Buffett allays fears; says mulled mega deal
Washington, May 6, 2012
Warren Buffett tried to allay fears of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders about the company's future a and revealed that he recently tried to make one of the biggest acquisitions of his career.
The question of who will succeed Buffett, 81, as chief executive became more of an imperative after Buffett disclosed on April 17 that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
While Buffett called it 'a really minor event,' his early-stage prostate cancer was a reminder that for all his success as an investor and all the plaudits he gets, Buffett is mortal and would be hard to replace at the company he has run since 1965.
That made the future of Berkshire , with or without Buffett, a central focus of five hours of questions at its annual meeting on Saturday in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.
'I don't think that every deal that I made would necessarily be makeable by a successor, but they'll bring other talents,' including skills to be an effective chief risk officer, Buffett said. 'We're not going to have an arts major in charge of Berkshire.'
Charlie Munger, who is Berkshire's 88-year-old vice chairman and sat beside Buffett, quipped: 'I rather resent all this sympathy and attention that Warren is getting. I probably have more prostate cancer than he does.'
The annual meeting is the centerpiece of a weekend of events that Buffett has dubbed 'Woodstock for Capitalism.' Close to 40,000 shareholders were expected to attend this year.
Buffett on Saturday also said that he recently considered a more than $20 billion acquisition, and would have sold some Berkshire stock holdings he wanted to keep to get it done.
'I wish we could have made it,' he said. 'It could happen. I don't think it will happen.'
Buffett did not name the target. A takeover of that magnitude would have been close in size to Berkshire's biggest takeover - the $26.5 billion purchase of railroad company Burlington Northern Santa Fe in 2010. It would have also dented Berkshire's $37.83 billion cash hoard. Buffett said he wants to keep $20 billion on hand.
'Ideally we would spend about $20 billion, that would be about as much as I would feel comfortable spending now,' Buffett told Reuters Insider in an interview after the meeting ended. 'I would settle for about $10 billion and don't try me with $5 (billion).' Berkshire has about 80 operating units, which sell such things as car insurance, chemicals, clothing, furniture and ice cream.
This year's meeting had fewer fireworks than the 2011 meeting, which was dominated by the then-recent, scandal-driven resignation of Buffett heir apparent David Sokol.
Yet Buffett offered a blunt assessment on a scandal enveloping Wal-Mart Stores Inc, in which Berkshire held a $2.33 billion common stock stake at year end.
Last month, the New York Times said the retailer's majority-owned Wal-Mart de Mexico unit ran a widespread bribery campaign in that country to win market dominance, and that senior Wal-Mart executives tried to cover it up.
'If you read the New York Times story, and there's always another side to it, it looks like they may well have made a mistake in how that was handled,' Buffett said.
He nonetheless said he did not believe the matter 'changes the fundamental dynamic' about Wal-Mart or its earnings power.
Among the internal candidates seen as possible future Berkshire chief executives are Ajit Jain, Buffett's top insurance lieutenant; Matthew Rose, who leads Burlington Northern; and Greg Abel, who runs the MidAmerican Energy unit.
Tony Nicely, who runs the Geico auto insurance unit, has long been seen as a candidate, but is now in his late 60s.
'I virtually know that the successor we have in mind ... has the culture and the people embedded as I do,' Buffett said. - Reuters