I have met Debbie Bosanek. I’ve also met her boss Warren Buffett. But as far as this week’s US political news is concerned, the more important figure is Ms Bosanek, the billionaire investor’s secretary. She’s important because she’s met Barack Obama, who gave her a high-profile spot in the audience for his State of the Union address this week, transforming her into a symbol of tax inequality in America.
Mr Buffett started this, of course. In a New York Times op-ed last August he attacked a system that allows him to pay a lower tax rate than any of the other people in his Omaha office. This has spawned the “Buffett rule”, the benchmark that Barack Obama is using to promise that the richest Americans will not pay tax at a lower rate than their secretaries.
Ms Bosanek is both an obvious and an odd choice to become – as an ABC interviewer put it this week – “the poster woman” for this campaign. Obvious, because she is the gatekeeper for Mr Buffett. Odd, because she is far from a typical secretary (in her polite but terse emails, she actually styles herself, in the modern way, as “Assistant to Warren Buffett”). Read more
Warren Buffett’s foray into IBM, acquiring a 5.5 per cent stake in the company, seems to defy his longstanding antipathy to investing in technology companies. But it depends on what the meaning of “technology company” is.
Mr Buffett’s main objection to technology has always been its unpredictability, as he explained in this discussion with Bill Gates in 1998, which was published by Fortune magazine:
“I look for businesses in which I think I can predict what they’re going to look like in 10 or 15 or 20 years. That means businesses that will look more or less as they do today, except that they’ll be larger and doing more business internationally.”
“So I focus on an absence of change. When I look at the internet, for example, I try and figure out how an industry or a company can be hurt or changed by it, and then I avoid it. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s a lot of money to be made from that change, I just don’t think I’m the one to make a lot of money out of it.”
Warren Buffett in July 2011. Image by Getty.
Today’s story about Warren Buffett hiring the hedge fund manager who paid more than $5m to have two lunches with him in Omaha, Nebraska does nothing to diminish my questions about corporate governance at Berkshire Hathaway.
At any other company, the fact that Ted Weschler, the hedge fund manager in question, paid for access to the chief executive and was hired as a result would be unthinkable. Yet Mr Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger appear to run the top echelon of Berkshire more or less as they wish. Read more
For my latest column about the ideal age and tenure for a chief executive, GovernanceMetrics International pulled from its database of 4,268 companies worldwide a list of the 16 oldest sitting chief executives in the world. (They did 16 so that Warren Buffett – undoubtedly the most famous, and the youngest, of this bunch – would appear in the ranking).
In the article, I only had room to refer to Buffett and Cubic Corporation’s Walter Zable, 95-year-old doyen of the group. So here is the full ranking by age, with company name and links to official corporate biographies, where available: Read more
The annual shareholders’ meeting of Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha, Nebraska produced a modest mea culpa about how Mr Buffett had initially handled the David Sokol affair, but little sign that the company’s corporate governance or approach to leadership succession will change hugely.
Perhaps it is the wrong venue to expect something radical since, as Dan McCrum reports for the FT, most of the attendees were happy with Mr Buffett’s record as an investor and are not demanding significant changes.
Still, I find it disappointing that Berkshire’s board has so far given no indication of taking a clearer role in selecting Mr Buffett’s successor. He said in a CNBC interview that the board regularly discusses the issue, and that Mr Sokol was not the only (or even the leading) candidate:
“It is a subject that board spends a majority of its time on and people express themselves very vocally at board meetings on the pros and cons of various candidates.”
The first thing that strikes me in the scathing report of the Berkshire Hathaway audit committee on David Sokol, the senior executive who resigned last month, is that the thin defence of his conduct offered by Warren Buffett at the time has evaporated.
The second is that it makes Warren Buffett’s initial press release on Mr Sokol look distinctly economical with the truth. It will make for an interesting question and answer session at Berkshire’s annual shareholders’ meeting this weekend.
Here is my column at the time on the subject of Mr Sokol’s trading in Lubrizol shares before the company was acquired by Berkshire:
Mr Buffett provided a pre-emptive judgment on Mr Sokol’s behaviour last year in a memo to Berkshire’s managers and directors, including Mr Sokol. “If you see anything whose propriety or legality causes you to hesitate, give me a call,” he wrote. “If it’s questionable whether some action is close to the line, just assume it is outside and forget it.”
That is clearer than the mealy-mouthed half-defence of Mr Sokol offered by Mr Buffett in the statement announcing his departure. “Neither Dave nor I feel his Lubrizol purchases were in any way unlawful. He has told me that they were not a factor in his decision to resign.” Not unlawful? When Mr Buffett fails to mention ethics, something is up.
It bears repeating: top managers rarely leave Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Read more
The shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway were disappointed by Warren Buffett’s defence of Goldman Sachs at their annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska this weekend, and I admit to being disappointed too.
Despite the doubts expressed by Charlie Munger, Mr Buffett’s business partner, about Goldman’s conduct in the synthetic CDO market, the Sage of Omaha threw his considerable weight behind the bank. Read more