At Buffett-fest, investors upbeat about economy, hate Facebook

May 5, 2012: 1:02 AM ET
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Warren Buffett

Despite optimism, investors are looking for Buffett to lay out a better vision of what his company might look like when he is gone.

Omaha, Neb. (FORTUNE) -- The economy is improving. Berkshire Hathaway's  (BRKA) stock is undervalued. And Facebook is a crapshoot. That was the general feeling at a gathering of investors on the eve of Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting.

Tens of thousands of investors pour into this city each year to hear Warren Buffett address his company's stock and the economy, and investing in general. What they get is typically an optimistic assessment of the U.S. economy, which doesn't always square with reality. Indeed, Buffett's own stock has underperformed the market for the past three years. And there are growing signs, including yesterday's weak jobs report, that the economy appears to be slumping again. What's more, Buffett recently revealed that he has Stage 1 Prostate Cancer. He says it's not life threatening. However it's sure to raise the issue of who might run Berkshire after Buffett, 81, steps down. Still, this year, the attendees of Berkshire's annual meeting seem more upbeat about the economy in the next few years than usual.

Investors speaking at a dinner on Friday night that was hosted by mutual fund manager Mario Gabelli to benefit Columbia University, where Buffett went to graduate school, said they believed the shares of large U.S. companies, including Berkshire Hathaway, were a good bet right now. Bruce Greenwald, Columbia's reknowned investing professor and the Director of Research at FirstEagle Funds, says the fact that consumer debt burdens have effectively been cut in half by low interest rates should help propel the economy this year. What's more, he says Europe has proven much more resilient that many thought. "Despite all the problems Europe's economy is down half a percent, and it's up from where it was two years ago," says Greenwald.

Other good signs for the economy that some investors cited were the fact that railroad traffic was up, and that U.S. corporate profits had remained strong during the recession. Gabelli, for his part, saw a lot uncertainty in the next five months. But once we get through the election in the U.S., he thought the market should continue to improve. Even then, Gabelli says it could be slow going for the world economy for some time. "What is the world economy going to grow," Gabelli says. "For 60% that makes up the development economies, the answer is 2% or 3% at best. You need to invest in companies with pricing power."

Generally, all the investors, which also included David Winters of the Wintergreen Fund and Tom Russo of Gardner Russo & Gardner, thought there was more opportunity in large capitalization stocks, than smaller or technology companies. Greenwald said the shift of pension funds and other assets into hedge funds was creating an opportunity. "The hedge fund cost structure has pushed a lot of investment into small and medium cap stocks," said Greenwald. "The result is that there are a number of undervalued huge, safe companies."

One of those stocks that all the investors thought was undervalued was Berkshire Hathaway. Winters said he thought Berkshire's shares, which headed into the weekend at just under $122,000, were worth $160,000. He said investors like himself come to Berkshire's annual meeting for reassurances from Buffett that things are going to be OK. Buffett, because he owns 80 U.S. focused company companies, including railroad Burlington Northern, has a better view into the economy than most people.

Russo said while he likes the stock he would like Buffett to lay out a better picture of what the company will look like in the future. "Who will be in charge of making the call on acquisitions, including the smaller ones done by the individual companies," says Russo. "I still don't think that is clear."

Gabelli took issue with Buffett's very public backing of President Obama's push to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He thought that was a negative for stock. "Did he make a mistake by getting too political," says Gabelli. "I think so."

But the stock that most of America was buzzing about appeared not to be on the radar of the Buffett faithful. All of the people I asked about Facebook, which on Thursday indicated it could be worth as much as $96 billion after its initial public offering later this month, said they weren't interested in buying the stock. Gabelli, who uses Twitter, says he hasn't even thought about investing in Facebook. Greenwald said the idea that Facebook was a good investment was pure speculation. He said Facebook's business model was not as well established as say Google's, and said that people were overvaluing the fact that the company has nearly 1 billion users. "Air currently has over 7 billion users," says Greenwald. "And it's a lousy investment."

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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