Warren Buffett and partner Charlie Munger joke about their advanced ages. Buffett says they make a good pair — one can see and one can hear.
Munger, 87, quips that his main job, being seven years older, is showing that Buffett has at least seven more good years. Buffett wryly says that when he dies, he will stay in touch with Berkshire Hathaway directors by Ouija board.
In a humorous movie shown at a shareholders meeting, Munger, not Buffett, walked out with one of the “Desperate Housewives” TV actresses. Quipped Buffett: “It’s the Anna Nicole Smith rule: When choosing between two old rich guys, pick the older one.”
Folksy wit and wisdom are a big draw at the annual meeting, which is expected to bring 40,000 to Qwest Center Omaha today. Shareholders also want to know where ol’ Uncle Warren might invest next. “Our elephant gun has been reloaded,” he said this year, “and my trigger finger is itchy.”
But some are itching to get more answers about the David Sokol controversy. And with critics questioning how octogenarian Buffett handled that situation, some aren’t so much concerned with the elephant gun as with the elephant in the room — the very aging that Buffett and Munger humorously mock.
A few even suggest that Buffet is past his prime. A writer in Forbes said the Berkshire board is “full of cobwebs,” half being over 80, and that CEO Buffett is showing his age.
Reuters news service said “some wonder whether Buffett should take a graceful bow and exit the stage.” Even a supporter, a Buffett biographer, said the chief needs to show he is on top of his game.
Berkshire, though, is partly a cult of personality, and Buffett enjoys wide support because of his investment success over more than a half century.
“I’m 10 years younger than Warren, and I think he’s sharper than I am,” said shareholder John Morgan of Minneapolis. “I don’t see any intellectual degradation in Warren’s ability.”
Omaha shareholder Bruce Haney, 76, a semiretired stockbroker, said he hasn’t noticed a drop-off in Buffett. But after reading the Berkshire audit committee’s 18-page report, Haney said, he wondered if Sokol thought that “Buffett had slipped a little bit and that he could put something by him.”
Sokol, once seen as a possible successor to Buffett, bought stock in Lubrizol Inc. and then suggested to Buffett that Berkshire buy the company — which it did. Sokol made a $3 million profit.
He has denied wrongdoing, and Buffett said Sokol did nothing “unlawful.” But the Berkshire committee this week suggested that Sokol “intended to deceive” Buffett, and that Berkshire could sue Sokol.
Critics say Buffett should have asked more questions of Sokol and, after discovering what happened, shouldn’t have let him off without rebuke.
But was age really a factor? Is 80 too old to continue a profession or run a huge corporation?
Dr. Jane Potter of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a former president of the American Geriatrics Society, said no — not necessarily.
“The old understanding was that by the time people reach 80, things are just completely shot, and they go downhill,” she said Friday. “But that didn’t really jibe with what people saw around them.”
So researchers looked harder at how they had reached the conclusions about older people.
“They found that while the brain changes as we age, it is not uniformly negative and downhill,” she said. “There are actually a number of positive things that happen.”
Older people who are engaged and “well-practiced” in what they do, she said, not only focus well on the skills that allow them to continue their work but also are wiser to the ways of the world.
“Think about (comedian) George Burns,” she said. “He became funnier into his 90s.”
Potter, 60, said older people might not learn as quickly as they once did, but they generally compensate in their work because of wisdom and experience.
Illness can drag people down, she said, but healthy people can enjoy “excellent cognitive performance into their 80s and beyond.”
By all accounts, Buffett enjoys good health, and citing his age might just be one way for critics to take a swipe at him. His home and office are 17 blocks apart on the same Omaha street, Farnam, and he says he enjoys his work so much that he figuratively tap-dances to work each day.
Buffett, not joking, says he counts on his family to tell him if he’s starting to lose it. Until then, evidence appears thin that the Wizard of Wall Street is becoming the Fossil of Farnam Street.
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