldBook Enclyclopedias

and

Geico Insurance

, just to name a few. There are also booths populated by such major Berkshire holdings as

Coca-Cola

(KO) - Get Report

,

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

,

Gillette

(G) - Get Report

and

American Express

(AXP) - Get Report

. By the time many shareholders leave, they'll probably hope Berkshire will pay a dividend just to cover the costs of the weekend.

No Sleep for the Eager

The Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum holds nearly 15,000, yet that isn't likely to be enough. Berkshire's acquisition last year of

General Re

nearly doubled the shareholder base to 250,000. The company sent out over 25,000 tickets for this year's annual meeting, Buffett said, and expects 60% or more of those to actually show. To accommodate the overflow, Berkshire has reserved the

Holiday Conference Center

a mile away. Buffett made an early morning visit to Ak-Sar-Ben and then to Holiday to greet his fans. "This is one of my favorite days of the year," he told

TheStreet.com

as he entered the coliseum. "This is what Berkshire is all about."

As he entered, he was mobbed by shareholders, many of whom had been waiting since 4 a.m. to secure a seat, which are first come, first served. "It gets earlier every year," said one security guard, who said that "hundreds of people were in line by 6:30 a.m."

Buffett said this morning he thinks the meeting will level off, but he'll be concerned if it gets much bigger. "If it hits 20,000, I'll worry," he said, indicating the possibility the meeting might be broadcast at some point. "We'll have to look at alternatives if we keep growing."

The Oracle Speaks

After a Sunday visit with shareholders to

Borsheims

, Berkshire's retail jewelry subsidiary, Buffett and Munger spent nearly three hours with the press

answering questions about Berkshire and the markets. While evasive, Buffett did make comments about some of Berkshire's primary holdings.

In answer to a question about the troubles at Disney and his thoughts about the rather steep compensation schedule for CEO

Michael Eisner

, including very lucrative stock options, Buffett was elusive. "We won't comment on specific investments," he said. "It's of no utility for Berkshire to do so." At the same time he seemed quite willing to criticize aggressive stock options plans for executives, especially those at faltering companies. "I tend to praise specifically and criticize categorically," he said. In his letter to shareholders in the

annual report, Buffett was quite critical of this practice.

He was also asked about the upcoming changing of the guard at American Express. "Harvey Golub has done a great job," he said. "From everything I know, Ken Chenault will be also be a great success. It isn't in Harvey's best interest to hire someone who won't."

And Munger on the Internet

Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, rarely one to mince words, had his own thoughts on the markets as well ... sort of. "We never have a market view. We're agnostic," he told

TSC

before the press conference. "That said, it's certainly harder than it used to be to find investments."

And when asked whether he thought the stocks had ramped too high, too fast, he was his typical glib self. "I'm going to do something I rarely do and say yes."

Coming Up

The annual meeting begins with a 30-minute video presentation on Berkshire, its subsidiaries, and its investments. Then Buffett and Munger take center stage to answer shareholders questions.

TheSteet.com

will bring you coverage of Buffett's banter throughout the day.

Has value investing as practiced by Buffett and Munger become outdated?

Absolutely -- a company's balance sheet value is becoming less relevant in today's wired world.

Not at all -- it's just that the market is going through a mania.

I can't make up my mind -- both camps have convincing arguments.

I'll play the momentum game as long as it works -- then, I'll find out what works next.

Want to know what the Oracle of Omaha thinks? Join Contributing Editor Christopher Edmonds and long-time Buffett watcher Robert Hagstrom, author of the new book

The Warren Buffett Portfolio

as they chat about Buffett's market outlook, his investment strategy and news from the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting over the weekend. It's as close as you'll come to getting inside the mind of one of the world's most famed investor. Chat with Chris and Robert on Yahoo! Tuesday, May 4 at 5 p.m. EDT. Register for Yahoo Chat at http://chat.yahoo.com. It's free!

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 any position in the stocks 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 he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback at

invest@cjnetworks.com.