Fin - Breakout - US

Did Buffett Blow It? The Sokol Story Doesn’t Add Up

Jeff Macke
Breakout

The big story of the day was the departure of David Sokol, a top executive at Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B), under curious circumstances.

Aaron Task and Henry Blodget joined Matt Nesto and me to discuss the fallout and the impact on Buffett's seemingly spotless reputation -- and the questionable, at best, circumstances surrounding the management change.

Sokol resigned via a letter, delivered by his assistant to Buffett, in order to pursue personal and philanthropic interests. The resignation came on the heels of Berkshire's March 14 purchase of Lubrizol (LZ), a company in which Sokol held nearly 100,000 shares, at a 35% premium. Buffett says Sokol told him his stock investments "were not a factor in his decision to resign."

However, among the red flags raised by Sokol's sudden departure:

--Sokol had purchased some Lubrizol stock in December, which he sold a week later, and then he made another, larger buy in January. He subsequently presented the idea of Berkshire acquiring Lubrizol on at least two occasions. Sokol's paper gains on the Berkshire buyout were in the neighborhood of $3 million.

--Despite being a top Berkshire executive, one often rumored to replace the 80-year-old Buffett, Sokol says he had neither influence in Berkshire's decision to buy Lubrizol, nor advance knowledge of the acquisition bid.

--Sokol had previously attempted to resign from Berkshire on at least two separate occasions to no avail. His March 28 resignation was accepted by Buffett immediately.

--Buffett's own press release addressing Sokol's departure says neither he nor Sokol believed Sokol's trading was in any way "unlawful" -- strange phrasing from a man regarded as one of the most ethical on Wall Street.

Ethics aside, the question of how Buffett's folksy, buy-and-hold image foots with his trading reality has been a long-time curiosity among Street insiders.

Among the questions are Buffett's profits as a result of the TARP bailout, Berkshire's treatment in deals such as the purchase of call options in General Electric (GE) and Goldman Sachs (GS) during last decade's financial crisis, and Berkshire's use of derivatives, the same vehicles the Oracle of Omaha famously dubbed "weapons of financial destruction."

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