This year’s Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting will feature many of its usual trappings: from its venue at Omaha’s Qwest Center to its crowds of disciples; from the spectacle of an event renowned for celebrity cameos to home-spun adages from its unquestioned star, Warren Buffett.
Yet in spite of the familiar veneer, the 2009 “Woodstock for Capitalists” may mark a departure from past years in at least one respect: some shareholders may use the meeting as a forum to air their concerns about the billionaire’s investments and Berkshire’s performance.
While the financial crisis and deepening economic downturn are unlikely to damp the enthusiasm for Mr Buffett or Berkshire, which has continued to outperform benchmark indices, they have tested some investors’ devotion to the buy-and-hold strategies Mr Buffett has championed for decades.
“By year end,” he wrote earlier this year in his annual letter to shareholders, “investors of all stripes were bloodied and confused, much as if they were small birds that had strayed into a badminton game.”
Count Berkshire shareholders among those investors tending to their wounds.
The one-time textile company is coming off its worst year in Mr Buffett’s tenure. Net income dropped 59 per cent in 2008 to $4.99bn, or $3,224 a share. Berkshire’s class A shares tumbled 32 per cent. Per-share book value, or total assets minus intangible assets and liabilities, fell 9.6 per cent.
For reasons Mr Buffett may not have foreseen a year ago, he is likely to draw more critical questions from shareholders this weekend about his company and his recent investments than in recent years.
Mr Buffett has tweaked the format this time around, asking shareholders to submit their questions to a trio of reporters, who would in turn select the ones Mr Buffett and his vice-chairman, Charles Munger, will field on Saturday. It is a safe bet that there will be more inquiries on Berkshire’s portfolio of equity derivatives than on Mr Buffett’s recommended reads or religious beliefs.
“Berkshire is like his child,” says Alice Schroeder, a former analyst and author of the Buffett biography, The Snowball. “It was being ignored and he didn’t like that. He’ll be asked questions that will either force or allow him to defend or explain what has gone wrong.”
Once the internet bubble burst in early 2000, value investors – generally those who seek out bargain stocks – outperformed the market for seven consecutive years. According to the MSCI style indices, based on the stocks that are most popular with investment managers who use the value and growth styles, the world value index gained 57.7 per cent from March 2000 until world markets’ peak in October 2007. Meanwhile, the growth index fell by 4.1 per cent.
The figures for the US were even more stark, with value gaining 37.6 per cent, while growth lost 15.3 per cent.
Part of this was driven by the historic overvaluation for growth stocks at the top of the internet bubble. But the credit bubble also helped value investors, as companies with the strong balance sheets that they favour opted to boost earnings per share by buying back shares with borrowed cash.
Banks and other financial services companies are also popular with value investors, so this also helped performance. For instance, Berkshire maintains large stakes in Wells Fargo, the fourth biggest US bank, and in credit-card issuer American Express.
This picture has changed radically since the bear market in stocks began.
Value investors have not suffered any significant underperformance, but investment style has been irrelevant, with stocks falling uniformly since the downturn.
Since the peak in October 2007, the FTSE-World Value index has fallen 48.4 per cent, while the FTSE-World Growth index has dropped 48.6 per cent. So value investors must contend with the fact that their much vaunted search for stocks that offered a “margin of safety” failed totally to protect their investors from the downturn – and may even have helped to stoke the excessive use of credit.
“In a market that has just gone down 50 per cent, buy-and-hold doesn’t seem to work,” says Robert Hagstrom, a fund manager at Legg Mason Capital Management, who wrote The Warren Buffett Way. “If you bought and held American Express for three to five years, it’s been a disaster. But I don’t think it negates forever the rationale.
“Are we turning the market into a day-trading environment, or is there still some value to holding great corporations in this country?”
For Mr Buffett, whose investment philosophy is often intertwined with his irrepressible optimism for capitalism’s future and America’s place within it, there is little debate.
He has remained a cheerleader for US stocks, telling investors in an October New York Times opinion piece he would “be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful”.
Investors are expected to ask him whether he is willing to shed more of his core holdings to pursue deals that exploit flagging confidence in both the markets and corporate America.
Berkshire closed the year with about $30bn in cash, at the low end of the range the company has held in recent years, says Mark Rouck, an analyst at Fitch Ratings, which dropped its Berkshire Hathaway credit grade from triple A to double A-plus in March.
“In a real bear market, successful investors reposition portfolios, and sometimes do so drastically,” Ms Schroeder says. “In the past he has typically sold before the crash, so he hasn’t been faced with this situation.”
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