Warren Buffett Annual Meeting – The Woodstock Of Crony Capitalism
It’s been a while since I've attended the Berkshire Hathaway (BRK:NYSE) annual meeting. Between the tedium of little kids asking questions about how to live life, to the feel-good nature of the thing, I simply got repulsed. Why do a bunch of hard-nosed capitalists choose to act like Ned Flanders for a weekend—in Omaha of all places? It’s illogical and completely artificial.
Then, a few weeks back, as friends asked if I was attending this year, I had a certain realization—all this play-acting is simply Buffett, the puppet-master at his most brilliant. As he plows capital into highly regulated industries, he has the upper hand because he has skillfully crafted the image of the Mid-Western grandfather that can do no wrong. He can cozy up to regulators and politicians and get what he wants—without the added costs and distractions of lobbyists and consultants. Who wouldn’t want to get their permits in half the time and with a fraction of the cost? Want to block a Canadian pipe-line that would compete with your cherished rail-road? Become the President’s “economic advisor.” Want to abuse tax loopholes? Bemoan that your secretary pays a higher tax rate than you. You want to obstruct solar energy in Nevada? Elon Musk is a foreigner, Omaha is as American as it gets. Your railroad has an atrocious safety record? Well, at least we don’t have to worry about global warming from that pipeline...
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I can go on and on, but I went from disgusted to awestruck. In this horribly overregulated world of ours, Buffett has evolved into the apex predator. Why wouldn’t he? Over his career, he’s consistently gone where the opportunities were. He’s gone from investing in “cigar-butts” when few other investors knew how to look for companies trading for less than cash, to branded products with pricing power that could thrive during the increasing inflation of the 70’s and early 80’s to a diversified book of high return on capital businesses during the great bull market that began in 1982. Over this time, he realized that he could leverage his bets with an insurance business that not only gave him access to cheap capital, but removed the headaches associated with bond maturities and margin calls.
Over the past fifteen years, the US has undergone a massive increase in pernicious regulation. Therefore, it seems only natural that opportunities would exist in the most regulated sectors of the economy. If you can get your permits and deny those permits to others, if you can avoid environmentalists and NIMBYs, if you can dodge taxes, if you can charm the cliques in Washington, you have an opportunity to earn outsized profits—especially if you have an endless fire-hose of cheap insurance float to deploy.
Crony capitalism is highly lucrative and as a Berkshire shareholder, I’ve reaped the rewards. Now, I once again want to sit at the feet of the master. How do you make people like you to the point that they give you a free pass on whatever you want? When you call up a regulator, do you even talk about the issues? Or do you talk about your Ukulele skills and Omaha little league? You have to admire what he’s accomplished and I will be there to watch him amuse the petite bourgeoisie. I see a world that continues to become more regulated—where a cloistered elite uses special interest groups to crush opponents and destroy businesses. Either you’re calling the shots, or you’re getting abused like a peasant.
The Koch Brothers spend hundreds of millions on elections. Soros spends similarly on fringe groups that break windows and overturn cars. Neither really accomplishes his goals. Buffett gets what he wants. In Davos, they chug bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild and plot how to pillage small nations. At Berkshire, we will eat Dilly bars and plot how to pillage the middle class. Capitalism is beautiful and crony capitalism is the end product of politicians who prostitute the laws. I don’t have the power to change the current rules, but I can certainly learn to thrive within them.
This is a long-winded way of saying that after a few years of sitting out the meeting, I’ll be there. If you want to grab a drink, email me and I’ll tell you where I am. Beer with friends is fun—free beer at someone else’s party is the true definition of value investing.
Disclosure: Long Berkshire Hathaway