Warren Buffett releases annual letter

Berkshire Hathaway made a $23.3 billion deal to buy part of H.J. Heinz.
Berkshire Hathaway made a $23.3 billion deal to buy part of H.J. Heinz. (KEVIN LORENZI / Bloomberg News)
Posted: March 01, 2013

OMAHA, Neb. - What will life be like without Warren Buffett?

Berkshire Hathaway shareholders may have gotten a glimpse into that future. Most of Berkshire's deals last year didn't directly involve the 82-year-old investor. They originated with a subsidiary of the conglomerate, or with one of the two investment managers Buffett has hired. Either way, Berkshire did well in 2012.

Buffett's annual letter to shareholders will be released Friday afternoon.

Jeff Matthews, who wrote Warren Buffett's Successor: Who It Is and Why It Matters, said last year's deals are comforting because they show how the company might work after Buffett is gone.

"It's very reassuring," Matthews said. "This didn't used to happen."

Of course Berkshire's recent $23.3 billion deal to buy part of Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz highlights what shareholders will miss most about Buffett: his connections and judgment.

Regardless of what kind of deals Berkshire made, Buffett's annual letter is one of the best-read documents in the business world. That's because of his remarkable track record and talent for explaining complicated issues plainly.

The future of the conglomerate Buffett built from a failing textile manufacturer is on shareholders' minds because of the billionaire's age. He was also treated for prostate cancer last year. He said the cancer doesn't threaten his life, and he has no plans to retire.

Some of Berkshire's biggest deals by dollars last year include:

A $1.5 billion purchase of mortgage loans from Residential Capital and a $1.2 billion repurchase of Berkshire Hathaway Class A shares.

A deal to cover up to $4 billion in insurance losses for Cigna Corp. in exchange for a $2.2 billion premium.

Both ResCap and Cigna have big operations in the Philadelphia region.

Terms of several other deals weren't disclosed, but analysts said the acquisitions of party supplier Oriental Trading Co. and Prudential's real estate network are unlikely to give a significant boost to Berkshire by themselves.

The only deals that likely originated with Buffett are the Berkshire share repurchase, the Oriental Trading acquisition, and possibly the Cigna deal. The rest began elsewhere, although Buffett would have signed off on them.

Buffett seems to like the speculation about who will run the company, so, KBW Analyst Meyer Shields said, he probably won't help narrow down the choices.

Investors who follow the company said the strongest CEO candidates are Ajit Jain, who runs Berkshire's reinsurance division; Greg Abel, president and CEO of MidAmerican; Tony Nicely, chief executive of Geico; and Matt Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Buffett has said that his son Howard, a member of Berkshire's board, would make an ideal chairman.

Berkshire has hired two hedge fund managers, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, who Buffett said are capable of eventually running the company's entire portfolio. They manage portfolios worth about $4 billion while Buffett continues to make most of Berkshire's investment decisions while searching for big acquisitions.

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