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The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week: Dec. 14

Stocks in this article: NFLX GRPN HBC SPPI BRK-A

1. Buffett's Back-Handed Buy

Wait a second, Warren! We may be much younger than you, but we simply can't keep up with all you say and do ... especially when they wind up being entirely different things!

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) announced Wednesday its plan to repurchase 9,200 of its Class A shares from what it calls the "estate of a long-time shareholder." According to Berkshire's press release, the company's Board of Directors authorized this purchase "coincident with raising the price limit for repurchases to 120% of book value."

As of the third quarter, Berkshire Class A shares stood at a book value of $111,718.31 a share. That implies that the announced $1.2 billion buyback, which was priced at $131,000 per share, is roughly 117% of Berkshire's book value.

Sorry to nitpick, Warren, but back in February you wrote in your annual letter to shareholders that your limit for stock repurchases was 110% of book value. Not to mention a whole lot of jazz about "the more and the cheaper we buy, the greater the gain for continuing shareholders."

If that's the case, why are you now, out of the blue, raising it to 117%? Pray tell us, Oracle of Omaha, what brought on the sudden change? Inquiring value investors want to know.

Or is this maneuver simply intended to benefit one of your buddies or family members so he or she won't get hit with a higher estate tax in the new year? Inquiring journalists want to know that as well.

We know full well that the estate tax is on your mind, too, seeing as how just the day before this big stock repurchase you joined Bill Gates and George Soros in pushing for an estate tax hike. In a joint statement Tuesday, Buffett, Soros and a bunch of their billionaire buddies asked Congress to lower the estate tax's per-person exemption to $2 million from $5.12 million and to raise the top rate to more than 45% from 35%.

"We believe it is right to have a significant tax on large estates when they are passed on to the next generation. We believe it is right morally and economically, and that an estate tax promotes democracy by slowing the concentration of wealth and power," wrote Buffett and friends.

Yeah, well, we believe Buffett should eat his own cooking for a change instead of trying to serve it to everybody else.

Look, Buffett could have told the seller to unload his shares on the open market. There's plenty of buyers for Berkshire's stock out there. He could also have asked his good friends at Goldman Sachs (GS) to arrange a private sale. Hey, he did them a solid during the financial crisis and they certainly would have returned the favor.

That's not what happened here, though. From all indications, Buffett broke his own pledge and paid more for his own stock than he said he would. And even more gallingly, he retroactively changed his price limit to 120% from 110% to cover his own tracks.

And that's not even the worst of his hypocrisy. Despite his yearlong public campaign for higher taxes, Buffett completed the transaction prior to year-end in order to shield whoever was on the other side of the trade from paying higher estate taxes. And if the estate is that of a dead person where the tax basis of the shares gets stepped up, he should say so up front. We've spent the last decade playing "Name Buffett's Successor." We can't take another ridiculous guessing game over what should really be publicly released material information.

Honestly, even if the death of a not-so-poor Berkshire shareholder did spur the stock sale and Buffett's subsequent repurchase, the whole thing still smells as fishy as last year's Sokol Lubrizol deal. Remember that doozy?

Let's put it this way. A mere two weeks ago following Buffett's New York Times op-ed titled "A Minimum Tax for the Wealthy," we here at the Dumbest challenged Buffett to write a check to the government if he really wanted to raise some revenue for the country. We even offered to lend him a pen to sign the check.

After this latest episode, however, we think we'll keep our pen. We're tired of watching him try to rewrite the rules for everybody but himself.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors and reporters from holding positions in any individual stocks.
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