Money Matters - Simplified

Is Warren Buffett a Grinch?


Tis the season for partisan bickering. Or at least, that's what'll likely be on the schedule as the House prepares to vote on the tax compromise that President Obama reached with Republicans.


The bill passed the Senate test vote on Monday, but it may face fierce opposition in the House, as Democrats push back against extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. But while you've heard all that already, you may not have seenBerkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A) (NYSE: BRK-B) head honcho Warren Buffett getting pulled into the fray.

Granted, the attack was on the margin of the debate, but nevertheless I found it interesting. An article appearing on American Thinker's website, titled "Warren Buffett, Robber Baron?" calls into question exactly why Buffett has been so adamant that wealthy Americans be taxed more, and specifically, why he has fought so hard against the repeal of the estate tax.

In short, the article's author makes two primary arguments. First, that the estate tax forces wealthy people to take out life insurance, so that their heirs will be able to pay estate taxes when they die. Berkshire Hathaway has a hand in the life insurance business; thus, estate taxes benefit Berkshire. Second, the estate tax has forced family-run businesses without sufficient liquidity to sell to Berkshire at fire-sale prices when hit with the tax bill.

Those are some pretty bold assertions. Do they actually hold any water? Let's take a closer look.

Berkshire Hathaway: life insurance magnate
The first stop was to figure out just how much Berkshire was raking in from its big, bad life insurance business thanks to the death tax.

Berkshire is a huge collection of businesses, but its insurance operations are a healthy slice of the conglomerate's pie. In 2009, of Berkshire's total $112 billion in revenue, $28 billion came from insurance premiums. So we could be talking about real money here with this life insurance thing.

But when you dig into Berkshire's business, it'd be tough to actually call Berkshire, or any of its subsidiaries, a "life insurer." Its well-known GEICO subsidiary sells life insurance, but it does so as an agent for other insurers, and doesn't underwrite that coverage itself. Through its General Re business, Berkshire does reinsure life insurance -- which means that it's taking on part of the risk in exchange for part of the premiums -- so it would seem that the companyis benefiting from any gains that life insurers are reaping from the estate tax.

So how much are we talking here? Of the company's $28 billion in 2009 insurance premiums, it attributed $2.6 billion to life and health insurance. If we assume for a moment that health insurance is close to zero (though it's obviously not even close to that), then we're talking about less than 10% of Berkshire's insurance business, or just more than 2% of the company's total revenue.

Of course, there's much more to the life insurance business than just the evil estate-tax dealings, and fortunately, a recent paper from the American Family Business Foundation gives us an idea about that. It suggests that the life insurance industry "stands to gain an estimated 10 percent of its revenues from estate tax policies." So if we apply that to our numbers at Berkshire, then we're talking about something like 0.2% of the company's total revenue. And, again, that's if we assume that the premiums from life and health insurance don't actually include any health insurance premiums.

Thus, by the American Thinker article's assumptions, Buffett is out stumping so that he can rapaciously defend a fraction of a percent of his company's revenue. Call me crazy, but I think he's got better uses for his time.

Or just more devious uses?
So maybe Buffett isn't actually worried about the estate tax impact on his company's life reinsurance business. Surely, then, he must instead be supporting this terrible tax so that he can steal great businesses away from stout, hardworking American entrepreneurs at bargain prices when they get hit with the tax bill.

The article in question here linked back to another article from 2006 that similarly dresses Buffett down for his Scrooge-like ways. This article offers a list of businesses that Buffett supposedly acquired as a direct result of the estate tax, including Dairy Queen, Jordan's Furniture, Justin Industries, Star Furniture, Borsheims Fine Jewelry, Ben Bridge Jeweler, United States Liability Insurance Group, NetJets, R.C. Willey, FlightSafety, and Nebraska Furniture Mart. Mind you, the article didn't provide any detail around these supposed strongarm take-outs; it just provided a list.

Hours later, this Fool was able to find some evidence of estate tax issues in the deals for Star Furniture and Ben Bridge, but the assertion seems like much more of a stretch in many of the other cases. Justin Industries was a public company at the time of Berkshire's acquisition, as was Dairy Queen. The son-in-law of the R.C. Willey founder, and architect of much of the chain's pre-Berkshire success, recently collaborated on a book titled How to Build a Business Warren Buffett Would Buy: The R.C. Willey Story. Not exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to come from someone who was forced into a deal by the IRS.

But when thinking about the Berkshire Hathaway of today, that's all pretty much beside the point, since the nearly $200 billion Berkshire is far too big to have much interest in snapping up small businesses. The company owns almost $13 billion in Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) stock and more than $10 billion in Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) shares. During the financial crisis, it sunk $5 billion into Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) and an additional $3 billion in General Electric (NYSE: GE). Just last year, Buffett spent $44 billion acquiring all of Burlington Northern. Other recent deals included $4 billion spent acquiring 80% of Iscar (it's based in Israel, so I don't think the U.S. estate tax was involved) and $4.5 billion sunk into buying 60% of Marmon Holdings.

So, in other words, no, Warren Buffett isn't using an advantageous position to force small, family-run companies to sell to him on the cheap.

But where does that leave us?
This is so confusing. Based on what I've dug up, it almost looks like Buffett doesn't have an evil ulterior motive for his support of the estate tax. Perhaps instead of inventing conspiracy theories, we could instead take a look at what he's actually said about the estate tax.

Back in 2001, Buffett, along with Bill Gates and George Soros -- neither of whom, last I checked, ran a life insurer -- was railing against the repeal of the estate tax. He said that repealing the tax would be a "terrible mistake" and likened it to "choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics." He continued:

We have come closer to a true meritocracy than anywhere else around the world. You have mobility so people with talents can be put to the best use. Without the estate tax, you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit.

What do you think? Can we take him at his word? Or is Buffett really just out to crush the little guy under his multibillion-dollar thumb? Head down to the comments section and sound off.