Tens of thousands of investors will fill an Omaha arena this weekend to spend hours listening to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger talk about business and life.
The two men submit to the annual questioning from Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, reporters and analysts at the conglomerate’s annual meeting each spring that has become an annual tradition for many in the crowd.
Thousands of people continue to attend even though the meetings are now broadcast live online by Yahoo Finance. Berkshire officials say this year’s attendance could top the record of 42,000 set a few years ago when the company marked 50 years of Buffett’s leadership, but the attendance figures are only an estimate based on the number of meeting pass requests. Some shareholders request passes just for the shopping discounts at Berkshire companies.
Here are a few of the key questions Berkshire’s top two executives may face questions about on Saturday:
WHO WILL EVENTUALLY REPLACE BUFFETT?
Buffett has no plans to retire because he enjoys what he does and making investment decisions doesn’t involve any heavy lifting. Buffett has long said that Berkshire had a short list of executives within the company who could take over the company after he’s gone, but he always refused to name the candidates.
Earlier this year, Buffett inspired new speculation on the subject when he promoted Greg Abel and Ajit Jain to vice chairmen and expanded their responsibilities. But he didn’t say much about the change in his shareholder letter.
Abel, who leads Berkshire Hathaway’s utility unit, has begun overseeing all of the conglomerate’s non-insurance business operations. Jain now oversees all of Berkshire’s insurance operations after previously dealing just with the reinsurance side of the business.
Clayton Homes CEO Kevin Clayton said the move is already paying off. For instance, he said Abel encouraged him to think more long-term about potential investments in Berkshire’s manufactured home builder because he’s used to investing big sums in utilities.
“Greg Abel and Ajit was such a great move. They’re great people, and they’re already adding value,” Clayton said.
HOW HEALTHY ARE THEY?
Buffett and Munger appear to be in good health for their ages, and neither one has reported any major health problems since Buffett underwent prostate cancer treatment in 2012.
The meeting gives shareholders a chance to evaluate Buffett and Munger’s health for themselves, said Andy Kilpatrick, who has followed Berkshire for years while writing and updating “Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett.”
“I think it’s a chance to see how he is and how Munger is,” Kilpatrick said.
Over more than five decades, Buffett has used acquisitions to build Berkshire into a sprawling conglomerate that owns more than 90 different companies in a variety of industries, including electric utilities, retail jewelers, insurance and BNSF railroad. Berkshire also holds major investments in companies such as Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, American Express and Apple.
But Buffett is sitting on more than $116 billion of cash and bonds because he’s struggled to find acquisitions at sensible prices in recent years. That was the total at the end of last year, but Berkshire’s businesses generate roughly $1.5 billion a month.
“They’re sitting on all the cash,” Edward Jones analyst Jim Shanahan said.
Buffett’s options include buying entire businesses, picking up a few million shares of stock or investing more in companies Berkshire already owns, such as BNSF railroad and the utilities of Berkshire Hathaway energy.
Investors will be looking for clues about what Buffett might buy next or whether he is any closer to considering paying a dividend. In the past, Buffett has always said he believes shareholders will gain more if the cash is reinvested.
New accounting rules that took effect this year will force Berkshire to change the way it accounts for the value of its stock investments in its earnings reports. The first test of that change will come Saturday morning when the first-quarter earnings report is released.
Shanahan, the Edward Jones analyst, said Berkshire could wind up reported a loss in net income during the quarter because of the accounting change even though the loss would mostly be on paper because Berkshire doesn’t often sell its stocks.
“Berkshire could report a pretty significant loss for the period,” Shanahan said.
Berkshire already reports operating earnings, which exclude investment values and tax changes, alongside net income every quarter. Buffett says investors should pay more attention to those to get a sense of how the company’s various businesses are performing.