Warren Buffett could use a root beer float right about now -- the investment guru is feeling the heat from 40,000 shareholders who may want to criticize him, question whether he has lost touch or even push him to retire.
Berkshire Hathaway shareholders are descending on Omaha for the conglomerate's annual meeting, known as The Woodstock for Capitalism. News coverage of the event often focuses on Buffett being a regular guy in his hometown, eating at favored local spots like Piccolo's, where he extols the virtue of the floats.
This year, however, there appears to be only one topic of conversation in town -- Berkshire's extraordinary claims about the behavior of one of its top executives.
While the Berkshire board's scathing condemnation of former Buffett lieutenant David Sokol on Wednesday may have been crafted as an attempt to exonerate Buffett himself, it has left plenty of open questions. Buffett's public wants answers to them on Saturday.
I think he's dotted his I's and crossed his T's from a legal standpoint, but not much more than that. That's sad for Warren Buffett, because I think he believes the statements that he makes, said Paul Argenti, professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
He's the best and I expect the best from him, and I think that's why everyone is so disappointed, said Argenti, who has had Buffett appear in his classes in the past.
Berkshire's actively traded shares were up 0.2 percent at $83.44 on Friday afternoon. The stock has been under pressure ever since the Sokol episode broke in late March, falling 2.3 percent as the S&P 500 gained 2.7 percent in the same period.
One large Berkshire investor said it was fair for Buffett to be put on the spot with tough questions but that the Sokol scandal would pass in time.
I don't think anything should be brushed off, said David Winters, chief executive of Wintergreen Advisers, which held nearly $65 million in Berkshire class B shares as of the end of last year. What should be focused on is the underlying strength of the businesses.
'TAKE EVERY QUESTION'
Even if the focus shifts over time, as Winters suggested, for now it is still very much on the scandal.
Friday's Omaha World-Herald newspaper led with a picture of Sokol, not Buffett. Inside the paper, the attorney general of Nebraska -- a Republican who has received extensive financial backing from Sokol -- defended his friend and rejected any suggestion a crime had been committed.
An 18-page report Berkshire's board released this week examined the behavior of Sokol, the former MidAmerican Energy chairman who was widely held to be Buffett's presumed successor at the helm of Berkshire. The damning report suggests Sokol misled Berkshire about his personal investment in Lubrizol Corp.
It was an extraordinary disclosure, and one sure to change the tone of the annual meeting on Saturday.
It was a really good report, said Jeff Matthews, a hedge fund manager and author of the new Buffett book Secrets in Plain Sight. Matthews has been one of the investor's most outspoken critics recently.
I think he's going to do exactly what he should do, which is take every question asked of him, Matthews said in an interview with Reuters Insider.
Even with Sokol's troubles, Omaha remains a Buffett town. Thursday night the dining room at his favorite steakhouse, Gorat's, was full of shareholders, including families, buzzing about the weekend. The restaurant is selling T-shirts -- $15 plus tax -- with a caricature of an infant Buffett playing with toys.
PINNING THE BLAME
From a legal standpoint, if the goal of the report was to shift the focus of the story back to Sokol and ease the pressure on Buffett, most experts think it succeeded.
While the report makes it clear that Buffett was essentially duped by one of his top lieutenants, it also emphasizes repeatedly that any deception was purely Sokol's and likely intentional.
With one quick disclosure, Berkshire is essentially agreeing with the public and the press and pinning the blame entirely on Sokol, said Jay Brown, a law professor at the University of Denver.
Buffett will still face tough questions on Saturday about what happened -- particularly his statement in late March that he did not feel Sokol had done anything unlawful, a conclusion the audit committee report appears to contradict.
The question, however, is whether there actually is a contradiction.
It may well be that the real purpose of the statement was to correct Buffett's statement, announce the internal ethical rules within (Berkshire), and close the story once and for all, said Tamar Frankel, a professor of law at Boston University.
(Reporting by Ben Berkowitz, additional reporting by Moira Herbst in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr and Matthew Lewis)