Buffett blasts the quality of America's executives

Monday, Mar 10, 2003,Page 12
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett said shareholders such as mutual fund managers must stop supporting bad chief executives out of fear they'll find the spotlight turned on their own pay and performance.

"Getting rid of mediocre CEOs and eliminating overreaching by the able ones requires action by owners -- big owners," Buffett wrote in his annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, his investment company. "Unfortunately, certain major investing institutions have `glass house' problems in arguing for better governance elsewhere."

Buffett's views on the obligations of corporate directors gained prominence last year after accounting scandals at WorldCom Inc and Enron Corp, the two biggest bankruptcies in history, shook investors' confidence in financial reporting. Regulators and corporate executives turned to Buffett, 72, the largest shareholder of companies including Coca-Cola Co and American Express Co, for advice on issues such as accounting for employee stock options as an operating expense and dealing with auditors.

The "acid test" for corporate reform is executive pay, said Buffett, who reported Berkshire's fourth-quarter net income soared 12-fold to US$1.18 billion as the company's insurance businesses raised prices and wrote more policies. Buffett was paid US$356,400 in 2001, the most recent year reported. That includes US$100,000 in salary, and US$256,400 in other compensation. Berkshire shares owned by Buffett and his wife Susan are worth about US$33 billion.

"Managers will cheerfully agree to board `diversity,' attest to SEC filings and adopt meaningless proposals relating to process," Buffett wrote. "What many will fight, however, is a hard look at their own pay and perks."

Too many CEOs are "otherwise decent people" who have "behaved badly at the office" in recent years, Buffett wrote.

They "simply followed the career path of Mae West: `I was Snow White, but I drifted.'"

The bull market of the 1990s encouraged abuses by executives, Buffett wrote.

"As stock prices went up, the behavioral norms of managers went down. By the late 1990s, as a result, CEOs who traveled the high road did not encounter heavy traffic."

Buffett said to be wary of companies that don't count stock options as an expense or have "fanciful" pensions assumptions.
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