Buffett Watch

'Excluded' analyst's unanswered Buffett questions


The analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods who covers Berkshire Hathaway wasn't invited to join the panel asking questions during the marathon Q&A session that anchors the company's annual shareholders meeting in Omaha.

Meyer Shields is suggesting his "exclusion" may be related to his "occasionally critical analysis."

Warren Buffett
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

In a note out Friday, Shields writes:

We caution investors to consider whether this apparent message control limits their understanding of a company whose disclosure isn't, in our opinion, keeping up with its $300 billion market cap size. This is especially important in light of succession concerns that surround the stock.

(Buffett told Fox Business he won't be announcing a successor at this year's meeting.)

Warren Buffett listens to a performance at the Fruit of the Loom booth in the exhibition area of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2005.
Eric Francis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Among the questions Shields would have asked had he been invited:

"Aren't the repeated comparisons of Berkshire's insurance underwriting results to mutually owned State Farm's misleading?"

Shields argues that State Farm isn't out to "produce a profit in the first place," so its record of annual underwriting losses shouldn't be compared to Berkshire's string of gains.

"Does Berkshire's approach to analysts and shareholders depend on what the meaning of the word 'do' is?"

Shields notes that Buffett's 2013 annual letter says the company doesn't "talk one-on-one to large institutional investors or analysts." Shields concedes that may be true now but points out that "Mr. Buffett's biographer (Alice Schroeder) has explicitly noted that because of his respect for her work as an equity analyst, he did talk extensively and exclusively with her" in the past.

"How is Mr. Buffett's abstention from voting on Coca-Cola's compensation plan not a disservice to Berkshire shareholders?"

Shields suggests Buffett didn't vote no because "his personal feelings for the proposed recipients outweighed his sense of obligation to his shareholders."

"Did Mr. Buffett move the goalposts in terms of evaluating his relative performance?"

Shields points out that for years, Buffett's annual letter compared the company to the S&P 500 over five-year periods. After its first loss to the S&P in the period ending in 2013, this year's letter highlighted Berkshire's outperformance vs. the S&P for the 6-year stock market cycle of 2008 through 2013.

Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting

Shields includes three "important" caveats: Buffett's "historically unique success reflects skill rather than luck," Berkshire has the "right to include or exclude whomever they want" and while he disagrees with other analysts' more optimistic outlooks, "in no way do we question their intelligence, insight, or integrity."

The analysts who were invited are Jay Gelb of Barclays, Jonathan Brandt of Ruane, Cunniff & Goldfarb, and Morningstar's Greggory Warren.

A separate panel of invited journalists will also be asking questions: CNBC's Becky Quick, Andrew Ross Sorkin of CNBC and The New York Times, and Fortune's Carol Loomis. (Loomis helps edit Buffett's annual letter to shareholders.)

In past years, a Berkshire "bear" was also invited to ask questions. This year, Buffett told us he couldn't find a "credentialed bear" who was solidly short on Berkshire.

Berkshire did not respond to our request for comment on Shields' note.

By CNBC's Alex Crippen. Follow him on Twitter: @alexcrippen