It appears David Sokol picked a bad time to resign from Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) to start his own “mini Berkshire” investment firm. After appearing on CNBC this morning to try and get out in front of the media blitz regarding his trading in Lubrizol (LZ), Sokol didn’t do himself any favors on national television. Oddly, perhaps the most least talked about detail in press reports today was the explanation Sokol gave on CNBC when he was asked why he bought 2,300 shares of Lubrizol on December 14th, sold them a week later, and then bought them again two weeks after that (in early January). On the air Sokol claimed the sale was for “tax planning purposes” and nobody seemed to question that.
Of course, the problem with that explanation is that when you sell a stock at a loss and want to use that loss to cancel out other gains for the year (which is what Sokol was referring to when he said “tax planning”), you must wait 30 days before buying the stock back again. This is a very well known law called the “wash sale rule” and there is no way Sokol (or his tax advisor if he uses one) is unfamiliar with it. It appears that Sokol may been hiding the truth when he used the “tax planning purposes” defense. Either he is lying about his reasons for selling the stock, or he is unaware of the tax rules and routinely deducts losses even when he violates the wash sale rule.
And to think Sokol was considered a leading candidate to take Warren Buffett’s place. Berkshire Hathaway shareholders really caught a break there…
The first commenter below has pointed out that Sokol appears to have earned a profit of about $5 per share from his initial LZ sale. In such a case, wash sale rules would not have applied. It is a shame that Sokol did not provide a crystal clear and more detailed explanation for his actions, as opposed to having others speculate. But in terms of this particular speculation on my part, it does appear that Sokol sold the 2,300 share lot of LZ in order to avoid paying taxes on the gain, as opposed to offsetting gains elsewhere with a loss on the LZ position. Thanks to Michael Kelly for the insight. -CB