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Capitalists’ pilgrimage

New York, May 2 (Reuters): It’s the time for spring pilgrimages, and this weekend brings one of the most unusual.

More than 15,000 devout capitalists are journeying from around the world to the Midwest US city of Omaha, Nebraska, to hear the word of local resident Warren Buffett, a down-to-earth 72-year-old who happens to be one of the best stock investors the world has ever seen.

Buffett — the second-richest man in the world behind Bill Gates — leads a normal life for 51 weeks of the year, driving himself to Gorat’s Steakhouse and Dairy Queen in his Lincoln sedan. Despite his $36 billion fortune, he still only pays himself $100,000 a year, and counts Coke and hot dogs as his favourite meal.

But in the first weekend in May he, and his long-time business partner Charlie Munger, 79, are followed by adoring throngs to the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholder meeting, his annual six-hour sermon.

Requests for tickets hit an all-time high this year, according to Buffett’s assistant, and attendance at Saturday’s meeting looks set to smash last year’s record of 14,000 or so that packed into Omaha’s Civic Auditorium. This year, Berkshire is relaying the meeting to a screen in a hall downstairs to deal with the expected overflow.

The shareholders, a mix of Wall Street power-brokers and ordinary Americans with their children, plus Buffett devotees from Europe, Asia and beyond, line up before dawn to get the best seats in the house.

Although their aggregate wealth probably far exceeds that of the crowd at the average Hollywood premiere — Berkshire class A shares sell for $69,800 each — there is no glitz. Dressed as they might be for church, they come to listen to Buffett’s mixture of straightforward advice and sophisticated analysis of stocks, the economy, ethics and whatever else the shareholders ask him.

“For some people it’s a cult-like gathering,” says Henry Asher, a fund manager who holds Berkshire shares personally and for clients. “But for me it’s more the experience of hearing him in real time, answering complex questions — to the speed, the accuracy and depth of his responses.”

Three years ago, at the height of the technology stock mania, Buffett’s style of investing —buying stocks cheap in areas you understand — was out of favour and he was written off, like so much else, as “old economy”.

Now that the rules of the old economy have reasserted themselves, Buffett has enhanced his reputation with shareholders and established a new generation of followers.

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