NEW YORK — Warren Buffett’s annual meeting Saturday will draw tens of thousands of investors seeking insight on his Berkshire Hathaway, the economy and topics from ketchup to geopolitics. Here are a dozen names they’ll be listening for when the 84-year-old billionaire speaks:
Buffett has long praised the American Express leader, and for good reason. Berkshire’s AmEx stake was worth about $14 billion at the end of December, more than 10 times what Buffett paid for it. Is he still so confident in Chenault after the credit-card company lost an exclusive agreement with Costco Wholesale Corp. and plunged 17 percent this year, the worst drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average?
The IBM chief executive officer presided over 12 straight quarters of falling revenue. While Buffett has affirmed his faith in IBM’s long-term prospects since taking a stake in 2011, he’s also said the future of Berkshire will be more tied to operating units than equity bets. And, given the stock slump under Rometty, this is one of the only major holdings that Buffett could sell without facing a big tax bill.
Buffett ignores macroeconomic forecasts such as Gross’s “new normal” when investing, and he pities fixed- income investors amid low interest rates, the Berkshire CEO told investors at the 2013 meeting. This year we may learn what Buffett — who prides himself on Berkshire’s executive retention — has to say about Gross’s drama-filled departure from Pacific Investment Management Co. The exit left the bond king overseeing a smaller pool of funds and fueled client defections at Pimco.
Buffett is usually asked about his take on U.S. politics, so Clinton is bound to come up after announcing that she’ll seek to be the first woman commander-in-chief. He’s long supported causes popular among Democrats, such as higher taxes on the wealthy, and has said he’ll back her in the race.
Jorge Paulo Lemann.
Some of Buffett’s main investments since 2013 have been backing takeovers conceived by the Brazilian billionaire’s 3G Capital, including the purchase of H.J. Heinz and the ketchup maker’s March deal to buy Kraft Foods Group Inc. 3G’s approach of slashing jobs and replacing management has led to questions about whether Buffett’s pursuit of profits caused him to veer from his principles about building businesses.
The executive chairman of BNSF had an off year in 2014 as the railroad struggled with service delays amid increasing volume and poor weather. His name was notably absent from Vice Chairman Charles Munger’s February letter to shareholders highlighting energy unit executive Greg Abel and reinsurance dealmaker Ajit Jain as potential successors to Buffett as CEO.
Todd Combs and Ted Weschler.
When shareholders trust their money with Buffett, they’re also making a bet with these two fund managers. Each is building a portfolio under the billionaire, and they have been picked to eventually oversee Berkshire’s equity investments. That worked well for years, though in 2014 their bets faltered on General Motors, Chicago Bridge & Iron and National Oilwell Varco.
The 91-year-old enjoys an audience as much as Buffett and can be more outspoken when he jumps in to answer shareholder questions. In past gatherings he faulted Greeks for not working enough, disagreed with Buffett on tax policy and likened bankers to flim-flam artists because of their deception when creating mortgage-linked securities. Munger does more than entertain a crowd, however. He helped focus Berkshire’s investment approach.
Tracy Britt Cool.
The Harvard Business School graduate has taken on new responsibilities since joining in 2009 as Buffett’s financial assistant. Cool, 30, is chairman of three units, including paintmaker Benjamin Moore, and sits on the Heinz board with Buffett and Abel. Last year she was named CEO of Pampered Chef, a Berkshire business that sells kitchen supplies. Investors will want to know more about the long-term plan for an executive who, according to Buffett, “thinks like I would.”
Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones” or Kevin Spacey from “House of Cards.”
Buffett kicks off the annual meeting with a video that can include actors from a popular TV show in a skit with the billionaire. Past cameos have included Bryan Cranston from “Breaking Bad” and the cast of “The Office.” While investors are more focused on who will eventually replace Buffett as CEO, some can’t help but wonder who they’ll see in the film.
— With assistance from Noah Buhayar in Seattle and Alex Barinka in New York.