posted by Susie Gharib, Anchor at 4:22 PM on 05/04/09
Warren Buffett calls his Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting "Woodstock for Capitalists." Every year thousands of faithful Berkshire shareholders make the pilgrimage to Omaha for a free-spirited celebration of wealth. But I felt this year the mood was more like Sunday School than Woodstock with the Oracle of Omaha in his pulpit preaching the Buffett catechism to shareholders.
Buffett had reason to be preachy. Shareholders came to the meeting feeling bruised and less rich. Their Berkshire shares tumbled more than 30 percent since they gathered here last May. More than once, Buffett reminded shareholders that "stocks go up and down; there were three times before when Berkshire shares went down more than 50 percent; this country will do wonderfully over time, it always has; the government is doing the right things;" and on and on. Even the usually pessimistic Charlie Munger, who is 85 years old and Buffett's long-time business partner, delivered an upbeat message. "As I move close to the edge of death, I find myself getting more cheerful about the economic future," he told the crowd. (I also blogged about interviewing Munger.)
The format for the meeting was more serious too. The Berkshire meeting has long been a bit of a free-for-all, with Buffett and Munger fielding questions from anyone who took the microphones on the floor. In past years, some people used the opportunity to ask Buffett about baseball, religion and his favorite foods. But this year's event was orderly. The early morning rush to line up at the microphones was replaced by a lottery and shareholders were also asked to email their questions to three reporters -- Carol Loomis from Fortune magazine, Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times and CNBC's Becky Quick. The reporters were instructed by Buffett to screen the questions and to pose the ones that relate to Berkshire. Half the questions were asked by the reporters, the rest came from shareholders at the microphone.
Almost everyone I talked to liked the new arrangement. Shareholders told me they thought the questions were "terrific," the meeting was "more intellectual than usual" and some said they came away "overjoyed" and "optimistic." I noticed many people taking notes as Buffett and Munger answered questions during the five-and-a-half hour Q&A. The next day Buffett told me the new format worked "way better" and it's the "new standard" for the meeting. In fact he's invited the three journalists to return next year, and he says they've accepted.
Here's video of my brief interview of Buffet. (You'll need Flash installed to watch.)
I was disappointed with one aspect of the meeting. The Berkshire Hathaway movie was a big letdown. Every year, the meeting kicks off with an hour-long Saturday Night Live type show featuring Buffett and Munger as his sidekick. The satire includes funny cartoons and skits with Buffett hamming it up with celebrities like basketball star LeBron James and soap opera actress Susan Lucci. But not this year. The movie opened instead with an animated cartoon about how the company didn't feel it was appropriate to do spoofs this year because of the financial crisis. So, the one hour was filled with a string of Geico commercials with the Gecko and the Caveman, interspersed with comedy routines from past years and several interviews with shareholders from last year's meeting. It was boring.
And then, totally out of context, there was a clip from an old C-SPAN video from the 1990s of Buffet testifying before Congress about the illegal trading activities of Salomon Brothers. As you may remember, Buffett was tapped interim chairman of the investment firm after a bond scandal led to the downfall of Salomon's CEO John Gutfreund. In the video, Buffett tells lawmakers that if Salomon employees "lose a shred of reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless." So what was the point of that I ask a reporter sitting next to me. We guess that Buffett wanted to tell Wall Street that it needs to take responsibility for the financial mess it created. Just another subtle message from the Warren Buffett Gospel.
The finale of the marathon meeting was sort of odd: a surprise marriage proposal. The last question of the day came from Buffett's great-nephew. He proposed to his "best friend," Mimi. She said yes. Shareholders clapped. It was a perfect, upbeat ending to a long day. And I'm sure Warren Buffett couldn't have been happier.Related Links
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