At Berkshire Hathaway Inc., 2019 was another good year – and an opportunity for its leader, Warren Buffett, to prepare his company for life without him.
In his latest letter to investors, published Saturday morning, the billionaire largely praised the performance of his US$566-billion conglomerate, whose portfolio includes the insurer GEICO, the chemical-maker Lubrizol Corp., Fruit of the Loom underwear and more.
“Our unrivaled mountain of capital, abundance of cash and a huge and diverse stream of non-insurance earnings allow us far more investment flexibility than is generally available to other companies in the industry,” he wrote.
The annual report was accompanied by the latest assessment of Berkshire’s financial health: The company reported US$29-billion in net income for the fourth quarter of 2019 and US$81.4-billion for last year over all. Operating earnings, Mr. Buffett’s preferred measure of financial performance, declined slightly last year from 2018, to US$24-billion.
In a further show of belief in his company’s value, Mr. Buffett said that Berkshire spent US$5-billion buying back its own stock last year. But investors have hoped that the company would spend more on stock repurchases since loosening its policy on such moves in 2018.
Much of Saturday’s letter served up a sort of greatest hits for fans of Mr. Buffett – investors around the world who hang onto his pronouncements as the United States’ favourite capitalist uncle.
There were quips, such as one comparing corporate acquisitions to marriages that start with “a joyful wedding – but then reality tends to diverge from prenuptial expectations.”
There was the complaint that Berkshire, with a US$128-billion cash hoard that Mr. Buffett wants to spend on big acquisitions, did not have great opportunities to do so. (Missing from action this year was his favourite description of that cash pile, “elephant gun.”)
Instead, Mr. Buffett wrote, “The fickle stock market serves up opportunities for us to buy large, but non-controlling, positions in publicly traded companies that meet our standards.” That currently includes a US$73-billion stake in Apple Inc., US$33-billion in Bank of America stock and US$22-billion in Coca-Cola shares.
Mr. Buffett also said that Berkshire valued its roughly 27-per-cent stake in Kraft Heinz Co., the packaged foods company that was one of its biggest recent deals – and one of its most prominent investing flops in recent years – at about US$13.8-billion. By contrast, Mr. Buffett’s annual letter in 2018 valued its Kraft Heinz stake at US$17.6-billion.
The billionaire also took time to complain about the poor state of many corporate boards:
— Too few women serve on them.
— Directors are often captive to the management teams they are meant to supervise, particularly when it comes to acquisitions that chief executives want to make. “Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut,” he wrote.
— Too many directors go along with management teams in hopes of getting a good reference so they can be added to a second corporate board and earn more paycheques. “When seeking directors, CEOs don’t look for pit bulls,” Mr. Buffett wrote. “It’s the cocker spaniel that gets taken home.”
Yet, as in many years past, this year’s letter did not dwell on the topic Berkshire shareholders want most desperately to know: Who will succeed Mr. Buffett, now 89, as the conglomerate’s CEO. Time and again, Mr. Buffett has said only that he has someone in mind and in the meantime has no plans to retire anytime soon.
In Saturday’s letter, Mr. Buffett reiterated that Berkshire was “100 [per cent] prepared” for the day that he and his longtime business partner, Charlie Munger, 96, leave the scene. The reasons: Berkshire’s investments are strong and prudent, the company’s businesses are overseen by able managers and its remaining directors are trusted to stay the course.
The letter reflected one more sign that Mr. Buffett was willing to share the limelight with his lieutenants, Ajit Jain and Greg Abel, both of whom have been widely speculated as potential successors.
Mr. Buffett said that he would allow attendees of Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting in May to direct questions – part of a long-standing tradition where he and Mr. Munger answer queries on any topic – to either of those men.
Also left unaddressed in the letter was Mr. Buffett’s most recent deal, the sale of Berkshire’s newspaper holdings, in a sign that he was giving up on the news business.