Buffett's Cancer to Be Main Topic at Berkshire Meeting

Monday, 30 Apr 2012 02:07 PM

 

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Warren Buffett is not one to talk much about his personal life in public, but his prostate cancer may dominate the conversation this weekend when his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway convenes its annual shareholder meeting.

The event dubbed "Woodstock for Capitalism" draws more than 40,000 shareholders to Omaha, Nebraska's convention center for a weekend of festivities, the highlight of which being the questions Buffett takes from investors.

This year, for the first time, he will also entertain questions from a select group of analysts who follow Berkshire's stock.

Last year's meeting was dominated by the scandal-driven resignation of one-time Buffett heir apparent David Sokol. Few expected fireworks this year — at least until Buffett's April 17 disclosure that he has stage 1 prostate cancer and will begin radiation treatment in July.

Bill Smead, chief investment officer of Smead Capital Management and a Berkshire investor, said he and investors like him are hoping for more substance from this year's session.

"I'd like it to go back to answering meaningful questions," said Smead, who holds both Class B shares and instruments representing fractional Class A shares.

The health issue is part of the larger succession question that has hung over Berkshire in recent years and has weighed on the company's share price. Buffett, 81, assuaged some of those concerns in February when he said the company had identified the person who would eventually succeed him as chief executive.

Of course, Buffett may have made the problem worse when he said a few days later that his designated successor had not been made aware of the fact.

The shortlist includes Berkshire's reinsurance boss Ajit Jain, railroad executive Matthew Rose and GEICO CEO Tony Nicely. All have their backers, though none are likely to get a public nod until the day when Buffett can no longer work.

Questions From the Street

Aside from the health question, the other major change this year is that Buffett will take questions from the Wall Street analysts he has historically held in such low regard.

A hand-picked panel of three insurance analysts, all of whom have "buy" ratings on the stock, will likely question Buffett about the stock's recent performance and future potential.

One, Barclays Capital's Jay Gelb, raised his price target on Berkshire's Class B shares last Friday as part of a 115-page review of the company's operations. Gelb and another of the questioners, KBW's Cliff Gallant, have both had the equivalent of a "buy" rating on the stock since last August.

"The question that's never been asked as far as I know, nobody's ever asked Warren Buffett 'why do you think the stock price has lagged so much?"' said Steve Check, president and chief investment officer of Check Capital Management in California.

"We get that from our clients," said Check, whose firm's largest holding by a wide margin is Berkshire B shares.

Through April 24, Berkshire's more widely held Class B shares were up 4.1 percent for the year, less than half the gains of the S&P 500 or of the S&P insurance index. The stock also underperformed the S&P 500 in two of the last three years.

Many people maintain the stock is undervalued, perhaps even at one of its lowest valuations ever, but some say a discount could be warranted given the succession question.

Shareholders will also be hoping for a look at the two men who will shepherd Berkshire's investment portfolio after Buffett is gone, newly hired managers Todd Combs and Ted Weschler.

Combs has been building his portfolio, taking Berkshire into more tech and retail investments, while Weschler recently started and will soon show his hand.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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