Warren Buffett's Economic Contradictions

The famous investor has an opportunistic relationship with big government.


In the 50 years since Warren Buffett took over Berkshire Hathaway, the per-share market value has increased 1,826,163 percent, or a compounded annual gain of 21.6 percent, Buffett reports in his annual letter to shareholders, which was released over the weekend.

It's a remarkable record, and reason enough to give Buffett's annual letter a careful read. It can tell us something about how Buffett got so rich, and it might even yield some insights about what he wants from Washington.

The investor known as the sage of Omaha can sometimes come off as clueless or complacent. At one point, he writes, "Though the preachers of pessimism prattle endlessly about America's problems, I've never seen one who wishes to emigrate (though I can think of a few for whom I would happily buy a one-way ticket)."

Did Buffett miss the report by Bloomberg News in 2014 that "So far, 2,353 Americans have renounced their citizenship this year, close to the all-time high of 2,369 in the first nine months of 2013"? Did he miss the cases of songwriter Denise Rich and of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who also renounced their American citizenship? Sure looks that way.

At other times, Buffett sounds like he's counting on politicians and bureaucrats to make his bets pay off. He brags that "regulated-industry segments" like the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and Berkshire Hathaway Energy are where "the truly big winners reside" among Berkshire's many dozens of businesses.

Buffett writes that Berkshire Hathaway Energy "now accounts for 6% of the country's wind generation capacity and 7% of its solar generation capacity." The company will have spent $15 billion on renewable energy projects. And here's the kicker: Buffett writes, "we relish making such commitments as long as they promise reasonable returns—and, on that front, we put a large amount of trust in future regulation."

Buffett's attitude toward regulation seems highly situational. He likes it when it helps him make money, dislikes it when it costs him money. So he recommends the lightly regulated hotel alternative Airbnb to Berkshire shareholders who are "on a tight budget" but who plan to come to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. And he thanks his corporate staff for dealing with "a multitude of SEC and other regulatory requirements" and for filing "a 24,100 page Federal income tax return" and overseeing the filing of "3,400 state tax returns."

Speaking of taxes, that is another area where Buffett's view has its internal tensions. Some might even go so far as to call them contradictions. The Berkshire CEO is known for his New York Times op-ed pieces calling for higher taxes on other people and claiming that investors who turn down opportunities because of taxes exist "only in Grover Norquist's imagination." Yet Buffett devotes a substantial section of his 50-year retrospective to explaining how Berkshire's conglomerate structure is advantageous because of "our ability to move funds between businesses or into new ventures instantly and without tax." If the businesses were spun off, Buffett explains, Berkshire "would lose control value, capital-allocation flexibility and, in some cases, important tax advantages."  Why, he sounds like a figment of Grover Norquist's imagination.

The tax angle is significant, Buffett acknowledges, in those renewable energy investments: "certain tax credits that are available to our utilities are currently realizable only because we generate huge amounts of taxable income at other Berkshire operations. That gives Berkshire Hathaway Energy a major advantage over most public-utility companies in developing wind and solar projects."

Buffett makes more sense, at least to me, when he warns of the declining value of the dollar. "The purchasing power of the dollar declined a staggering 87%" between 1964 and 2014, he writes. "That decrease means that it now takes $1 to buy what could be bought for 13 cents in 1965 (as measured by the Consumer Price Index)."

The congressmen who are responsible for the value of the dollar (or delegating it to the Federal Reserve) are the same ones that Mr. Buffett is counting on with his "large amount of trust in future regulation" to mandate solar and wind power. I wish Buffett and his shareholders good luck with that.

In the meantime, it sure is interesting that while Berkshire Hathaway Energy was spending $15 billion on solar and wind projects that it is counting on politicians to make profitable, a Berkshire Hathaway director, Bill Gates, was going around giving interviews saying things like "Solar is much, much harder than people think it is. When the sun shines, electricity is going to be worth zero, so all the money will be reserved for the guy who brings you power when there's no wind and no sun" and "I think people deeply underestimate what a huge problem this day-night issue is if you're trying to design an energy system involving solar technology that's more than just a hobby."

According to the Forbes and Bloomberg lists, Gates is the one guy in the country who is even richer than Warren Buffett.

NEXT: Could Sports Gambling Beat Marijuana to National Legalization?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. You misspelled “hypocrisy”.

  2. Buffett’s attitude toward regulation seems highly situational. He likes it when it helps him make money

    Yeah, it’s funny how he never seems to be able to find the U.S. Treasury’s mailing address, even though he’s so keen on forcing everyone else to pay more taxes.

    1. He doesn’t want other people to pay more taxes.

      He just wants to get them to buy the life insurance policies his companies sell. To make his life insurance policies to be a ‘good deal’ he wants to have the IRS make an offer that wealthy people can’t refuse – buy his policies or lose the nest egg you are building for your descendents to Uncle Sam.

      1. He just wants the fawning PR of a billionaire arguing for higher taxes brings.

  3. In the 50 years since Warren Buffett took over Berkshire Hathaway, the per-share market value has increased 1,826,163 percent, or a compounded annual gain of 21.6 percent, Buffett reports in his annual letter to shareholders, which was released over the weekend.

    So a ponzi scheme then?

  4. Most everything Buffett says in public is stupid on its face. Even Berkshire Hathaway hasn’t been outperforming the market the past couple of decades. I can’t understand why so many pay so much attention to his wackaloon ramblings.

    1. Because he says what a lot of scumbags want to hear, so they love him. Remember, to them, actions and results mean NOTHING. Words mean everything.

    2. Buffet is a lot of things but a shitty investor isn’t one of them.

  5. Where’s shreek to tell us, he can’t miss! He’s the best crony capitalist ever!

  6. Buffett’s attitude toward regulation seems highly situational. He likes it when it helps him make money, dislikes it when it costs him money.

    That’s hardly new. In fact, it is pretty much the definition of crony capitalism.

    It’s also a hard problem to solve. People with money are more likely to be successful in politics or to gain the ear of politicians, so even if it isn’t supposed to happen, rules will be written and enforced by cronyists, for cronyists. And I’m not sure what can be done to at least reduce the frequency with which that occurs. What good are structural limitations on government if voters aren’t going to hold politicians accountable when they overstep? Maybe that question reveals the real root of the problem…

  7. Obviously the real problem here is the fact the the government has the power to create winners and losers. Sure Buffet is a douchbag but he like everyone else is going to act in his own best interest and take advantage of govenment incompetence, corruption, and ignorance to his hearts content. If you want to stop guys like Buffet from eating at the government trough, take away the trough.

    1. But they just build a new trough. And for all the bitching, no one seems to do anything about it.

      1. Well we obviously need a better class of people running for public office. What intelligent person wants to put themselves and their family through the media shit storm though.

      2. The super rich crony capitalists provide the campaign contributions and cushy jobs for politicians and their friends, while the dependent poor provide the votes.

        I hate to despair but really don’t have any idea how the rest of us can possibly escape from that particular pincer action.

    2. I agree as a practical matter, taking the trough away is the only way… but of course it ain’t that easy, since their trough is connected to the welfare trough.

      That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize and condemn Buffet and his ilk for their cronyist behavior. This isn’t Joe Sixpack in Paducah taking advantage of tax credits that he would have no way of personally influencing the existence of. Buffett is actively trying to influence policy in a way that directly makes him wealthier (ie, not because it improves the general economy)

      1. Im not sure what you are referring to vis Buffett’s connection to welfare, but I do agree with your second paragraph. See Buffetts scheming the Keystone XL pipeline for an excellent example of his manipulation of the White House and flavor of the month leftist politics for his own enrichment.

  8. Buffet drove a used Buick! That is how you know he is one of us.

  9. Buffett’s attitude toward regulation seems highly situational. He likes it when it helps him make money, dislikes it when it costs him money.

    Well thank you for stating the mind-blearingly obvious. Buffet wasn’t elected to anything. He exists to make money. He uses government to that end because the government enables him. Perhaps a government that couldn’t pass out favors to Buffet and his ilk would be preferable.


    1. He exists to make money.

      Which makes him an asshole if that’s all he cares about, and is willing to violate morals to do it.

  10. “It can tell us something about how Buffett got so rich.”

    Well… I can tell you this. It was not actually producing a product like Frank Jones did.…..ank-Jones/

  11. Slap Sissy So So aint gonna like that.

  12. Each set of these Buckyballs are a set of 216 powerful magnets, that can be shaped, molded, torn apart and snapped together in billion of ways. Order more than one set (we sell different color / size 3 / 5mm) and you can combine together to maximize the fun.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.