In announcing, though not naming, a successor at Berkshire Hathaway, US billionaire Warren Buffett moved Saturday to shore up concerns about the future of his investment firm amid rare criticisms of a man seen by many as a model baron of industry.
Hailed for promoting his Giving Pledge, a promise by the super-rich to donate their wealth to charity after their deaths, and commended more recently by many Democrats for his call for wealthy investors to pay the same tax rate as middle-class Americans, Buffett has become the paragon of a billionaire with a heart.
Buffett's announcement to shareholders on Saturday that he had found a specific successor to run Berkshire Hathaway after his retirement or death came after a fourth quarter that saw Berkshire profits drop by 30 percent, largely because of bets on volatile real estate derivatives.
While the firm, which owns over 70 companies – from railroads to chocolate-makers -- and also invests in Wall Street stocks, outpaced the Standard & Poor's average for the 39th year in a row, uncertainty about succession at the company has, according to some experts, plagued its worth.
Buffett said in a 22-page letter to shareholders on Saturday that he has no plans to leave the company, but that the board of directors has agreed on a specific person to run the firm once Buffett steps down. Buffett wrote that "when a transfer of responsibility is required, it will be seamless, and Berkshire's prospects will remain bright."
Outside of Wall Street, Buffett's public persona has grown over the last year as he's emerged as a key economic adviser to President Obama, who named a plan to raise the tax rate for investment income over $1 million to mirror payroll tax rates for the middle class the “Buffett Rule.” Buffett, who received the Medal of Freedom from Obama last year, famously said he shouldn't pay taxes at a lower rate than his secretary.
The proposal came after Buffett, a spry octogenarian, wrote a strongly-worded op-ed in the New York Times last year, which played into a national conversation spawned by the Occupy Wall Street movement about income inequality.
“I would leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax. This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get,” Buffett wrote last year in the New York Times op-ed. “But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate."
“My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress," he wrote. "It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”
But as Buffett moved to shore up succession at Berkshire, his public profile also took some unusual hits. Frustration with Buffett's appeals for others to pay higher taxes boiled over when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on Piers Morgan's CNN show that Buffett “should just write a check and shut up” instead of advocating for higher tax rates.
“The fact of the matter is that I’m tired of hearing about it,” Gov. Christie said. “If he wants to give the government more money, he’s got the ability to write a check — go ahead and write it.”
That rebuke gave an opening to media critics, who contend that Buffett has been uncritically hailed as an impartial voice of reason by supporting a number of Obama White House gambits, including industrial bailouts, even while he stood to profit from some of those initiatives. Buffett says he makes investment decisions based on data available to every other investor.
Citing an Obama administration foreclosure settlement with Bank of America that boosted Buffett's BofA holdings by $154 million overnight, libertarian commentator Matt Welch of Reason magazine, wrote on CNN, “The man who has become the left's favorite billionaire in the service of bashing plutocrats could be perceived as the single most successful crony capitalist in the country.”
In his shareholder letter, Buffett also criticized himself for spending $2 billion on a bond purchase "that tanked shortly after our purchase and remains depressed ... [I]n tennis parlance, this was a major unforced error by your chairman."
But despite an unusually rough week for the “Oracle of Omaha,” there's little doubt that Buffett's unique brand of billionaire populism continues to resonate. A majority of Americans support Buffett's broader notion of raising taxes on the super-rich. A January CBS News/New York Times poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe that the rich pay too little in taxes.