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Berkshire holders trust Buffett on health outlook

Associated Press Modified: May 5, 2012 at 7:16 pm •  Published: May 5, 2012
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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Warren Buffett worked to reassure shareholders that he's feeling good after his recent prostate cancer diagnosis, and that Berkshire Hathaway is ready to replace the revered 81-year-old investor when the need arises.

Based on the questions Buffett got from the crowd of more than 30,000 at the company's annual meeting in Omaha on Saturday, Berkshire shareholders are taking him at his word.

Despite the fact that Buffett just disclosed the condition last month, he didn't face the first question about his health until well into Saturday'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. One highlight of the discussion was the revelation that he recently attempted to make a more than $20 billion acquisition.

"I feel terrific. I love what I do," he said. Buffett 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 the 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. During the business portion of the meeting, Berkshire shareholders overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have required annual updates on how the company is preparing to replace Buffett.

However, Buffett did address a challenge that his successor may face and talked about the way his successor will approach the job.

One of the first questions of the day was about whether his 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. or IBM stock or buying entire businesses such as Iscar metalworking and Burlington Northern.

His eventual successor will maintain the company's culture and continue to let key managers run Berkshire subsidiaries with little interference, Buffett said. He's known for his hands-off, decentralized management style.

"You do not need to worry about my successor," he said.

Shareholder John Zerngast, of Olathe, Kan., said the stock market might be uneasy about Buffett's age and that of 88-year-old Vice Chairman Charlie 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.

Besides all the companies Berkshire owns outright, it 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.

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