Gaming the oracle of Omaha

WHAT would you ask Warren Buffet? The answer should be 'as many things as you can'.

Every year, more than 40,000 people from around the world make the trek to the American Midwest to listen to the man they call the Oracle of Omaha, the investment guru Warren Buffett, whose annual shareholder meeting richly deserves its nickname of the Woodstock of Capitalism.

And for a lucky few, there is the (slim) chance not just to listen to the Oracle, but to ask him a question.

On that single spring day this year, inside a rock concert stadium in downtown Omaha, just 27 shareholders got the chance to directly question their idol, the winners of an apparent lottery among hundreds who tried to get to the microphone except that it has just been revealed that one of the world's most powerful fund-management firms has worked out how to game the system.

Of those 27 questioners, six came from Fidelity Investments, which flooded the meeting with more than 40 of its fund managers and analysts.

They had plotted how to maximise their chances, by entering a small handful of lotteries multiple times. A process that Mr Buffett had hoped would be random has turned out to be anything but, and the 81-year-old billionaire is now reviewing how to restore equal opportunity questioning in time for the next meeting in May.

"There's no question they figured out how to game the system. It's not in the spirit of the meeting," an upset Mr Buffett told a reporter this week, although he added: "I might have done the same thing when I was that age."

Boston-based Fidelity sends dozens of its youngest employees to the annual meeting to train them in Mr Buffett's philosophy, which eschews short-term fads and hype to focus on stable, long-term investments.

The firm's investment funds also own a combined 2 per cent of Mr Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, so the meeting is a rare opportunity to get close to the man. Fidelity says that in dealing with any of its investee companies, its staff strive "to ask the right questions so they can obtain the best information to analyse and evaluate that company".

And the fund manager did indeed zero in on some of the issues that most worry Berkshire shareholders, including on the prospects for the bank shares that Mr Buffett owns.

Fidelity's skill at getting to the mic has remained secret until now because questioners are asked only to identify themselves by name and where they come from, not by employer. None the less, there were suspicions on the day.

"An unusually high number of excellent questions are being posed by bright young financial analysts from the Greater Boston Area," blogger and Buffett author Jeff Matthews wrote, "which suggests somebody figured out how to game the 'lottery' system anyway. Who says America has lost its competitive edge?"

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