Buffett defends Coke decision ... and ObamaMay 3, 2014: 12:44 PM ET
The Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting in Omaha on Saturday started as it always does ... with some good clean fun.
But investors grilled Berkshire CEO (BRKA) (BRKB) Warren Buffett and vice chairman Charlie Munger about Coca-Cola, President Obama and succession plans, among other issues, once the question and answer session started.
Buffett was mobbed by the media and investors on the exhibit hall floor as he chowed down on some Dairy Queen for breakfast. The Oracle challenged shareholders -- and Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates -- to a newspaper toss outside a mock home from Berkshire's Clayton Homes builder subsidiary. (Party like it's 1899 ... no iPads, Kindles or Surfaces here!)
Then there was the Berkshire movie: a mix of hokey entertainment (an animated ice hockey team with Buffett, Charlie Munger, Gates and Geico CEO Tony Nicely being coached by Berkshire insurance guru/often-rumored Buffett successor Ajit Jain was cute), ads for the various Berkshire-owned brands (the Geico camel was in full Hump Day mode) and nostalgic looks back at prior meetings.
Before the question and answer session, Buffett noted that the company's insurance business now has a $77 billion float that the company can use to invest. So he was not concerned about the decline in underwriting income from the insurance business during the first quarter.
He also said that Berkshire's Class A and Class B shareholders both overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for the company to pay a dividend.
But after that was done, it was time for the shareholders to get their chance to talk directly to Buffett and Munger. And many of the questions were pretty tough.
The first question was about why Berkshire chose to abstain from voting against the Coca-Cola (KO) executive compensation plan that Buffett later described as "excessive." The shareholder described Buffett's lack of a vote as "un-Buffett like behavior."
Buffett defended the abstention, saying that he talked with Coke CEO Muhtar Kent about the plan and felt that his message got across. He added that he did not "want to go to war" with Coke.
But Buffett was later asked about why his son Howard, who is a member of Coke's board, voted in favor of the executive compensation plan. The shareholder said he was worried about how Howard, who Warren has tapped to eventually become a non-executive chairman of Berkshire, could be trusted to carry on the legacy and culture of the company.
Warren Buffett danced around the issue. He simply said that board members of public companies have to pick their battles. It was a curious dodge though given that his son did not take the same stance as his father. Howard could have abstained like his dad.
There were other questions about the various succession plans that Berkshire needs to have. One shareholder wondered why Buffett suggested that in his will, he wants cash to be put in a trust for his wife that will have 90% of its assets put in a S&P 500 index fund instead of Berkshire stock. Is that a sign that Buffett is concerned about who will replace him?
Buffett said that was not the case. He noted that he's given several charitable foundations instructions not to sell Berkshire stock that he's donating to them until they absolutely have to. He added that his wife will be just fine no matter where her money is invested and that the S&P 500 is a safe bet. "This is about peace of mind." he said.
Another investor asked about succession plans for Munger, who just turned 90. Buffett joked he was happy to see how well Munger was handling his "middle age" years. He added that the new Berkshire CEO should have a person like Munger to work closely with.
"Berkshire is better off with the two of us working together," Buffett said. "There is no question about it."
There was also a charged question from a shareholder about the direction of the economy and whether Buffett could talk to President Obama (who Buffett has publicly supported) about how to get it back on track. Buffett politely declined to get into a debate on politics, only saying that he disagreed that America was on the wrong path.
Buffett noted that corporate earnings are growing nicely under Obama and that the stock market has had a great run.
Munger, who is a Republican, didn't wade into the political debate. But he did take offense to a question about why Berkshire's book value growth failed to top the S&P 500's over the past five years. The class B shares, after all, are trading near an all-time high.
"If this is failure, I want more of it," Munger said to a thunderous round of applause.