Steve Haberstroh is a 2000 Staples High School grad, and former basketball star. Today he’s managing director at Westport-based CastleKeep Investment Advisors. He just returned from Warren Buffett’s annual meeting in Omaha.
Over 40,000 shareholders gather at the “Woodstock for Capitalists.” But Haberstroh was more than just an attendee. His name was called — and Buffett spent 8 minutes answering his question. Let the Westporter tell the story:
Every February, Buffett publishes a Letter to Shareholders. He does a magical job of describing the year for Berkshire Hathaway. He also addresses social, political or other financial-related themes each year. It is a must read for financial types and casual investors.
This year, The Oracle of Omaha took on the fees charged by the hedge fund industry. He believes they charge far too much. The same is true for what Buffett calls “financial helpers”: those who manage investment funds, many of whom have the objective of “beating the market.”
I work for our family wealth management and investment firm in Westport. I also own a small amount of Berkshire Hathaway stock. Many of our clients own shares as well.
We are not a hedge fund. Nor do clients expect their portfolios to outpace the S&P 500 each year. However, we do charge a fee to deliver holistic wealth management advice, so I suppose Buffett would put us in the “financial helper” category.
I did not take offense at his comments, which were directed more toward hedge funds. But I needed to react.
I took Buffett up on the offer in his letter, and submitted a question. I hoped it would be chosen from thousands of entries to be read at the shareholder meeting. I wrote:
You made it very clear in your annual letter that you think the hedge-fund compensation scheme of ‘2 and 20′ generally does not work well for the funds’ investors. In the past, you have questioned whether investors should pay ‘financial helpers’ as much as they do. But ‘financial helpers’ can create tremendous value for those they ‘help.’ For instance, in nearly every annual letter you describe how valuable Charlie Munger’s advice and counsel has been to you and, in turn to the incredible rise in Berkshire’s value over time. Given that, would you be willing to pay the industry-standard ‘financial helper’ fee of 1%-on-assets to Charlie. Or would you perhaps even consider ‘2 and 20’ for him? (Click here for more details.)
Berkshire Hathaway has over 60 subsidiaries, including Benjamin Moore, Duracell, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, GEICO, Kraft-Heinz, Net Jets and See’s Candies.
The company also owns large stakes in publicly traded companies, including American Express, Apple, IBM, Delta, Apple and Wells Fargo.
In Omaha, the thousands of us can purchase everything from underwear to ice cream, car insurance to million-dollar diamond rings, all at shareholder discount. I saved nearly $1,000 on my car insurance with GEICO while there. But I also spent a penny or two.
The main attraction is Saturday. Shareholders descend upon the Century Link Sports Arena for a 7-hour Q&A with 86-year-old Warren and his 93-year-old co-chair, Charlie Munger. Folks lined up at 2 a.m. for the 8:30 start.
Nearly 3 hours into the meeting, I expected Buffett would announce lunch time. But suddenly he said, ”The next question comes from shareholder Steve Haberstroh…”
First, my heart skipped a beat. Second, I could not tame my inner millennial. I grabbed my iPhone to record what came next.
The crowd chuckled at the “Would you consider paying Charlie…” punch line. Then Buffett responded.
The next 8 minutes were a blur. I felt shock, pride and fear.
The fear came early in Buffett’s response. He said, “it’s just not a good question to ask.”
Despite that, his lengthy response indicated otherwise. He broached the subject again toward the end of the meeting, so maybe I was on to something.
His basic take was, indeed, he would pay Charlie 1% per year or “2 and 20,” but who wouldn’t? He likened the premise to asking if the Red Sox would like to go back and reverse their decision to trade Babe Ruth away to the Yankees.
Of course Munger is worth it. But Buffett also spent a good part of the response detailing his view that hedge funds, in aggregate, are not worth the fees they charge. He cited many examples and metaphors (including the value obstetricians provide), until Munger ended the discussion with, “I think you’ve beaten on them (hedge fund industry) enough!” (Click here for a video of the question, and Buffett’s full response.)
Just like that, my 8 minutes of fame was up. That is, until Bloomberg, the Wall Street, Fox Business — and now “068880” — picked up the story!
I will never forget the experience. And I will try to apply and adopt several of the lessons I learned during the weekend.
But I do have one bone to pick with the Oracle of Omaha. As I learned way back in Coleytown Elementary School: Mr. Buffett, there is no such thing as a bad question!
(For more takeaways, anecdotes and insights, email firstname.lastname@example.org)