My 3rd Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting

Since I came to Omaha in 2016, going to the Shareholder Meeting has been an annual activity for me. At first, it was an experience as the meeting is something that if you never saw before, you should whenever you could. Last year and this year’s meetings are more like appreciating the two legendary guys who are still very active despite their old age.

The Berkshire Hathaway weekend includes a lot of activities from Friday to Sunday, but I only go to the Q&A session on Saturday morning. To participate in any activity, it is mandatory to have a pass. If you hold Berkshire shares, you are allowed up to 4 passes. Otherwise, find a person who does and ask for a pass

The Q&A session starts around 8:30 at the Century Link stadium in Omaha, but the gates are open around 7, I believe. There are a lot of people attending, so if you prefer a closer look at the two main speakers and the stage, be early.

Above is the seat I got for arriving at 7:30! So if you want a better view of the stage, you better start very early.

As usual, the meeting starts at 8:30am with the exclusive video that is only displayed at the meeting. No filming, no taking photos, no streaming. The video introduces the companies in Berkshire Hathaway portfolio and some funny segments that feature Warren Buffett and sometimes celebrities who reportedly contribute their time for free. The videos in 2017 and 2018 were much better than the one this year, in my opinion. The segment that stood out in this year’s video for me is the clip about Warren’s mobile application shot at Apple’s headquarter with Tim Cook. Geico is prominently featured as its ads are shown at least 3 times.

The video is about an hour long or so. After that, the Q&A session starts, breaks at 12 for an hour and ends at 3pm. The questions must be related to Berkshire and the companies in its portfolio such as Wells Fargo, BNSF, Oriental Trading, Geico or Apple, just to name a few. Personally, I think if you want to know their opinions on the portfolio companies, attending the meeting once or twice should be enough as the opinions shouldn’t change that much or that quickly. If a major development happens such as the scandal at Wells Fargo or his love for Apple stocks, Warren Buffett does interviews frequently enough that you won’t get new insights from the meeting.

In this Q&A session, Warren does most of the talking and Charlie only speaks once in a while. When he does, it is often very short and, as I find, funny. His famous line is “I have nothing to add”. Otherwise, he is just there on the stage, chilling, eating snacks and drinking coke. What I really appreciate is that the two guys are willing to make jokes, at times on themselves.

Besides the meeting in the stadium, there are exhibitions of the companies in the portfolio throughout the stadium. You can see the products and make purchases on the spot. It’s like a marketing event and from what I have seen, folks do make purchases at these exhibitions.

Berkshire Hathaway Exhibitions
If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it!

Public dog poop bag and our taxes

On my way for a walk around downtown Omaha in a beautiful weather, I saw this dog poop bag dispenser on the pavement. It must have been newly installed either yesterday or today as I didn’t see it two days ago.

Downtown Omaha can be littered with dog poop at times, even in the winter. I accidentally got myself in trouble at least a couple of times for not looking where to put my feet. Hopefully, this new dispenser will alleviate the issue and make it easy for pet owners to keep the streets and their neighbors’ shoes clean.

It brings me to taxes. What is the connection? These things cost. they are expense items on the income statement of the city government (I don’t have evidence, but I believe this kind of things comes out of the city government’s pocket). A government is like a business. You don’t spend what you don’t have or expenses must be covered by revenue. To implement this type of projects, small or large, the city government needs revenue which comes mainly from taxes.

I have a Vietnamese friend who complained about living in Democrats-led states since taxes are higher in those states than in GOP-led ones. A lower tax may look tempting and good on the surface. However, it’s just a part of the big picture.

Without sufficient tax revenue, how could a city government run properly and maintain public infrastructure? Without sufficient tax revenue, what about public school where your kids go to, parks where we all love to visit once in a while, public libraries where we can borrow books for free, city buses that can make transportation less painful or streets that can render commute more enjoyable?

I wrote about my experience with buses from Austin airport to Austin downtown here. The bus runs once every 15 minutes and costs $1.5. Here in Omaha, it runs once every 30 minutes and only for a few hours a day, only on weekdays. A one-way trip from downtown Omaha to the airport, which is not a long ride, costs around $7-10. An airport is a highly popular place at any city, yet getting there isn’t easy for folks in Omaha. In general, public transportation in Omaha needs drastic improvement and I would love to pay more taxes to see that happen.

I wrote also about my love for the local library through which I often borrow books for free. If the library were in financial trouble and needed help, I’d be willing to pay a bit more taxes to keep it.

It can be argued that many are fed up with their city governments’ inability to spend their tax money appropriately. That’s fair, but it’s another matter. It’s about electing the right folks to run the government. What I am trying to say is that lower taxes for individuals and corporations don’t come without consequences. There is a reason why Western European countries with high taxes have quite good social benefits and infrastructure. And to be honest, I prefer that to paying lower taxes and having dated and insufficient infrastructure.

Public Transit

Landing in Austin, I immediately went to Uber and Lyft apps to look for a ride to Austin Downtown. Each came back with an estimate of $20 for a ride. I thought, well, it is what it is. In my defense, it is kinda a trained reaction after living for a while in America, where public transportation can be disappointing in some cases. Anyway, I decided to give it a try and ask the Information Desk about buses to Austin downtown. It turned out that buses run every 15 mins, even on Saturdays and most Sundays from and to the airport. The charge? $1.25/person/ride. It took me only 25 mins to reach Austin downtown, not much different from the estimated time of an Uber/Lyft ride. But I saved $19.

Imagine how much money & time we could collectively save from using more public transportation and less personal vehicles. No more scrambling to find a parking slot, no more parking fees in your building, no more car insurance and safer transportation. A well-designed public transportation network will be a great investment of tax payers’ money and a spoon for low-income folks who should not be forced to buy a car for daily commute.

In Omaha, one of two biggest cities in Nebraska, if not the biggest, there are more bus routes from downtown than other parts of the city and on the weekdays. If you live reasonably far out, no matter the direction, from the city center, there is no bus at all. On the weekends, there is only one bus every half an hour or every hour. To popular places such as Social Security Administration or DMV, there is usually one bus every half an hour, even on the weekdays, and it usually involves transiting from another bus. Trust me, it’s hugely frustrating and unnecessarily time-consuming. On top of that, drivers in Omaha are terrible. I don’t know about drivers in other cities, but a busted car front is not an unusual sight there. If you are not an experienced driver, it can be dangerous and daunting. Oh and it is even worse in the winter. My boss told me on Friday, the first day of winter, that she had to turn around and come home after 2 miles because there were a lot of accidents and the roads were too slippery.

P/S: After telling me about the bus, the lady at Austin Airport’s Information Desk promptly gave me a quarter for my bus ride. Talk about first impression from a new city!