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 candour 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
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 $200bn 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 election skills.
Buffett expects to stick around for a while. Here's hoping
it's long enough to realise he should reveal who will step into his big shoes.
*Jeffrey Goldfarb is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The
opinions expressed are his own.