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Buffett defends Coke, BNSF at Berkshire annual meeting

Berkshire Hathaway shareholders listen to CEO Warren Buffett and vice-chairman Charlie Munger seen on a projection screen in the background
Berkshire Hathaway shareholders listen to CEO Warren Buffett and vice-chairman Charlie Munger seen on a projection screen in the background

By Luciana Lopez

OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - Warren Buffett on Saturday defended his recent controversial vote on executive pay at Coca-Cola Co and disappointing performance at railroad BNSF, as investors grilled him on his Berkshire Hathaway Inc conglomerate at its annual shareholder meeting.

The investment guru was peppered with questions at the meeting, part of a mostly festive weekend that Buffett calls "Woodstock for Capitalists," following concerns that Berkshire last year missed Buffett's five-year growth target for the first time in his 49 years at the helm.

Buffett, 83, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 90, took the stage at a downtown Omaha arena as they faced off with the audience and a hand-picked panel often excusing recent worries at the sprawling conglomerate.

"Over any cycle we will over-perform, but there's no guarantee on that," he said. Berkshire, he said, is designed to perform best when markets are at their worst, unlike in 2013 when the Standard & Poor's 500 <.SPX> rose 30 percent.

Buffett was immediately questioned about Berkshire's decision to abstain from the shareholder vote on Coca-Cola's equity compensation plan for executives, even though Buffett thought the controversial plan was excessive.

That revelation drew sharp criticism in the run-up to the meeting - particularly since Buffett has in the past called options wasteful and akin to a free lottery ticket.

Seated with Munger at a table containing several bottles of Coke and Cherry Coke, Buffett said that "going to war" would likely not have been productive, and that Berkshire's abstention sent an even more effective message.

"We made a very clear statement about the excessiveness of the plan and, at the same time, we in no way went to war with Coca-Cola," Buffett said. "I don't think going to war is a very good idea in most situations."

Buffett said he had conversations with Coke's chief executive, Muhtar Kent, including one in Omaha, where he said he thought the plan was excessive.

"I think the best result for the Coca-Cola Company was achieved by our abstention, and we will see what happens in terms of compensation between now and the next meeting of Coke," he said.

Wall Street also came under the spotlight from a person complaining about why more individuals were not being held criminally responsible for recent misconduct, such as from the 2008 financial crisis.

"I don't think there's anything that changes behavior more than prosecuting individuals," Munger said.

Buffett agreed, recalling his experience at Salomon Inc more than two decades ago, when he became chairman to help clean up a Treasury auction rigging scandal.

"I may be biased from my experiences at Salomon, but I lean more toward prosecution of individuals than corporations," he said. "It's way easier to prosecute corporations - it's somebody else's money, and the prosecution knows it's going to get a win. (Corporations') calculus is such that it just doesn't make sense to fight if you can just write a check, while the individual is fighting to stay out of jail."

WORKING ON THE RAILROAD

The questions came a day after Berkshire posted first-quarter results that just missed analyst forecasts.

That report noted weather-related disruptions at railroad BNSF - another topic of concern on Saturday. Buffett handed off, calling in BNSF executive chairman Matt Rose to talk about the company's service challenges.

"We're making significant investments," Rose reassured the audience.

Buffett added that Berkshire could spend "many, many billions" to improve operations at the railroad, which is the country's largest player in the booming oil-by-rail business.

In contrast, he said a different business, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, was more able to grow through acquisitions.

Indeed, much of Berkshire's growth as a company has come through acquisitions, but it now takes bigger transactions to move the needle.

Buffett signaled he would gladly partner again with Brazilian firm 3G Capital, with which he teamed up to buy ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co last year for $23.3 billion.

"We're very likely to partner with them, perhaps on some things that are very large," Buffett said. "I think 3G does a magnificent job of running businesses."

Later, he added: "What we really want to do at our present size and scope (is) buy big businesses with good management and prices, and then build them over time.

Last year, Berkshire underperformed for the first time in nearly 50 years by Buffett's own preferred measure: gains in the company's book value, or worth, lagged the S&P 500.

Shareholders at the meeting also rejected a proposal that Berkshire start paying a dividend, after having not made any cash payouts since 1967.

GETTING THERE EARLY

The annual meeting in Omaha draws tens of thousands of people to hear Buffett and Munger talk about business, the economy, and even politics and life.

It includes a massive exhibit floor that highlights the breadth of Berkshire's holdings, including Geico car insurance, Borsheim's jewelry and Dairy Queen ice cream. Before the meeting, Buffett paid $1 for a Dairy Queen vanilla orange bar.

As usual, hundreds of shareholders lined up outside the arena well before the doors opened at 7 a.m. CDT.

Michael Rodin, owner of Impact Promotional Marketing Products in Des Moines, Iowa, said he arrived at 1 a.m., after having attended more than 20 prior meetings.

"The excitement, to get as close to the action as possible, and see the man close, and not with his face on the video screen," Rodin explained on his strategy.

At one point Buffett was asked if he had lost confidence in Berkshire. In his annual letter to shareholders, Buffett disclosed that he had suggested to his estate's trustee that money left to his wife be largely invested in a low-cost S&P index fund.

The question posed: Why an index fund and not Berkshire stock?

Because, he said, he's unconcerned about maximizing the money he will leave his wife after he passes away.

"There will be loads of capital left over" for her, Buffett said.

(Reporting by Luciana Lopez and Jonathan Stempel in Omaha, Nebraska; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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