Stephen Foley: Pearls of wisdom on healthcare would be welcome from the Sage of Omaha


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The Independent Online

US Outlook It is always a treat and an education to be in the presence of Warren Buffett. The tens of thousands who make the annual pilgrimage to the Oracle of Omaha invariably come away with a few new pearls of investment wisdom, and a witty one-liner or two, as well.

You can expect the questions to be especially pointed today, when Mr Buffett addresses the annual meeting of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, for the first time since announcing he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

There are a number of big questions that he should answer – and one that he must not.

The one he must not is the one about the succession. Who will be chief executive after you? Will you not push him forward, so we can get used to him and he can get used to the limelight?

The voices calling for Mr Buffett to name names are growing stronger. In February, he revealed that Berkshire Hathaway's board had picked the next chief executive from the ranks of the conglomerate's subsidiary companies – although it will remain a secret, even from the candidate himself. And then last month, there was the cancer diagnosis, another intimation of 81-year-old Mr Buffett's mortality.

Not that the cancer is especially likely to incapacitate him, or even much slow him down. Berkshire shareholders have boned up on enough oncology over the past few weeks to know that a majority of men over 80 have slow-growing prostate cancer and that it won't be what kills most of them. Mr Buffett will have to skip a few business trips while he has treatment this summer, but his prognosis is good.

So if you think there will be a brooding mood at today's shareholder meeting, I'll bet you that you're wrong. Berkshire investors are a sunny, optimistic lot, in the image of Mr Buffett himself.

As for intimations of mortality, Mr Buffett has been making jokes about his age for, oh, decades now.

For this reason, I trust that the voices calling for a name can be resisted. The transition to new leadership would actually be less smooth if the successor were named now and promoted to a dubiously useful "chief operating officer" role, say. For starters, the overlooked contenders would be disillusioned and liable to being poached. Worse, there is the risk of factions and differences of opinion between the two men. It wouldn't exactly be Blair vs Brown, but you see the risk.

While I am hoping that Mr Buffett sticks to his guns and stays mum on this one, there are other questions relating to his cancer diagnosis that I do hope he answers.

The first among these is why he opted to be tested for prostate cancer in the first place, when the medical community is split on the usefulness of such screening. The second is why he has opted for a two-month treatment of daily radiation, whose side-effects can often be more severe than anything likely to be visited upon you by a glacially growing cancer.

There are no right answers in the medical debate that Mr Buffett has brought to the fore these past few weeks, but in the US these questions touch on wealth and inequality as much as on doctors' orders. One of the reasons US health spending is on course to bankrupt the country is the prolific use of screening and medical treatments of dubious value among those rich or lucky enough to have gold-plated health insurance, with the public healthcare system forced to keep up with that supposed gold standard.

The Oracle of Omaha has used his public platform not just to dispense investment wisdom and to crack wise, but to champion charitable giving by the wealthy and to demand the rich pay a fairer amount of tax. As such, he is already morphing from business guru to political philosopher.

It is time for him to weigh in to the healthcare debate, too, with insights that will no doubt be as smart as they are personal. Like I said, always a treat, always an education.