Analysts get a crack at Warren Buffett

The Oracle of Omaha succumbs to fiscal reality and invites Wall Street to Berkshire's annual meeting.

By Jonathan Berr Nov 21, 2011 12:59PM

Warren Buffett. © Mario Tama/Getty ImagesFor decades, billionaire Warren Buffett has argued that the quarterly earnings dance between Wall Street and publicly-traded companies was a waste of time for all involved. Now, he's starting to change his tune.

According to media reports, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) has decided to field questions from a handful of Wall Street analysts at the company's annual meeting, known to devotees as "The Woodstock of Capitalism." The May meeting attracts tens of thousands of acolytes to Omaha to hear Buffett and partner Charlie Munger expound on every topic imaginable from their views on religion to what ails the economy.

It's all enormously entertaining and the media laps it up like a kitten presented with a saucer of milk. Shareholders, though, want more.

Buffett stunned the market in September when he announced he would repurchase Berkshire shares if they were cheap enough, reversing an anti-buyback position he has held for years. (Of course, "cheap" is a relative term for a stock whose price tops $111,000.) The stock rose on the news, but has since pulled back. Class A shares of Berkshire are down about 8% this year, underperforming the S&P 500, which has dropped 5%.


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Though Berkshire shares are down because of worries about the broader economy, its price is also affected by the fact that few Wall Street analysts follow it. Berkshire, with a broad array of holdings ranging from Dairy Queen to Geico, is one of the most complex public companies in America. Let's not forget about Buffett's large holdings in stocks as diverse as Coca-Cola (KO) to Washington Post (WPO) and most recently IBM (IBM). Buffett doesn't help matters by refusing to give earnings guidance or hold quarterly conference calls.

Berkshire's shareholder meetings are not the Buffett love-fests they have been in years past.

During the last gathering, he faced uncomfortable questions about David Sokol, a former protégé who made a paper profit of $3 million on the sale of Lubrizol after Berkshire acquired the chemical company. Buffett said he was disappointed in Sokol, who denies wrongdoing.  Sokol reportedly is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
There also are lingering questions about succession planning. In 2010, Buffett named Todd Combs, the head of a small, obscure hedge fund, as his possible successor as chief investment officer. Buffett, though, has said Combs won't "take over the whole investment function as long as I'm around." He's still making bold bets such as the $10.7 billion investment in IBM, which could go south if his optimistic take on the U.S. economy turns out to be wrong.

Jay Gelb of Barclays Capital, Cliff Gallant of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods and Gary Ransom of Dowling & Partners will get a chance to question Buffett. Though they are not required to submit questions in advance, Buffett probably won't break too much of a sweat because most CEOs have little to fear from such interrogations as evidenced by most quarterly earnings calls. Add Buffett's celebrity to the mix, and the stage is set for investors to not learn much of anything. Gelb, for one, doesn't gender much confidence with comments such as "It's really exciting to be part of the process."

--Jonathan Berr owns shares of Coca-Cola.  Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

Nov 21, 2011 5:23PM
Our economy is nothing but a huge Monoploy game for Buffet & his buddies.
Nov 21, 2011 2:25PM

It will be like altar boys questioning the pope.


You should stop using Buffet's name to generate your click traffic.

There is a religion of money and Buffet is one of the pope's.
Nov 21, 2011 4:35PM
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