- Jim Young/Reuters
I own a little bit of Berkshire Hathaway stock.
As of Thursday morning the Class B shares I own were trading at about $147 a share and have one-1,500th the value of originally floated Class A stock that now trades closer to $221,000 a share.
And because I’m not a good investor, I am losing money on this position.
(I mean, outside my Berkshire shares I only put money into a 401(k), so, like, I guess I’m not really an investor at all. Either way.)
Warren Buffett, however, never really wanted a little guy like me to be able to get a slice of his company: A small investor in Pennsylvania forced his hand.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Anupreeta Das caught up with Samuel Katz, who back in the 1990s wanted to create a “unit investment trust” to track Berkshire shares at a price that would make the stock more accessible to smaller investors.
At the time, Berkshire shares were trading near $33,000 apiece, which regardless of the era is prohibitively expensive for most investors to acquire even a single share.
But Buffett was very much not enthused about the idea of someone trying to imitate Berkshire’s performance and do so in a way that would be profitable not necessarily for the investors but for the marketers of this alternative investment.
Writing in his 1996 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett said the May 1996 Class B offering was made “in response to the threatened creation of unit trusts that would have marketed themselves as Berkshire look-alikes.”
“In the process,” he continued, “they would have used our past, and definitely nonrepeatable, record to entice naive small investors and would have charged these innocents high fees and commissions.”
Buffett is also clearly not a fan even to this day, telling Das, “I’m glad Sam made money out of Berkshire through ownership rather than through obtaining high fees from unsophisticated investors.”
Which translates to: I spent a lot of time and energy making sure this guy wasn’t a leech, which is a real bummer.
In the 1996 letter, Buffett said the sale of B shares “provided a low-cost way for people to invest in Berkshire if they still wished to after hearing the warnings we issued.”
These warnings include the prospectus for Class B shares in which Buffett told people NOT to buy the offering: The stock was, in his view, overvalued.
And so not only was floating a “low cost” version of Berkshire stock not Buffett’s preferred plan, but those who bought the initial offering were doing the very thing he made his fortune not doing: buying a company trading above its intrinsic value.
The main theme, however, of Buffett’s clear lack of enthusiasm for the Class B stock is his continued insistence that Wall Street is not a place where people make money for investors but collect fees for themselves.
In the 1996 letter, Buffett added (emphasis mine):
I think it would have been quite easy for such trusts to have sold many billions of dollars worth of units, and I also believe that early marketing successes by these trusts would have led to the formation of others. (In the securities business, whatever can be sold will be sold.) The trusts would have meanwhile indiscriminately poured the proceeds of their offerings into a supply of Berkshire shares that is fixed and limited. The likely result: a speculative bubble in our stock. For at least a time, the price jump would have been self-validating, in that it would have pulled new waves of naive and impressionable investors into the trusts and set off still more buying of Berkshire shares.
The implication that the investment business is merely a place for the few to make money off intermediating the many, however, has rankled some on Wall Street who argue that in a world of full hypocrites and marketers, Buffett himself is the biggest of them all.