Special Report: Is Buffett's teflon finally wearing off?

Mon Apr 25, 2011 8:09am EDT
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By Ben Berkowitz

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Aside from maybe the odd cheeseburger stain on his tie, nothing much sticks to Warren Buffett.

Whether his underlings are convicted of helping insurance companies inflate results or a major company he helps oversee is sanctioned for accounting shenanigans, his admirers don't seem to care. Or at least, they haven't historically.

But with a key Buffett lieutenant resigning under a cloud recently, some sophisticated investors are no longer willing to overlook the obvious. For all the shareholders who still consider Buffett the epitome of American capitalism, there are others who wonder whether the time may be near for Buffett to take a graceful bow and exit the stage.

Some will clamor for that this weekend, when 40,000 of his shareholders prepare to descend on Nebraska for the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, the ice-cream-to-insurance conglomerate he runs with absolute authority.

"I want to hear more about Sokol, I want to hear more about how they're going to outperform the markets. I want to hear about what (Buffett's recent) trip to India leads us to believe about how the money is going to be invested in the future," said Michael Yoshikami, chief executive of wealth management firm YCMNET Advisors and a widely quoted Berkshire shareholder.

Investor disappointment reflects not just the revelation that David Sokol, once Buffett's presumed successor as chief executive, bought stock in a company he then pushed Buffett to acquire. It is also because of Berkshire's lackluster performance recently, and questions about the firm's ability to thrive after its octogenarian chairman and chief executive moves on.

Berkshire Hathaway has grown exponentially over decades, but many investors question how it can possibly do as well in the future. With the dozens of companies that Berkshire Hathaway owns having had relatively little oversight for years (by Buffett's own proud admission), some wonder how much earnings power Berkshire actually has and whether future earnings can be as strong as past.

"Obviously Berkshire has intrinsic value but now I have to question that intrinsic value," said Janet Tavakoli, an expert on derivatives and author of "Dear Mr. Buffett," a 2009 book laden with fulsome praise for the legendary investor. Tavakoli, like many others, has revised her thinking sharply in the intervening years.   Continued...

<p>Billionaire Warren Buffett speaks during a news conference in New Delhi March 24, 2011. REUTERS/B Mathur</p>