The Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting has been called “The Woodstock of Capitalism” and a host of other corny names over the years as famed investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have whipped up a festival-like atmosphere complete with food stalls and games.
The 2017 edition of the meeting, however, was a bit of a downbeat affair.
A good portion of the marathon question and answer session on Saturday focused on two things: Buffett’s death and Berkshire’s misses.
A variety of questions posed to Buffett and Munger focused on their advanced age, mortality, and went in-depth on what they expected out of a successor.
“If I die tonight, the stock would go up tomorrow,” Buffett joked at one point.
When asked about how they bounce ideas off of each other, Munger even quipped that “it can’t continue much longer.”
Buffett also delved into what kind of person he is looking for in a replacement, and even discussed the compensation structure for the person that takes over Berkshire.
Now the fascination with death is not particularly new for Buffett and Munger. They make jokes about being old quite a bit, but the focus on a successor from the questioners and the length of answers seemed to belie a more urgent fixation on life for Berkshire after Buffett.
Buffett and Munger also spent considerable time focusing on trades they did not make and companies they did not invest in.
The investing legends twice talked about their failure to invest in Amazon despite having high praise for CEO Jeff Bezos.
“I was too dumb to realise what was going to happen,” Buffett said about Amazon.
The Berkshire executives also issued a mea culpa on missing out on Walmart and Google. Buffett called missing out on the two growth stories his “worst mistake” and told the nearly 40,000 assembled that he “blew it.”
“We were smart enough to figure it out and we didn’t,” Munger added.
Buffett also took himself to task on his large investment in IBM, which has not turned out so well, as of April 19 Buffett had an unrealized loss of around $US787 million on the investment. Buffett told CNBC on Friday that he dumped roughly a third of his IBM shares recently.
“When I started buying IBM six years ago, I thought it’d do better in the six years that have lapsed than it has,” Buffett said.
He also criticised the failures at Wells Fargo — one of Berkshire’s largest holdings — for its fake accounts scandal, saying the firm made three huge mistakes.
To be fair, Buffett did reiterate his bullish long-term view for the American economy, but seemed more focused on the current shortcomings in various industries, companies, and Berkshire itself.
So while there were all the typical hallmarks of a Berkshire meeting with Buffett and Munger — the peanut brittle, cherry coke, and the occasional inappropriate joke — the looming questions of life after Buffett and could’ve, should have, would have added a bit of gloom to the meeting.
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