Billionaire investor Warren Buffett cringes at
the idea of revealing the huge stock positions he buys and sells
for Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Since the 1970s, he has managed to hide some of his Omaha,
Neb.-based holding company's trading secrets with help from
federal regulators who routinely approved his requests to seal
portions of quarterly filing reports.
But the Securities and Exchange Commission says its policy is
that "information must be promptly disseminated to the public,"
and that requests for exemptions will be closely examined.
People familiar with Buffett say he simply wants to get the best
prices when buying or selling large quantities of stock without
being shadowed by other investors. But critics say he should be
forced to follow rules that help small players monitor what the big
guys are doing.
On Feb. 8, the SEC released filings showing Buffett cut
Berkshire's stake in Walt Disney Co. by 80 percent in late 1999 and
early 2000, and reduced its position in steelmaker Nucor Corp. by
62 percent during the same period.
That filing had been denied confidentiality by the SEC last
August. But Buffett appealed the ruling, and in doing so managed to
keep the information secret for another five months.
Making the filings public can benefit investors who try to copy
Berkshire's strategies, but don't want or can't afford to buy its
Class A stock, which was trading in the $70,000-per-share range on
Many investors from large money managers to day traders
"live and die for what Buffett is doing," said Ronald Hill,
investment strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.
Congress decided in 1975 that money managers with holdings of
$100 million or more must file quarterly SEC reports to disclose
the contents of their portfolios. Those reports could be kept
secret only if managers proved that disclosure would hurt them
Buffett always asked to have portions of his SEC reports kept
confidential, and always received approval, said Andy Kilpatrick, a
stockbroker, former journalist and author of the book, "Of
Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett."
"If he discloses what he's doing, he's going to attract other
people," Kilpatrick said. "He's not going to get the price he
wants and people are going to piggyback him."
But the SEC took a closer look at the practice in 1997, after a
Berkshire public filing omitted his large stake in banking giant
Wells Fargo & Co. That led investors to believe Buffett had dumped
the stock and they followed suit, driving down the share price.
Wells Fargo officials later said Berkshire still owned 8 percent
of the company, but had requested confidentiality about the
SEC associate director Douglas Scheidt cited the confusion over
the Wells Fargo situation in June 1998, when he sent a letter to
investment managers saying that companies seeking confidentiality
were wrong to assume automatic approval.
SEC spokesman John Heine wouldn't comment about the Berkshire
Hathaway filings, and said that officials who deal with
confidentiality requests would not answer questions.
Kilpatrick said there's been a clear change in how the SEC
handles Buffett's secrecy requests.
"He's done this for years and years," he said. "The
difference is that, for the first time, the SEC is saying no."
Buffett has long been reluctant to speak to the media. He didn't
return a telephone message left with Debbie Bosanek, his assistant
at Berkshire. She said the company has no spokesman or spokeswoman.
Buffett holds a tell-all session with his shareholders at his
annual meeting, and many don't mind that he waits so long to
disclose what he's been doing with their money. After all, he has
made many of them rich.
Rhoda Zusman, a 69-year-old mental health consultant from Tampa,
Fla., bought several shares more than 20 years ago, when it traded
at between $8,000 and $15,000.
Because Buffett "has such enormous effects on the way the
market moves, I think he needs to be given special dispositions,"
But the head of a group representing state securities regulators
says the federal government should force the disclosures.
"The more information for Main Street investors, the better,"
said Marc Beauchamp, executive director of the North American
Securities Administrators Association in Washington, D.C. "Wall
Street insiders would know what Buffett was rumored to be doing, so
why should it only be for them?"
Hill, the investment strategist, said quicker releases may cost
Buffett the time he needs to accumulate large holdings of stock at
"Mr. Buffett's going to move faster than perhaps he has in the