Buffett’s big day

Lessons have been learnt

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It may be called “Woodstock for capitalists”, but the vibe at this year’s Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting may be less about peace and love and more about the bottom line.

Investing legend Warren Buffett looks a little flat after his worst performance in Berkshire’s 43-year history. To his credit, he has changed the meeting’s format to have shareholder questions focus on the company rather than the more typical digging for pearls of wisdom from Mr Buffett and sidekick Charlie Munger. Some shareholder questions will be vetted by a trio of financial journalists and others through a lottery rather than a rush for the microphones – a system that had become unwieldy given the expected record attendance of 35,000 people.

Investors will almost certainly ask Mr Buffett, who once described derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction”, about the $37bn in puts Berkshire wrote on various equity indices that have produced big paper losses. Some are also fretting over the $15bn in plain and hybrid debt he bought from Wrigley, Goldman Sachs and General Electricduring the credit crunch.

Another question mark will be his unusually poor timing in buying ConocoPhillips shares as the oil bubble neared bursting point last year. Finally, investors might wonder what will happen to that Berkshire magic after Mr Buffett, 78, and Mr Munger, 85, move on.

Anyone expecting Mr Buffett to be defensive will be disappointed. Few bosses are so quick to admit their mistakes or, more important, learn from them. He has little to apologise for given his record of producing 84 times the return of equities overall since 1965. Even 2008’s annus horribilis trounced the overall S&P 500 by 27 percentage points. The meeting may be more focused this year. But in discussing how he aims to profit from the credit crisis, Mr Buffett should still impart plenty of wisdom.

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