Berskshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting 2020: What to Expect

I’ve never done this before.

Nobody has.

It’s late Friday night and I just flew halfway across America during the coronavirus epidemic—specifically from Portland, Maine to Omaha, Nebraska—to attend Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting today. 

More on the Berkshire meeting and what to expect in a minute, but let me tell you about my journey, because it was a bit of a trip.

First I tried to be as safe as I could for me and for everyone around me. Two kinds of masks, gloves, washed my hands all the time, used hand sanitizer and distanced as much as possible.

I hopped in my car at 5 a.m. for the hour drive to the Portland International Jetport, which was stone quiet and scrubbed clean. The plan was to fly United to Omaha at 7 a.m. by way of Chicago. At the gate there were only a handful of passengers, most not wearing masks, donned in camo, complaining about the shut down. Airline personnel did have masks though and soon enough we were told to get ready to board. Then…nothing. Turns out a flight attendant was missing and the FAA says we need two to fly even though there weren’t enough passengers to field a baseball team. 

Was the flight attendant sick? Who knows. (Coincidently, or not, United announced it wasn’t funding its employee bonus plan this morning.)

Because airlines have cut so many flights, a back up plan is tricky. My best option was to fly to Chicago at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon (I had the Portland airport almost to myself for eight hours) then Minneapolis, then to Omaha, arriving after 9 p.m. 

The flight to Chicago had two other passengers on an Embraer 175 that typically holds around 70. As for O’Hare, I have never, ever seen it so empty. And spotless. I’m sure I will never see it like that again. Then off to Minneapolis, (where the Delta Club and most other stores were closed.)

I arrived in Omaha without incident, although typically OMA on this Friday would be packed with thousands of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, but here again, the airport was eerily empty. And the downtown Hilton too, where there would usually be large loud crowds at the bar, but tonight nothing. (The hotel usually charges some $700 a night with a three night minimum for this weekend. This year? Rooms can be had for $125.)

So what do I expect at today’s meeting? 

Because of the coronavirus of course, the event is stripped down to its bare essentials and will be completely unlike any of the previous 54 Berkshire meetings. No shareholders will be there, really no one at all, except for Warren Buffett, plus one of his top executives, Greg Abel, and a handful of other Berkshire employees—Buffett thinks around 10 in total. (And I’ll be there too.)

Berkshire directors won’t be present either, which is notable at the very least because of a high-profile changing-of-the-guard taking place. This would have been Bill Gates’ last annual meeting as a director and former Amex CEO Ken Chenault’s first, as the former is leaving the board and the latter is joining. 

Charlie Munger’s not coming either, which is huge, but also smart. It would be stupid—as Charlie might pointedly say—to have a nonagenarian risking his health to come to something like this. For what? (Yes of course he would be flying private, but still.) 

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, left, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, briefly chat with reporters last year, one day before Berkshire Hathaway’s 2019 annual shareholders meeting. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

So the Woodstock of Capitalism will be entirely virtual, and honestly, even though we’re thrilled to be live-streaming the meeting (at 4 p.m. ET today), and it will be an awesome digital event—this is no way to do a love in.

I feel like the network TV chief who’s about to televise a Super Bowl without any fans. Of course we’d rather have the shareholders there. They bring the energy and the excitement. Just like players at a football game feed off the crowd, the audience at the meeting make Buffett and his meeting come alive. 

People often ask me, what’s a typical Berkshire meeting like? Start with the fact that it’s a gathering of some 40,000 of the happiest people on the planet. Of course they are! They’re Berkshire shareholders! The average net worth of these folks ranges from rich-as-hell to billionaire. No wonder they all seem tuned into Buffett’s ‘don’t-worry-about-life-so-much’ vibe. 

[Got a question for the one reporter at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting? Ask Andy!]

Usually 18,000-plus of those people cram into the CHI Health Center to listen intently to Charlie and Warren speak for some six hours (in two sessions.) You have to see it. They hang on to every single syllable. The place is so quiet you can hear a $1000 bill drop. 

Another highlight is the massive millionaires’ shopping spree where tens of thousands of shareholders amble around the adjacent 194,000-square-foot convention center packed with Berkshire company merchandise—everything from boxes of See’s Candy, Brooks running shoes, custom Heinz ketchup bottles and Fruit of the Loom underwear, (often festooned with images of Warren Buffett and/or Charlie Munger)—which to many is as important as listening to Buffett dispense his wisdom. 

So the weekend meeting is a hokey, celebratory quasi-religious experience. A global meeting place of true-believer value-investors. It’s even become a singular, American-original tradition. It’s also part of Buffett’s genius. The world’s greatest investor is also a master showman. Huge numbers of people come year after year, even though nothing really changes. 

Berkshire Hathaway shareholders pose with a cutout of Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, at the Coca Cola booth, Friday, May 3, 2019, during a shareholder shopping day, one day before Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting. An estimated 40,000 people are expected in town for the event, where Buffett and Munger preside over the meeting and spend hours answering questions. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

To give you an idea of the pull it has on people, even though the event was canceled weeks ago, Berkshire officials have been so concerned people would show up anyway they’re keeping the venue location secret. (Hint: It’s a familiar spot. Word to the wise: Don’t go, you won’t be allowed in.)

One thing will remain unchanged, however, is that Buffett will take questions, albeit remotely, so we’ll still be able to hear what he has to say. That’s hugely important especially since he’s been unusually quiet about the coronavirus and its economic impact, so people are rightly curious.

Here’s what the Berkshire release says: “In addition to the formal business to be conducted at the meeting, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Abel will respond to shareholder questions that were submitted to three journalists (Becky Quick, Carol Loomis and Andrew Ross Sorkin). Ms. Quick will ask those questions that the journalists decide are the most interesting and important. [Becky will be doing this from home, as she has been doing all her CNBC broadcasting as of late. She tells me she has to bar the door to keep her kids from barging in.] Mr. Buffett and Mr. Abel will have no prior knowledge of what questions will be asked, but they will not discuss politics or specific investment holdings.” 

Ah come on Warren! No politics or stocks? Don’t be too worried though. I’m sure he’ll have plenty of interesting things to say. How long will the Q&A go? Probably an hour or two. We’ll have to see. 

I got an inkling about how things might go at this year’s meeting from a letter Buffett sent on April 13 to a number of us who are involved in the proceedings. Buffett’s tone was a bit melancholy, which is understandable, given that the meeting is a gigantic annual affirmation of his life, and this year he was unable to properly execute it. Let’s not kid ourselves either, there just aren’t that many meetings left—not with these two. (Buffett is 89 and Munger is 96.) It would be unthinkably sad if this year’s un-meeting was the last for either of them.

Typically though, Buffett ended his missive on a high note. Saying that he would talk at the meeting about his sincere belief that our children will live better than we do and that America has not lost its magic. He reminded us that we have lived through far tougher times in the past – several of extended duration – and the future we forged after leaving the tunnel has always proved to be far brighter than what existed before entering the darkness. 

Pretty good perspective I’d say.

So while we’re delighted to be streaming your meeting, Warren, and are happy to do so for years to come, we hope as much as you and all Berkshire shareholders do, that you’re able to have a real-McCoy meeting next year and beyond.

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.

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