So what was it like yesterday at the Warren Buffett’s annual meeting?
Or about what you’d expect when you replace 40,000 people with 12 people.
Maybe lonely’s a better word for it.
Yesterday I wrote about my journey to Omaha and what to expect. Today, I’ll tell you what I saw.
Because of the coronavirus, Berkshire Hathaway’s meeting was a shadow affair. The CHI Health Center arena was empty, save for Buffett, vice chairman Greg Abel, CFO Marc Hamburg and a few others.
And you could tell Buffett missed it. He came up on the stage early and listened to our pre-game show. (Buffett laughed when one of our guests complimented Abel, who turned slightly red.) And when the meeting began, Buffett told a few zingers and looked up to get his normal reaction from the crowd, but there was no crowd so there was none of the usual laughter.
When Buffett first told me about the meeting this year, he envisioned an hour in total. Say 15 minutes of formal proceedings and 45 minutes of Q&A.
Instead we got four and half hours.
As we got closer to the meeting, Buffett obviously got fired up. For the first 90 minutes plus, Buffett delivered a pep talk to America in the form of a history lesson. It was positive of course, but he mentioned our major warts too. Like how our Founding Fathers were hypocrites about slavery. And how badly our society has short-shrifted women.
But in the end, more like a preacher than a history professor, he was trying to lift us up, repeating on numerous occasions, “Don’t bet against America.” And again, “Don’t bet against America.”
The stamina of the man is incredible. The passion. You try talking intelligently for 270 straight minutes when you’re 89-years-old. I only saw him look at his watch once! As Whitney Tilson pointed out, he’s still got it. Abel didn’t weigh in that much (And director Ron Olson told us not to read too much into just Abel being up there, he lives nearby.) It was 95% Buffett. And you could tell Buffett missed Charlie Munger, you could see it. When Greg said he had “nothing to add.” Buffett said, “We have another Charlie here.”
Buffett still likes and holds the banks, but boy did he kiss off the airlines. Told us he sold off his entire holding; lock, stock and fuselage. Said he “wished them well.” Their road (flight?) back would just be too stomach churning for Buffett. In fact while Buffett is bullish on America long term he was rather cautious about the present, suggesting that the coronavirus made things seriously uncertain and reminding us it took until 1954 for the market to recover from the Great Depression.
Why is he not buying now? Because, Buffett suggested, the Fed has been doing too good a job. Jay Powell and company acted too quickly and too forcefully for companies to come begging to Buffett for capital. So, drat! There has been no sweeping in for Buffett so far.
“We have become a very, very, very rich country,” Buffett said near the end of the meeting. And yet—he said in response to a question from the actor Bill Murray asking about recognizing our health care workers as heroes during this crisis—we need to do better particularly when it comes to the have-nots in our society. Shortages? Yes, he seemed to be saying, we have them now. But how important are those wasabi-flavored Doritos anyway in comparison to an out of work waiter, or an EMT working around the clock?
You could tell this meeting was emotional for Buffett. You could hear it in his voice, and see it in his face and demeanor. And his hair was shaggy, (“not cut for seven weeks,” he said.) It’s a tough time for him, but not anywhere nearly as difficult as it is for millions of Americans—and he 100% recognizes that.
“See you next year, here,” he said to close the meeting. And then he lingered on the stage for several minutes or so with Abel, gathering his things, watching us do our post-game show and looking out at the empty arena,
And you could tell he wants it to come back. The meeting, the economy, and America too.
And it will come back. It will.
This article was featured in a Sunday special edition of the Morning Brief on May 3, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.