Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is Warren Buffett Smart?

By Son of Bastiat

“Financial genius is before the Fall”
- John Kenneth Galbraith

Almost by universal acclaim, the answer would have to be a resounding Yes! For how else would it be responded to except affirmatively, based on what “popular wisdom” knows and says about the man:

a.  The world’s second or third wealthiest man (only Slim and Gates are wealthier according to Forbes). Better yet he found his way there through patient value digging, not market rigging

b.  A lot of this wealth is in liquid form, being shares in large, established publicly traded companies

c.  Unlike Gates or Slim whose wealth are tied up in narrow sectors (telecom, software) Buffett’s wealth is diversified across sectors that the first two wealthiest men can only dream of.

So, from the narrow standpoint of investment quality, Buffet is not only smart but astute in ways that the other two aren’t. The real question is: How does his “smartness” fair outside of this narrow area?

Probably Not As Smart As Supposed

We’re not talking about his stock picking abilities which based on his mistakes in later years have not been as legendary or exceptional as the ten baggers (like Coke, W. Post or Geico) of his early years in the stock market. We are also not referring to his mediocre currency derivative bets that turned out poorly (disclosed in the Annual B-H Shareholders’ Letter) that luckily got offset by spectacular stock futures option trades (from hedge fund gossip) which tells those who know how these markets work, that his prowess is now based more on selecting the right stock options traders and managers than any innate value creating abilities unlike during his early stock picking career. In fairness to the man, he eschews esoteric investment ideas beyond the OPT so he does not invest and hence eats the kind of losses that reckless hedge fund traders do with loads of chutzpah. This Graham disciple remains so today despite the fact that very volatile markets are not kind to value investors.

No, we are here talking about the fact that outside of his stock-picking (and manager’s selecting) skills, the man is a complete novice, if not a dodo in the larger economic environment of which investing is a tiny part. This is based on only one, but a very central aspect of that reality, the question of what taxes ought to be paid by people like him. As explained below, it reveals a lot about whether his smarts are innate or merely of the acquired kind. None of this is to denigrate businessmen the way enemies do.

The First signs of Cluelessness

Buffett has for years been quoted as saying that the rich are getting off from their obligation to pay a fairer share of the nation’s tax burden. Last July 7, in a series of interviews that the liberal media quickly picked up and disseminated (for a reason), he said that “I think the rich have a responsibility to pay higher taxes” followed by a statement that his wealthy friends “are paying lower taxes than the people who are serving the food” after an earlier disclosure that his personal tax rate was a mere 17.7 % compared to that of his receptionist of 30 %.

All these populist sounding nonsense fitted in so well with one of the left’s most durable and cherished myths, which is a war among classes, down to the fact that they are mostly wrong:

a.  Effective Tax Rates. From 2008 data supplied by the IRS itself, the share of Federal taxes in household income after deductions and exemptions amounted to 23.3 % for the top 1 % of all household income earners (above $ 380,000); 19 % for the top 10 % of household income earners (above 114,000); and 22.7 % for the top 0.1 % of household income earners ($ 2 MM and above). Contrast this with the 4 % paid by median income households ($ 35,000 and above), or the high, negative effective taxes paid by almost 60 % of all households who either receive incomes too low to be taxed, and/or receive some form of public assistance and entitlement. Talk about equity.

b.  Total Federal Tax Rates. Based on CBO data, the share of total Federal taxes (not just on income but on Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes) paid by middle class families ($ 34-50 thousand bracket) was 14.3 % of income, versus the 27.9 % and 29.5 % paid by the top 1 % and 5 % of all tax payers. Or the 32 % of all Federal taxes paid by the highest income earners. The reader is invited to calculate Gini concentration coefficients to show that these tax rates are indeed progressive.

c.  Effective Tax Rates After Considering the Source. In a 2010 IRS limited study of the taxes paid by a sample of 400 of the nation’s richest personal tax payers, the effective share of taxes to reported- income came to about 18 %. This is the study that Buffett probably referred to, as he would most likely have been one of those 400. Except that most if not all of these tax payers derived their income from investments, meaning that they reported incomes that had been taxed twice, either at the level of dividends (35 % on ordinary income) and capital gains (15 %) for a total tax burden closer to 45 % and not the 18 % that came out from the simplistic division of two numbers. Quite definitely not the level of expertise expected from a seasoned financial analyst like Buffett.

d.  Shelters, Loopholes and Tax Base Reduction Gimmicks. Buffett’s claims would have been more morally defensible had he eschewed the usual gimmicks used by the wealthy to reduce their basis and not just the incomes they were free to report (or defer to a lower tax rate phase in their lives as is commonly done). Buffett is being facetious in comparing his after tax position vis a vis the middle income classes for three reasons: as a wealthy tax payer he is able to take advantage of the tax shielding allowed on donations to charitable causes; he is able to effectively reduce his taxable base by booking most of his income as “carried interest” 20 % of which he can later pay taxes on under a favorable 15 %; and most outrageously of all, with the bulk of his assets already donated to a foundation, he is able to shield them from the high taxes during distribution. These tax preferences for the wealthy the middle income classes can only drool of, but which of course Buffett neither mentions in the same interviews, nor corrects on his own, if he was that convinced of its injustice, by just quietly writing a check for the underpayment towards the right tax amount.

More Evidence of Poor Smarts

If Mr. Buffett was really that smart (not just an astute investor and businessman) he would have figured out in ten minutes why a tax policy based on such idiosyncratic assumptions (ie, provided they were empirically right, which they aren’t), would eventually to the destruction of the very wealth that he along with millions of entrepreneurs labored so hard to create:

a.  Taxes have behavioral, not just fiscal impacts as any simpleton understands. Regional tax data reveal that states with low taxes attract rich and even middle income tax payers away from the high tax states and indeed explains the erosion in tax bases of such states as California and Wisconsin and the surge in tax receipts in tax advantaged states like Texas and Florida

b.  Ditto, but with even worse consequences when US wide data about rich tax filers are taken to consideration. In a study recently released by the IRS, it was found out that the number of rich tax filers shrunk 39 % between 2009 and 2010, representing a 42 % decline in tax receipts over the same period. The favorite explanation is of course the recession, but the really “smart” folks know the true reason, unfortunately they will be apocryphal tales for now until proven otherwise.

c.  Not just that “billionaires and millionaires” ceased to exist, but that those who stayed put in their respective domiciles, apparently indulged in less economically rewarding activities just exactly as predicted by the famous Laffer Curve (a backward looping effort vs. tax rate curve posited by the Chicago economist A. Laffer). A sample of b respondents should easily verify this. These data are not harbingers of the business climate that nurture future successes like him unless he wants it.

Given this obvious conclusion, Buffett’s plea to be assessed a higher tax can’t be viewed any other way than that he is not being smart. As far as can be seen, he is not an ideologue, or a Democratic partisan, and because he is too mature to play the sort of political games indulged in by folks like Obama, he must be pretty dumb to entertain and spouse these views. Ironically it was Galbraith, a liberal economist, who said that smart (finance) people tend to get dumb before they fall. Could he been thinking of W. Buffett?

Concluding Comments

Which brings us to the core question: Why is the liberal class making hay out of these nonsensical ideas (which they have to be dumb to even consider, unless they haul their worn out pleas for fairness-at-all costs)? The answer, once again, is simply this: by shaming the rich into agreeing to pay a higher fraction of their incomes, the path is clear to coercing the middle classes into paying higher taxes.

The fact is that 3.2 million middle income households earning above $ 200,000 paid $434 billion in 2009 taxes, the rich revenue lode that liberals like Obama, checkmated in their borrowing plans by conservatives have been eyeing to grab at all costs. Read that again: At All Costs, meaning, no matter if these folks will flee and take jobs along with them, and regardless of whether the outcome is fair as they like to loudly proclaim.

It is the very imbecility of this idea that has turned off the author from the liberal agenda, realizing that what they are about is mostly Big Government programs that everywhere has bankrupted countries and states.

None of these excuse Americans from having to pay higher taxes eventually, if only because of the mistakes committed by the politicians they have elected previously. But such policy decisions have to be done smartly, or else automatically (like what the author has advocated along the lines of Miller’s The 2 % Solution idea wherein a set portion of the nation’s output is set aside from welfare and social spending) to eliminate these kinds of politically abhorrent decisions that turn folks like Buffett into big disappointments especially in their twilight years. [Copyrights: The Son of Bastiat, VRR@NYC2011]  

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