Warren Buffett confirms Berkshire Hathaway successor, ending years of speculation

Warren Buffett ended years of speculation over his succession plans after news of it slipped, confirming Monday that one of his top lieutenants, Greg Abel, would one day become the face of Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett's penchant for long-term value investing has made him one of the richest people in the world, with a fortune approaching $100 billion. His steady-as-they-go approach stands in stark contrast with today's frenzied investment climate, one marked by tech giants with astronomical valuations, a ballooning stock market seen as untethered from the economy, and the explosion of cryptocurrencies, which he has repeatedly shunned.

News of the plan emerged during Berkshire's annual meeting over the weekend, where executives fielded a host of questions about the volatility of the stock market and the conglomerate's future. In response to a question about whether Berkshire could become too complex to manage, Berkshire vice chair Charlie Munger appeared to inadvertently tip the company's hand when he said "Greg will keep the culture."

Buffett seconded that Monday, telling CNBC, "The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight, it would be Greg who'd take over tomorrow morning."

Berkshire Hathaway did not respond to a request for comment.

Buffett had previously remarked that the company's decentralized makeup relied on the right culture. And Munger explained that Abel, 59, who oversees the company's non-insurance operations, would carry on that spirit.

Abel was named vice chairman in 2018, a move many market observers interpreted as positioning him for the top job. Ajit Jain, who was also named as vice chair that year, was also thought to be in the running. But at 69, he is a decade older than Abel. And Buffett has said the board believes CEOs should be relatively young to ensure a longer run in the position.

Berkshire has touted Abel's management experience and his successful track record running the company's energy business. Abel previously served as chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Energy from 2008 to 2018. He joined the company in 1992.

Shareholders have closely watched for hints of Buffett's plans and for what direction the company would take if and when the 90-year-old chair steps down.

Based in Omaha, Berkshire Hathaway sits on more than $145 billion in cash and short-term investments. It owns more than 90 companies spanning an array of industries, including railroad, furniture and jewelry businesses. The holding company claims major stakes in corporate giants Apple, Kraft Heinz and Bank of America.

While many investors took advantage of nosediving stock prices last year, as the coronavirus pandemic devastated the global economy, amassing positions that have since reaped generous profits, Berkshire moved conservatively. During the annual meeting, Buffett said he does not regret selling off billions of dollars of Berkshire's airline stocks, even as major carriers have rebounded.

Munger condemned cryptocurrencies during the meeting, highlighting the contempt harbored by some of the biggest players in finance for bitcoin and other digital currencies. "Of course I hate the bitcoin success," said 97-year-old Munger. "I think I should say modestly that the whole d--- development is disgusting and contrary to the interests of civilization."

Wall Street's record-breaking run has coincided with a frenzy for other assets that have surged in value, most notably bitcoin and other digital currencies. The market run-up has also drawn impassioned interest from retail investors, armed with easy-to-use trading apps, stock-picking forums and cash to spare from government stimulus payments and personal savings.

Hilary Kramer, chief investment officer for Kramer Capital Research, took a critical view of Berkshire's recent moves, noting the company's hesitance to grab shares during the lows of last spring, when more aggressive investors were buying top names at a steep discount.

"Buffett remains a legend. His heirs inherit a commanding position thanks to Buffett's uncanny track record," she said. "But you're only as good as your last annual report, and I don't see the culture at Berkshire Hathaway evolving to really embrace the future for years to come."

Other experts instead underscored the merits of long-term value investing, waving off what they see as the gimmicks and shiny objects that have commanded attention in recent years. "The issue is not Buffett losing his edge or Buffett being a master," said David Bahnsen, chief investment officer of the Bahnsen Group, a wealth-management firm. "Fads come and go. The most basic of economic laws do not."

"Times change, the economy changes, companies change - fundamental analysis is a constant," said Michael Farr, president of Farr, Miller & Washington, a D.C.-based money management firm.

Buffett ranks sixth on Forbes's list of the world's richest people, with a net worth of $96 billion. He has pledged to donate more than 99 percent of his wealth to philanthropy during his lifetime or at his death.

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