Berkshire’s CEO succession heightens interest in Warren Buffett letter
By Noah Buhayar
Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders is coming Saturday, and it may bring more clues about the 87-year-old billionaire’s succession plans at his conglomerate.
In addition to providing an update on the company he’s been building for more than five decades, Buffett is likely to pack this year’s installment with financial wisdom and optimism about the U.S. economy, plus the occasional risque joke.
Themes Buffett may address, along with the company’s future leadership, include the recent U.S. tax overhaul, underwriting challenges affecting the insurance business, and the widely watched health initiative teaming Berkshire with JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Amazon.com Inc. Here is a quick look:
Abel and Jain
In January, Buffett promoted two longtime executives — Ajit Jain and Greg Abel — to vice chairmen overseeing swaths of Berkshire’s business. Jain, 66, was put in charge of insurance operations, while Abel, 55, is responsible for all other subsidiaries. Both were also appointed to the board.
Jain and Abel were logical candidates to get expanded roles. They have built significant businesses for Buffett, winning the billionaire’s praise along the way. Jain has for decades led Berkshire’s namesake reinsurer, while Abel oversaw a major expansion of the energy business.
Buffett described the promotions as “part of a movement toward succession.” That either Abel or Jain could one day be named CEO is no shock. Both have made investors’ short lists for years. Many shareholders are betting that Abel is the likelier pick, in part because the energy executive is more than a decade younger. Abel’s promotion puts him in charge of a broader range of businesses with more employees.
Buffett has said there’s no “horse race” to succeed him. Even so, expect him to explain more about the new arrangement and what it means for Berkshire’s future.
The new U.S. tax law was a windfall for Berkshire. Analysts at Barclays Plc noted that the lower corporate rate probably added $37 billion in the fourth quarter to book value, one of Buffett’s preferred yardsticks for measuring his performance as chief executive officer. The one-time increase will result from Berkshire lowering its tax liability on appreciated investments. Think: Coca-Cola Co. stock bought decades ago that’s soared in value.
In the long haul, the implications of the tax law are less clear. Berkshire’s electric utilities will end up passing on any savings to ratepayers because their returns are regulated. But the conglomerate’s other businesses could see significant gains. It depends on “competitive conditions,” Buffett said at the company’s annual meeting last May. In general, businesses in cut-throat industries will end up passing more of the break on to customers than businesses with less competition. Morgan Stanley analysts estimate the tax cut could lift Berkshire’s operating earnings by 14 percent.
Anticipation of these benefits was one reason the conglomerate’s shares soared last year, crossing $300,000 for the first time. Buffett may devote a portion of the letter to the new tax policy’s impact on Berkshire, and he could also speak more broadly about what the changes mean for U.S. business and the economy.
Buffett has often sung the praises of his company’s insurance operations, such as Geico and Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group. The premiums they collect provide a steady stream of cash to invest. And for more than a decade, they did so at an underwriting profit.
Last year was different. A spate of natural disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, pummeled the industry. Berkshire’s losses weren’t out-size. But its insurance division posted an underwriting loss through the first nine months of the year, putting the group on track to record its first red ink since 2002.
Expect Buffett to explain why he’s committed to the business even after a rough year when its results overshadowed progress elsewhere.
Buffett has long considered health-care costs a “tapeworm” on the U.S. economy. Now, Berkshire is trying to do something about it. In late January, the conglomerate announced that it was teaming up with JPMorgan and Amazon to form a new health-care company.
Not much is known about the venture, except that it will be “free from profit-making incentives” and focus on using technology to improve transparency for employees and drive down costs. But speculation about what the three companies might aim to do sent shock waves through the health-care industry.
Look for Buffett to discuss why he thinks health care is such a problem for the U.S. economy, if not divulge more specifics about the initiative. He may also credit Berkshire investment manager Todd Combs for his help in moving the effort forward.