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Buffett to face big crowd as Berkshire grows bigger

Wednesday, May 3, 2017 - 14:16

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As the United States adapts to the presidency of Donald Trump and faces rising tensions abroad, Berkshire Hathaway Inc shareholders will descend on Omaha, Nebraska this weekend seeking reassurance, from Warren Buffett.

[NEW YORK] As the United States adapts to the presidency of Donald Trump and faces rising tensions abroad, Berkshire Hathaway Inc shareholders will descend on Omaha, Nebraska this weekend seeking reassurance, from Warren Buffett.

The weekend known as "Woodstock for Capitalists" is unique in corporate America, a celebration of the billionaire's image and success at a conglomerate whose businesses range from Geico insurance to the BNSF railroad to See's candies to Ginsu knives.

Mr Buffett, 86, and vice chairman Charlie Munger, 93, will answer five hours of questions at Saturday's annual meeting.

Many say it reinforces their views about investing and Berkshire, even if it remains unclear how much new they learn.

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"Watching someone like (Buffett) with strong command on details of the economy and Berkshire's operations is very impressive," said Meyer Shields, a Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst who rates Berkshire "market perform". "But you're not going to learn a lot about Berkshire Hathaway the company."

Last year's attendance fell to about 37,000 from more than 40,000 a year earlier.

But there were also 1.1 million real-time sign-ons to Yahoo Finance, which webcast the meeting for the first time. It will do so again, in English and Mandarin.

Much of Berkshire's relative outperformance came decades ago when it was much smaller, and even Mr Buffett has called the company's huge size an "anchor on investment performance." Mr Buffett has said Berkshire owns 10 businesses big enough to make the Fortune 500 list of large US companies on their own.

But details can be thin. For example, aircraft parts maker Precision Castparts, acquired last year for US$32.1 billion, merited about a page in Berkshire's annual report.

Precision's final annual report, in 2015, ran 87 pages. "It's a large, large organisation," said Jeffrey Stacey, founder of Stacey Muirhead Capital Management in Waterloo, Ontario, who is attending his 26th straight meeting. "I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt because the track record has been so good for so long."

Mr Buffett said in February that boosting disclosure could put many Berkshire businesses at a disadvantage, and that "it's the growth of the Berkshire forest that counts." He also knows the perils of conglomerates, saying in 2015 that dubious accounting, self-promotion and mediocre businesses make them "richly deserve" their "terrible" reputation.

Mr Buffett says Berkshire is different, in part because he took Mr Munger's advice to buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.

Shareholders enjoy that focus less than they once did.

Berkshire's share price has slightly lagged the Standard & Poor's 500 including dividends during the eight-year bull market, but has outperformed since the global financial crisis mushroomed in September 2008.

Shields, who is not attending Saturday's meeting, wants Mr Buffett to reveal more, even if shareholders can "safely assume" his eventual successor as chief executive is top-flight.

While Mr Buffett and Mr Munger do not know in advance the questions they will get from shareholders, journalists and analysts at Saturday's meeting, they can anticipate many.

Mr Buffett may need to review Berkshire's support of Wells Fargo & Co, in which it holds a roughly 10 per cent stake, despite a sales scandal over bogus customer accounts.

He may also get questions about his support for 3G Capital, a Brazilian firm known for ruthless cost-cutting. Berkshire controls Kraft Heinz Co with 3G, and recently tried to help 3G buy Unilever NV for US$143 billion.

Mr Trump is sure to come up. Mr Buffett did not support his election but Berkshire's book value could swell by US$36 billion with his proposed corporate tax cuts, Barclays Capital said.

Mr Buffett may also get questions about his surprise bets on Apple Inc and the four biggest US airlines.

Having gone over a year since a big acquisition, Mr Buffett may be asked how he can better deploy the US$86.4 billion of cash, equivalents and Treasury bills that Berkshire recently held.

Succession may also come up. Indeed, Mr Buffett has already delegated work to lieutenants like Ajit Jain, Gregory Abel, Tracy Britt Cool and Todd Combs that he once would do himself.

REUTERS

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