Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Some Further Shades of Grey

Yesterday I wrote about the conflict emerging between Warren Buffett and shareholders in his Berkshire Hathaway fund under the title "Things are Never Black and White." This afternoon Jonathan Stempel of Reuters has reported further developments in this story along a couple of fronts. Most important is that Buffett seems to share with Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel and author of Only the Paranoid Survive, a value for "the process of clarification that comes from broad and intensive debate." Here is how he hopes to achieve that clarification:

Buffett controls 33 percent of Berkshire's voting power. To encourage open debate, he offered tickets to some protesters to the annual meeting, which is normally a celebration open only to shareholders and known as "Woodstock for Capitalists."

As I said yesterday, it is not my place to take sides; but I strongly support the way in which Buffett is dealing with the controversy that has grown up around this issue. If there is a way to accommodate both financial values and human values (to again invoke the language of Ségolène Royal), then the opportunity for debate that Buffett has arranged may be the best way to find it.

Furthermore, this debate is likely to be followed by Fidelity shareholders:

Fidelity, one of the world's largest mutual fund companies, at year end owned 4.5 million American depositary receipts in PetroChina worth $633 million, Thomson ShareWatch data show.

Unfortunately, their initial move seems to have been to hang tough, at least according to Stempel's report:

Fidelity spokeswoman Anne Crowley said her company is complying with all laws governing investments in Sudan. "Any suggestion that Fidelity supports or is funding the tragedy in Sudan is patently false," she said.

Nevertheless, Buffett has earned both influence and respect in the financial world; so, if his move towards open debate is a sincere one, it is hard to imagine that Fidelity will ignore him.

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