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Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting: The Takeaway

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OMAHA -- More than 30,000 roared when executive compensation consultants were called prostitutes. It was similar when libertarian former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was caricatured as believing that any axe murder must be good if it occurs in a free market.

There was funny video featuring the cast of Glee, tennis icons Roger Federer and Billie Jean King and a cartoon in which the character of Herman Cain was voiced by, yes, Herman Cain. Then there was badmouthing of graduate business schools, most any new stock issue and even those who say we must seek "energy independence."

But the stars on stage weren't left-wing comics but two laconic octogenarian investors of rock-solid Midwest bent. And their adoring audience waved butterscotch lollypops, not cell phone cameras, with a revival meeting air laced with opportunities to enjoy fat price breaks on high-end jewelry, cocktail tables, peanut brittle and running shoes.

Throw in the presence of Bono and Bill Gates, huge parties at a furniture mart and a jewelry store and games ranging from ping pong to newspaper tosses and you've got much of the weekend-long annual shareholders gathering of Berkshire Hathaway, the pride of Omaha.

It's a one-of-a-kind event in corporate America or, in fact, corporate Anywhere and explains why for a few days, the local airport might rival O'Hare or Heathrow for private jets. The rich and famous descend upon Nebraska to soak up a good time and a little life's wisdom while celebrating the good fortune of having stock in Berkshire Hathaway, an iconoclastically non-trendy corporate giant.

And at the center of it all is Berkshire's multi-billionaire patriarch Warren Buffett, or "Warren" to most everybody from German hedge fund managers to hotel chambermaids. In an age infatuated with high-tech, his company is largely about railroads, insurance, building supplies and operations as quirkily diverse as Dairy Queen and Benjamin Moore paint.

Buffett, 81, and longtime business partner Charlie Munger, 88, are a corporate Mutt and Jeff act that is by and large quaintly redolent of virtues one might still call Heartland: straight-talking, absent of coastal artifices and loving just coming to work.

If you've never been to a corporate shareholders meeting, be informed that they are virtually all sterile, scripted and rehearsed. The fear of a chief executive saying anything even vaguely provocative will permeate the upper ranks in the days before an event whose only "news" tends to be woefully self-serving announcements.

If the hour or two are both uneventful and totally boring, the upper echelon will consider it a success, breath easy and pat one another on the back. Self-congratulation will be the order of the day for the several days after.

The Berkshire meeting breaks all the rules in a way that explains why shareholders began lining up at 4 a.m. Saturday outside an arena whose doors would open three hours later for a session to begin promptly at 8:30 a.m. You'd think they were lining up to buy Bruce Springsteen tickets, given how a line of several thousand cordial souls wended around the arena and under a nearby roadway by 6 a.m.

With the arena virtually packed, giants screens informed that See's Candies, a Berkshire company, had placed a lollypop at each seat. "DO NOT take your neighbor's. DO NOT open until further instructed by Warren after the movie."

That obviously labor intensive 52-minute movie, produced by Susie Buffett, Warren's daughter and a former journalist, began with a cartoon in which a Buffett-like figure played an unlikely senior citizen trying to crack the University of Nebraska football team. Among those familiar voices playing themselves were television host Charlie Rose, sportcaster Marv Allbert and Cain (Godfather's Pizza is Omaha-based), whose hard-to-fathom "9-9-9" campaign plan for the economy was the object of gentle ridicule.

Then came an array of mock commercials for Geico, a home run Buffett purchase, starring Little Richard and Billie Jean King, and one for NetJets, another Berkshire company, in which Federer is seen trying to lug dozens of his tennis trophies across an airport tarmac.

Buffett's scene with the Glee ensemble was droll and included his playing the ukelele and a duet with maniacal cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), who claims a long-ago romantic liaison with the "Oracle of Omaha."

But the creative cornerstone was a series of scenes involving Buffett's now famous secretary, Debbie Bosanek, who gained initial national attention as a guest of President Obama at the State of the Union address.

She was there, of course, due to her boss pushing for changes in the tax code to prevent what he considers the absurdity of his paying far less in taxes than Bosanek or, he claimed Saturday, anybody else at Berkshire headquarters. His annual income ranges between $25 million and $50 million, he said.

The scenes were shot in their actual, austere offices and had him being forced to answer the phones as Bosanek, now a star, gabbed away on clearly personal chats and would not be bothered assisting her boss.

So he's forced to pick up the phone at one point and it's supposedly Oprah Winfrey... calling for Debbie, not him. The same happens when Obama supposedly calls.

One watches Buffett, phone cupped to ear, alluding to the so-called Buffett Rule the president is proposing and Buffett saying with theatrical chagrin, "You think changing the name to the Bosanek Rule would help it get through Congress? Oh, that's what the polling shows?"

With the movie over, a ritual with no real counterpart began as Bufffett and Munger took the stage and sat at a small table, with bottle water, See's Candies and cans of Coke in front of them (Coke stock is a big part of the Berkshire portfolio).

For six hours, interrupted only by a one-hour lunch break, they took questions, none pre-screened, as if often the case at corporate meetings.

Three journalists -- Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, Carol Loomis of Fortune and Becky Quick of CNBC -- played roles, though oddly uncritical, as they basically relayed shareholder internet queries. They didn't even serve a potentially useful function of perhaps asking follow-ups to those Buffett-Munger responses that were unclear or too brief.

More pointed, if at times arcane and somewhat lost in the weeds, were questions from three stock analysts who cover the firm. Then there were questions from stations all over the arena.

It was an inquisitorial rope-a-dope in which the questioners wound up exhausted as the Berkshire duo took everything head-on, be it his personal health (he was just diagnosed with very treatable prostate cancer), past investment mistakes, formulas for paying certain key executives or his plans for who'll succeed him:

Repurchase Berkshire stock? Stock repurchases are by and large "idiotic," said Buffett.

On energy, Munger said we should use the rest of the world's oil, then our coal and only then our now very cheap natural gas reserves. He scoffed at the call for U.S. energy independence ("one of the stupidest things I've heard adults discuss"), prompting sidekick Buffett to call that "Charlie's version of saving up sex for your old age."

On executive compensation consultants, the two find that species self-serving handmaidens who tell corporate chieftains what they want to hear so they can then get new client referrals. "Prostitution would be a step up for them," said Munger.

On how much U.S companies pay in taxes, Buffett reiterated his often-articulated belief that what they actually pay -- an average of 13 percent, he said -- is totally unjustified, given corporate profits and a formal rate of 35 percent.

On graduate business education, the duo chided a faddish inclination with the latest mathematical models and a history of "teaching a lot of nonsense about investments," said Buffett. They should instead rely on teaching students about two matters: how to value a business and how to understand a market.

On a shareholder's claim that his father won't buy Berkshire stock due to Buffett's political declarations, Democrat Buffett said it sounds like the father should own shares of Fox, meaning Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., parent of the Fox News Channel. Zing!

On Greenspan, Munger said the former Fed chairman "overdosed on Ayn Rand as a young man and thought if an ax murder takes place in a free market, it was all for the good." And during a story about dealing with an unnamed federal regulator, Munger referred to the man as a "florid-faced alcoholic" who didn't understand the housing market.

When so-called Super PACs came up, Buffett said he won't consider using any of his ample funds to donate to one. "I think the whole idea of Super PACs is wrong," implying that they pervert democracy.

As for investing in gold, Buffett has no interest. He noted that when Berkshire was founded, gold was selling at $20 an ounce and Berkshire stock was at $15. Now gold is at $1,600 and his stock is at $120,000 a share.

On Walmart's apparent corporate scandal in Mexico, involving payoffs to public officials, Buffett was unmoved in his support of the firm (Berkshire owns 39 million shares, or 1.1 percent of the company). Ethical mistakes were made, and will always be made in big sprawling companies, but he feels it won't impact Walmart's longterm performance.

And, indeed, longterm was a word used often since that seems critical to what has set the company apart from many others. It partly explained the mild surprise in Buffett indicating no interest in investing in Google or Apple.

He just doesn't quite fully understand their businesses and the tech world, he claimed, even as Microsoft founder Gates sat a few feet away since he is a member of the Berkshire board of directors. Berkshire has a large position in IBM which, Buffett said, he understands better and feels more confident in than Google or Apple.

No surprise, a question came up about his purchase of the Omaha World-Herald, an enterprise in an industry clearly trending downward. He conceded newspapers have huge problems resulting from costly distribution systems and giving away content for free online as they charge for the same content in print.

And while many traditional content lures, such as jobs and apartment listings, have been undermined by the internet, he argued there is still some local information he and others can't get elsewhere. "They do tell me a lot about my city, about local sports, my neighbors, about things I want to know."

In the day before and after the shareholders gathering, there was ample partying and also the chance to get great prices on a wide array of Berkshire products.

Even before the weekend began, a Berkshire-owned furniture mart did $6 million in business on one day. Meanwhile, Borsheim's, a huge Omaha jewelry store also owned by Berkshire and site of a huge Sunday barbecue for shareholders, surely did a stunning business since it was packed as it gave 25 percent discounts on already-alluring prices for those attending the meeting.

There was glitz, too, with the likes of Bono, the U2 lead singer, hanging around since he's a close friend of Susie Buffett. I hereby concede a fascinating conversation with him as he discoursed on everything from how Jews fared during the Inquisition to a personal theory linking current U.S foreign policy to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

But, in the end, the most lasting image was less of any particular moment or celebrity but of the tone and habit of mind manifested by Buffett and Munger during the question-and-answer marathon.

It was so un-East or West coast. Which is not to say that these aren't two clearly sophisticated fellows who have complicated enterprises, like insurance firms, they know cold. It's why am amazing eight of their companies would be in the Fortune 500 if they were standalone firms, noted Buffett.

At heart, their philosophy is as basic and old-school as their very successful investments in railroads.

Imagine, railroads, in this airplane and internet age! But listen to the two men discuss their essential role in carrying heavy freight at low costs, the industry's dramatic efficiency increases and the virtually impossible rise of any new competitors, and one comes away saying, "Yes, railroads, smart move."

It's somewhat the same with their basic view of life; of working hard at what you love, not being infatuated with success and money, and giving back to your community. It helped explain why many attendees could be seen taking notes, including Kevin Johnson, the smart former pro basketball player who is the mayor of Sacramento, Ca.

Munger very agreeably plays second fiddle to his more garrulous partner at the gathering, even tending to pass on many questions after Buffett has had the initial say. But, at marathon's end, he succinctly articulated his basic desire for the country in a way that resonated with the large majority from the morning who had remained in the arena until the very end.

We need, he said, more sacrifice, more patriotism, more sensible ways of spending (government) money, more civilized politics.

Simple, smart and very Berkshire Hathaway.

James Warren is former managing editor and Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune.