Warren Buffett speaks: 5 key takeaways from Omaha
Here's what investors should learn from Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholder meeting -- often called 'Woodstock for capitalists.'
By Matt Koppenheffer, The Motley Fool
It's unlikely you will ever hear someone say, "I bought shares of this stock just so I could go to the annual meeting." Unlikely, that is, unless you're talking about Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) (BRK-B), the giant conglomerate run by investment guru Warren Buffett.
Once a year, shareholders flock by the thousands to Berkshire's Omaha home base. This year, as my taxi drive informed me, there were nearly 50,000 visitors expected for the weekend to hear Buffett and Berkshire Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger speak about Berkshire, investing, life and whatever else happens to come up.
And speak they did. After a short video -- which included an animated Buffett and Munger dancing to "Gangnam Style" and Bryan Cranston getting bullied by Buffett over peanut brittle -- the duo spent the next six or so hours responding to questions from media, shareholders, analysts and even a Berkshire bear.
Here are five key highlights from the meeting that you shouldn't miss.
1. Back to the basics. If there's magic to Buffett and Munger, it may be that there's no magic to Buffett and Munger. While there's a lot that goes into the outsized success that the two have seen over the years, much of it may come from their stubborn adherence to the tried-and-true basics.
Here's a sampling of some great reminders from this year's meeting:
- "[We're] not looking at the aspects of the stock, we're looking at the aspects of the business . . . we always look at them as businesses, whether we're buying the whole thing or 100 shares."
- "There are some parts of the game that we don't understand so we don't play with them."
- (On feeling comfortable lending to Harley-Davidson (HOG) during the financial crisis and the importance of customer loyalty): "Any company that gets its customers to tattoo ads on its chest can't be all bad."
- "We've always tried to stay sane when other people go crazy."
- "If [investors] try to time their purchases, they will do very well for their broker and not very well for themselves."
2. Too big to succeed? Or big enough to dominate?
Some Berkshire shareholders worry that the company is getting too big to deliver attractive returns. While there's merit to that concern, one theme in this year's meeting was the competitive advantage that Berkshire's size offers the company.
Buffett quipped that "Berkshire is the 800 number when there's panic in the markets and for one reason or another people need extra capital." That was the case for Goldman Sachs (GS), General Electric (GE) and Bank of America (BAC), all of which turned to Buffett during or following the financial crisis in search of the one-two combo of cash and the Berkshire stamp of approval.
For its part in these transactions, Berkshire received extraordinary deals that "normal" investors couldn't dream of getting. In Goldman's case, Berkshire received preferred stock shares paying a monster 10% dividend and warrants to buy $5 billion of the stock at $115 per share. It was similar for Bank of America, with Berkshire walking away with preferred shares yielding 6% and a truckload of warrants.
There are few, if any, other companies out there that have the capital and reputation to score these kinds of deals. As Munger put it, Buffett has "found a place where there's less competition." And that's a good place to be.
3. Berkshire's next big opportunity.
Berkshire made waves in the insurance industry late last month when it announced that it'd hired four top executives from AIG (AIG). The execs will become part of Berkshire's commercial insurance business -- a business that Berkshire is focused on growing significantly.
Buffett expanded on this during the meeting, highlighting that commercial insurance "could be a business that reaches into the billions, and could be in the fair number of billions over time." This, however, won't be an overnight process. Berkshire is excruciatingly careful about its underwriting and always prefers underwriting profit over premium volume.
Buffett also isn't keen on acquiring its way to a bigger commercial insurance presence. He noted that "it's better to build than to buy if you can find the right people." That seems to be the case at Berkshire. At the very top of the insurance unit is Ajit Jain -- one of the best operators in the business. And it sounds like there's strong interest for other insurance operators to join Berkshire. Buffett pointed out that the company "had a number of people reach out since the [AIG] announcement was made."
4. Uncharted territory.
If you're scratching your head over how the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing efforts are going to work out over the long term, consider yourself in good company. When asked about the eventual impact of QE, Munger responded, "The basic answer is, I don't know." Buffett added that "it's really uncharted territory. It's a lot easier to buy things sometimes than it is to sell them."
Both Buffett and Munger did, however, seem to agree that the course taken was better than the alternative. Buffett said that he has "a lot of faith in [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke." As for the threat of inflation, while Buffett said that "it certainly has the potential for being very inflationary," Munger warned "I worry about things more than inflation."
Of course, it's easier when you have the long-term focus that Buffett and Munger have. In terms of dealing with the low-rate environment, Buffett emphasized that they "never stretch for yield." It can be a costly policy in the short term, but one that protects the company over the longer term from the eventual change in the rate environment. And when that change comes? For Berkshire's fixed-income portfolio, "that would be a couple billion dollars in annual earnings that we don't have now."
5. Be a lifetime learner.
This last point was a very small moment in the meeting, but one that shouldn't be overlooked. When the duo was asked by a shareholder for a list of the 10 books that influenced them the most that weren't written by Ben Graham or Phil Fisher, Munger responded:
I can't name 10 books that I regarded that much better than the next 10, my mind is a blend of so many books that I can't even sort it out anymore. [emphasis mine]
This is such a great line because it conveys the idea that there isn't one, two or even 10 books that are suddenly going to turn someone into a brilliant investor. Instead of burning cycles trying to find the "secret book" that will suddenly transform them into the next Buffett, investors should focus on being lifetime learners who are constantly reading, absorbing and experiencing new things.
For the Fool's full coverage of the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, simply click here.
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