Continuing with the five and a half hours of questions that Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) shareholders are putting to superinvestors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, let's review some more gems from the annual meeting.
On manager compensation
Private equity is one of the key hot-button issues relating to the market lately, and CEO pay is certainly another. Not too long ago, there was a furor surrounding how much compensation was being given to the now-departed chief executive of Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) -- interestingly enough, a Berkshire holding.
It's easy enough to guess that Buffett, who pays himself all of $100,000 per year -- with no stock options to boost that figure -- is opposed to the egregious packages that many CEOs take home. He began his answer, though, by saying that whether you're talking about Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) , Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) , or American Express (NYSE: AXP ) -- again, all Berkshire holdings -- the most important thing is making sure you have the right person running the business.
Of all the boards Buffett sits on, he was elected to the compensation committee of just one, and he says that company subsequently regretted its decision. Regarding how companies pick their compensation committees, he quipped, "they're looking for cocker spaniels with their tails wagging, not dobermans. I try to pretend that I'm a cocker spaniel just to get on the board."
On corporate jets
One shareholder cited a study that said that companies with corporate jets underperform by 4%. Munger's witty reply: "I want to report that we are solidly in favor of private jets." Berkshire owns NetJets, a company that allows customers to own time-share lots in private jets. Buffett, joking that Munger used to take the bus to travel, and then only when there was a senior-citizen discount available, said he has since persuaded Munger to buy a NetJets share.
Riffing further on executive compensation and benefits, Buffett reiterated Berkshire's policy of compensating people based on what they actually do and what they have control over. Here he specifically cited oil companies and the rising price of their products. Although a high oil price may give a profit boost to the likes of Exxon or BP, Buffett contends that that shouldn't necessarily translate into a bigger bonus for the executives at those companies, there since it was not their actions that led to the higher oil price.
On the credit markets
A question came up over how well Berkshire would deal with a serious tightening of credit -- a timely topic, given how loose credit has been in recent years. Buffett pointed out that the Federal Reserve itself was created as a result of huge credit contractions and is designed to control major swings in the credit market. He seems to believe that the only way a major credit tightening would happen is if it were by design -- and most authorities, he said, are not too keen to step on the brakes. Munger added that if a huge adverse credit event unfolded, there would probably be legislation introduced to mitigate the effects.
In terms of Berkshire, both Buffett and Munger pointed out that they have been able to make serious money when the credit markets have gone crazy. Buffett went as far as to say that "we benefit when others suffer to some extent."
Buffett also brought up the example of Long-Term Capital Management, the hedge fund that lost billions in 1998. He said there were lots of people with seriously high IQs on Wall Street who were doing some very silly things that helped that situation unfold. He then cited the famous Mark Twain quote that "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme" and said he believes we'll eventually encounter another situation that "rhymes" with 1998.
Go back to Matt's original report to keep up with the news as it unfolds from the annual meeting.
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