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Buffett: distracted sage still has important message for investors

Legendary investor Warren Buffett faced difficult questions at Berkshire Hathaway's annual general meeting at the weekend. But he managed to express his investment opinions on gold and Tesco.

 
Buffett: distracted sage still has important message for investors

Legendary investor Warren Buffett faced difficult questions at Berkshire Hathaway's annual general meeting this weekend. Investor attention was focused on the impact of David Sokol's departure and its potential impact on Buffett’s succession planning.

The AGM has, in the past, been seen as a Cherry Coke guzzling all-American event, but this time Buffett was forced to explain events surrounding Sokol, an executive who resigned last month after it was discovered that he owned a stake in Lubrizol, a company which he had recommended to Buffett. Berkshire Hathaway followed Sokol’s advice and when it announced that it had bought shares in Lubrizol the share price rose by 28%.

Buffett apologised for a press release which many thought had not condemned Sokol strongly enough. At the meeting Buffett said Sokol’s actions were inexplicable and inexcusable: 'I don't think there's any question about the inexcusable part. Dave violated the code of ethics, Dave violated our insider trading rules.'

However, Keith Ashworth-Lord, manager of the recently launched Premier Sanford DeLand UK Buffettology fund, said that a lot of the focus on governance was due to Berkshire Hathway’s entry into the S&P 500, the main index of the US stock market. He said: ‘This led to a whole influx of new institutional shareholders rather than personal share holders that had dominated the company before that.’ He said: ‘In the absence of institutional shareholders, I suspect there wouldn’t have been the same amount of focus on that issue.’

Due to Sokol’s potential successor status, the affair raised issues of succession. At the AGM Buffett spoke about the role of his son, Howard Buffett, succeeding him as his independent chairman. Some commentators see this an inconsistency as Buffett has previously criticised dynasties as a ‘lucky sperm club’.

At the AGM Buffett said: ‘Certainly the candidate that I think is the leading candidate now, I would lay a lot of money on the fact that he is as straight as an arrow.’

Ashworth Lord believed that former hedge fund manager Todd Combs, recently appointed as Berkshire Hathaway's chief investment officer, was in line to take over but, with the departure of Sokol, it was no longer clear who would head up the firm’s operational side.

After the AGM, Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway's vice-chairman, told Bloomberg that he did not think any individual was important enough to have a significant impact on the firm: ‘Take somebody who is even more remarkable - Warren. In my opinion Berkshire will flourish after Warren’s gone. I don’t think anybody is essential given the momentum we now have in place.’

Investment ideas

Buffett, who has bet against the dollar in the past, said he had no plans to make any forays into currencies despite the dollar hitting a three-year low against leading currencies. 'There’s no question the purchasing power of the dollar will decline, but I think the purchasing power of many currencies around the world' will also decline, he said.

On gold he reiterated his usual criticisms saying that investing in gold was not sensible as it had no intrinsic value and depended entirely on how much other people were prepared to pay for it.

He said: 'You can fondle it, you can polish it, you can stare at it. But it isn't going to do anything.' He said: 'I'd bet on a good producing business to outperform something that doesn't do anything.'

His view of recent price spikes in gold and other commodities was dismissive: ‘There are very few commodities where we know the direction of their movement in the next six months to a year. People like to get in on things that are rising in prices. Over time, it has not been the way to get rich.’

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