The man they call the Oracle holds them spellbound again

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The Independent Online

They came from all corners of the country, from Florida, from Washington state, from New York City and from Houston, Texas. Some had travelled from China, from India, Australia, Germany and, yes, from the UK. And for six hours, in a packed stadium in this Nebraskan city, 31,000 people strained to hear the latest wise words of the man they call the Oracle of Omaha.

It is the yearly pilgrimage of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders to an annual meeting unlike any other in corporate America – by turns, a joyful outpouring of naked commercialism, an earnest tutorial in the business of investing, and a laugh-out-loud comedy performance.

The event loses none of its lustre with the advancing years of Warren Buffett, now 77, and his long-time business partner and comedy sidekick Charlie Munger, an improbable 84 years old. Berkshire Hathaway, after all, is now among the biggest companies in the world and Mr Buffett captured the title of world's richest man, worth $62bn (£31.4bn), in the latest Forbes magazine audit of these matters. Better still, the ageing process is a source of rich material.

"We're only ageing at a rate of one-and-a-quarter per cent a year, which is the lowest rate of ageing in corporate America," Mr Buffett tells shareholders. "Think of all those companies whose management is ageing at 2 per cent a year, and think how much riskier that is."

It was Mr Buffett's magic touch that grew Berkshire Hathaway from a tiny textile company he bought in the Sixties into one of the world's largest conglomerates, and it is his reputation alone that justifies keeping together what might otherwise be a ragbag of stock market investments and acquisitions across insurance, consumer brands and manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the homespun investment wisdom and the self-deprecating jokes draw a crowd well beyond the usual retirement-age attendees of annual meetings. Whole families make the journey to Omaha. Alongside the event, Berkshire Hathaway's investee companies exhibit their wares, and shareholders guzzle Dairy Queen ice creams, pick up leaflets for Geico car insurance and snap up souvenirs including Warren Buffett playing cards, and Fruit of the Loom T-shirts for babies, emblazoned with "future shareholder" logos.

As befits a venue most recently graced by Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, Warren Buffett gets rockstar treatment from shareholders, many of whom queued up before dawn for the chance to ask him a question. One twentysomething, attending his first meeting, brandishes a snatched digital camera shot of Mr Buffett touring the exhibition hall, chatting to shareholders. "He's the dude."

Inside the arena later, it is vintage Buffett, preaching a down-to-earth investment philosophy that is both timeless and, more than ever, in keeping with the times. Berkshire Hathaway invests in things Mr Buffett can understand. There is value in Coca-Cola because it has existed for more than 100 years and is known by everyone on the planet. He invested in Wrigley, the gum maker, a week ago for the same reasons. He eschewed tech stocks during the millennial boom, and he warned credit derivatives were "weapons of mass destruction" as the debt-market bubble was inflating. "It was nuttiness squared", Mr Buffett declared this time round – and in a year when investment banks' rush into esoteric mortgage derivatives has almost brought the financial system to its knees, investors are crying out for a little more Buffett and a little less Wall Street.

"I think the big investment banks and big commercial banks have got almost too big to manage effectively," Mr Buffett said, querying why so many Wall Street bosses relied on risk management committees to warn them about the dangers of any given investment or business strategy when their own "DNA should be programmed against risk ... They would meet weekly in their risk committees and all the statistics would be printed in nice columns, but they didn't have the faintest idea what risks were involved."

Mr Munger was – as usual – harsher in tone. "A risk manager is just a guy who makes you feel good while you do dumb things."

Mr Buffett revealed he was approached in March about buying Bear Stearns, the investment bank that nearly imploded before it agreed to be bought by JPMorgan. With Bear Stearns in need of $65bn, "I couldn't get my mind around that situation in the required time", he said.

He predicted it was only a matter of time before avaricious bankers make the same mistakes again. "Stupid things were done that won't be done soon again, and they won't be done in exactly the same way again, but they will pop up again. There are primal urges when it comes to getting rich."

So it was with these and similar warnings ringing in their ears that the faithful left for another year, fortified against temptation. The Oracle admonished his visitors to spurn false gods and to beware the "priesthood of finance". These, he said, are the financial advisers skilled in every last esoteric investment and incentivised to sell products rather than advise what might be best for you, which might be to put your money into a single market tracker fund. "It's like in biblical studies, if you can read obscure texts backwards in four or five languages, you are not going to teach that it basically all comes down to the Ten Commandments."

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