Berkshire Giveaway

Someday, the financial wizards who run things on Wall Street will realize there’s “paper to be stacked” opening an Investor Hall of Fame. (Hey, the Rock and Roll Hall makes $40 million a year, and it’s in Cleveland.) And when they do, they’ll have to dedicate an entire wing to Warren Buffett. The so-called “Oracle of Omaha” has become a rock star among money managers. His chart-topping net worth soared by $37 million per day last year. And his annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting attracted 40,000 attendees this spring, making it the Burning Man Festival for the cocktail set.

Buffett affects a folksy style, posing for photos with a ukelele and quipping that Wall Street is the only place where people drive Rolls-Royces to get advice from people who ride the subway. But he didn’t get to be #2 on the Forbes 400 by being dumb — and this is true with taxes, too. Buffett has made headlines criticizing the carnival of confusion that passes for the “Internal Revenue Code” for taxing his secretary at a higher rate than it taxes him. But his actions show a keen grasp of the power of smart tax planning.

Let’s take a look at Buffett’s charitable giving. Now, there’s no doubt that his motives are sincere — he’s pledged to give a whopping 99% of his fortune to charity. But his generosity may have the side benefit of saving him $30 billion or more in tax.

So far this year, Buffett has donated $2.8 billion, including $2.1 billion to the Gates Foundation, $215 million to the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, and $150 million each to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation, and the NoVo Foundation. But those gifts didn’t really “cost” him $2.8 billion. That’s because he didn’t give cash — he gave Berkshire Hathaway stock. Donating appreciated stock lets Buffett deduct the fair market value of that stock at the time of the gift, even though his “cost basis” — or actual investment in it — is likely to be far, far less. Giving away appreciated stock also lets him avoid tax on the appreciation in that stock.

Let’s say Buffett’s basis in this year’s gift stock was an even billion dollars. (It’s probably even less, but who’s counting?) If Buffet had sold the stock at a $1.8 billion gain, then given cash, he would have had to pay $712,800,000 in regular tax, plus another $68,400,000 in “net investment income tax.” Giving appreciated stock directly, then letting the charities sell it, boosts his largesse by nearly $800 million — money that Buffett evidently thinks his charities can spend better than the folks in Washington.

Buffett probably won’t ever “retire” in the go-fishing-in-Florida-and-eat-dinner-at-4 sense of the word. But at some point, he’ll get promoted to that great boardroom in the sky. That’s when his charity will really sidestep our friends at the IRS. Buffett could set up his heirs for generations to come. But with a 40% estate tax, leaving his current net worth of $58.5 billion to family would cost $23.4 billion in tax. Leaving his wealth to charity avoids that hit. And it spares the rest of us decades of reality TV about spoiled, dissolute heirs — their gilded lifestyles, their trips to rehab, and their endless Paris Hilton-esque shenanigans.

We realize you don’t have billions to give like Buffett. But if you’re one of the millions of Americans who admire his business wisdom, take a lesson from his tax wisdom as well. And call us before you make any sort of major gift, to your church, your college, or your community. We’ll help you structure it to squeeze out the maximum advantage. You can be sure Warren Buffett would approve!