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Buffett to speak at Berkshire meeting next week

The wisdom of billionaires Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger will be on display again next weekend when the two men field questions from a throng of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The wisdom of billionaires Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger will be on display again next weekend when the two men field questions from a throng of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders.

About 30,000 people are expected to fill the Qwest Center Omaha arena Saturday for the Omaha-based holding company's annual meeting. The question-and-answer period, when Berkshire's chairman and vice chairman spend more than five hours responding to nearly anything, is usually the highlight of the meeting.

Buffett and Munger will likely face questions about the credit crunch that has created turmoil in this economy, the new bond insurance business Berkshire launched, and who will run Berkshire after the 77-year-old Buffett is gone.

And a group representing American Indian tribes and commercial fishermen from California and Oregon will again try to pressure Buffett at the meeting to order the removal of four dams on the Klamath River owned by one of Berkshire's utilities so salmon can spawn again.

But for many people in the crowd, especially the ones who attend every year, the Berkshire meeting simply offers a chance to hear two master investors discuss their craft.

"There's so much nonsense in the investment world in New York that it's always a good opportunity to go out and get our value investing batteries recharged," said investment fund manager Whitney Tilson, who founded T2 Partners LLC.

Berkshire performed well last year even though its divisions linked to construction suffered along with the national housing market. Strong performances from some of Berkshire's other subsidiaries and investment gains helped the company generate $13.2 billion net income and $118.2 billion revenue in 2007.

The company's book value — assets minus liabilities — per share has grown from $19 43 years ago to $78,008 under Buffett's leadership. Berkshire now has more than 60 subsidiaries including insurance, jewelry, carpet, natural gas and furniture companies.

Many shareholders want to know more about Berkshire's new bond insurance business. Berkshire Hathaway Assurance launched late last year to take advantage of credit problems other bond insurers were having, but it wasn't mentioned in Buffett's shareholder letter in February.

Buffett has said the new bond insurance unit has already done a couple deals, but he hasn't offered many details.

But some of the questions Buffett faces may not be friendly. The group from the Pacific Northwest plans to protest outside the meeting and ask tough questions inside about PacifiCorp's dams, which are up for federal relicensing.

Craig Tucker, spokesman for the Karuk tribe, one of four tribes fighting for dam removal, said the group feels like Buffett ignored their pleas at last year's meeting.

"He and his sons and his family have refused to meet with us," Tucker said.

When he was asked about the Klamath last year, Buffett said state and federal regulators would be the ones to decide whether the dams should be removed. Buffett said he cannot interfere in the operating decisions of Berkshire's PacifiCorp subsidiary, which serves 1.7 million customers in six Western states, because he swore he wouldn't in an affidavit submitted to Oregon utility regulators.

Berkshire shareholders will also be looking for more details about the company's plan to replace the 77-year-old Buffett.

Andy Kilpatrick, the stockbroker-author of "Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett," said he thinks there's already a solid plan in place.

"I don't think you'll find anything dramatic on succession (at the meeting)," Kilpatrick said.

To replace Buffett, Berkshire plans to split his job into three parts — chief investment officer, chief executive officer and chairman.

In his letter, Buffett said the company's board now has three internal candidates for CEO and four external candidates who could take over managing the company's $75 billion stock portfolio and $44.3 billion cash.

Berkshire's board knows who to choose for the jobs once Buffett can no longer do the job. Buffett has refused to publicly identify the candidates.

Buffett has said previously that when he dies, his son will take over as chairman to ensure Berkshire's culture is preserved. Howard Buffett already serves on the board.