Saturday, February 26, 2011

Buffett's Successor Revealed (NYSE: BRK.A, BRK.B)

For those who have already had the opportunity to get through the 2010 Letter to Shareholders by Warren Buffett, it is obvious that a plan to his succession is clearly taking shape. It has made sense for him that there will have to be a split for his position in the coming years and there has been great mystery as to who will be in charge of investment decisions when Buffett retires.

As he had already officially revealed in October 2010, it seems that the position of chief investment officer will be split into many persons and the first person to be nominated for the task is former hedge fund manager Todd Anthony Combs. As Berkshire Hathaway revealed results for 2010, he went into great lengths to explain his choice of manager, as this person is relatively unknown to the financial markets.

Here is what Warren Buffet had to say about Todd Combs in his 2010 Letter:

Four years ago, I told you that we needed to add one or more younger investment managers to carry on when Charlie, Lou and I weren’t around. At that time we had multiple outstanding candidates immediately available for my CEO job (as we do now), but we did not have backup in the investment area. 
It’s easy to identify many investment managers with great recent records. But past results, though important, do not suffice when prospective performance is being judged. How the record has been achieved is crucial, as is the  manager’s understanding of – and sensitivity to – risk (which in no way should be measured by beta, the choice of too many academics). In respect to the risk criterion, we were looking for someone with a hard-to-evaluate skill: the ability to anticipate the effects of economic scenarios not previously observed. Finally, we wanted someone who would regard working for Berkshire as far more than a job.
When Charlie and I met Todd Combs, we knew he fit our requirements. Todd, as was the case with Lou, will be paid a salary plus a contingent payment based on his performance relative to the S&P. We have arrangements in place for deferrals and carryforwards that will prevent see-saw performance being met by undeserved payments. The hedge-fund world has witnessed some terrible behavior by general partners who have received huge payouts on the upside and who then, when bad results occurred, have walked away rich, with their limited partners losing back their earlier gains. Sometimes these same general partners thereafter quickly started another fund so that they could immediately participate in future profits without having to overcome their past losses. Investors who put money with such managers should be labeled patsies, not partners.
As long as I am CEO, I will continue to manage the great majority of Berkshire’s holdings, both bonds and equities. Todd initially will manage funds in the range of one to three billion dollars, an amount he can reset annually. His focus will be equities but he is not restricted to that form of investment. (Fund consultants like to require style boxes such as “long-short,” “macro,” “international equities.” At Berkshire our only style box is “smart.”)
Over time, we may add one or two investment managers if we find the right individuals. Should we do that, we will probably have 80% of each manager’s performance compensation be dependent on his or her own portfolio and 20% on that of the other manager(s). We want a compensation system that pays off big for individual success but that also fosters cooperation, not competition. 
When Charlie and I are no longer around, our investment manager(s) will have responsibility for the entire portfolio in a manner then set by the CEO and Board of Directors. Because good investors bring a useful perspective to the purchase of businesses, we would expect them to be consulted – but not to have a vote – on the wisdom of possible acquisitions. In the end, of course, the Board will make the call on any major acquisition.
One footnote: When we issued a press release about Todd’s joining us, a number of commentators pointed out that he was “little-known” and expressed puzzlement that we didn’t seek a “big-name.” I wonder how many of them would have known of Lou in 1979, Ajit in 1985, or, for that matter, Charlie in 1959. Our goal was to find a 2-year-old Secretariat, not a 10-year-old Seabiscuit. (Whoops – that may not be the smartest metaphor for an 80-year-old CEO to use.)
He hints that there will probably other managers added to the team and even a compensation structure already in place. The investment results of Berkshire Hathaway's equity portfolio will therefore present the performance of Todd Combs.

Another interesting part of his letter is the update on the equity put contracts that Berkshire Hathaway carries in his books.

You can access his full letter here.

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