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Berkshire 2011: Sokol, Insults, and Everything in Between

By Joe Magyer – Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 10:04PM

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A look back at this year's Woodstock.

Grandma's cooking, Night Court reruns, and old fashioneds never seem to disappoint. Neither do Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A)(NYSE: BRK-B) dynamic duo captivate tens of thousands each year at their annual meeting's marathon question-and-answer sessions. This year's meeting was no exception, with Buffett and Munger fielding questions on everything from gold to inflation to succession planning.

You can read along with our coverage of the Berkshire annual meeting. Or, if you're just plain lazy, you can read the highlights right here.

  • On Sokolgate: Berkshire's audit committee threw ex-exec David Sokol under a train late last week. Buffett didn't mince words, either, saying that Sokol violated Berkshire's insider-trading rules and the principles Buffett lays out every two years to his managers. For his part, Munger summed up Sokol's actions with one word: hubris.
  • On tech: Buffett and Munger would both invest considerable time learning more about technology companies if they had many more years ahead of them. A bit surprising to hear from Buffett, but that's hardly a plot twist coming from the broader-minded and more growth-oriented Munger. Munger, who once described Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) as having the widest moat he's ever seen, also recommended reading Steven Levy's new book on Google, In the Plex.
  • On Costco: Charlie waxed poetic on Costco (Nasdaq: COST) a couple of times during the meeting, leading Buffett to give him a good razzing. Fun fact: Costco CEO Jim Sinegal once told us the only stock he owned other than Costco's is that of Berkshire Hathaway.
  • On Berkshire's valuation: Buffett was cagey, as always, when it comes to talking about Berkshire's valuation. He did say, perhaps coyly, "We do not think that Berkshire is overpriced."
  • On issuing shares: Buffett is really, really not a fan of using shares as currency in an acquisition. He's reluctant to do so with Berkshire's and doesn't care for it when a company he has a stake in pulls that card. Asked about Johnson & Johnson's (NYSE: JNJ) move to use its own beaten-down shares to help fund its latest acquisition, Buffett said he'd like the deal a whole lot better if they weren't using stock.
  • On dividends: Buffett flatly shot down the idea of Berkshire's paying a dividend anytime soon. Not just that, but he believes that Berkshire's stock would drop if the company announced a dividend, because that would be Berkshire's way of admitting that the compounding machine is running out of steam. Maybe so, but Buffett's eventual successor probably won't waste any time in beginning a quarterly dividend payment.
  • On gold: Buffett and Munger are still pretty bearish on commodity investing at large. They view the general premise like this: You buy and hope that someone else is willing to pay more for it later. Buffett recommends buying productive assets instead of speculating in commodities. Munger captured the gold thesis nicely: "There's something peculiar about an asset that will only go up if the world goes to hell."
  • On other forms of hard-asset investing: Munger: "There's another class of people who think they can protect themselves by buying paintings of soup cans. I don't recommend that, either."
  • On great expectations: Buffett: "Charlie is big on lowering expectations." Munger: "That's how I got married." Buffett: "And he lived up to them."
  • On unrealistic compliance concerns: Buffett: "We have 260,000 employees. At Berkshire, there are presently three people that can execute trades."
  • On hating the game: Munger: "I hate the idea that 25% of our engineers are going into the financial sector."
  • On dementia: Munger: "The hedge fund managers of America are getting lower tax rates than professors of physics or cab drivers. That is demented."
  • On bailouts: It's one thing to bail out an institution that has social value, but another thing entirely to bail out its shareholders and managers. Said Buffett: "I think that any institution that requires bailing out by society should see its CEO and its spouse left dead broke." Tell us how you really feel, Warren.
  • On Ajit Jain: Buffett was asked about Ajit Jain, the apparent new front-runner for the role of Berkshire's next CEO. He makes no secret of his adoration of Jain. Buffett throws superlatives at him like a high school yearbook editor.
  • On the debt ceiling: Per Buffett, not raising the debt ceiling would be the most asinine act of Congress. There's no chance they won't raise it.
  • On nuclear: Buffett still believes nuclear power is an important part of the equation in solving our challenges. I agree.
  • On growth: Many investors think Buffett and Munger aren't growth guys, but that's false. To them, growth is part of the investment equation. They especially love companies that can earn high returns on incremental capital. The classic example? See's Candies.
  • On wind power: Great, but not a realistic solution. Not only is it uneconomic without subsidies, but the fact that wind blows only 35% of the time nixes the chance for wind to be a contributor to our base load power needs.
  • On Todd Combs: Buffett says to check back in another four years. You can't judge an investor over six months.
  • On climate change: Numerous shareholders spoke during the business portion of the meeting regarding a Berkshire position on climate change. An exhausted Munger literally fell asleep after being subjected to a couple of speakers. Being a billionaire must be awesome.
  • On 100 years: A woman asked Buffett what would like to be remembered for in 100 years. "Old age." Munger: "Warren wants people to say at his funeral, 'That's the oldest-looking corpse I ever saw.'"
  • On insulting people: Buffett: "If there's anybody we've forgotten to insult, pass a note up and we'll get to you."

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Joe Magyer owns shares of Google, Berkshire Hathaway, and Johnson & Johnson. All three, along with Costco, are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations and Motley Fool holdings. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Berkshire Hathaway and Costco are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections, too. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Johnson & Johnson, and Alpha Newsletter Account, LLC, owns shares of Johnson & Johnson, which is also a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. And the road goes on forever. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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