NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street dealmakers have spoken: Warren Buffett’s former aide David Sokol violated ethics.
Twenty-one out of 23 top U.S. investment bankers polled at the Reuters Global Mergers and Acquisitions Summit this week said they believed the former Berkshire Hathaway (BRKa.N) (BRKb.N) executive should not have traded shares in Lubrizol Corp LZ.N while pitching the company to the legendary investor as a takeover target.
Almost one in five believed Sokol’s actions would lead to insider trading charges.
“Clearly the fact is that there’s a perception of doing something he shouldn’t have done,” said David Lazarus, senior managing director and co-founder of EdgeRock Realty Advisors.
Buffett released a letter last week disclosing that Sokol actively traded in a substantial amount of Lubrizol’s shares before and while urging Buffett to acquire the chemicals company, which Buffett did for $9 billion last month. Sokol’s investment in Lubrizol netted him some $3 million in profits.
Sokol, who was seen by many investors as the most likely successor to Berkshire’s iconic CEO, resigned last week.
He has defended himself since, saying on CNBC he had no inside information, did nothing unlawful or unethical and his resignation had nothing to do with his trading.
Buffett’s assistant Carrie Kizer did not immediately return a call for a comment on Thursday.
Only one of the bankers at the Reuters Summit who responded to the question in the anonymous poll said Sokol’s behavior breached no ethics or rules and a takeover of Lubrizol was “just an idea” he brought to Buffett, without knowing that the Oracle of Omaha would move forward with such a deal.
The questions around Sokol’s actions come amid heightened concerns about insider trading on the Street, as the government cracks down on the illegal practice.
Several high-profile cases such as the criminal trial of Galleon Group hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam have been brought in the past few months.
Questions about Sokol’s behavior have slammed Buffett with unprecedented criticism as Berkshire’s annual April 30-May 1 shareholder meeting approaches — the weekend gathering of a usually adoring crowd of 40,000 or more shareholders.
Sokol, in his CNBC appearance last week, also spoke of broader Berkshire practices that could fuel regulatory scrutiny.
He said other Berkshire executives have in the past held stock in companies they then identified for investment or acquisition, citing the example of Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger owning a stake in Chinese car maker BYD (1211.HK) before suggesting it for an investment.
Munger has defended himself against the allegation.
A recent regulatory filing by Lubrizol shows that Sokol had a meeting with bankers at Citigroup Inc (C.N) on December 13, 2010, at which they discussed a list of 18 companies the bank had compiled for Sokol as potential takeover targets.
Sokol began buying the stock the next day and presented the idea of buying Lubrizol to Buffett on January 14 or 15. Berkshire ultimately announced its purchase of Lubrizol on March 14.
It is unclear why news of Sokol’s investment surfaced only last week, or whether government investigators have looked into the matter. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice declined to comment on Thursday.
Reporting by Soyoung Kim and Paritosh Bansal, editing by Matthew Lewis