Warren Buffett is many things. He's a billionaire, the best diversified investor in history, an exceptional options trader, and he writes the best shareholder letters you'll ever read. All of these wonderful virtues have been mercilessly hyped over the last three days. It's time for a gentle perspective check.
In a recent column on his website, entrepreneur and author James Altucher reminded his readers that Warren Buffett is Not Your Grandpa. He's not a financial adviser with a direct interest in the financial future of his acolytes.
"If you just blindly listen to Warren Buffett that's a way to go straight to the poorhouse," says Altucher who not incidentally wrote a book called Trade Like Warren Buffett. Altucher isn't a hater, he just finds it hard to reconcile the things Buffett preaches with what he actually practices.
For one thing Buffett doesn't actually hold stocks forever. In the last several years he's sold shares of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Intel (INTC), and a host of others. Buffett's ideal holding period may be forever but his average holding period is significantly shorter than eternity.
Escalating the attack, Altucher says Buffett's widely publicized views towards taxing the upper classes, charitable giving, and inheritance are at odds with what Buffett is actually doing. Buffett has made much of not handing out fortunes to his children, but Altucher points out that each of his children has been given a $3 billion charitable foundation. By Altucher's estimates roughly $90 million of that money can go to pay salaries annually.
Presumably Buffett's kids will be able to make ends meet with that liquidity available.
Buffett has given to charities throughout his life but the bulk of that giving will come upon his death. Such a donation is laudable but conveniently avoids paying any estate tax. The tax issue is one that's particularly vexing to Buffett critics. Buffett argues that he's a better allocator of capital than the government, making it sensible to minimize his taxes now to pay more later.
Of course, most people can allocate money better than the government and they don't have billions to play with in the meantime. Altucher howls that Buffett avoiding taxes is "very good for him when everyone else gives money to the US government he gives zero."
Actually Buffett gives more than zero but he's hardly maxing out his tax bill. None of the above is an indictment of the man's work. It's simply a reminder that Buffett is a CEO with fiduciary responsibility to do and say what's best for his shareholders. He dispenses real wisdom but hero worship is for children. When it comes to taking financial advice, Buffett's pearls of wisdom should be treated as you would treat advice from anyone else: listen carefully but do your own homework.
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