Buffett Bars Shareholders From Berkshire Meeting Over Virus (1)

March 13, 2020, 2:51 PM

Warren Buffett won’t allow shareholders to attend Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s annual meeting in May amid growing fears about the spread of the coronavirus.

The meeting, which generally draws thousands to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, will still be held, but attendance will be limited to Buffett, possibly his business partner Charlie Munger and several Berkshire employees who will deliver proxy votes, Berkshire said Friday in a statement. The meeting will be streamed by Yahoo.

“I very much regret this action,” Buffett said in the statement. “For many decades the annual meeting has been a high point of the year for me and my partner, Charlie Munger.”

Berkshire’s annual meeting floods the city with shareholders and employees, many of whom spend hours on a Saturday listening to Buffett and Munger speak. The company had warned earlier in March that while the meeting, scheduled for May 2, would still happen, the scope of the event could change.

Read an update about the spread of the coronavirus

“It is now clear, however, that large gatherings can pose a health threat to the participants and the greater community,” Buffett said. “We won’t ask this of our employees and we won’t expose Omaha to the possibility of becoming a ‘hot spot’ in the current pandemic.”

Buffett encouraged investors to send questions to select journalists, who then will ask Buffett and Munger about the topics -- though he said he’s deferring a decision on whether one or more of those journalists will be present at the meeting.

Key Deputies

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Buffett’s annual gathering could bring another change: The billionaire investor had been planning to give more speaking time at this year’s meeting to two of his key deputies, Ajit Jain and Greg Abel.

Over his more than five decades running Berkshire, Buffett has amassed a following of shareholders who return often to Omaha for the event he’s called a “Woodstock for Capitalists.” The annual meeting has morphed from a simple meet-up held in the lunchroom of one of his insurers, National Indemnity, to an event so large that Berkshire now holds it at the CHI Health Center arena.

“It’s their annual convention where they get to see each other, taste the products, celebrate the company,” said investor Lawrence Cunningham, a professor at George Washington University Law School and co-editor of the book “The Warren Buffett Shareholder: Stories from Inside the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting,” with Stephanie Cuba. “It’s a reunion. It’s a rite of spring. The flock will be devastated.”

The affair spans the entire weekend, with events held at Borsheims, a jeweler owned by Berkshire, and dinners for shareholders at one of Buffett’s favorite steakhouses, Gorat’s. Buffett himself has been known to show up for games of bridge during the weekend. And his many different businesses, such as Geico, set up booths to sell products.

Impact on Omaha

The event is also a boon for Omaha’s economy, with investors filling up hotels around the city. Berkshire’s meeting has become so popular that Buffett has even warned investors that airline tickets to Omaha often increase that weekend.

The coronavirus, which has infected at least 135,118 people globally and resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, is particularly risky for the elderly and those with serious underlying health issues. Buffett is 89 and Munger turned 96 this year.

“It’s almost obvious they should not have the shareholders there,” Cunningham said.

Yahoo has been streaming the annual meeting since 2016 for those who can’t attend the event -- which, this year, will include almost every shareholder.

(Updates with details of gathering, shareholder’s comments starting in sixth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story:
Katherine Chiglinsky in New York at kchiglinsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Michael J. Moore at mmoore55@bloomberg.net

Daniel Taub, Steven Crabill

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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