Has the Berkshire Annual Meeting "Jumped the Shark"?

When fans of the '70’s TV sitcom “Happy Days” witnessed the main character, Fonzie, literally jump over a shark while water-skiing, they knew that the show’s best days were behind them. Could this be the case for the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) , (NYSE: BRK-B  ) annual meetings?

The Meeting: Past and Present
I'll never forget my first pilgrimage to Omaha in 2002. Ten thousand shareholders orderly entered the Civic Auditorium not only to hear Warren Buffett wax poetic on investing and life, but also to watch him dissect complex questions posed by knowledgeable shareholders. They wisely used the platform to pitch the greatest investor of all time the hardest fastballs their minds could muster.

Fast-forward to 2008: 31,000 attendees flood the entrance to the colossal Qwest Center, content to watch Coca-Cola commercials during the annual movie, to stargaze at Susan Lucci, all the while hoping for an impromptu performance by Jimmy Buffett. By the time the lights come on and the meeting starts, 20,000 pairs of eyes begin to glaze over.

Thirty minutes later, thousands have abandoned their seats to scour the main exhibition area, eager to buy some See’s Candy or Fruit of the Loom underwear for friends and family. For many, hearing Warren speak has become an afterthought.

Cute kids, disgruntled environmentalists, and self-absorbed questioners have seized control of the meeting. The gracious Oracle of Omaha does a masterful job of turning these slow-pitch questions into scoring answers. Please don't get me wrong: I love kids, hug trees often, and have a healthy dose of ego myself. However, true shareholders have always come for the home runs off of fastballs, rather than settling for base hits from bad pitches.

Is it a bubble?
Bear in mind, these thoughts are limited to the meeting, not the stock and definitely not the man. Berkshire is built for doomsday markets and the stock currently appears undervalued. And Buffett has earned every accolade bestowed on him. However, the frenzy surrounding the annual meeting and Buffett has reached bubble proportions.

Want proof? The growth rate of attendance has compounded by 21% over the last six years, while the stock has only compounded at 10% over the same period.

Want more? Recently, the Wall Street Journal tracked six years of winning bids for the annual charity “Lunch with Warren Buffett” auction. Take a look:

Year

Winning Bid

2003

$250,100

2004

$202,100

2005

$351,100

2006

$620,100

2007

$650,100

2008

$2,100,000

But while such compounded rates of return would be phenomenal for an investment, they appear to have an inverse effect on the quality of what has been the greatest shareholder Q&A session of all time.

Isn't it ironic?
Typically, value investors abhor a crowd. They seek hidden gems among the ruins of the unloved, underpriced, and often obscure. So for the true value hounds, here's a quick rundown of some under-the-radar Berkshiresque annual meetings that may not stay that way once the herd finds out:

Wesco Financial Corp. (AMEX: WSC  )
Every year in Pasadena, Charlie Munger gets to step out of Warren’s shadow, and beyond his typical “I have nothing to add” shtick. Although Wesco is 80% owned by Berkshire, Munger runs the show. It’s a rare opportunity to hear his unfiltered, unadulterated thoughts.

Markel Corp. (NYSE: MKL  )
While not widely known, this Richmond-based insurer is a favorite among the value crowd. Vice-Chair Steven Markel and Chief Investment Officer Thomas Gayner have instilled a corporate culture reminiscent of Berkshire as they themselves continue to make the annual trek to Omaha. Gayner has even been mentioned as a possible Buffett successor.

Leucadia National Corp. (NYSE: LUK  )
Ian Cumming and Joseph Steinberg run this low-profile operation. Maria Bartiromo may have a hard time securing an interview with these guys, but shareholders get a chance to once a year in New York. Leucadia has even done business with Berkshire Hathaway, through an aptly named partnership, Berkadia. Buffett commented in the 2003 shareholder letter: “Berkadia has made excellent money for us, and Joe and Ian have been terrific partners.”

Longleaf Partners (Nasdaq: LLPFX  )
Investing legend Mason Hawkins runs this Memphis-based mutual fund. Longleaf is arguably one of the most shareholder-friendly mutual funds in existence, and even makes audio excerpts from their annual meetings available for those unable to attend.

Sequoia (Nasdaq: SEQUX  )
Sequoia’s annual meeting consists mainly of questions about the fund’s stock portfolio. Upon the liquidation of his investment partnership, Buffett advised his clients to sign up with Sequoia. This was sage advice, as the fund has gained over 15% on average since their 1970 inception. Sequoia recently reopened their door to investors as of May 2008, after being closed for 25 years.

Dump or jump?
The truth is, while these investors and annual meetings are absolutely worthwhile in their own right, there is simply no substitute for hearing Warren Buffett express his thoughts live. His advancing age makes every annual meeting that much more precious.

So, ignore most of what I just said, go ahead and book your trip to Omaha. Get in line early, run to your Qwest center seat, and learn to ignore the kid in the oversized suit and tie kicking the back of your chair -- because this is still one shark worth jumping.

More Foolishness:

Fool contributor Andy Louis-Charles is a value investor who welcomes questions from young people, environmentalists, and the occasional egotist. Andy owns shares of Berkshire and Markel, but no other companies listed. Markel, Coca-Cola, and Berkshire are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Berkshire is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2008, at 1:19 AM, mikejw wrote:

    It seems that success is its own enemy. At least Warren Buffett doesn't have to suffer the fate of many a mutual fund manager in which they are inundated with funds from new shareholders because of their past success. I feel that shark was jumped when he started appearing on CNBC and started getting the Alan Greenspan treatment in which a single word of his could move markets.

    Just my two cents,

    mikejw

  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2008, at 2:32 PM, grigory99 wrote:

    "31,000 attendees flood the entrance ... [b]y the time the lights come on and the meeting starts, 20,000 pairs of eyes begin to glaze over"

    What happened to the other 11,000 pairs of eyes? this mystery demands to be solved! :) Well, that or you could fire your copy editor and hire me instead. ;)

  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2008, at 7:57 PM, gooser008 wrote:

    No mystery... 11,000 pairs of eyes never glazed over and listened to every single word. I was a part of this core shareholder audience and I do appreciate the sentiments in this article. Thanks!

  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2008, at 9:26 PM, grigory99 wrote:

    Same here, gooser, same here... My first pilgrimage to Omaha was last May, and while I was in awe of Buffett and Munger, I too was disappointed by the questions. I think they should pre-screen them and at the very least keep kids from the microphones. :^/

  • Report this Comment On July 24, 2008, at 2:58 PM, gulasnani wrote:

    RE Leucadia's Steinberg & Cumming you said "Maria Bartiromo may have a hard time securing an interview with these guys,"

    I think Maria is daughter-in-law of Steinberg. So, it would be easy for her to talk with Steinberg.

  • Report this Comment On July 24, 2008, at 3:24 PM, mbfenner wrote:

    Maria is the daughter-in-law of Saul Steinberg, not Joseph Steinberg. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Steinberg_%28business%29

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