This is the morning session of the Warren Buffett/Charlie Munger question-and-answer session with shareholders at the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting at the Qwest Arena in Omaha, Nebraska on Saturday, May 3, 2008 as live-blogged on CNBC.com's Warren Buffett Watch. All times are Central.
CLICK HERE FOR THE LIVE BLOG OF THE AFTERNOON BUFFETT/MUNGER Q&A SESSION
8:31 am The lights have gone down in the arena. Buffett, on video tape, is introducing this year's movie. We asks that no one do any video recording, and all cameras are banned from the arena.
8:39 am: The film is a humorous cartoon that has Charlie Munger running for President. How will you fight global warming, he's asked. Everyone gets Dairy Queen ice cream!
8:41am: The cartoon is mentioning just about every Berkshire Hathaway property. Munger campaigns on NetJets, of course.
8:44 am: As the credits roll, every name is Charlie Munger. Produced by, directed by .. the entire technical crew ..
8:47am: The film continues with clips of people waiting on line for a (Jimmy) Buffett concert.
8:48 am: Now showing a comedy routine with John Cleese, interviewing a "financial expert" about the mortgage mess.
8:52 am: On tape, Jimmy Buffett is singing "Wasting Away in Berkshire Hathawayville"
8:57 am: Now showing commercials for various Berkshire properties. The arena is almost totally full. Even seats behind the stage have people in them.
8:58 am: On tape, Warren has just called Charlie about this new thing he discovered that no one knows about yet: the Internet. Warren wants to start buying Internet stocks. Charlie asks if he's out of his mind.
9:00 am: Warren calls Jamie Lee Curtis, lying in bed, who greets him with "If it isn't all-you-can-eat Buffet?" He asks her to convince Charlie the internet will be big.
9:05 am: On the tape, Jamie Lee Curtis sweet talks Charlie "Hunger" into getting on board with Internet stocks.
9:08am: On the tape, clips of Buffett fans, one of whom says Buffett shows how you can make a lot of money but not flaunt it.
9:09 am: On tape, CNBC's Becky Quick delivers a fake "Breaking News" report: Buffett is leaving Berkshire Hathaway! Looks like a set-up for a joke to come later in the tape.
9:10 am: Now showing Buffett's recently taped appearance for All My Children, which airs later this month. He's asked to help get Erica Kane out of prison, where she's being held for insider trading.
9:14 am: Shareholders are now being shown a clip of Buffett appearing before Congress in the early 90s, just after he took control of Salomon. He tells the lawmakers we'll be tolerant if Salomon employees lose money, but he'll be ruthless if they lose a shred of credibility for the firm.
9:18 am: A parody of the real-people/celebrity Geico commercials is being shown, featuring Charlie Munger and Little Richard.
9:20 am: More fake "Breaking News" from Becky. Buffett's departure may be some sort of "CEO Swap" involving ABC. Plus he now has a publicist! Unprecedented.
9:21 am: Now seeing more from Buffett's All My Children appearance. As he's visiting Kane in prison, his cell phone rings. It's Bill Gates calling.
9:23 am: Buffett's advice to Kane involves the "engrossing" world of contract bridge. Warren will ask the warden to give her three smart roommates so she can play bridge while serving her time. Echoes Buffett's own comment that he wouldn't mind being in jail if he had good bridge partners.
9:27 am: The tape is now showing a string of photos of Berkshire managers.
9:30 am: The tape has ended. The arena lights come up a bit, there's anticipatory applause scattered through the crowd.
9:32 am: Becky is back with more fake "Breaking News." Warren has switched jobs with All My Children's Susan Lucci. Becky says Lucci heading to Omaha to be the new Berkshire CEO.
9:33 am: Charlie Munger walks out onto stage and takes a seat, followed by Lucci, who wants to make some "changes around here" .. including changing the "cheap" dividend policy. The crowd applauds. Lucci also wants Berkshire to give guidance on earnings every single week. Plus, directors should be paid more than $900 a year. The directors, seating just in front of the stage, rise up and cheer.
9:35 am: Warren Buffett walks out on stage and "takes back" his job. The deal is off. His "role" is to run Berkshire Hathaway. But he tells Lucci to go to Borsheims and pick up anything she likes, and "charge it to Charlie."
9:36 am: "Let's get this show on the road." Buffett says he and Charlie will take questions until 3:30 with a break for lunch. Best estimate, says Buffett, something like 31,000 people in attendance.
9:38 am: Buffett introduces "the best directors in America" to strong applause. He asks that shareholders limit themselves to one question.
9:39 am: First questioner is from Bombay, India. He asks about how Buffett began investing. Buffett talks about the Benjamin Graham book, "The Intelligent Investor." You can't go wrong following his advice, says Buffett.
9:45 am: Once Berkshire owns all of Cologne Re, Buffett will take full responsibility for its investment portfolio.
9:46 am: "Charlie and I have no idea" where the stock market is going in the future. "We're not in that business .. It's just not our game." They see thousands and thousands of businesses, and every once in a while one of those businesses looks attractively priced. Charlie says he has nothing to add. Buffett says he's been practicing his speech for weeks.
9:50 am: Buffett says our job is not to choose great managers, our job is to retain them. Many of the managers come with the companies Berkshire buys. "Our job is to make sure they have the same enthusiasm for the job" after they get the big Berkshire stock certificate. More important to love the job than to love the money. "We have to see the passion in their eyes." Don't use contracts, "that doesn't work." Our managers feel appreciated and they are appreciated. Shareholders applaud.
9:54 am: How do you use stock options to buy into or exit from a publicly traded company? Buffett says usually you should just buy the stock outright. Using a call option to get a slightly better price may work four out of five times, but "we have virtually never used options to enter or exit a position." Buffett says, "If we want to buy something, we'll buy it."
9:56 am: Munger: "The idea of turning financial markets into casinos so that the croupiers can make more money has never made a lot of sense to us." Buffett says the idea that business school students are learning options pricing techniques is ridiculous. Just need to know how to value a company and stock market. "There's a great desire among the priesthood in financials to teach what they know and it has nothing to do with investing." Can't be influenced by the market. Requires a mindset, described in Chapter 8 of The Intelligent Investor.
10:00 am: Buffett says any money he's given to charity hasn't really affected his life. He admires those with much less who still give money and time to others.
10:02 am: Buffett says "we're proud of the way our businesses operate." He says we don't give those businesses a lot of guidelines. "We'll never trade away reputation for money." There's no pressure from Berkshire HQ on the businesses to report specific numbers.
10:06 am: Factories outside the U.S., such as those in China, do not have the same practices as in the U.S. Buffett says we're not going to tell the rest of the world how to do business, other than some fundamental standards.
10:08 am: Raw materials costs generally get passed through, although having a tough time right now passing through cost increases in Berkshire's carpet business, which is feeling effects of housing slowdown.
10:09 am: Acquisition of Israeli company Iscar has been a "dream" .. successful in every way.
10:10 am: We would be very happy if we could buy common stocks with long-term returns of 10 percent. Absolutely certain that Berkshire's stock performance will not be as good in the future as it has been in the past. The company is simply much larger. Even doubling a $500 million investment in a company will have only a small percentage impact on Berkshire's performance.
10:13 am: Anyone who thinks we're even going to come close to matching our past performance should sell their stock. He'll make decent money, but it won't be anywhere near what it's been before. "You may have something much better to do with your money than buy Berkshire." It's an attractive investment compared to other big companies, but it's not the most attractive opportunity in the world if you're willing to do the work to go through all the thousands of possibilities out there.
10:15 am: "Indigenous American" questioner says he has fasted on the long trip to Omaha "with a heavy heart" due to problems at the Klamath Dams. He asks that he and Buffett sit down to talk about getting dams removed. Buffett says he's barred from making any decisions about the dams. Buffett says he didn't mean to be disrespectful last year. This is connected with Berkshire's 2006 acquisition of a utility with control of the dams. An executive for the utility says it is working with the local tribes and hopes to come to an acceptable solution to the "complex" problem.
10:21 am: Asked how he maintains his good physical and mental health, Buffett eats a See's Candy, and says, "it starts with a balanced diet." Laughter. He then says how can you be sour on life when you're doing what you love. Charlie says he wishes "we were poster boys" for physical fitness but pretty much ignore all health rules. "It's worked out pretty well so far." Buffett: "Associating with wonderful people is about as good as it gets."
10:24 am: What would you do if you had to choose a different profession? He says he would do what he's doing. He was lucky to have "found his passion early." Most important thing is to do what you love. Plus: "no heavy lifting." Can't say its the right job for everyone, but anyone just going through the motions in life should find something else they really love. Also, "be sure you get the right spouse." Charlie: Best to be passionate about something you have aptitude for. Warren wouldn't have done well in the ballet.
10:31 am: Buffett says he was very shy about public speaking when he was younger. He got over it by forcing himself to speak in public. Communicating well is a very important skill. Helps to get together with other people who are shy about appearing in public. Best to do this when you're young. Very worthwhile to help introverted people get outside of themselves.
10:34 am: Woman identifying herself as a Klamath River keeper asks Buffett if he is familiar with the financial aspects of the dams. She says it would be less expensive to remove the dams and would ultimately benefit the utility's shareholders. Buffett replies that those kinds of decisions will be weighed by the utility and Oregon utility regulators. He says there are "enormous trade-offs" in deciding how to produce energy.
10:41 am: Buffett says Ben Graham really originated the idea of hedge fund trading, including "pair" trading, when one stock is bought long, and another, often in the same industry, is sold short.
10:46 am: Buffett describes "huge dislocations" in markets for muni bonds. The same issue would sometimes draw different bids at the same time. This kind of thing happens in times of great upheaval, such as the 1998 Long Term Capital crisis, and they're times when you can make a lot of money, especially if you have the time to soft through everything. By working very, very hard on smaller issues, you might be able to find some "great opportunities out there." Munger says generally these opportunities from dislocations are very brief. Like standing by a stream trying spear a fish that only comes by once a week. A "tough" business.
10:51 am: How do you grow a small business? Buffett says it just takes time. Can't build a company all at once. "There's nothing magic." In a general ways, he says, we've been doing the same thing for years and will continue to do the same thing for years. "We're not unhappy if we're not galloping. We're unhappy if we're not moving forward at all."
10:52 am: The usual pattern is for Warren to answer a question first, then toss it to Charlie, who will sometimes also respond, and sometimes just make a brief sardonic comment. As might be expected, they feel very comfortable with each other.
10:57 am: Buffett discusses his new bond insurance company, saying it's remarkable that it was built in a small office in Connecticut over a matter of months.
11:01 am: Easier to evaluate a company that pays you cash. Financial statements alone don't tell the whole story. Have to know something about the industry a business is in.
11:02 am: Another questioner makes a statement on the Klamath River Dam situation and asks how Buffett would handle a pollution problem. The crowd feels a little restless. Buffett says essentially its the government's job at state and national levels to make policy on energy. A utility executive, "not meaning to be disrespectful," notes that the company is not "adding anything" to the water but understands the various concerns.
11:05 am: Seventh-grader from Philadelphia asks what he should be reading because there are "a lot of things they don't teach you in school." Buffett advises he start with a daily newspaper. "Sop up" what's going on in the world. At some point you'll find what really interests you. The more you learn, the more you want to learn. Charlie says the "young person who just spoke has already figured out how to succeed in life."
11:09 am: German questioner asking lengthy question about how a German chocolate maker compares to See's. Warren asks that he get to the question, please. It's a question about the trade-off of profits and expansion. Buffett repeats his standard criteria: durable competitive advantage, good management, good price.
11:10 am: Buffett says we never urge people to sell their business, we urge them to keep them. The time we may buy a company is when a family business is forced to sell by outside factors. In those cases, Berkshire can help keep the business operating the way it had been when owned by the family. Going to Europe to talk to family businesses and let them know the Berkshire alternative may be there if they need it.
11:12 am: "The stock market will give you bargain prices. Individual owners won't." Buffett looks for a good price when buying a private company, not a bargain. Charlie says it's insane to sell a family business to someone you don't know just to get a higher price.
11:14 am: Buffett says "we are happy" to invest in companies that make money in foreign currencies, because he doesn't think those currencies will significantly depreciate against the U.S. dollar. He repeats his feeling that the dollar will continue to weaken over the next ten years. He doesn't specifically hedge against the U.S. dollar. If he came from Mars with "Mars currency" and had to exchange it, he probably wouldn't put all the money into dollars. He's happy to invest in companies that have significant earnings outside the U.S., such as Coca-Cola. "We're not in the business of hedging currencies."
11:18 am: What would Buffett do if he was investing with small sums of money? He replies it would open up "thousands of opportunities" for him in bonds, stocks, including stocks overseas. For example, found great opportunities in Korea a few years ago, but he couldn't put a lot of money into them. Most of the opportunities would be in small stocks. Charlie? "Sure."
11:22 am: Buffett says, "I think we have three pretty good candidates this time." Pandering is, unfortunately, part of the political process. This time the candidates are "pretty smart" about economics, especially two of the three. Political process doesn't lend itself to Lincoln-Douglas debates on the fine points of policy. It's built in. Country works pretty well no matter who is in office. "You want to buy stock in a company that's so good it can be run by an idiot, because sooner or latter it probably will." Same thing with the country.
11:29 am: On question of succession, Buffett says on CEO front have three ready who could step in a do a better job than I do, and the board knows which one it would pick if it had to do so right away. In the long-run, wants someone who is relatively young. On investment officer, as he said before, there are four candidates who have "good jobs now" and are happy where they are but "would be here tomorrow if I died." None of the four is concerned about compensation. None of them would want to come now because he's still making the decisions. "When I'm not around to make the decisions, the board will decide whether to have one, two, three or all four making the investment decisions." There will be no gap after his death, he says, and they'll probably be more energetic. This is he first time I've heard Buffett raise the possibility that his investment duties at Berkshire might not go to just one person after he stops doing the job.
11:34 am: Buffett says there have been a number of times over the years when he's been confident enough to put 75 percent of his net worth into an idea. Munger jokes there have been times when he's put in more than 100 percent of his net worth. Buffett says it doesn't happen often, but there are times when you'll see extraordinary opportunities and you should put 75 percent of your net worth into them. Just don't put in 500 percent of your net worth!
11:36 am: Charlie adds that many people say the secret of investment is diversification. They have it, he says, "bass ackwards." Diversification is for know-nothing investors, not professionals. Buffett adds that there's nothing wrong with being a know-nothing investor, and that they should diversify.
11:41 am: Woman asks if married couple's assets should be separated or managed in total? Buffett says its best to look at overall financial situation, not where individual assets are located. "Don't treat them as being in separate pots." When it comes to Berkshire, Buffett says he doesn't even think about which subsidiary might hold a particular investment. It's all for Berkshire." he then back-pedaled a bit, saying there's always the chance of divorce, and he's feeling uncomfortable giving marriage advice.
11:45 am: What happens on the day oil runs out? World War Three? Buffett says it doesn't work that way. Production will gradually be depleted over time. At some point, the world will hit peak production, then it will gradually taper down. We'll still be producing oil well into the century, just a question of how much. Nothing like an on or off switch for the world. There may be big political considerations surrounding access to the available oil, but there's nothing we can do in the short run to wean the world off of oil.
11:49 am: Munger says ultimately the world will have to use the sun as its energy source. "Crazy" to use up carbon-based fuels, for which there is no alternative. He says government policy on energy is not especially rational. Eventually to have a prosperous economy, we'll have to rely on the sun for energy. Munger seems more idealistic on the question, Buffett more pragmatic.
11:52 am: Questioner suggests Buffett and Munger each serve one term as President, starting with Buffett. Buffett replies that Charlie should serve first. Buffett then says if President, he would do something about the tax system, so that the super-rich pay more.
11:53 am: On ethanol, Charlie says the idea of turning food into fuel is one of the stupidest ever. he says he thinks its on the way out.
11:54 am: How would you invest your first million if you were just starting out and were not a full-time investor? Buffett's answer: a low-cost stock index fund with a company like Vanguard. Charlie says if you don't have any prospects of being a very skilled investor, you should go with an index fund. he and Buffett warn against listening to people who make money by telling you what to do with your money, although Charlie notes that some stockbrokers are perfectly honorable people.
11:58 am: What advice would you give to children on finances? Buffett says generally children will follow example of their parents, and will be sensible if the parents are sensible and live within their means with an eye to the future. He says it may sometimes be best to spend money on some things when you're young, such as a trip to Disney World that can create memories for your family. "I do not advocate extreme frugality."
12:02 pm: Someone in the crowd is yelling words I can't make out. Buffett ignores the commotion and breaks for lunch. He promises to continue answering questions a bit later. The lights come up, and after 3-1/2 hours the crowd starts to move around. Time for me to get lunch, too. The live blog will continue in about an hour.
Current Berkshire price:
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