Buffett retakes the stage as Berkshire prepares to pass the baton

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Warren Buffett takes center stage in Omaha for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting on Saturday, as investors size up his expected successor and get a better sense of how the conglomerate plans to grow and deploy cash.

The meeting is Buffett’s 60th since he took over Berkshire in 1965. He has largely stopped appearing publicly to discuss the company, though he assured investors last November that he felt good but knew he was “playing in extra innings.”

At a downtown arena, Buffett, 93, and Vice Chairman Greg Abel, 61, will answer about five hours of questions. Vice Chairman Ajit Jain, 72, will also join. Abel was designated Buffett’s successor as chief executive in 2021.

Investors are focused on how the conglomerate will evolve as it faces challenges including how best to grow without overpaying for acquisitions, whether to pay a dividend, and how to deploy $167.6 billion of cash.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY: BARRON’S

“Buffett says it’s hard to move the needle the way we used to,” said Ted Bridges, who oversees $10 billion including Berkshire stock at Bridges Trust in Omaha. “It would be interesting to hear how we’re going to allocate capital and think about the next 10 years.”

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
BRK.A BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC. 602,911.01 -3,502.44 -0.58%
BRK.B BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC. 400.77 -0.01 -0.00%

Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.

Indeed, Buffett has acknowledged the limitations posed by Berkshire’s size. “We have no possibility of eye-popping performance,” he said in his February shareholder letter.

The shareholder meeting is also the first since Charlie Munger, Buffett’s longtime friend, business partner and foil, died in November at age 99.

Charlie Munger, head and shoulders shot

Munger was known laconic and acerbic comebacks to Buffett’s often lengthy appraisals about Berkshire, the economy, Wall Street and life.

“It’s going to be hard for Warren to not have Charlie there,” said Paul Lountzis, president of Lountzis Asset Management, attending his 32nd Berkshire meeting.

SUCCESSION TOP OF MIND

Berkshire is a $862 billion conglomerate with dozens of businesses including the BNSF railroad, Geico car insurer, and a slew of industrial and retail operations, including familiar brands such as Dairy Queen and Fruit of the Loom.

WARREN BUFFETT’S ANNUAL LETTER PRAISES MUNGER, SLAMS REGULATION

It also owns well over $300 billion of stocks, close to half of which is Apple.

Abel oversees Berkshire’s non-insurance businesses and Jain oversees its insurance businesses.

After Buffett is no longer in charge, his oldest son Howard is expected to become non-executive chairman, to help preserve Berkshire’s culture.

Todd Combs, 53, and Ted Weschler, 61, who oversee some of Berkshire’s stock investments, may take over more. Neither is slated to answer shareholder questions. Combs also runs the Geico car insurer.

“I want to see Warren’s energy,” said Steven Check, president of Check Capital Management, attending his 27th meeting. “It’s good that Greg and Ajit will be out front. It wouldn’t hurt to have Todd or Ted out front too.”

WARREN BUFFETT AND CHARLIE MUNGER’S SUPRISE NO. 1 INVESTMENT

During Saturday’s questioning, Berkshire may be asked how the Federal Reserve’s struggle to lower inflation weighs on consumer-oriented operations including the BNSF railroad.

Buffett may address major investments in Apple, Occidental Petroleum and five Japanese trading houses, and whether wildfire lawsuits have permanently damaged prospects for the Oregon utility PacifiCorp.

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
AAPL APPLE INC. 183.36 +10.33 +5.97%
OXY OCCIDENTAL PETROLEUM CORP. 64.39 -0.27 -0.42%

He might also reveal which financial services stock Berkshire been quietly buying in large quantities.

High U.S. Treasury yields help when Berkshire deploys cash, given its struggles to buy whole businesses.

“That those guys could make 5-1/2% risk free on the short end of the curve risk free would tell you there are a lot of unattractive things out there,” said Cole Smead, chief executive of Smead Capital Management in Phoenix.

GOODIES FOR SALE

Berkshire will also release first-quarter results early Saturday, with analysts expecting operating profit to exceed $9 billion.

Later, Berkshire will consider six shareholder proposals, including that it disclose more about its plans to protect the climate, improve diversity, and its businesses’ dealings with China’s government. Buffett opposes all six.

The weekend also lets shareholders buy goodies including Berkshire t-shirts and Squishmallows at exhibits featuring Berkshire-owned companies.

Investing conferences and private get-togethers will also be scattered around the city.

Shareholders will notice another change.

For many years, The Bookworm, an Omaha bookstore, has sold some 25 to 30 Berkshire-approved titles about the company, Buffett and investing, or titles that Buffett liked.

This year, one book will be sold: the Charlie Munger anthology, “Poor Charlie’s Almanack.”

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