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Buffett’s health on minds of Berkshire investors

- Associated Press - Saturday, May 5, 2012

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — While 81-year-old Warren Buffett's health has been on investors' minds, many shareholders at Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting said Saturday that they aren't that worried about Buffett's prostate cancer diagnosis.

More than 30,000 people are expected to fill Omaha's downtown arena and overflow rooms to hear Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger answer questions for more than five hours. Outside the centerpiece question and answer session, Berkshire subsidiaries like See's Candy, Justin Boots and Dairy Queen set up displays to sell their products to shareholders.

Questions about Buffett's health are likely to come up because he just disclosed his cancer diagnosis last month. Buffett says doctors caught his cancer early, and it doesn't represent a serious threat to his health. He plans to undergo radiation treatment in July.

"I feel real good," Buffett said as he toured the exhibit hall Saturday morning.

Kevin Snook, of Lincoln, Neb., said if Buffett's not worried about the cancer, then he isn't either.

"Everybody's worried about who the successor will be, but Warren and the board will chose a good one," Snook said.

In fact, 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.

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."

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.

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Online:

Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: www.berkshirehathaway.com

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