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Even though I've owned some B-class shares for several years, this was my first time attending the annual shareholder meeting of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) , also known as Woodstock for Capitalists. In a way, I guess, you could call me a "Berkshire virgin."
From my colleagues at the Fool who had been there before, and who were planning to cover it for The Motley Fool, I had heard of what typically happened during the meeting. I was excited to see for myself -- and I wasn't disappointed.
On Friday, fellow Fool Andy Louis-Charles and I attended the value investor panel put together by the portfolio practicum class of Creighton University College of Business. According to the dean, Dr. Anthony Hendrickson, the value investing class has run about $2.5 million of the university's endowment; over the past 10 years, it has done significantly better than the professional managers who handle the rest of the endowment's funds. The message? Value investing isn't rocket science.
I also got a good stock tip from Patrick Brennan of RBO & Co. He liked the prospects of Bladex (NYSE: BLX ) , a Panama-based bank which facilitates international trade throughout Central and South America. It works strictly with short-term working capital loans to help importers and exporters with their day-to-day cash flow needs. It also happens to be a recommendation of our Global Gains newsletter service.
The big day
Saturday morning came, and I joined the line, nay, mob, outside the Qwest Center. One thought struck me as ironic: We're all supposed to be value investors, which usually means being a contrarian, going against the crowd. Yet here we were, all moving in the same direction.
There's something impressive about seeing 40,000 or so people all grouped together with a single purpose. Berkshire's annual meeting must be the most highly attended of any company in the country. The arena was packed with shareholders eager to hear and watch Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger dispense advice.
After the opening movie -- among other amusing tidbits, it featured Buffett as a relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox -- the two executives got down to some serious questions and answers.
As has been widely reported already, Buffett explained part of the background to the SEC's civil lawsuit against Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , with a statement of support for Goldman's actions. However, Charlie Munger came in at the end, paraphrasing something he said in Poor Charlie's Almanack: "We believe there should be a huge area between everything you should do and everything you can do without getting into legal trouble. I don't think you should come anywhere near that line." Perhaps it was a warning to the investment banker crowd. His words got quite a round of applause.
While nothing Buffett and Munger said in most of the answers they gave was really new -- after all, they've been writing and teaching value investing for a long time -- it was somehow more special to hear it live and in person.
A bit of walking around
I'm not much into getting souvenirs, but I did pick up a couple in the exhibit hall. One was a bookmark from Precision Steel Warehouse, made out of rolled steel. This Berkshire company buys rolled steel in bulk, and then cuts it to length and width as needed by end users, who turn it into things as diverse as steel jewelry and clock springs. The sales manager I spoke with said the Berkshire annual meeting was his favorite tradeshow, because he gets to just talk with the shareholders. At a professional trade show, he's busy answering technical questions on thickness, carbon content, and whatnot. Having been to a few professional trade shows as a vendor, I can appreciate his point.
In my opinion, the coolest exhibit was just outside the exhibit hall: a diesel train engine simulator used to teach engineers how to drive a train. A Burlington Northern representative was demonstrating it, letting shareholders drive the simulated train themselves. I didn't do it, but my fingers were itching. My dad would have loved it.
Nobody remained at the end
Apparently, the actual business part of the annual meeting was not very important, at least to the vast majority of shareholders. By the time Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger finished answering questions at 3:30 and were ready to conduct the one item of business -- the election of the board of directors -- roughly 75% of the shareholders had left the arena. Either they had already submitted their proxies (more than 70% of the votes were present either in person or by proxy) or they didn't care. As in politics, in business we get the boards we deserve. Thankfully, Buffett, Munger, and the board members of Berkshire Hathaway have high ethical standards and are running the company in shareholders' best interests.
But can we say the same for scandal-wracked Goldman Sachs? Would the former shareholders of Adelphia or Enron still own living companies if their boards knew that investors were closely watching their actions? UBS (NYSE: UBS ) recently got a taste of investor revolt, as shareholders refused to exonerate former top executives for their roles in nearly bringing that bank to ruin.
We need more executives, boards, and, yes, shareholders who take to heart Buffett's words to Congress in 1991 during the Salomon scandal: "Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless."
All in all, I'm glad I went.