Buffett: CEOs should pay for risks

OMAHA — Billionaire Warren Buffett, in his annual letter to shareholders, sternly urged companies to develop harsh penalties for executives who get into trouble with risky investments.

Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. delivered a 61 percent jump in net income because the value of its investments and derivatives rose sharply in 2009 after taking a beating the year before. But its businesses' exposure to housing construction helped keep it from outperforming the S&P 500 for the first time since 2004.

Buffett used most of his letter, released Saturday, to reiterate the business basics that have made his company a juggernaut. But it did include a section about how corporations should manage risk. Buffett said CEOs and the boards that hired them should pay a steep price if their companies get into trouble with risky investments.

Buffett lamented that shareholders, not CEOs and directors, have borne most of the burden of company failures during the economic crisis.

"In my view a board of directors of a huge financial institution is derelict if it does not insist that its CEO bear full responsibility for risk control," Buffett wrote. "If he's incapable of handling that job, he should look for other employment. And if he fails at it — with the government thereupon required to step in with funds or guarantees — the financial consequences for him and his board should be severe."

Buffett told his shareholders he takes responsibility for the risks Berkshire takes. He also has 98 percent of his net worth tied up in Berkshire stock, so he takes a personal hit if the company has trouble.

Buffett also acknowledged mistakes in the past year, including letting debt and losses at fractional jet ownership unit NetJets grow for too long, and suggesting a credit card through the Geico insurance unit that turned into a fiasco that had to be sold for a $50 million pretax loss.

Buffett devoted much of his letter to educating new shareholders about the company. Berkshire added about 65,000 shareholders in February as part of its $26.7 billion acquisition of railroad operator Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. So those new investors may not be familiar with Buffett's hands-off approach to managing its roughly 80 subsidiaries.