OMAHA, Neb. - Billionaire Warren Buffett spent Saturday praising the decisions U.S. officials made to right the economy in the midst of a "financial hurricane" and defending the ones he made to help his company navigate the storm.
The state of the economy and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s recent performance were among the first things addressed at the shareholders' meeting. Roughly 35,000 people packed an arena and overflow rooms to listen to Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger answer questions for more than five hours.
"Overall, I commend the actions that were taken," Buffett said. But he said no one should expect perfection because the economy experienced a "financial hurricane."
But Buffett said he can't predict how quickly the economy and the markets will improve. He said last fall that the U.S. was facing an "economic Pearl Harbor."
To illustrate the challenges the nation faced last year, Buffett showed a sales receipt for $5 million in U.S. Treasury bonds that Berkshire sold in December for $90.07 more than face value, ensuring a negative return for the buyer. Buffett said he doesn't think most investors will see negative returns on U.S. bonds again in their lifetimes.
"It's been a very extraordinary year," he said.
The economy, succession at the top of Berkshire and the state of the company, which last year had its worst year since Buffett took over in 1965, were on the minds of many shareholders.
Berkshire's Class A stock lost 32 percent in 2008, and Berkshire's book value - assets minus liabilities - declined 9.6 percent, to $70,530 per share. That was the biggest drop in book value under Buffett and only the second time its book value has declined.
But despite Berkshire's rough year - which was depressed by unrealized multibillion-dollar derivative losses - the company still outpaced the market index Buffett uses as a measuring stick. The S&P 500 fell 37 percent in 2008.
Berkshire reported a 2008 profit of $4.99 billion, or $3,224 per Class A share. That was down 62 percent from the previous year, but better than many companies.
The meeting began as usual with a humorous movie, but instead of the traditional comical cartoon, Berkshire offered a reassuring message from animated versions of its products.
An animated Mrs. See of See's Candy told the crowd that it didn't seem right to have a humorous cartoon when so many things in the world don't seem sweet.
Retired shareholder Paul Gallmeyer of the Chicago area said he wasn't especially worried about who will replace the 78-year-old Buffett as Berkshire's chairman and CEO. He said all of Berkshire's more than 60 subsidiaries are run by people who will keep the company going after Buffett is gone.
"I truly don't see that as much of an issue as other people make it," Gallmeyer said.
But some shareholders, like Dennis Hospodarsky of Waterloo, Iowa, were a little worried about the succession issue.
"I hope he's as good at picking a successor as he is at stocks," Hospodarsky said.
Both Buffett and Munger tried to reassure shareholders that Berkshire's future success is not solely dependent on their continued service because the company has a strong culture of responsibility and trust.
"In show business, they say something 'has legs' if it is going to last. I think Berkshire Hathaway's system 'has legs,'" Munger said.
Buffett offered a few new clues about who'll replace him at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway, but Buffett still refused to name the people who will become Berkshire's next chief executive or its next chief investment officer. Buffett received several succession questions.
Three of Berkshire's internal managers are candidates to be CEO. And the board has a list of four internal and external investment managers who could manage Berkshire's $49 billion stock portfolio and investing its $24.3 billion cash.
Buffett says none of the investment managers likely beat the S&P 500 last year, but over the past 10 years they all beat the average performance at least modestly if not significantly.
Buffett said he doesn't see any value in choosing a CEO successor now to follow him around Berkshire's 19-person headquarters because all the candidates are already running businesses now. Plus the other two might leave Berkshire if a successor was named.
"It'd be a waste of talent," Buffett said. "I don't really see any advantages in having some crown prince around."
Buffett has said his son Howard will take over as chairman to ensure Berkshire's culture is preserved. Howard Buffett already serves on the board.
Berkshire shareholders rejected a resolution that would have required the company to produce annual sustainability reports about the company's subsidiaries and investments. Nearly 703,000 votes were cast against the measure and only 49,000 for it.
The group that presented the resolution wanted the company to disclose any environmental, social or labor rights risks associated with Berkshire's holdings.
Simon Billenness, who presented the resolution, said it would have required Berkshire to disclose more about labor problems at its apparel subsidiary Russell Athletic, which has been criticized for closing a plant in Honduras where a labor union had been organizing.
But Berkshire officials defended the way they treated workers at the plant after Fruit of the Loom acquired Russell in 2006, and they said the plant closing was part of the company's response to the recession. Several other Russell plants closed last year, too.
Berkshire's board recommended that shareholders reject the resolution, saying generating the report would require a substantial amount of time and produce little benefit.
Billenness said he was pleased with the level of support the resolution received.