Hot Topic on Wall Street: The Search for Warren Buffett's Successor

Who will take over for Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, when the time comes? One name at the top of the list is Li Lu, a relatively unknown fund manager born in China.Forget the double-dip recession, financial reforms and the new iPhone's reception problems. The talk of Wall Street this week was focused on Li Lu, the latest rumored candidate to take over part of CEO Warren Buffett's role at Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B).

Early Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese-born Li had emerged as a leading candidate to oversee a chunk of Berkshire's $100 billion portfolio, based on an interview with Vice Chairman Charlie Munger. Li's the first candidate who's been named, so far, according to the Journal. While he isn't planning to leave his post, the 79-year-old Buffett has said he would likely split his job up when he does.

Buffett's age, along with that of 86-year-old Munger, has fueled speculation about the company's future leadership. Li is apparently close friends with Munger, and has already been bringing the Omaha, Neb.-based company some big investments with large returns, including Chinese battery and auto maker BYD. That investment has reportedly yielded Berkshire a $1.2 billion profit.

Embracing the free market

Before turning to investing, Li was a student leader in the Tiananmen Square uprising. He earned three degrees at Columbia University, including a graduate degree in business. Then, in 1998, he began running a high-risk hedge fund, requiring a minimum investment of $1 million. His fund has averaged a 24% annual return. "Free man, free market," he's constantly quoted as saying.

Another possible successor is David Sokol, chairman of MidAmerican Energy Holdings and NetJets, both Berkshire companies. It's unclear whether the news about Li means that Sokol may now have been bumped from the top of the list, or if Sokol might take over as CEO while Li takes over as a top investment executive.

No sign of slowing down

In his annual letter to shareholders earlier this year, Buffett, known affectionately as the Oracle of Omaha, didn't offer any clues about his succession. "At 86 and 79, Charlie and I remain lucky beyond our dreams...we have long had jobs that we love, in which we are helped in countless ways by talented and cheerful associates. Indeed,over the years, our work has become ever more fascinating; no wonder we tap-dance to work. If pushed, we would gladly pay substantial sums to have our jobs (but don't tell the Comp Committee)."

The company has been conspicuously mute on the succession topic for the last several years. Friday's news was a notable departure from that silent strategy -- and may have been a reaction to some analysts putting a sell rating on the stock. One analyst warned this month that the company's stock price might drop if the economy weakens and Berkshire's consumer-oriented businesses see their revenue drop.

But Berkshire's stock also got some good publicity this week. The exclusive Tiger 21 peer-investment club picked Berkshire as its top stock, based on the stock's 19% return this year. The club has 140 members, each of whom must have a net worth of at least $10 million.
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