The man who would question Buffett is nervous

Oracle's hand-chosen inquisitor, Charlie Kass, still studying hard just days before annual meeting showdown; shorting Berkshire

Apr 27, 2013 @ 12:01 am (Updated 8:55 am) EST

Charlie Kass
Kass: Won't be lobbing softballs (Photo: Bloomberg News)

Douglas Kass, the investment manager selected by billionaire Warren Buffett to ask questions at Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK/A)'s annual meeting next week, has hit the books in preparation for the challenge.

The fund manager said in an interview yesterday that he's reading Alice Schroeder's more-than-800-page biography of Buffett and other titles to get ready for the May 4 gathering in Omaha, Nebraska. It's taken about 10 hours on average for each question, he said by phone.

“We can't lose sight that this company, and Mr. Buffett as a person, has been combed over with questions,” said Kass. “It's not like this is a breeze. I think he expects something of me, and I don't want to disappoint him.”

Buffett, 82, has sought to refocus attention at the meeting on Berkshire by allowing journalists and analysts to alternate with the audience in asking questions of him and Vice Chairman Charles Munger. Kass, founder of Seabreeze Partners Management Inc., answered Buffett's call to change the panel by adding an investment professional who's betting on the stock's decline.

“He wanted to spice up the annual meeting, and to make it more interesting from the context of the questions, as opposed to a bunch of softballs or non-Berkshire-related political questions, tax questions, policy questions,” Kass said.

Berkshire's stock has since more than doubled, closing at a record $161,000 on April 16. The rally, paired with climbing profit, should help lift the mood of shareholders at the meeting, which draws tens of thousands of people each year, said Buffett biographer Andrew Kilpatrick.

“Everywhere you point, things are good,” he said in an interview. “Cash (BRK/A) is coming in like crazy.”

In the interview yesterday, Kass declined to explain his reason for betting on Berkshire's decline now or hint further at topics he may address at the meeting. He did say he would include quotes from people that Buffett has cited before.

“Not Ben Graham,” Kass said. “Maybe Mae West.”

Graham taught Buffett at Columbia University and is considered one of the fathers of value investing. Buffett has cited West, a 1930s Hollywood temptress and comedienne, in his letters to shareholders.

'Thick Skin'

Buffett, who built Berkshire into a business valued at more than $250 billion through stock picks and takeovers, has told shareholders that they shouldn't expect the company's past rate of growth to continue. The increase in book value per share, a measure of assets minus liabilities, is slower now than in Buffett's first decades in charge, because the company's size makes it harder to expand as quickly.

The billionaire has also been critical of his own performance. In March, he called his 2012 results “subpar” for failing to increase Berkshire's book value per share at the same rate as the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, including dividends.

Kass, whose company is based in Palm Beach, Florida, received an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 1972. He said he's preparing for a different sort of criticism at the meeting.

“I do know Mr. Munger is going to call me a chump for being short his stock,” Kass said. “I'm ready for the put- down. I have thick skin.”

Munger, 89, didn't respond to a request for comment sent to an assistant. Schroeder is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

--Bloomberg News--