Brace yourself, middle America: The value investorati are headed to your doorstep. 30,000-plus vociferous value investors are making their annual pilgrimage to Omaha for Woodstock for Capitalists, also known as the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) annual meeting.
But for all the backslapping and hero worship, this year's meeting is anything but business as usual. Berkshire's core business is humming, but the Oracle of Omaha will find himself on the defensive during this year's annual marathon Q&A session. The reason is Sokolgate -- more in a minute -- and we're not expecting disappointed Berkshire investors to pull any punches when it comes to ferreting out what happened.
No Hold Barred
Investors will pepper Buffett and Munger on everything from sovereign default to Sokol's delinquency, but you can't catch the highlights on CNBC. Instead, you can follow along with our crew of Fools as we live blog all the action from the press box. Good thing, because their answers will be doozies -- especially for these five questions that will absolutely, positively get asked ...
1. What really happened with David Sokol?
This is the 800-lb. gorilla story of the weekend. In case you've been chilling with the GEICO caveman for the past few months, Berkshire is acquiring specialty chemical maker Lubrizol (NYSE: LZ ) . But that's not the headline grabber. The "real" story is that one of Buffett's top lieutenants and the man I considered Buffett's likely successor as CEO, David Sokol, got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Berkshire's audit committee threw Sokol under a PR bus with a scathing critique of his actions on Wednesday. Sokol, per the committee, misled Buffett and violated company policies. Meanwhile, Sokol's attorneys are already returning fire.
Enough with the smoke and mirrors. While more information has come to light since the curtains rose for Sokolgate: The Musical, Buffett had a backstage pass to this fiasco from day one. Given that and Buffett's propensity for holding Berkshire out as an ethical oasis, why did he laud public praise on Sokol upon announcing his resignation? Buffett shouldn't have accepted Sokol's resignation in the first place. He should have fired him. Why didn't he?
2. What does Charlie think about Sokolgate?
Charlie Munger has two methods of answering questions at the Berkshire meeting. The first, which he'll use after Buffett has initially addressed a question, is his deadpan, "I have nothing to add." My over/under on IHNTA for this year is 9, for those of you scoring at home.
Munger's second go-to move is to pull no punches. He speaks his mind like only a brilliant billionaire 87-year-old can and doesn't hesitate to publicly disagree with his partner. I'm not expecting fireworks, but I'm hoping that Munger breaks out the whoopin' stick on behalf of those of us without a microphone.
3. Is the Berkshire model broken?
Buffett takes a famously hands-off style to management. He lets his people do their thing and doesn't get in the way. That approach and the company's decentralized model -- only 21 people work at Berkshire's headquarters -- has served the company very well. It also made Berkshire an acquirer of choice for would-be company sellers, many of whom wanted to cash out while still getting the freedom to run their businesses.
But Sokolgate has called into question Berkshire's long-leash style of management and governance. Why aren't senior Berkshire managers subject to greater oversight? Did Berkshire just blunder its competitive edge when it comes to scooping up family businesses on the cheap? And -- gulp -- might it turn out that Buffett isn't the excellent judge of character that we all thought he was?
4. Can we just name Ajit Jain the next CEO, already?
David Sokol is a fantastic operator, but his hard-charging style wasn't a good fit for the top dog slot in the trusting, decentralized culture Buffett has established.
Enter Ajit Jain, the humble insurance wiz whom Buffett has lauded a high school yearbook's worth of superlatives on over the years. Buffett even went so far recently as to say that the Berkshire board would support making Ajit CEO. That's as far as Buffett has ever come to outright showing his succession cards, but I wouldn't mind him laying them all on the table. At a minimum, I'd hope Buffett can begin finding new challenges for Ajit to take on to prove himself out as the kind of leader who can someday run a global conglomerate.
5. Seriously, what about a dividend?
I know, I know. Buffett shreds this question every year. And with good reason: Berkshire's 20.2% compound annual growth rate in book value over the past 45 years is more than double that of the S&P 500. Paying a dividend would have been the worst thing Buffett could have possibly done for Berkshire shareholders.
But this is a new day. Berkshire is getting too big for its britches, as Buffett acknowledges, forcing him to plow money into capital-hungry, lower-return businesses instead of the capital-light businesses he stalked in the days of yore. And, while Buffett and Munger are at the top of their game, these octogenarians aren't getting any younger. Pair lower returns with aging leaders and a now-suspect succession planning process, and suddenly you're looking at a beefy case for Berkshire to start returning cash to shareholders.
5 down, 55 to go. Buffett and Munger hope to answer at least 60 questions on Saturday. Join us as we live blog the entire experience on Saturday morning starting at 9 AM Eastern. As if the live blog isn't enough, we're firing off Warren and Charlie's top one-liners via Twitter at @TMFInsideValue.
Or you can do us one better: Share your own answers to these five questions in the comment box below. You can also help my fellow Fool LouAnn Lofton choose her Sunday press conference question for Buffett.