At Berkshire Hathaway, 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 on Saturday morning, the billionaire largely praised the performance of his $566 billion conglomerate, whose portfolio includes the insurer Geico, the chemical maker Lubrizol, 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 $29 billion in net income for the fourth quarter of 2019, and $81.4 billion for last year overall. Operating earnings, Mr. Buffett’s preferred measure of financial performance, declined slightly last year from 2018, to $24 billion.
Much of Saturday’s letter served up a sort of greatest hits for the fans of Mr. Buffett — investors around the world who hang onto his pronouncements as America’s favorite capitalist uncle.
There were quips, like 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 multibillion-dollar 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 favorite 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 $73 billion stake in Apple, $33 billion in Bank of America stock and $22 billion in Coca-Cola.
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 chief executive. 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 percent prepared” for the day that he and his longtime business partner, Charles T. 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 longstanding tradition where he and Mr. Munger answer queries on any topic — to either of those man.