I would not go as far as some people have and suggest that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has lost its way, but there have certainly been some developments in recent months that should give people pause. First, a young, unknown investor is named as one of Buffett’s likely successors, and now we learn that one of the firm’s most highly regarded internal candidates has resigned from the company over what appears to possibly be insider trading accusations.
After looking at the timeline of events surrounding Berkshire’s discussion to acquire Lubrizol (announced March 14th) and Sokol’s trading in the stock while he was serving as the point person for those talks, it is hard to argue that Sokol’s trades are not illegal. Not only that, it appears that Berkshire Hathaway has no internal controls regarding how managers trade stocks they may have inside information about, which is also troubling. Although it is reasonable to assume that high level people at the company should know what would fall under insider trading and what would not, given the fact that Berkshire’s main source of growth is through acquisitions, the firm should have a specific personal trading policy in place for all of its employees. If anything, to avoid situations like this, where it appears that Sokol made a big mistake and Buffett is pretty much defending him by saying he didn’t see anything wrong with the trades.
So why is it most likely insider trading? According to a timeline of the Lubrizol deal compiled by the Wall Street Journal, Sokol met on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway, with their investment bankers (Citigroup), on December 13th. At this meeting the two parties discussed a list of 18 companies that the bankers had put together as a possible deal targets for Berkshire and Sokol told Citigroup that Lubrizol was the only company on the list that he found interesting. Sokol also told them to contact Lubrizol’s management to inform them of Berkshire’s interest in exploring a possible deal.
At that point it should be obvious to anyone, including Sokol, that he and the bankers are in possession of material, non-public information. Sokol has decided that Berkshire Hathaway would like to explore the possibility of buying Lubrizol and he has instructed his bankers to inform Lubrizol of their interest. It is painfully clear that a deal could result from these discussions, and only a few people are aware of these private plans. Now remember, this meeting occurred on December 13th.
So when did Sokol first buy Lubrizol stock for his personal account? On December 14th. Seriously? Seriously. Sokol bought 2,300 shares of the stock the day after telling Citigroup to call them and express interest in a deal. Interestingly, Sokol sold those shares on December 21st. He didn’t wait very long to buy them back though. During the first week of January Sokol bought 96,060 shares of Lubrizol. Lubrizol’s board met to discuss the interest from Berkshire Hathaway on January 6th and Sokol met with Lubrizol’s CEO face-to-face on January 25. The deal was approved on March 13th and announced March 14th. The purchase price was 30% above where Sokol bought the stock for his own account.
Not only is Sokol going to have trouble on his hands here, but Buffett’s reputation is also on the line. Even though Warren didn’t know about these trades as they were happening, the very fact that Sokol is allowed to trade in the same companies that he is looking at as possible acquisition targets for Berkshire Hathaway (and at the same time!) screams of lax oversight.