Monday, May 06, 2013

“We Want to Win”: The Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting, 2013 Edition


 Well props to ‘CD 105.9’ is all I can think, driving east on Dodge Street in a cold rain to the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting early on a dark Saturday morning. 
 The reason for my good mood?  The Omaha “classic rock” station I’ve had my rental car radio set to the last three days is playing “Back in the USSR,” making this the first time I’ll have been to a Berkshire meeting with Paul McCartney’s Beatles-era send-up of communist Russia ringing in my ears.
 “Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out/come and keep your Comrade warm/I’m back in the USSR/You don’t know how lucky you are, boy/Back in the USSR.”
 What better way to get ready for Warren Buffett’s “Woodstock for Capitalists” than that?
 Unfortunately, while CD 105.9 manages to mix more Beatles into its playlist than most “classic rock” formats do (they played “With a Little Help From My Friends” twice in two days)—something I’ve never quite understood, since The Beatles’ catalogue is about as “classic” as it gets—the good vibes never last long because the station also plays an inexplicably heavy rotation of Bob Seger.
 Pondering this oddly heteromorphic play list as the final A chord on “USSR” fades out, I focus on my driving, because there’s still snow on the ground here in Omaha—unusual at this time of year, when the fields should be springing to life—and the roads are slick with rain, which is why they’ve already opened up the CenturyLink arena to Berkshire shareholders and Buffett groupies instead of forcing them to wait outside until the normal 7 a.m. doors-open time, according to a text message from a waiting acquaintance who’s already nabbed a seat inside and is saving one for me.
Disoriented in Downtown Omaha
 But it’s not just the early morning darkness and wet roads causing me to pay more attention than usual.
 Omaha’s had a growth spurt since last year’s meeting, a fact I’d discovered last night trying to find the Hilton, which is right next door to the CenturyLink, and both the hotel and the arena used to stand out like the Empire State Building (in its heyday) above an otherwise barren strip of vacant lots and highway exit ramps just a few blocks from downtown Omaha.
 But most of those lots have given way to multi-story parking garages, hi-tech warehouses, bustling industrial buildings and even a baseball stadium (Omaha hosts the college world series every summer), causing me to lose my bearings more than once last night and prompting me to pay attention this morning.
 (It’s not just the business district that’s growing: the Old Market area—Omaha’s Soho, if you will—is changing, too.  What used to be not much more than a square city block of jarring cobblestone streets and red bricked restaurants, bars and the occasional shop has spread into neighboring streets, with new restaurants everywhere and even a near-high-rise condo building going up along its fringe.)
 I park on a side street in a metered spot a few blocks from the CenturyLink—the parking meters aren’t used on Saturdays (a little trick to save the $8 they now charge for event parking…I could swear it was $5 last year)—and head to the show while admiring the new buildings, which seem to be everywhere. 
 It’s almost Miami-esque, at least in terms of quantity if not in bling.  After all, the Midwest doesn’t do bling.
Not Exactly ‘Hard Time Mississippi’
 It does do volatile weather, of course, and the cold rain has eliminated the usual long lines of eager shareholders waiting for the doors to open, pushing everyone inside to find a seat and then get coffee before the movie starts.
 I find my seat and settle down while absorbing the scene inside the arena, where 19,000 other people are finding their seats while Stevie Wonder’s gritty “Living For the City” plays on the sound system—painting quite a verbal contrast with the very rich, urbane crowd gathering here: “A boy is born/in hard time Mississippi/surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty/his parents give him love and affection/to keep him strong, moving in the right direction/Living just enough, just enough for the city…”
 Paul Simon’s “The Boy In the Bubble” comes on next, its terrific beat marred by reference to “the bomb in the baby carriage,” which is a little too close to the recent events in Boston for comfort, so I head out to try to find Mario Gabelli, who usually works the floor for investment ideas from locals he has been grilling for decades, as only Mario can, and immediately bump into Doug Kass and his son Noah.
 Doug is the short-seller Buffett has chosen to be on the panel of three analysts asking questions (in conjunction with another panel of three reporters asking questions, with shareholders making up the rest), and we hug despite him carrying a bulging briefcase and a clutch of papers.
 Dougie is prepared, as well he should be, but that’s no surprise to me. We go way back to the early days of TheStreet.com, where the strictures of a for-profit enterprise eventually led me to start this not-for-profit blog, and I’ve always admired his willingness to say what he means and mean what he says without the need for crowd approval—a trait that will come in handy today.
Daniel in the Lion’s Den
 It is, of course, a very good year for Buffett to include a short-seller on his panel, because so very little has gone wrong for Berkshire lately.
 No health scare flare-ups have occurred for Buffett (at least, publicly), and none of his CEOs have flamed out in the spectacular fashion of David Sokol two years back, although Buffett did fire the CEO of Benjamin Moore rather abruptly last summer, prompting speculation it was for behavior unbecoming a CEO (according to the New York Post it was a flamboyant boat trip that was the last straw, which Buffett later denied). 
 Furthermore, business at Berkshire is smoking, as the earnings release last night showed.  Berkshire is, at its heart, an American company—with one big railroad, several energy utilities and multiple manufacturing companies driving the numbers, while insurance provides the cash for Buffett to spend as he thinks rational.  And since most of those operations are largely in the US, and since the US is doing far better than Europe at the moment, and since much of our economic improvement is related to the housing business, where Berkshire has a big footprint, the numbers were really good.
 On top of all that, the derivatives bets Buffett made several years ago (essentially selling insurance against a market decline) have recovered along with the Europe bourses, reversing bookkeeping losses that piled up during the take-your-pick-which-southern-European-country’s-meltdown-will-hit-the-front-page-today period one or two years ago.
 Oh, and he just bought Heinz in partnership with an investor group he admires, which should be a good long-term deal for Berkshire, and yet he still has $49 billion of cash to invest.
 All in all, Dougie could not have picked a tougher year to accept Buffett’s challenge to play the skeptic in front of 19,000 people in one arena—19,000 people who pretty much worship, or at least admire, if not adore, Warren Buffett.
 But accept it he did, and he seems remarkably calm but fired up.  He proudly introduces me to his son, I wish him luck and move on, but never manage to find Mario before the movie begins at 8:30 on the dot.
Breaking Funny
 The movie is almost all new, and almost all the same. 
 There’s a cartoon and plenty of Berkshire-company ads, including one laugh-out-loud GEICO commercial; a Jon Stewart love-fest video clip; and the always-included Salomon Brothers testimony by which Buffett reinforces the Berkshire culture for every manager in room: “Lose money and I will be understanding; lose one shred of our reputation and I will be ruthless.” 
 There’s a terrific video bit (a very funny “Breaking Bad” takeoff in which Brian Cranston and his partner-in-crime are using their desert lab to make peanut brittle, and Buffett wants to buy him out before it damages See’s Candies) and the whole thing concludes with the usual celebration of Berkshire’s managers, only the tune is no longer “My Favorite Things,” it’s “YMCA.”
 “We love the managers of B-R-K-A” is the chorus, with lyrics that name all the usual suspects in Berkshire’s management pantheon.  Soon ballroom lights start dancing around the arena and then in come cheerleaders (University of Nebraska, natch), waving pompons and signs with the Berkshire stock ticker letters.
 The crowd follows their lead, gets to its feet and is soon doing the “YMCA” moves….
 Poor Doug Kass.
 Buffett Steals a Railroad
 Buffett starts off the Q&A, as he always does, reviewing the just-reported earnings, but without the usual management blather about “beating the analyst consensus” or “executing our key strategies,” or, most nauseatingly, “driving value for our shareholders.”
 Instead he sums things up quite simply: “It was a benign quarter in insurance, and our other business did quite well.”  He notes with modesty that, “fortunately, a lot of oil has been found very close to our railroad tracks,” so the Burlington Northern railroad is moving a lot oil—more than half a million barrels a day, which is staggering considering that amounts to 10% of all the oil produced in the United States. It’s also pumped up the profits of the BNSF like nobody’s business: car loadings in the quarter were up the most of the four Class 1 railroads. 
 In hindsight, Buffett stole the BNSF.  He doesn’t say that out loud, of course.  But he really did steal it.
 This is the math: Berkshire paid 3-times revenue, 8.75-times “EBITDA” (which Buffett dismisses as a number subject to manipulation—a bit disconcerting since every company in America waves a highly subjective, non-GAAP “EBITDA” number in front of Wall Street’s analysts, like a shiny object in front of a dog) and 12.5-times his preferred number: pre-taxes and pre-interest income. 
 But BNSF’s revenue has grown nearly 40% since the deal closed and pre-tax income has risen 50%. 
 Thus, on 2012 earnings, Berkshire paid only 7.25-times pre-tax, pre-interest earnings for the Burlington Northern and Sante Fe Railroad.  Union Pacific, Burlington’s sole competitor in the western states, on the other hand, today trades at 9-times, and that is without any acquisition premium.
 So he really did steal it—for $45 billion.
The Fifth Most Valuable Company
 Buffett finishes the preliminaries with a slide showing the five largest market-cap companies, which today includes BRK/A. 
 “We’re now the fifth most valuable company in the world,” he says, drawing applause from the crowd, but, again, he doesn’t play the CEO game where the CEO gripes about the stock price and how Wall Street analysts misunderstand how great the company is: he simply says, “That can change over time, but I hope it changes for the better.”
 (He also makes an interesting remark about the US Dollar: “We have so many different operations…I’ve never been able to figure out [how moves in the dollar affect Berkshire].  And that’s very interesting, because Warren Buffett hasn’t been able to figure it out, and you can bet he’s tried to.  Also, if he can’t figure it out, nobody else will be able to figure it out.)
Better Questions, Better Answers
 Now the questions begin, and while the presence of a short-seller on the panel has generated most of the excitement in the press leading up to the meeting, it is the presence of another analyst, Jonathan Brandt, that makes it interesting almost immediately, for Brandt asks sharp questions about individual businesses ranging from ISCAR to Benjamin Moore to Fruit of the Loom—questions that have never been asked here before. 
 So, for the first time since Berkshire became a conglomerate and the shareholder meetings turned into a kind of therapeutic self-help mass feel-good gathering, we will really learn something about Berkshire’s non-insurance operations.
 For example, the CEO of Benjamin Moore was fired last summer not—as the New York Post reported—because of a lavish boat outing: it was because “the company was investigating moves that would have violated the promise” Buffett tells us he made to Benjamin Moore’s independent dealers when he bought the company, i.e. that he would not move distribution into the Lowes and Home Depots of the world.
 That’s interesting, it’s worth knowing, and it’s the first time outside of the David Sokol affair that we really learned something about why Buffett made a management change at one of Berkshire’s businesses.
 And while there is much more along those lines today, the happiest aspect of the meeting, from my point of view, is that Charlie Munger shows no signs of slowing down.
 It Will Still Be Pleasant
Thanks to the new Q&A system, very few of the old “What should I do with my life?” type questions are getting asked, which means Munger has a role in answering nearly all of them.
 For example, when asked about the prospect of Buffett’s 45-year streak of beating the S&P 500 over every five-year period coming to an end  this year, Buffett acknowledges “it won’t be a happy day…but it comes in a period when the market has gone up every year the last five years.” 
 Munger, however, says simply, “I don’t pay much attention whether it’s five years or three years…we’re slowing down but it will still be pleasant.”
Foreign Tissues Will Be Rejected
 Buffett, for his part, is in good form too.  Asked what worries him, Buffett says, as you’d expect, “Preserving the culture,” while adding, “Any foreign-type behavior would be rejected like a foreign tissue.”
 But it’s Munger who tends to answer the question while also making the crowd laugh: “My thoughts are very simple—I want to say to the many Mungers in the audience, ‘don’t sell these shares.’”
  When Becky Quick asks about a report that Berkshire’s cut in the Heinz deal is better than his partners’ share, Buffett denies it vigorously, going into some detail on the structure.  Munger snaps, “The report was totally wrong.”
Just Because Warren Thought Something Doesn’t Mean It’s a Law of Nature
 Asked about his business partner’s use of Twitter prior to the shareholder meeting (“Warren is in the house,” was the first message), Munger says, “It’s very hard for me to know anything about Twitter when I’m avoiding it like the plague.”
 And when Buffett is called to account for remarks he made some years ago about corporate profits being “extraordinary” and likely to come down—which has not yet happened—Munger shrugs it off: “Just because Warren thought something 20 years ago doesn’t mean it’s a law of nature.”
 Asked how Buffett’s successor will deal with Berkshire’s highly decentralized, far-flung and informal corporate management structure, Munger dismisses it: “If you run it as decentralized as we do—almost to the point of abdication—what difference does it make?”
Flimflam, Magic Potions and Pots & Pans
 The nice thing about having a short-seller, two analysts and three reporters asking the bulk of the questions is that the questions are well informed, broad-ranging and intelligently worded: after all, no analyst or reporter wants to look stupid in front of 19,000 people—two of whom happen to be the smartest investors of their generation.
 So interesting topics come up, like Bill Ackman’s short position in multi-level-marketer Herbalife, which reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin brings up before asking whether Ackman’s critique of that business model calls into question Berkshire’s Pampered Chef direct-sales business.
 (Funny enough, Ackman is “in the house” here: he’s hard to miss, being NBA-height in a very non-NBA-height crowd.)
 Buffett offers a vigorous defense, saying Pampered Chef “is a million miles away from…this business of loading up people” with products they can’t sell, while Munger, as usual, is more succinct: “I think there’s likely to be more flimflam selling magic potions than pots and pans.”
 And that, as they say, is that.
I Wish We’d Done It On Purpose
 It’s not all jokes and snappy comebacks, of course. Asked to “give me the Peter Lynch two-minute monologue” summing up Berkshire Hathaway’s competitive advantage, Buffett hands the question to Munger.
 “We’ve always tried to stay sane when other people go crazy,” Munger says. “That’s a sustainable advantage.
 “Number two, we treat other companies the way they want to be treated, and that is a competitive advantage” in making acquisitions.
 “Number three, we’ve partnered with good people and that is a competitive advantage.”  Still, Munger can’t resist ending with a joke: “Those were all a very good idea, and I wish we’d done it on purpose.”
The Fattest Rolodex in the World
 Asked if Burlington’s rail franchise is threatened by the decline in coal demand (one of the excellent questions by Jonathan Brandt), and whether the crude oil-by-rail bonanza is likely to end as pipelines get built, Buffett says, “Well, if there was no coal moving we wouldn’t have a lot of use for some of the tracks we have…  In terms of oil, I think the view a few years ago was there might be a blip…but I’ve talked to some crude oil producers…and I think there will be a lot of rail usage for a long time.”  (And since Buffett has the fattest Rolodex in the business world—literally—you can bet he’s talked to oil producers who know what they’re talking about.)
 He also points out that “oil moves faster by rail than pipeline,” which is quite true: oil flows through pipelines at around 2 miles an hour, on average—we’re not talking fire-hoses here.
Do You Know and Believe In Jesus Christ?
 The significance of those two questions—and Buffett’s answers—is they would probably not have gotten asked during the all-shareholder Q&A format a few years ago, when high school students asked what they should do with their lives (I’m not making that up), teachers asked how they could draw out their shy students (not making that up, either), and, once, a man from Norman Oklahoma asked “Do you know and believe in Jesus Christ and do you have a personal relationship with God?” (Buffett answered that one straight ahead, without a pause, and you can read his answer in “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett” on Amazon Kindle.)
 But there’s another question that would never have gotten asked, even by the reporters in the crowd—that is asked today by Doug Kass, who makes good on Buffett’s desire to “spice things up” at the meeting.
 Before we get to that, though, an observation about today’s proceedings is in order.
 The CenturyLink Center’s arena, where the Q&A takes place, is packed—literally to the rafters. 
 And while you might think that means today’s meeting is far better attended than last year’s, which was materially less well attended than the year before (when the David Sokol Affair prompted a whole lot of attention on the meeting), the reason has less to do with a bigger crowd than with less space for everyone to sit down here.
 This is something I discover during lunch, when I go to the exhibition hall to talk to Berkshire managers (my favorite part of the meeting, Charlie Munger’s answers aside) and realize the exhibition hall is so full of new Berkshire company displays that it no longer carves out satellite areas with bleachers and large screens where shareholders can watch the proceedings outside the claustrophobic arena, which holds 19,000 in hard, uncomfortable folding seats.
 There’s a huge new Brooks running shoe display in the back of the exhibition hall, and the recently acquired Oriental Trading Company is doing land office business selling Warren and Charlie rubber duckies near the front entrance (“They’re only $2, what the heck?” seems to be the reaction, given the line).
 So while it may feel more crowded this year, it isn’t.
 But that doesn’t mean the crowd is any less enthusiastic than years past: after all, Berkshire’s stock is at a new all-time high—$162,904 per share for the A shares on the close Friday.
 And considering that those same “A” shares were trading at $16 the day Buffett took control on May 10, 1965, well, it’s no surprise the crowd is feeling upbeat.
How Good Is Warren Buffett’s Track Record, Really?
 But how good is Warren Buffett’s track record, really?
 Well, Berkshire’s stock has appreciated—this is appreciation only, no dividends, mind you—981,150% since May 10, 1965.
 And if you’d put $16 into the S&P 500 instead of into one share of Berkshire on that same day, your share of the S&P 500 wouldn’t be worth $162,905 today from appreciation (we’re leaving out the dividends for now.)
 In fact, your S&P 500 share wouldn’t be worth $100,000 today.
 It wouldn’t even be worth $10,000 today.
 It would be worth about $600.
 Throw in dividends and you’re north of $1,000 but south of $2,000 on your $16 investment.  The Berkshire shareholder has $162,904.
 That’s how good Warren Buffet’s track record really is.
Hemming and Hawing
 Still, Buffett is human, and his response to a question about what, exactly, IBM’s “competitive moat” may be (from a Los Angeles-area Microsoft engineer) is not just inadequate, it’s downright disturbing:
 “I don’t understand the moat around IBM as well as I do around Coca Cola,” Buffett says, adding, “There’s nothing that precludes both Microsoft that you mentioned and IBM [from doing well over time],” even though the engineer only mentioned Microsoft so Buffett knew where he was coming from.
 IBM, for the record, is a company whose revenues have stayed dead flat from 2008 to 2012 (at $103 billion), yet has managed to grow operating income by nearly $5 billion, thanks to a flat expense line and rising gross margins.
 If you’re an IBM shareholder, that’s great, because it’s clear IBM’s management team is “adding value to shareholders.” But if you’re an IBM customer, that’s annoying, because IBM’s management is clearly extracting value from its customers through higher prices and better-margined products.
 What with all the cloud-based alternatives to the kind of high-cost, hard-to-get-rid-of software IBM specializes in, it’s no wonder IBM’s sales have declined the last six months, at an accelerating pace.
 But Buffett does not get into the details, because he doesn’t seem to know them.  He merely says, “I think their odds are good” and then goes into a discourse on IBM’s balance sheet that, unfortunately, does not give anyone warm and fuzzies about Berkshire’s massive IBM investment:
 “They incidentally have a very large pension obligation,” Buffett says.  “It is a big annuity company on the side.  I would rather they didn’t have that. ... The liabilities are a lot more certain than the assets over time.”
 The whole thing is disturbing, coming as it does from a guy who can tell you how much it costs GEICO to get a new customer ($250 up front), what the net present value of that customer will be ($1,500), how many new policies GEICO hopes to write this year (1 million) and what share that will be of all new auto policies in the US (40%).
 But Buffett more than makes up for the IBM fumble when he is asked another, tougher question.  “A spicy meatball” is what a friend of mine calls these questions—and a very spicy meatball it is when Doug Kass asks, with the utmost delicacy and respect, about Buffett anointing his son, Howard, to take his place as Chairman of Berkshire when Buffett is gone.
Protector of the Culture
 Doug begins by saying he means no disrespect to Buffett by bringing up the topic in front of Buffett’s friends and family—not to mention Howard Buffett himself.  “My own son Noah is here with me,” Doug adds, before asking the best (and most important) question of the day: “How is Howard Buffett the most qualified person to be chairman of Berkshire?”
 Buffett, as he always does, answers it straight ahead.
 It is not his job to run the business or to allocate capital or anything else,” Buffett says, stressing that Howard will be a “non-executive Chairman.”
 But “if a mistake is made in picking the CEO,” Buffett says, “he is there as protector of the culture…. I know of nobody that will feel more responsible for that…”
 “He has no illusions at all about running the business,” Buffett adds firmly, and then explains the simple practicality behind the move:  
 “I have seen many times...when a mediocre CEO, a likable guy, needs to be changed, but that’s very hard to do” because the CEO was also chairman of the board and he “controls the agenda” and puts his own friends on the board.
  Buffett says, parenthetically, the requirement that “boards meet once a year without the CEO is a very big improvement because the board is a social group.” 
 “Both Charlie and I have seen where a CEO who is 6 on a scale of 10” stays in place.  “It could be very hard to make that change” without a chairman who cares about the Berkshire culture.
 Munger pitches in with his usual objective clarity: “You gotta remember the board owns a lot of stock.  We
’re not trying to gum it up for the shareholders.”  Furthermore, “It helps to have some objective person” chairing the board.  “I think the Mungers will be a lot safer with Howard there.”
 That highlight over, the meeting moves quickly on...but it was a great question, and well answered.  Throughout, the crowd was as silent and attentive as I’ve ever heard it.
 It was worth the whole meeting.  
 And not for nothing, every CEO—and every corporate board member, public or private—should have been here to see Doug ask the question (at any other meeting Doug’s microphone would have been turned off so fast it would have made his head spin), and to see both Warren and Charlie answer it, thoughtfully and at length.
 When the topic switches to who will succeed Buffett as CEO (not as Chairman), Andrew Ross Sorkin asks if the CEO successor to Buffett isn’t Ajit Jain, and why Buffett doesn’t just say it is Ajit Jain.
 But Buffett warns him off such speculation: You started with the A’s and you won’t have any more luck when you get to the B’s,” Buffett says, shutting down the discussion here, for now.  
 (For readers who want to know who it likely is, and why it will be good for Berkshire, Warren Buffetts Successor: Who It Is and Why It Matters” eBooks on Investing, 2013, answers the question even if Buffett will not.)
  Finally, at 3:30 p.m., after five hours and 63 questions, Buffett ends the meeting to a round of applause from the remaining shareholders, who still fill two-thirds of the arena.
 I return to my car and drive back to the hotel to write this up, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” playing on my now-favorite Omaha station.   It’s a song title I think Charlie Munger might have written.
 And speaking of Charlie Munger, a few more Mungerisms before we go…
The Government Increased the Proof
  On the devastating effect of Ben Bernanke’s ultra-low interest rate policy on retirees: “Well they had to hurt somebody, and the savers were convenient.”
  On one other side effect of the low interest rate environment: “All over the world the life insurance companies are suffering the tortures of hell.”
  On how young money managers can attract investors when they have no track record: “I’m glad I’m through with that particular problem.”
   On how the Fed created the housing bubble: “As things got crazier and crazier, the government could have pulled away the punch bowl—instead the government increased the proof.”
  And why nobody in the government has been held accountable for the bubble: “You’re complaining about what’s inevitable in life, and that’s not a good idea.”
Like Using Rat Poison as Whipping Cream
  On why they should never have let Greece join the EU: “It was like using rat poison as whipping cream…they lie about their taxes…Europe made terrible mistakes, but they have politicians like we do.”
 Why Italy is not much better than Greece: “When the mail piles up they just throw some piles away.”
What Buffett should do before he bargain-hunts in Europe: “Call me if it’s in Greece.”
All Problems Are Trivial With 2% GDP Growth
 On the relationship of US debt to GDP: “I don’t think there’s some relationship that’s written in the stars.”
 On the so-called $16 trillion debt burden: “Most of the debt is not even included in that number.”
 On how to fix the debt problem: “All our problems are trivial if GDP grows 2% a year from now on out.”
Trading Agony for Money
 On forecasting the economy: “That’s not a field where I’ve been any good.”
 On Buffett’s stock gifts to Bill Gates’ charity: “There’s nothing so insignificant as an extra $2 billion to an old man.”
 On self-confidence: “If you think you know more than you do you’re asking for a lot of trouble.”
 On when he and Buffett would consider splitting Berkshire stock:  “I would not hold your breath.”
 On whether Berkshire would give money to a short-seller: “The answer to your question is NO.  We don’t like trading agony for money.”
My ‘Too Hard’ Pile
 On whether the US airline industry is finally worth investing in, despite Buffett’s well-known aversion to it (a question that was asked by Bill Miller, famed for his 15 year “streak” of outperforming the S&P 500 at Legg Mason): “It goes into my ‘too hard’ pile.”
The More Bankers Want to Be Less Like Bankers, the Less I Like It
 On the US banking industry: “I'm a little less optimistic about the banking system longer term than you are... I do not see why massive derivative books should be mixed up with insured banks... The more bankers want to be less like bankers, the less I like it.”
 The biggest threat to US competitiveness: “The perfectly crazy outcome” of engineering graduates going into derivatives at banks.
Everlasting Learning
 On whether Berkshire will get involved in helping its businesses manage their responsibilities under Obamacare: “We like that kind of decision being made near the firing line.”
 On Warren Buffett’s pondering out-loud “how I’d do if I managed money by the math”—meaning computer screens: “You’d do it poorly.”
 On Berkshire’s new model of buying companies rather than managing stocks: “We’re sort of in a different mode now… If we had stayed in our old mode we would not be so successful.  The game of life is a game of everlasting learning.  At least if you want to win.”
 And we’ll conclude with Buffett’s comment on that last answer from Munger: “And we want to win.”
 No kidding.


Jeff Matthews
Author “Warren Buffett’s Successor: Who It Is And Why It Matters”
(eBooks on Investing, 2013)    $2.99 Kindle Version at Amazon.com 

© 2013 NotMakingThisUp, LLC              
The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews.   Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations.  This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice, and should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever.  Also, this blog is not a solicitation of business by Mr. Matthews: all inquiries will be ignored.  And if you think Mr. Matthews is kidding about that, he is not.  The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

4 comments:

David Merkel said...

Hi Jeff,

Another BRK meeting comes & goes. I did think up an investment idea for Buffett. I know he doesn't take them on public companies, but if he wants to move the needle...

Verizon wants to buy out Vodaphone's 45% stake in Verizon Wireless, which accounts for 2/3rds of $VZ 's profits. They only want to pay $100-$110B, vs $VOD wanting a fairer $120-140B.

Enter $BRK, offer $25B convertible bond financing to $VZ with $VZ warrants, secured by the assets of Verizon Wireless.

Downside protection, with possible upside, and the bonds can go into the insurers with minimal capital provision on the secured debt. In a downside scenario where $VZ fails, $BRK has first dibs on the corpus.

I know, wild-eyed idea, and who knows if $VZ would go for it. Makes a lot of sense to me, though.

Hope you are doing well.

Full disclosure: Long BRK/B VOD

Anonymous said...

Jeff, thank you for another excellent write-up. I've been interested in Berkshire's communications since the FT published a series of Buffet's annual messages as a supplement back in, I think, 2000. I still have these in storage back in the UK to show my hopefully interested daughters when they grow up.

I've been reading your take on Berkshire, and everything else (including Billie Jean as a beat to get infants to sleep - it works), since 2005 and your reporting on the Berkshire meetings is, in my opinion, essential reading.

Thank you for continuing these write ups and for sharing them.

Anonymous said...

The book on Amazon is not 2.99 bur 4.99

Jeff Matthews said...

Actually it is "Secrets in Plain Sight" that is $4.99. "Successor" is $2.99, as indicated.

JM