As one of the most popular investing personalities on earth, Warren Buffett is the subject of constant scrutiny. Markets turn on every word from the Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A -2.47%) (BRK.B -2.63%) CEO, and when people get a concentrated dose of Buffett at events like Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting in early May, they have a field day trying to parse through everything he says.
Berkshire's May 2 shareholder meeting, which was live-streamed from an empty arena because of the coronavirus pandemic, was an unprecedented event for Buffett. The Oracle of Omaha was adamant that the show needed to go on, spending hours talking and answering questions in addition to conducting the necessary business of an annual meeting. Critics have questioned Buffett's apparent demeanor during the presentation, suggesting that he wasn't as inspiring as he's been in past meetings.
Yet rather than jumping to conclusions about how his entire investing strategy might have done an about-face, the more likely explanation is one that millions of people are grappling with right now.
Talking to an empty room
I've never had the opportunity to see Warren Buffett in person at a Berkshire annual meeting, but everyone who has ever visited Omaha, Nebraska, for the early May event has come away with a much different view of the company and its CEO. With crowds of thousands hanging on his every word, Buffett recognizes the importance of what he's saying, and he gives each moment the proper respect.
Yet to a greater extent than most would think likely, Buffett is an entertainer. He genuinely likes being around people, especially the longtime shareholders whom he sees every year and has inevitably gotten to know over time. You can see how Buffett builds on his audience's reactions, engaging in a back-and-forth exchange of ideas that inspires him to make some of his most memorable pronouncements.
Now imagine what Buffett had to do for 2020. He still chose to hold his meeting at the CHI Health Center, the same arena as in past years. Yet Buffett had only a skeleton crew of about a dozen people with him.
It clearly affected him. For the first hour and a half, Buffett played history professor, talking about the founding of the United States and its economic evolution. For a meeting that he initially saw lasting an hour in total, Buffett spoke in detail and at a deliberate pace -- all while getting no cues at all from the thousands of Berkshire shareholders watching him across the globe about whether what he was saying was resonating with his audience.
Answering everything that got thrown at him
Buffett seemed to get his composure back during the formalities of the official shareholder meeting, with the usual litany of vote counts and shareholder proposals putting him back on familiar ground. And then, when CNBC's Becky Quick started asking him questions, Buffett was able to have a real conversation again of the type he would've missed having with an arena full of people.
Along the way, Buffett gave plenty of nuggets of wisdom for investors to consider:
- Even when your favorite holding period is forever, there are times when ripping off the bandage is the right move.
- Having a lot of cash in your portfolio might not give you the best returns during bull markets, but it offers a great deal of peace of mind when the bottom falls out.
- Even after he's no longer there to run Berkshire, Buffett expects the insurance giant to be in good hands -- whether those hands belong to non-insurance vice chair Greg Abel or another of Berkshire's executives.
That last point is especially important, because as much as Buffett jokes about his mortality, he's also aware of what it means to Berkshire and its shareholders. Worries about Berkshire's underperformance have some calling the stock a poor investment.
Yet Buffett will remember quite well the same complaints getting lobbed at him back in the late 1990s, when Berkshire largely missed out on the tech boom. He'll know that markets will do what they do over the short run, but he's still confident in the stock market's long-term prospects -- and the prospects of the companies in which Berkshire has invested.
At the end of the day, that's all Berkshire shareholders really want. Hopefully, Buffett won't have to make that point from an empty arena ever again.