My favourite weekend of the year rolled around again. This time there wasn’t an Achilles heel injury to stop me. On the first Friday morning of May, I boarded my flight as scheduled. Destination: Omaha.
Each year that I attend, I recognize the collective anxiety shareholders from around the world feel that this Berkshire Hathaway meeting may be the last. This isn’t about pessimism or the ghoulishness of maintaining a death watch. It simply reflects the reality that Warren Buffett is 87; Charles Munger is 94. I suspect the impending end of an era was partly the reason Berkshire Hathaway sent out 42,000 tickets this year—more than any other year in the company’s history.
Of course, the reason could also have been that these men, regardless of their ages, are charming, witty, knowledgeable and well-informed. They impart a joint wisdom—and optimism—about the markets, and America as a whole, that everyone in the room would like to bottle and take home with them.
The stamina of these two men, in and of itself, is reason enough to go. Although the meeting was scheduled to begin at 8:30 in the morning, Buffett and Munger were both there an hour ahead of time. They fielded questions for two and a half hours in the morning, took a break for lunch and continued for another three hours in the afternoon—all the while consuming their cherry cokes and peanut brittle.
This year, I took my eldest son, Jonathan, with me. He was flying in from Vancouver. Between the late night before, the early hour of the meeting and the time difference, Jonathan was exhausted. He had said to me before the meeting began that he might skip the afternoon session so that he could catch up on his sleep. Once the meeting got underway, Jonathan was hooked for the day. At 24, and a recent university graduate, Jonathan hadn’t known what to expect. Yet, despite the 60 plus year age gap, Jonathan found the wisdom and advice of these two men on the stage to be valuable.
Buffett sings the praises of America’s sustained prosperity
As expected, Buffett and Munger inspired the audience with their confidence in America’s sustained prosperity. They demonstrated why investing in the stock market is a better bet than buying gold. A USD $10,000 investment in gold in 1942 would today be worth approximately USD $400,000; while the same amount invested at the same time in a S&P 500 index fund would be worth some $51 million. He went on to say, “For every dollar you could have made in American business, you’d have less than a penny of gain by buying into a store of value which people tell you to run to every time you get scared by the headlines.”
While Buffett didn’t mention President Trump specifically, he said that in his lifetime he has lived through 14 presidents, seven of them Republicans and seven of them Democrats. He’s watched them navigate, for better or worse, political crises, wars, impeachments and assassination attempts. Still America carries on. People are living better and longer than in any other time in history.
Buffett acknowledged that he’d like to be born today, into the America that’s coming. From the time he was born, he has watched America go from a country with no roads or telephones, to one boasting superhighways and smart technology everywhere. He says the distance America has come in less than a century is phenomenal and the outlook for the future is awe-inspiring.
This was something that particularly resonated with Jonathan. He understands the paralysis so many people his age feel as they are getting out in the world as adults for the first time—how the news media makes them feel as though they are living in the worst point in history rather than the best point, and that there is no hope for a good job or home ownership or any of the major milestones they have set their sights on. Seeing the world from Buffett’s and Munger’s perspective gave him renewed optimism for his generation’s future.
For Buffett and Munger, doing what they love is the key to longevity
Although many in the room silently felt as if they were watching what may be the last hurrah of two financial titans, no one asked about succession planning. The gentlemen themselves touched upon it, but it was as if no one wanted to acknowledge that Berkshire Hathaway may be reaching the end of an era. The company is strong enough to continue without Buffett and Munger at the helm, but it will never be the same. People don’t make the pilgrimage to Omaha, and stay for the full seven or eight hours of a shareholders meeting, to hear just any executives speak. Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos would never be able to draw or sustain the crowds that Buffett and Munger attract. They are the rock stars of the finance world for their sheer optimism and unwavering belief in the country they live in and love, and while they may not be on that stage for many more years, their legacy will live long after they are gone. That said, I expect both of them to carry on into the next decade. They are doing what they love. That’s better than any medicine a fountain of youth could provide.
Howard, Barclay & Associates Ltd. is on the move!
I have one bit of housekeeping news before I sign off. Howard, Barclay & Associates Ltd. is on the move! As of May 28, 2018, our new address will be:
217 Speers Road
Oakville, ON L6K0J3
We are all very excited about the new space.
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