OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - Few 77-year-olds could hold thousands of people in rapt attention for five hours. Sean Connery, maybe; Clint Eastwood, perhaps. Warren Buffett? Definitely.
Buffett will be the center of attention on Saturday at the annual shareholder meeting for Berkshire Hathaway Inc, his roughly $200 billion holding company.
Berkshire estimates that 30,000 to 32,000 people, up from 27,000 last year, will fill the Qwest Center in Omaha for what has become known as “Woodstock for Capitalists.”
Shareholders will listen to Buffett and his effervescent sidekick, 84-year-old Berkshire Vice Chairman Charles Munger, answer questions on business, the economy and life.
“It restores your enthusiasm for what we know in our heart is right in investing, management ethics and everything that is good about capitalism,” said Frank Betz, a principal at Carret/Zane Capital Management LLP in Warren, New Jersey. “I hate to sound so corny, but that is exactly what happens.”
Berkshire had a good year in 2007. It boosted profit 20 percent to $13.2 billion, and revenue the same amount to $118.2 billion, despite increased competition in insurance and several of its more than 70 businesses hurting from the housing slump.
Shares of Berkshire, meanwhile, rose 29 percent. Buffett is worth $62 billion, making him the world’s richest person, Forbes magazine said. Most of that amount is in Berkshire stock, and all of that stock will someday go to charity.
The meeting may have less controversy than last year, when some shareholders demanded that Berkshire divest its stake in PetroChina Co because of the oil company’s links to Sudan. Buffett later sold the stake based on valuation.
Berkshire sells such items as bricks, candy, car insurance, carpets, ice cream, jewelry, knives, paint and underwear. About half its business comes from insurance and reinsurance.
The company ended the year with $44.3 billion of cash, but has since agreed to spend some.
In March, it paid $4.5 billion for three-fifths of Marmon Holdings Inc, whose products are used in construction and energy. Then on April 28, it deployed $6.5 billion tied to Mars Inc’s purchase of chewing gum maker Wm Wrigley Jr Co.
Berkshire’s $75 billion stock cache has included blue-chip names such as American Express Co, Coca-Cola Co Procter & Gamble Co and Wells Fargo & Co.
Buffett may weigh in on how politicians, regulators and greedy investors mess up the markets.
Shareholders may want to know more about Berkshire Hathaway Assurance Corp, a bond insurer that Buffett created late last year as rivals struggled with subprime mortgages. Berkshire’s bond insurer quickly won “triple-A” credit ratings.
“He’s prepared to share state secrets,” said Thomas Russo, a partner at Gardner, Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, attending roughly his 25th meeting. “People won’t duplicate him because they don’t invest as patiently.”
Succession will also be on people’s minds. Buffett has said Berkshire has three internal candidates to replace him as chief executive officer, and four “young to middle-aged” candidates to become chief investment officer.
And Buffett could offer his views on the 2008 elections. He has said he plans to support the Democratic Party, but has not endorsed either of its leading candidates for the presidency, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
“I go to hear the 10 or 20 percent of new stuff,” said Steven Check, chief investment officer of Check Capital Management Inc in Costa Mesa, California, a 15-year attendee. “You get reinforced by the other 80 to 90 percent.”
Even so, Buffett gets some things wrong.
Last year, he said subprime mortgages did not pose a “huge danger” to the economy, and that absent surges in unemployment and interest rates, “it’s unlikely that that factor triggers anything of a massive nature in the general economy.”
HOLDING A TUNE NOT NECESSARY
Official festivities begin Friday evening, after Berkshire releases first-quarter results.
Cocktails, food and very long lines will await shareholders visiting Borsheim’s, a Berkshire-owned jeweler west of downtown that will hawk memorabilia such as a Berkshire Monopoly game, towels, and license-plate frames.
The festivities end at Buffett favorite Gorat’s, which last year served 915 dinners on “Shareholder Sunday.” Shareholders, meanwhile, will host their own events throughout the weekend.
Many attendees live in Omaha, and most are ordinary investors. Attendance is up sixfold since Berkshire in 1996 created Class B shares worth 1/30th of Class A shares.
Yet some have greater reknown. Bill Gates, the Microsoft Corp chairman and Buffett bridge partner, is a Berkshire director and has attended past meetings.
And Betz recalls dining with the legendary Chicago Cubs shortstop and Hall of Famer Ernie Banks at the 1999 meeting.
But it’s the meeting itself that’s the centerpiece.
Last year, as Buffett milled about a Qwest Center hall featuring goods from Berkshire companies, he snacked on a Dairy Queen vanilla orange bar, flopped on a bed from Nebraska Furniture Mart, and strummed a ukulele while singing -- sort of on key.
Later, Jimmy Buffett (no relation) regaled shareholders with a parody of his best-known song, “Margaritaville.” The title: “Berkshire Hathaway-a-Ville.”
He forgot some lyrics. Wasn’t exactly on key, either.
Editing by Brian Moss
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