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When Warren Buffett talks, people listen

Even those who don't own Berkshire stock can get a lot out of what's said at the company's annual gathering.
Image: Warren Buffett speaks
Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett speaks during the annual shareholders' meeting in Omaha, Neb., on May 3, 2008. Carlos Barria / Reuters file
/ Source: Motley Fool

The theoretical purpose of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting is to update Berkshire shareholders on, well, Berkshire Hathaway. Over the years, however, the "meeting" has turned into what can be best described as an extravaganza, complete with jovial videos, a showcase of Berkshire operating companies, and thousands upon thousands of Berkshire faithful ready to listen to everything Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have to say.

Even those who don't own Berkshire stock can get a lot out of what's said at the annual gathering, since the topics can range from general investing know-how, to corporate governance, to environmental issues. Since nonshareholders generally aren't invited to the shindig, I've got the next best thing for you: highlights.

Investing nuggets
Buffett is a well-known proponent of taking big bites on good ideas. In the investment partnership that he ran prior to taking over Berkshire, he would often sink a significant portion of the fund into a single company — a strategy that eventually landed him with an outsized ownership position in Berkshire. Buffett and Munger revisited this concept this year, noting that investors who know what they're doing shouldn't have to diversify. Buffett even said that there have been times when he would have been happy with 75% of his net worth in a single idea.

But of course that's for investors who have the time and interest. What about the rest of the investing public? Responding to a question, the dynamic duo said that investors without the time or inclination should stick to low-cost index funds. The catch? Hardly anybody will tell you to do that (except The Fool), since nobody makes big profits from selling boring old index funds.

Turning to more specific investments, Buffett recounted his investment in PetroChina for a questioner who was surprised to hear that Buffett's due diligence consisted entirely of reviewing the company's annual report. Buffett said that the business wasn't that hard for him to understand, and he determined that it was worth significantly more than it was selling for. His conclusion was: "We like things that you don't have to carry out to three decimal places. If you have to carry them out to three decimal places, they're not good ideas."

And when it comes to food businesses, Buffett likes the math even more. Berkshire is a longtime owner of Coca-Cola and snatched up Kraft shares this year as well. Buffett noted that the brand-based nature of these businesses gives them a significant advantage over competitors and ensures that they will continue producing good returns for years to come.

Managing management
For individual investors, assessing management can be as tough as it is important. Though Berkshire is known for its great management talent at the operating company level, Buffett admitted that he'd have a tough time ranking 100 MBAs on management potential in a short amount of time. Instead, he said, Berkshire "cheats" and buys companies that already have good management in place, and then simply concentrates on retaining those ".400 hitters."

And of course we can't talk management without getting into compensation. Buffett railed against the idea that the compensation packages afforded to management are really market-based. After all, there should be scores of qualified people lining up when a $10 million paycheck is on the line, right? And he's sure got his money where his mouth is; for all he's done for Berkshire he draws all of $100,000 in annual salary, and stock options aren't even a consideration.

Well, it is about Berkshire
Let's not forget that there was some time spent actually talking about Berkshire. As has been the case for many years running, the question of Buffett's succession plan was raised. Buffett assured the crowd that the board has four very talented, already wealthy investment managers lined up to take his place should he head to the great stock market in the sky.

Of course Munger also noted that "[Berkshire still has] a rising young man here named Warren Buffett. I think we want to encourage this rising young man to meet his full potential."

And speaking of great one-liners, the best of them all may have come when the duo was talking about the recent Wrigley deal and Berkshire's ability to consummate a deal. Buffett said that when it comes to Berkshire, a deal is a deal, and "even if Ben Bernanke runs off to South America with Paris Hilton" you can expect that check to clear.

Mind the miscellany
The Berkshire annual meeting experience wouldn't be complete without a handful of off-the-wall topics.

As has been the case the past two years, a contingent was at the meeting protesting the dams on the Klamath River owned by PacifiCorp. Though Buffett is very respectful of the protesters, the lobbying has yet to get him interested in making the proposed changes.

Following up on the social-impact side was a call for Buffett and Munger to ask Coke to curtail its sponsorship of the Beijing Olympics. Not surprisingly, both deftly deflected, noting that getting 180 countries together to compete is a good thing, and that the U.S. wasn't always the paragon of social justice, but has shown the ability to change over time.

And of course we can't leave out Munger's annual characterization of ethanol as one of the dumbest ideas ever. Apparently another year hasn't changed his mind at all. And can you blame him?

Want your ticket for next year?
For the low, low price of $4,345 you can pick up a Berkshire Hathaway B share — which guarantees you a ticket to next year's annual meeting. Of course it's more than that, it's a great investment that's made a lot of people fabulously wealthy and has been recommended by both our Stock Advisor and Inside Value newsletters.

If you're not sold on Berkshire yet, but want more Buffett, 31 years of his letters to Berkshire shareholders are available for free online. Or you can always stay with The Fool and check out Buffett's priceless investment advice.