Buffett at least learned one thing from Steve Jobs

April 18, 2012

By Jeffrey Goldfarb
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Warren Buffett seems to have learned something from a fellow corporate titan. The 81-year-old investing icon disclosed on Tuesday he was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer last week and pledged to keep shareholders updated about his health. The candor is a refreshing contrast to the way in which Steve Jobs guarded details of the illness that eventually killed him. Unfortunately, Buffett is shrouding his succession plan in the same sort of mystery the Apple boss did.

The prognosis sounds good for the Oracle of Omaha. Doctors have told him his life isn’t in any danger from the cancer, which isn’t an uncommon form for men his age, and that it hasn’t spread to other parts of his body. He plans to keep running Berkshire Hathaway as he undergoes two months of radiation treatment over the summer. The cheeseburger- and root beer float-loving Buffett doesn’t expect any further changes in his condition for a good long while.

Jobs, though younger, confronted a more insidious disease. Yet in the years following the diagnosis, he was reluctant to keep shareholders informed much about his treatment – or, as it turned out, the lack thereof. Jobs’ biographer wrote that for months he refused surgery for his pancreatic cancer – and came to regret it. Apple insisted his health was a private matter. It may well have been, but Jobs’ gaunt appearance fuelled endless media and market speculation, as did substitute appearances at conferences by his lieutenants.

Unfortunately, Buffett’s candour doesn’t extend to identifying his replacement. He said rather bizarrely a couple months ago that he knows who it is but the chosen one doesn’t. That leaves open the possibility the individual may not want the job managing the $200 billion conglomerate, a task even Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger have struggled with in recent years. And given that a man once on the shortlist, David Sokol, left amid a scandal last year, shareholders shouldn’t necessarily put full faith in Buffett’s selection skills.

Buffett expects to stick around for a while. Here’s hoping it’s long enough to realize he should reveal who will step into his big shoes.

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