OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Warren Buffett insists that he’s feeling good after his recent prostate cancer diagnosis. Based on the questions he got at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, shareholders are taking him at his word.
Despite the fact that Buffett just disclosed his cancer diagnosis last month, he didn’t face the first question about his health until well into Saturday morning’s questioning. Many of the questions at the meeting either focused in on technical aspects of Berkshire’s many businesses or dealt with general economic or political topics.
“I feel terrific. I love what I do,” he said to an audience of more than 30,000 gathered at Omaha’s downtown arena and in overflow rooms. He told shareholders that the survival rates for prostate cancer look so good that he thinks the diagnosis is a “non-event.”
It would hardly be the first time that Buffett’s assessment would be trusted. Widely known as the Oracle of Omaha, Buffett, 81, is considered the greatest celebrity in investing because of his many profitable decisions. Buffett has said his four doctors caught his cancer early, and it doesn’t represent a serious threat to his health. He plans to undergo radiation treatment in July, but the treatment should have little effect on his daily routine.
“I may have a little less energy, but that may mean I do fewer dumb things,” Buffett said jokingly.
Still, the diagnosis is forcing shareholders to confront that fact that one day Buffett will no longer be at the helm of the conglomerate, which includes an eclectic mix of companies such as Geico insurance, MidAmerican Energy, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, Shaw carpet, Helzberg Diamonds, the Nebraska Furniture Mart and Pampered Chef. Several questions dealt with related topics, such as who will replace Buffett when the time comes.
Buffett told shareholders in this year’s annual letter that the board has picked someone to succeed him as CEO if the need arises immediately, and it has two backup candidates. But Buffett hasn’t publicly identified his successor.
However, he did address a challenge that his successor may face. One of the first questions of the day was about whether Buffett’s successor will be able to make the same kind of deals he has, such as the $8 billion Berkshire invested in preferred shares of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and General Electric Co. during the crisis of 2008. Goldman and GE both wanted Buffett’s stamp of approval along with Berkshire’s money.
“I don’t think that every deal I have made could be makeable by a successor,” Buffett said.
But Buffett said his successor will still be able to make big deals because Berkshire has nearly $40 billion in cash on hand and is willing to invest large amounts quickly.
Buffett said deals like the ones with Goldman and GE haven’t been as important to Berkshire as investing in Coca-Cola Co. stock or buying entire businesses such as Iscar metalworking and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
Shareholder John Zerngast, of Olathe, Kan., said the stock market might be uneasy about Buffett’s age and that of 88-year-old Munger, but it shouldn’t be because of how much Berkshire’s 80-odd subsidiaries and investments are worth.
“I don’t worry about Warren and Charlie because the underlying value is there,” Zerngast said.
Berkshire owns clothing, furniture, railroad, insurance, jewelry and utility businesses. It also has major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co., IBM and Wells Fargo & Co. On Friday, Berkshire said its first-quarter profit more than doubled to $3.2 billion from last year’s $1.5 billion because this year’s results weren’t hurt by major disaster losses in Berkshire’s insurance units.
Buffett says the growth in the stock’s book value — the company’s assets minus liabilities — has outpaced the Standard & Poor’s 500 index in all but eight years since 1965 while delivering a compounded annual return of almost 20 percent. In recent years, Buffett has repeatedly warned investors not to expect that type of return in the future because Berkshire’s size makes it nearly impossible to keep growing at that rate.
That’s fine with George Jensen and his wife, Setara Jensen, who bought Berkshire stock as a stable option in retirement. The Jensens traveled from Hong Kong to attend the shareholder meeting and visit friends from when Jensen worked for Union Pacific railroad before retiring.
“We bought it because it’s a good value,” Jensen said. “There are certainly things that might have a higher rate of return, but at this stage, we wanted something safe and stable.”
But Buffett did tell shareholders that he was recently negotiating a $22 billion acquisition that didn’t work out. He wouldn’t disclose the details, but he used the transaction as an example of the biggest acquisition Berkshire would make right now.
He also defended Berkshire’s purchase last year of the Omaha World-Herald Co. He said even though he has highlighted the challenges newspapers face, the deal still made sense for Berkshire, which already owned the Buffalo News and a large stake in the Washington Post Co.
“I think the economics based on the prices we paid — and we may buy more newspapers — will work out OK,” Buffett said.
Buffett said newspapers are usually still the primary source of local information, and that’s an advantage in places where community is important.
Buffett also defended political comments he has made while supporting President Barack Obama and lobbying for higher taxes on wealthy investors like him.
“When Charlie and I took this job, we did not agree to put our citizenship in a blind trust,” Buffett said.
Buffett always plays the role of Berkshire’s chief marketing officer at the annual meeting by showcasing products made by the company that are on display in the 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall. On Saturday, he revived the newspaper tossing skills of his youth, promising anyone who can throw a folded Omaha World-Herald — one of Berkshire’s latest acquisitions — further than him, a Dilly bar from Dairy Queen.
As Buffett roamed the exhibit hall, shareholders mobbed him, trying to take pictures with their cellphones. He spent time singing “There is No Place Like Nebraska” with the University of Nebraska’s cheerleaders at the Justin Boots stage before checking out the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and BYD electric car displays.
Later Saturday, Berkshire shareholders will vote on a proposal submitted by the AFL-CIO, which owns some Berkshire stock, asking whether the company should be compelled to disclose more specifics about its succession plan.
The proposal faces long odds because Berkshire’s board unanimously opposes it, and that group controls 38 percent of the voting rights. Buffett himself controls about 34 percent of vote.
Buffett has said Berkshire plans to split his chairman and CEO job into three parts with a chief executive, a chairman and several investment managers.
Buffett has said he believes his son Howard, who already serves on Berkshire’s board, would make an ideal chairman.
And Berkshire has hired two hedge fund managers, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, over the past two years who Buffett says eventually will be capable of running the company’s entire portfolio.
Buffett has said he remains in good health, and has no plans to retire because he enjoys running the conglomerate he built.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: www.berkshirehathaway.com