Warren Buffett Watch: Plenty of cheaper rooms for Berkshire weekend, hotel owner says

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Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2014 12:00 am

Omaha has dozens of hotels and motels with available rooms at about $100 a night for the weekend that Berkshire Hathaway Inc. holds its annual shareholders meeting, Relax Inn owner Mike Patel said.

He said not all hotels charge $400 a night and require three-night minimums. Those rates and minimum-stay policies, mostly for downtown hotels, have prompted some shareholders to complain about hotel costs during the May 3 meeting weekend.

Berkshire Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett told The World-Herald last week that Omaha's hotels should treat his shareholders fairly, on terms similar to those paid by College World Series fans.

Buffett said some of the shareholders organize their own business meetings, adding:

“If they are soured on their hotel experience, there will be no way they'll recommend Omaha for future conventions. Omaha wants their business in the years ahead, and it's penny wise and pound foolish to alienate them by charging them more, including minimum stays, during the meeting than anyone else pays throughout the year.”

Patel said he's part of a group of about 30 lodging owners who still have vacant rooms at rates similar to his. Half of the Relax Inn's 30 rooms at 60th and L Streets are still vacant and priced that weekend at $100, compared with the usual $60 to $80 rate.

“It's a decent room,” he said, and a short drive from the downtown meeting site.

No perfect brackets? Who would have thought

OK, time to come clean.

Yes, I figured at least one out of the 15 million entrants would pick a perfect NCAA bracket and win $1 billion from an insurance policy that Buffett sold to Quicken Loans and Yahoo.

But people outsmarted themselves, using their basketball knowledge to stick with winners when they should have foreseen upsets, or choosing underdogs when the favorites were bound to win.

Buffett and his insurance odds-makers knew it wouldn't be done. Who can predict the outcome of games played by teenagers and 20-year-olds?

There are a few winners in the contest, however. Quicken will pay $100,000 prizes to 20 entrants who came the closest and donate $1 million toward youth education programs in Cleveland and Detroit. Berkshire Hathaway gets to keep its fee, probably in the eight-figure range.

And Quicken and Yahoo get a big data base of emails and other data from the contestants.

Here's a good bet: The contest will return again next spring. Any takers?

Undergrads involved with women's group with Buffett

Along with graduate students from business colleges around the country, including Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, 47 undergraduates who are members of Smart Women Securities visited Omaha last week.

The women's group was co-founded in 2007 by Tracy Britt Cool and Teresa Hsiao during their Harvard College days. Their schedule included a session with Cool, now financial assistant to Buffett and chairwoman of some Berkshire-owned businesses.

Included in the group were 11 students from the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University.

One of them, Emily Osman, said Buffett talked about the unfairness of someone making lots of money by spotting quirks in the financial system, when someone else who is doing more good for mankind is struggling to make ends meet.

"He said we were the luckiest generation so far and he'd give anything to be in our shoes," Osman said.

Buffett usually reserves the Omaha visit for graduate students because their careers are almost underway and he can teach them his ideas about business practices. The undergraduate women already have an interest in business, said Emily Harman, also a Fordham student, and the Cool connection also helped the group win the invitation.

Banking firms cleared to pay higher dividends

Two banking firms partly owned by Berkshire passed Federal Reserve stress tests and were cleared to pay higher dividends, Bloomberg reported.

Berkshire owns 14.2 percent of American Express Co. and 9.2 percent of Wells Fargo & Co. through stock worth about $33billion and would receive $123 million more in dividends per year under plans announced by the two companies.

The Federal Reserve evaluated how the banks would fare in a hypothetical financial crises and found that they have enough money to pay higher dividends while maintaining a cushion against losses.

Each year, Wells Fargo would pay Berkshire $96.7 million more and American Express would pay $18.2 million more.

The Federal Reserve could have turned down the planned dividend increases if the tests showed weakness in capital, management, systems or governance.

Rolfe: Berkshire will outperform Russell 200

Berkshire's stock price will at least double over the next decade, outperforming shares in small publicly traded companies, the chief investment officer of a St. Louis investment company said on Marketwatch's website.

David Rolfe of Wedgewood Partners, which owns Berkshire stock, said he expects Berkshire to gain more value than the average companies that are part of the Russell 200 Index of small companies, “perhaps significantly.”

Rolfe said Berkshire's investments and its operating companies have “powerful ingredients for meaningful appreciation and growth of per-share intrinsic value,” and the recent stock price is “notably cheap.”

Buffett said in this year's letter to Berkshire shareholders that the true value of the company “far exceeds” book value and that he would be “aggressive” in buying back Berkshire shares if the price falls further behind its value.

In contrast, Rolfe said, the Russell 200 Index is “significantly overvalued” and will have difficulty growing.

BYD could lose California bus contract

BYD Co., the Chinese auto and battery maker 10 percent owned by Berkshire, may lose a $12.1million contract for 10 buses in Long Beach, Calif., that it won in bidding last year, Forbes magazine reported.

The contract includes a $9.6million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The agency said BYD didn't comply with the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which benefits bidders owned by minorities and women.

The agency said Long Beach Transit must either cancel the contract and get new bids or lose the federal grant.

BYD spokesman Michael Austin told The World-Herald that it hasn't been decided whether the Long Beach Transit contract will be terminated. If it is, the cause will be “a good-faith technical mistake” that has nothing to do with BYD's bus and battery technology, he said.

He said the company is committed to the disadvantaged enterprise program and is “confident” it would win any new bidding competition.

Separately, BYD said one of its all-electric buses in Denmark set a European record by going more than 200 miles on a single battery charge. The 39-foot-long bus carried an average of 40 passengers.

Buffett skewered for doubting bitcoin

Buffett just doesn't understand bitcoins, according to technology investor Marc Andreessen.

At a recent conference in San Francisco, Andreessen said “old white men” have a history of not understanding how new technology replaces old. His Silicon Valley venture capital firm has invested about $50 million in companies betting that bitcoin will become an alternative payment system around the world.

Buffett recently said the bitcoin is a “mirage,” has no value of its own and is only an anonymous means of exchanging goods and services. He has likened its price fluctuations to a 17th century craze that drove up the price of tulip bulbs.

Andreessen is co-founder of Netscape Communications, which helped popularize the Internet in the 1990s. He made an early investment in Oculus, a virtual reality headset maker that is being bought by Facebook Inc. for $2 billion.

Buffett has shied away from investments in technology-heavy companies, saying he can't determine which will be profitable over the long term, although he owns $12.8 billion worth of IBM stock.

An Andreessen associate, Balaji Srinivasan, told the conference that bitcoins have generated better returns than Berkshire stock, which has risen in price by 21 percent during the past year.

Bitcoins have traded for less than $100 and more than $1,100 during the past year, and last week for around $500.

Both Buffett, 83, and Andreessen, 42, the AP noted, are white.

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

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