Buffett devotees stick by him even as growth slows

Sun May 5, 2013 4:04pm EDT
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By Jonathan Stempel and Jennifer Ablan

OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - Short-seller Douglas Kass, Warren Buffett's handpicked bear, raised a concern on the minds of many shareholders at the "Woodstock for capitalists" this weekend: Has Berkshire Hathaway Inc become so big that it will find it hard to grow?

Many retail investors who converged on Omaha, Nebraska, for Berkshire's annual meeting on Saturday acknowledged that its fastest growth days are likely behind it. But they said Berkshire is still a good long-term bet as faith remains in Buffett and his management team's more than 4-decade-long record of stellar returns, and the company's tentacles into many sectors of the U.S. economy.

"Yes, it is a concern, but I have to get my expectations in line," said Julie Fehrnstrom, a mother of three from Orinda, California, attending her fifth meeting. "They are not driven by short-term decision making and they have really smart management. You really don't always find that."

Sherrie Palmer, a social worker from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, was attending her first Berkshire meeting, one of 35,000 or so investors.

"The steepness of the growth is leveling off, but it's not a concern," Palmer said. "We like the manner in which decisions are made and I don't worry about this being an organization jumping to a fad that won't pan out."

Patience has served Berkshire shareholders well. Investing in companies with dependable businesses and sound management has helped Berkshire as an investment trounce major competitors since Buffett took it over in 1965. Berkshire is now one of the largest U.S. companies by market value, with more than 288,000 employees in dozens of businesses, covering everything from ice cream to underwear and insurance to railroads.

But its massive size - currently around $268 billion in market value - has made it hard for Berkshire to grow as fast as it once did. While Berkshire performs well in down markets, it can lag in rising markets.

Buffett reminded shareholders that 2009-2013 may prove to be the first five-year period ever when the company's growth in book value per share will lag the Standard & Poor's 500 index including dividends.   Continued...

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem, at the start of a 5km race sponsored by Brooks Sports Inc., a Berkshire-owned company, in Omaha May 5, 2013, a day after the company's annual meeting. REUTERS/Rick Wilking