NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Inside Warren Buffett's big gig


For the 40,000 shareholders and fans who braved freezing rain and 6am queues to attend the Berkshire Hathaway AGM in Omaha at the weekend this was a show with all the excitement of a big rock concert.

Only instead of a sprightly Mick Jagger or Ozzy Ozborne it is 85 year old Warren Buffett and his 92 year old partner Charlie Munger that take centre stage.

In an age-defying five hour performance they answer all kinds of shareholder questions on the US$552 billion investment firm's business - from the performance of a new furniture store in Dallas to the ethics of their 10 per cent stake in Coca-cola.

But the questions, big or small, inevitably wind up being delivered with a large does of personal philosophy on business, economics, investing and life in general.

The surprisingly intimate conversation can swing rapidly from a discussions on capital structure to a contemplation on the nature of happiness.

It's that funny and folksy charm, from both men, that draws the crowds year after year. That, and the respect for investment success that has made millionaires of so many of their followers.

Berkshire Hathaway has delivered shareholders an average rate of return of 20 per cent a year for a staggering 49 years.

So how do they do it?

"Well," says Buffett. "Recognise what you can't do. Only swing at what's in the strike zone."

Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., second left, speaking with members of the media. Photo / AP
Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., second left, speaking with members of the media. Photo / AP

You also need a good mix of "patience and opportunism", Munger adds.

Buffett's belief in playing the long game is well documented. Investing on value and forgetting about what the market does week to week or month to month is a key part of the formula.

Buffett claims he's had good luck too, but when pushed he'll admit he does have something of a knack for "pattern recognition."

He is fascinated by the world of micro-economics but isn't much interested in macro-economics at all - laughing when asked what he thinks will happen to the price of oil.
Munger, who's old enough to have worked for Buffett's grandfather in the original family grocery store, is even more direct.

"Micro-economics is business," he says. "Macro-economics is what you put up with."

It's that kind of worldview that has Buffett confident about Berkshire Hathaway's prospects under a potential Donald Trump presidency - even though he makes it clear he really doesn't like the guy.

Asked if Trump would be a risk for his business, he replies that if he wins..."that won't be the main problem."

After the applause dies down he elaborates: "If Donald or Hillary win Berkshire will do just fine."

The company had operated under regimes of high tax and regimes of price control, he says.

"Business in this country has done extraordinarily well for 200 years. No President or Presidential candidate will end that," he says. "The majority of the American public seem to think its a bad time to be born today. They're wrong."

American GDP is per capita is now six times what it was when he was born, he points out.

"The system is working very well in terms of aggregate output. In terms of distribution it falls short, my view."

Buffett and Munger are deeply committed to the idea that they are ethical investors. They don't like casinos, they don't like tobacco and they are big on renewable energy investment. They don't even like derivatives, which they blame for the global financial crisis, although they admit they haven't been able to avoid making $20 billion on them in their latest result because they own bank stock.

Its "awkward" Munger says. "Really we'd prefer if they were illegal, it would be better for the banks and the US.

Contemplating the meaning of happiness and their legacy, the 92 year old says: "There are a lot of people making a lot of money and everyone hates them and the way they make money. We're really trying to behave well."

Unsuprisingly then Buffett is at his most defensive dealing with questions about the ethics of Coca-cola and the sugar debate.

Berkshire Hathaway owns about 10 per cent of Coca-cola as well as a sizeable chunk of Mars corporation and all of popular US candy company See's.

They are men of their generation and refuse to back down on their belief that these are treats that bring happiness to the world.

Throughout the meeting Buffett sips coke and Munger chomps on See's Peanut Brittle.

"I'm about a quarter coke," says Buffett who claims to drink about five cans a day - consuming about 700 of his daily 2700 calorie intake that way.

"You get the choice," he says. "I choose to get my calories from things that make me feel good when I eat them. I wish I had a twin that just ate broccoli, I'm not sure he'd have done any better."

Buffett is a charismatic figure and his folksy wisdom has inspired an almost cult like devotion from his followers.

But when it comes to holding a crowd for five hours it is Munger and the pair's double act of odd ball quips and kooky old home truths that really make it a compelling show.

Asked why Berkshire Hathaway doesn't follow the increasingly common practice of breaking out "unusual" costs when they report operating profit, Munger responds: "That's like asking why don't you kill your grandmother to get the insurance! We're not interested in manipulating our numbers and we're not about to start."

It's appropriate then that Buffett throws the last question of the day - about the pair's sense of humour - to Munger.

"If you see the world accurately its bound to be humorous," he says. "Because it's ridiculous."

- Liam Dann travelled to Omaha with Pie Funds

Warren Buffett
• Born in Omaha, Nebraska, 1930.
• Current net worth: US$67 billion.
• Rejected by Harvard Business School (Masters from Colombia University).
• Investment company Berkshire Hathaway has assets of US$552 billion and equity of US$255 billion.
• Annual rate of return to shareholders - 20 per cent over 49 years.
• Owns significant stakes in Coca Cola, Mars Corp, American Express and IBM although biggest assets are in insurance.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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