Questions will put Buffett and Munger in the hot seat

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Posted: Saturday, May 4, 2013 12:00 am

Ask Warren Buffett.

That's what will happen today, continuing a tradition that Buffett started 50 years ago when he met with his investment partners in the employee break room at National Indemnity Insurance Co. in Omaha.

The chance to ask and hear other shareholders' questions and the answers are the major draw for the 30,000-plus people expected to attend Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s annual shareholders meeting at the CenturyLink Center Omaha. The four-hour Q-and-A session with Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger is the centerpiece of the meeting and its related events.

Follow along Saturday with the latest from the shareholders meeting, chat with reporter Steve Jordon at 5 p.m. and see all of our Berkshire Hathaway coverage.
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Before 2009, shareholders chuckled over questions such as, “What is the secret to happiness?” or “Who makes the best peanut brittle?” But those who spend thousands of dollars and valuable time to come to Omaha prefer meatier questions that give Buffett and Munger a chance to supply more substantive answers.

So in 2009, Buffett began alternating Q-and-A time between shareholders and a panel of journalists: Carol Loomis of Fortune magazine, Becky Quick of CNBC and Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times and CNBC. Each year the three solicit questions from their readers and viewers. From the 5,000 or so they each receive, they'll ask eight or 10 each this year.

The same year, Berkshire took steps to end the footrace that occurred when speedy shareholders would dash into the meeting arena and almost fight for spaces in line at one of the dozen or so microphones so they could ask a question. Instead, people who want to ask a question put in their names for a random drawing at each microphone.

(The system slowed down the rush, but in 2011 Fidelity Investments sent more than 40 staffers to Omaha to enter the drawings and got six out of the 27 questions asked by the audience. After that, Buffett vowed to Fidelity-proof the selection process.)

Last year Buffett added three insurance industry analysts, since insurance is a major part of Berkshire's operations, cutting the audience's questions to one-third of the total.

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This year, he decided that was a bit of an insurance overload, so he's splitting the analysts' group into three: insurance analyst Cliff Gallant of Nomura Securities, general analyst Jonathan Brandt of Ruane, Cunniff & Goldfarb and Douglas Kass of Seabreeze Partners Management Inc.

Buffett said each journalist and analyst will ask six questions, or 36 questions, leaving about 18 for members of the audience. If there's time beyond those 54 questions, he'll take more from members of the audience.

As usual, Buffett wrote to his shareholders, “Neither Charlie nor I will get so much as a clue about the questions to be asked.” As for tough questions, he said, “That's the way we like it.”

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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