Warren Buffett tried to reassure his shareholders Saturday that Berkshire Hathaway will be fine once he is gone, but the 77-year-old billionaire offered few new details of the company's succession plan.
Berkshire vice chairman Charlie Munger may have done more to reassure the roughly 31,000 shareholders at the company's annual meeting.
"Well, we still have a rising young man here named Warren Buffett," Munger said, to which Buffett joked that everyone seems young to the 84-year-old Munger.
Munger continued: "I think we want to encourage this rising young man to reach his full potential."
Several shareholders still asked about the succession plan and Berkshire's future.
Part of the reason why Michel Paquet and Lorie Armstrong made their second trip to the annual meeting from Calgary, is that they're not sure how many more meetings will feature both Buffett and Munger.
"I will expect some volatility on the transition, but I'm ready for that," said Paquet, who plans to hold his Berkshire stock for many years to come.
To replace Buffett, Berkshire plans to split his job into three parts — chief investment officer, chief executive officer and chairman.
In his letter to shareholders, Buffett said the company's board has three internal candidates for CEO and four external candidates who could take over managing the company's $75 billion stock portfolio and $35.6 billion cash.
Buffett said any one of the three CEO candidates and any one of the four CIO candidates could step in and do some things better than he does. "There will be no gap after my death in terms of having someone managing the money," he said.
Buffett has refused to publicly identify the candidates, but he has said previously that after he dies his son will take over as chairman to ensure Berkshire's culture is preserved. Howard Buffett already serves on the board.
Buffett plans to visit Europe this month as part of an effort to make sure business owners there know about Berkshire, so they think about calling the American giant when they consider selling their companies.
"We want to get on their radar screen," Buffett said.
Buffett said Berkshire would also consider buying businesses in India and China, but laws in those countries would make such a purchase difficult. Berkshire faces limits on how large a stake it can buy in Indian or Chinese companies, making such deals less attractive, Buffett said.
He told shareholders Saturday that the company's new business insuring municipal bonds generated more than $400 million in premiums during the first quarter. Berkshire Hathaway Assurance was launched to take advantage of credit problems other bond insurers have been having. Buffett said most of the bond insurance policies Berkshire has sold are on bonds that already were insured by other companies, with Berkshire charging a higher fee than the original insurer.
Berkshire's book value — assets minus liabilities — per share has grown from $19 — 43 years ago — to $78,008 under Buffett and Munger's leadership. But Buffett warned shareholders that they shouldn't expect that growth to continue at the same rate.
"Anyone who expects us to come close to what we've done in the past should sell their stock," Buffett said.
With Berkshire's current size, huge acquisitions would be needed to fuel significant growth, and it's hard to predict when those opportunities will come up.
Buffett said that until a few weeks ago he didn't know Berkshire would have an opportunity to help finance candymaker Mars Inc.'s $23 billion purchase of confectioner Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.
"The Mars people only wanted to deal with Berkshire," he said.
Berkshire will supply $4.4 billion of subordinated debt to help fund the deal, which was announced Monday. And Buffett's company will invest $2.1 billion in a minority equity interest in the new Wrigley subsidiary once the deal closes.
In Berkshire's annual cartoon, part of a humorous movie at the start of the meeting, Buffett and Munger spoofed the presidential campaign. The cartoon depicted Munger running for president as a write-in candidate for a fictional "Financial Independence Party."
At a campaign event, the cartoon Munger delivered real change — by offering a boy two dimes for a quarter.
Munger also had an answer for all the nation's ills, all involving products made by Berkshire subsidiaries:
Global warming? Munger recommended eating a Dairy Queen Blizzard a day. Health care? Eat more See's Candy. Economic problems? Munger promised to put Buffett in charge of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and the Commerce Department.
An animated Hillary Rodham Clinton laughed at the notion of Munger's candidacy, while Barack Obama lamented that he thought he was the candidate of change. The cartoon of Republican John McCain celebrated Munger's candidacy: "Excellent! A candidate older than I am."