Buffett cancer diagnosis hits stock, raises succession questions

Investors contemplate a Berkshire without Warren Buffett.


Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

When Susy Abbondi heard on April 17 that Warren Buffett had prostate cancer, she quickly turned to CNBC to find out just how severe the diagnosis was. Like most people, she wanted to know what had happened to the world’s most famous investor. But she had another reason to tune in: her company owns Berkshire Hathaway stock.

The president of Montreal-based Duncan Ross Associates has owned the diversified holding company for 24 years—it’s her largest position—so any bad news about the CEO’s health could hurt her investors’ returns. In fact, she lost some money just with the announcement; Berkshire’s stock dropped about 2% in the two days after.

The real worry for investors is whether Berkshire, which owns both private (especially insurance) companies and common stock, has a solid succession plan. Abbondi thinks it does. The Oracle of Omaha hasn’t spelled out what those plans are, but she’s confident the company has a “deep bench.”

Although we don’t know who that new CEO could be—most companies don’t reveal such plans in advance—Abbondi notes Buffett hired investment managers Ted Weschler and Todd Combs to succeed him as chief investment officer. “That’s really the most important decision Buffett had to make,” she says. “And they have the brains and judgment to carry on when he’s no longer there.”

Cathy Seifert, an equity analyst with S&P Capital IQ, isn’t as optimistic as Abbondi. She says that the lack of a clarity is an issue, and it’s one that needs to be corrected soon. She was happy to see that Buffett quickly disclosed his illness, but he has to go further. “Apparently there is a successor, but it’s a parlour game of sorts,” she says.

Even if Berkshire does become more transparent with its plans, there’s no telling what will happen to the company’s stock after Buffett is no longer able to carry on as CEO. No other investment manager has created as much wealth for shareholders as Buffett. Whitney Tilson, founder and managing partner of Tilson Mutual Funds, also has a big stake in Berkshire. He wrote in an e-mail to investors that he doesn’t think the business will be affected in the near term, but if Buffett can’t make a quick recovery, then “it would clearly affect the creation of future value” at the company.

Seifert says there is a “Buffett premium” built into the value-oriented stock, and when the founder does hand over the reins, it’s likely the price will take a hit. Tilson thinks the premium isn’t as great as some make it out to be—he says investors know the 81-year-old won’t live forever—but even so, people can’t ignore the succession issues. “There is no investor with his experience, wisdom and track record, so his successors’ decisions regarding the purchases of both stocks and the entire business might not be as good,” he wrote.

For now, Seifert’s advice is to wait and see. She has a Hold rating on the stock and won’t change it until Berkshire’s future becomes clearer. Abbondi, though, is considering buying more. She says the stock is cheap—it trades at about 1.19 times book value—and if it falls any further, she’ll be glad to stock up. “Whatever happens,” she says, “I don’t have anything to worry about.”