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Buffett is probed on Berkshire succession

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Story highlights

  • Thousands queued for Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting on weekend
  • Berkshire now the world's fifth largest company by market cap
  • Buffett said change would be minimal after he has gone

The first shareholder question to Warren Buffett on Saturday morning was gentle, but with a mild preamble of complaint.

The doors to the Omaha stadium had opened half an hour early at 6.30am, and he was asked if this could not be a permanent adjustment to the timeworn schedule of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.

Thousands of investors had queued in the Nebraskan drizzle to claim seats close to Mr Buffett and Charlie Munger, his vice-chairman, and when the octogenarians arrived onstage two hours later, more than 20,000 had packed in to hear their answers.

The interrogation remained friendly.

A year ago, discontent rumbled at the level of the conglomerate's share price, but on Friday it had reached a record $160,294 per A share.

With a $268bn market capitalisation, Mr Buffett reported, to applause, that Berkshire was the world's fifth-largest company.

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    The investor has spent half a century accumulating more than 70 companies in sectors ranging from candy bars and corporate jets to insurance and cargo trains, and as his company has grown, so have the crowds of pilgrims drawn to Omaha.

    Susie Buffett, daughter of Warren, said that an old school friend was attending for the first time.

    "She remembers my dad in his bathrobe making Jiffy pop in the kitchen, and I keep telling her that you have got to come, you are not going to believe how weird this is."

    Many come because there may not be many more and, in a world of online real time updates, it is the rare event where recording and broadcasting are simply not allowed.

    The message is unchanging: buy stocks at the right price, be optimistic, trust Warren. But shareholders said that hearing it each year was a mental reset, a reminder of a particular approach to investing that acolytes try to follow.

    If there was a downbeat message, it was a familiar one that Berkshire's size meant future growth must be slower, "because of course our past returns were almost unbelievable", said Mr Munger.

    The two men also warned that bond-buying by the Federal Reserve would have unpredictable consequences.

    Mr Buffett said: "It's been a very smart policy, but the unwind of it has got to be more difficult than buying."

    He said that when inflation did pick up for the first time, "it's likely to be the shot heard round the world", but he could not predict when it would happen and said it "doesn't mean the world will end".

    On his own company, Mr Buffett had for the first time invited along a bear on the stock to provide bite.

    Doug Kass of the hedge fund Seabreeze Partners, who has taken a short position on Berkshire, gamely probed Mr Buffett about what happens after his death, when his son will take over as chairman: "Other than accident of birth, how is he qualified?"

    Yet Mr Kass -- describing himself as "Daniel in the lion's den" in front of Mr Buffett's thousands of friends -- served more as straight man setting up lines for the crowd favourites. The billionaire shot back that Mr Kass was welcome to bring his own friends along next time.

    The Oracle could not be swayed from the script. His son would be non-executive chairman to safeguard the company's culture, he said, in case the successor turned out be the wrong choice.

    Mr Buffett said he and his board knew who that person would be, even if they would not say, and change after he had gone would be minimal: perhaps the Omaha head office might hire a 24th employee.

    The meeting slipped into an easy rhythm, alternating between the merits of individual Berkshire business, thoughts on fads such as online currency -- "of our $49bn [of cash] we haven't moved any to Bitcoin", said Mr Buffett -- and requests for advice.

    The insurance business was a favourite, particularly Geico, its consumer brand.

    But Mr Buffett also revealed that four top insurance executives he recently poached from AIG to build a commercial insurance business had approached Berkshire about the move.

    "It could be a business that reaches into the billions," Mr Buffett said. "We've got the right people. We've got capital like no one else."

    Asked to name his 10 favourite books, Mr Buffett returned to the one that most influenced him: Benjamin Graham's Security Analysis, the value investors' Bible.

    After more than four hours of such answers, most investors seemed to relish hearing the thoughts of the men in person.

    Patrick Wolff, of Grandmaster Capital, said: "There really is nothing else like this on the planet, and who knows how long it will keep going."