Faithful flock to hear the Sage's homespun wisdom

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The Independent Online

The prim young Californian investment manager couldn't quite believe she was on a plane to Omaha, Nebraska, of all places, so she banished the thought by catching up on her week's reading of the Wall Street Journal. A few seats in front of her, hotel manager and day trader Robert Hayward marvelled that any one man could command his undivided attention for six-and-a-half hours, much less induce him to travel half-way across the country for the weekend.

The prim young Californian investment manager couldn't quite believe she was on a plane to Omaha, Nebraska, of all places, so she banished the thought by catching up on her week's reading of the Wall Street Journal. A few seats in front of her, hotel manager and day trader Robert Hayward marvelled that any one man could command his undivided attention for six-and-a-half hours, much less induce him to travel half-way across the country for the weekend.

Incredulous they might have been, but they were also hooked. Warren Buffett, the world's second richest man and its single most successful investor, was holding his fabled annual shareholders' meeting in his hometown on the Great Plains, and they were determined not to miss the opportunity to listen to his pearls of wisdom and quiz him on the pressing financial questions of the times.

They were hardly alone. More than 19,000 people converged on Omaha, some travelling just a few miles across Nebraska's wheat-field landscape and others coming from as far afield as Greece, India and Australia for the opportunity to question Buffett for six hours straight. At the stadium-sized Qwest Convention Center on the edge of downtown Omaha, the queue to get into the event began at one o'clock on Saturday morning, six hours before the doors opened.

The event has become known as the Woodstock of the investment world, a unique opportunity to hear Buffett's celebrated challenges to received Wall Street wisdom, his biting criticisms of corporate accounting fudges and self-interested investment fund management strategies, his defence of long-term "value" investing and his skewering of moral lapses across the financial spectrum.

As the Sage of Omaha nudges towards his 74th birthday, the extravaganza also had a wistful edge, as several participants wondered just how many more of these events they can still look forward to. Several questions addressed the succession (we were told there are four internal candidates) and the future of Buffett's estimated $43bn personal wealth (his charitable foundation).

The participants were hardly counter-cultural types - prim jackets and even primmer hairstyles abounded - and their enthusiasm was expressed with nothing more passionate than polite applause and eloquent mini-speeches from the floor. But that made them no less effusive.

One Massachusetts investor jokingly referred to himself as a member of a cult, and thanked Buffett for providing "true North, a moral compass for me to steer by". In similar vein, Buffett's number two and on-stage sparring partner, Charlie Munger, referred to the shareholders as "the quirky few", albeit a whole indoor stadium's worth.

This year the fans had particular reason to be happy. The stock price of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett's holding company, has gained about one-third since the last meeting, with Class A shares closing at $93,390 on Friday compared with $69,800 on the same day last year. Their numbers swelled accordingly, from 11,000 to an estimated 19,500. The brand new Qwest Center was finished just in time - last year's venue would have been too small.

The event unrolled with an hour-long film, which set the tone of down-home unpretentiousness and wry Midwestern humour. An opening cartoon depicted a tractor chugging across a landscape of gentle rolling hills, followed in short order by a spoof superhero story in which the "Warrenator" was called to do battle against an evil mega-corporation called MicroWalBucks.

There were celebrity cameos from Bill Gates and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Buffett was famously brought in as an adviser to help the action star prepare for the California governorship) as well as quiet plugs for the Berkshire Hathaway group of companies - among them GEICO insurance and Fruit of the Loom clothing.

And then the real business began. The two men sat at a linen-covered table well stocked with See's Candies (a Berkshire subsidiary) and Cherry Coke (Buffett's favourite, ever since he took a $10bn position in the Coca Cola company). The questions ranged from details of Berkshire Hathaway's current financial health (no comment, pending its first-quarter results) to its involvement in the energy business to broader questions of macroeconomics and personal finance.

Buffett is the object of tremendous respect because of his loyalty to his Nebraska roots, his accessibility and his unpretentious manner. He still lives in the modest brick house in Omaha that he bought in 1958, and has since become an investor in the Acme Brick Company that provided the building materials. True, he also has multi-million dollar homes in southern California and elsewhere, but Nebraskans are fond of the symbolism nonetheless. The vanity plate on his fancy car reads: THRIFTY.

Buffett weekend is a singularly intense experience for native Omahans. The Borsheim jewellery house, a Berkshire company, does an estimated 8 per cent of its annual business on this single weekend. Restaurants and bars are packed to the gills with out-of-towners ordering Omaha's famous steaks and pulled pork sandwiches.

The Buffett style may be singular, but it is also catching on. One of the recurring themes of the meeting was the fact that Google, the internet search engine, had paid lavish homage to Buffett and his highly intellectualised approach to communicating with the market place in its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission announcing its first public share flotation last week.

Google's letter to potential shareholders echoed the style of Buffett's annual missives and quoted his pledge of integrity in presenting quarterly results: "If earnings figures are lumpy when they reach headquarters, they will be lumpy when they reach you."

Mr Buffett returned the compliment by dropping the Google name throughout the day. Asked about Google's prospects, he said he liked the way they presented their ideas, even if he did not agree with all of them. "My guess," he added, "is their annual reports are going to make very good reading."

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