Buffett's fan club demands answers
Warren Buffett faces his investors in Omaha today. Stephen Foley reports
Saturday 30 April 2011
"I have held back nothing in this statement," Warren Buffett wrote at the end of March, when he first announced the bombshell resignation of the man who had been his heir apparent, David Sokol. "Therefore, if questioned about this matter in the future, I will simply refer the questioner back to this release."
Of all the controversial things written in that press release on 30 March, which triggered the biggest crisis for Mr Buffett in at least two decades, that is one sentence that we now certainly know is not true.
Today, in front of tens of thousands of his devotees, the shareholders in his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, the billionaire investor will be forced to address the share trading scandal that prompted Mr Sokol's resignation – and the still baffling issue of why he defended Mr Sokol at the time.
"We can answer any question that gets asked," Mr Buffett said, in a TV interview ahead of the meeting, promising to be as frank as ever. "You will not hear 'no comment'. Even if our lawyer gets up and wrestles me to the ground, I will still talk."
In particular, Mr Buffett is expected to make clear that he had not intended to condone Mr Sokol's share dealing, contrary to the impression given by that first press statement.
It has been a bruising few weeks for the man they call the Oracle of Omaha, as investors questioned his judgement and his management of the conglomerate as never before.
It was revealed that Mr Sokol began buying $10m of shares in Lubrizol, a chemicals company, one day after picking it from a list of potential acquisition targets and instigating talks with a view to a takeover by Berkshire. When the takeover did indeed happen, Mr Sokol's shares soared $3m in value.
The resignation announcement, penned by Mr Buffett in the style of his folksy letters to shareholders, contained no condemnation of the share trading. In fact, it concluded: "Neither Dave nor I feel his Lubrizol purchases were in any way unlawful."
And the statement also included lavish praise for Mr Sokol's contribution to Berkshire since he first arrived with the acquisition of MidAmerican Energy, the utility company where he was chief executive.
Since then, he has regularly acted as Mr Buffett's firefighter, going in to run troublesome subsidiaries, a role that made him the obvious choice for chief executive should ill-health force Mr Buffett, now 80, to retire.
Mr Buffett, it has since been revealed, originally sought to tie the resignation to the share dealing, but when Mr Sokol insisted he was quitting for unrelated reasons – to fulfil his long-standing desire to set up a mini-Berkshire Hathaway of his own – Mr Buffett acquiesced.
More shocking than the facts of Mr Sokol's dubious share transactions was the fact that plain-speaking Mr Buffett not only failed to condemn them, but he appeared actually to defend them.
Every Berkshire annual meeting begins with a video clip of the company's darkest hour, in 1991, when Mr Buffett was hauled before Congress over regulatory breaches at the investment bank Salomon Brothers, which was then a subsidiary.
The clip includes what has become the most famous of his many famous sayings: "Lose money for the firm and I will be understanding, lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless."
In that context, the Lubrizol affair has raised numerous questions. First of all, why had Mr Buffett not asked more questions when Mr Sokol told him in January that he owned shares in Lubrizol? Does Berkshire have adequate corporate governance checks in place to ensure fair dealing by its executives? Does it have any checks in place?
And above all, why was Mr Buffett not following through on his threat to be ruthless?
Belatedly, Berkshire has come out swinging against Mr Sokol, and Mr Buffett this week made public the damning conclusions of an internal audit committee report into the affair. It concluded that not only did the share purchases violate Berkshire's ethics code, which is punishable by sacking, but Mr Sokol deceived Mr Buffett and Berkshire's chief financial officer when telling them about his holdings.
The committee added that it was considering legal action to recover Mr Sokol's $3m profit, plus some more to make up for reputational damage the company had suffered, and it suggested that his actions could be illegal under Delaware law if he is found to have violated his duty of loyalty to his employer.
For his part, Mr Sokol continues to insist he has done nothing wrong, and his lawyer complains that Berkshire's investigators did not speak to his client in the process of compiling their report.
The annual Berkshire shareholder meeting is known usually as the Woodstock of Capitalism, but the atmosphere this year looks likely to be anything but celebratory. Even the new, fuller statements from the company reveal only scant details of the goings-on inside Berkshire as executives began to learn about Mr Sokol's share dealing. In particular, they do not address when Mr Buffett himself was told that Mr Sokol had deceived him, and what he felt about it.
For that, shareholders will have to ask the Oracle himself. Today, they get their chance.
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