Warren Buffett promised a hefty annual letter this year -- some 20,000 words -- as he celebrates his 50th anniversary running Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and charts its next half century.
The report, which is usually closer to 14,000 words, has long been a must-read on Wall Street -- full of homespun wisdom about investing and business. The contents are a closely guarded secret before the release as Buffett, 84, exchanges drafts with retired Fortune magazine writer Carol Loomis.
He’ll aim to put out a document on Saturday that shareholders in the Omaha, Nebraska-based company will turn to long after he’s gone. As a bonus, Berkshire Vice Chairman Charles Munger, 91, will also contribute a letter. Here are topics to consider before settling into a chair to read:
1) THE $360 BILLION ANCHOR
Berkshire was a struggling textile maker when Buffett took control. It’s now one of the largest businesses in the world. Its Class A shares -- which have never split -- trade for more than $200,000 each. The company’s market value is about $367 billion.
Size, however, is an “anchor to performance,” the billionaire has said. Berkshire’s operations include insurers, railroad BNSF and electric utilities. It also has a stock portfolio worth more than $100 billion. One of the biggest holdings -- International Business Machines Corp. -- has slumped in recent months, showing how hard it is to outperform when dealing with huge sums and few places to invest.
Buffett could use the letter to help shareholders understand what returns are possible in the decades ahead.
2) WILL A PRINCE BE CROWNED?
Buffett has deflected questions for years about who will succeed him as Berkshire’s chief executive officer. Identifying the board’s choice for the job would be a momentous occasion and end a decades-long guessing game.
Some of his comments over the years have led investors to speculate that potential successors include Ajit Jain, the head of Berkshire’s namesake reinsurer; Greg Abel, who leads the utility business; and Matthew Rose, executive chairman of BNSF.
Short of a coronation, Buffett could update shareholders on the board’s deliberations, as he did in 2012 by saying that the directors were “enthusiastic” about the leading candidate. The company also has a number of backups. How many is anyone’s guess. It all got more murky last year.
3) TOO MUCH CASH
Berkshire’s cash pile climbed to a record $62.4 billion at the end of September as profit rolled in from subsidiaries . Historically, Buffett had two main ways of using those funds: buying stocks and acquiring businesses. On both fronts, he’s been pretty quiet. He even sold off one of his bigger equity holdings, Exxon Mobil Corp., in the fourth quarter.
Another option would be to start paying a dividend. Buffett has resisted calls for payouts, even as he began a modest stock-buyback program in recent years. “There’s so much cash now that it’s become a much bigger question,” said Cliff Gallant, an analyst at Nomura Holdings Inc.
4) THE BRAZILIANS
Buffett is fond of calling his biggest acquisitions “elephants.” Recently, he has gotten help in the hunt by teaming up with 3G Capital, a buyout firm started by Brazilian billionaires Jorge Paulo Lemann, Carlos Alberto Sicupira and Marcel Hermann Telles. In 2013, the companies joined forces to take ketchup maker H.J. Heinz private. Berkshire provided most of the financing and 3G supplied a management team.
That arrangement could be a “template” for future deals, Buffett said last March. Months later, Berkshire helped Burger King Worldwide Inc., a 3G-controlled business, buy Canadian doughnut-and-coffee chain Tim Hortons Inc.
Buffett could use this year’s letter to describe how he sees the partnership evolving and what the prospects are for another multibillion-dollar acquisition.
5) A NEW ORG. CHART?
Buffett has quipped that he and Munger “delegate almost to the point of abdication.” There are only about two dozen workers at headquarters. Yet Berkshire’s dozens of subsidiaries collectively employ more than 300,000 people.
For years, the CEOs of the units reported directly to Buffett. That’s started to change, and some of Berkshire’s newest businesses are supervised by his deputies. By delegating more, he’s freeing up his time and building capacity in an organization that will someday have to run without him. Describing what the reporting lines might look like years from now could help his successor manage the sprawling operation.
6) WHEN YOU SAID ‘FOREVER’...
Berkshire buys businesses for keeps. Buffett has said he’ll even hang on to a “sub-par” company as long as labor relations are good and he’s confident in management. The idea is to make Berkshire the buyer of choice for people who want to sell to a long-term owner.
Buffett could revisit that argument in his letter this year. While most of Berkshire’s subsidiaries have been thriving, a few like picture frame-maker Larson Juhl and kitchen-supply seller Pampered Chef haven’t. Another business, NetJets, has been in a dispute with its unions. Explaining when a spinoff makes sense could give Buffett’s successor more room to maneuver in the future.
7) TODD & TED
Hiring Todd Combs in 2010 and Ted Weschler in 2011 was a cornerstone of Buffett’s succession plan. The former hedge-fund managers oversee part of Berkshire’s stock portfolio and have also been helping their boss vet deals.
While Buffett has said Combs and Weschler outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index in 2012 and 2013, last year may not have gone as well. A number of their stock picks slipped, including bets on General Motors Co. and engineering-and-construction company Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. Now that each deputy has been at the company for at least three years, Buffett could provide more clarity on their returns.