Warren Watch: Are you among the lucky ducks?

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Posted: Sunday, September 22, 2013 12:00 am

If you bought a pair of those little rubber duckies that look like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, check the color of the ties to see whether you have collectors’ items.

The story, related by Oriental Trading Co. CEO Sam Taylor, goes like this:

The Omaha knickknack company had the customized ducks made in China for the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders meeting last spring and sent CEO Buffett a sample ahead of time.

The ducks were OK, but one detail didn’t escape Buffett’s notice:

The duck that looks like Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire, had a blue tie, while the Warren duck had a red tie. That’s the opposite of their political persuasions, if you think Republican-red and Democrat-blue.

The first shipment was already on the way, but Oriental Trading revised later orders to switch the color of the ties. That makes the original, politically incorrect batch a rarer item.

New real estate ties

Berkshire companies sell candy and carpets, insurance and insulation, bricks and baubles.

But you couldn’t buy a Berkshire or hire a Berkshire to do something for you, until now.

Starting Wednesday in California, yard signs, business cards, websites and other materials will trumpet Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, replacing Prudential’s real estate franchise nationally.

Other franchise holders will roll out the change in coming months. On Dec. 3 in Omaha, Prudential Ambassador will become Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Ambassador.

Owner Vince Leisey said he signed a long-term franchise agreement with Berkshire. “Being in Omaha, this will give us incredible name recognition,” he said, as well as a reputation for trust and integrity.

In some cities, a competing real estate company also has a tie to Berkshire. In Omaha, that’s CBSHome, which is owned by Berkshire’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings.

“We’re good competitors, but we get along in the marketplace,” Leisey said, with each company emphasizing what it believes are its advantages.

Joe Valenti, president and CEO of CBSHome, said he expects minimal confusion. The company’s yard signs don’t mention Berkshire, but its website and many of its marketing materials include “a Berkshire Hathaway affiliate” in small type.

“We’ll continue to operate like we have been,” Valenti said. “As much as we’d like to think it’s the brands, the buyers and the sellers really work with the individual agents. That’s the relationship that’s important.”

Earl Lee, CEO of HSF Affiliates, the Berkshire joint venture that acquired the Prudential real estate business, said customer surveys showed 88 percent of consumers recognize “Warren Buffett” and 43 percent recognize “Berkshire Hathaway.”

“We love our chances of growing this real estate network through that banner,” Lee said. “When the world’s most respected company puts its name on a real estate sign, it really does have an impact on the marketplace.”

Negative rating for posting

Internet misinformation can be tricky to stamp out, but an erroneous account of Buffett’s position on Obamacare drew a negative rating from PolitiFact.com, soon after a World-Herald story drew the same conclusion.

Bloggers rearranged comments Buffett made in 2010 on CNBC about health care costs to make it sound like he thinks the Affordable Care Act should be scrapped. But he said in a World-Herald interview that the account was “outrageous” and “totally false.”

PolitiFact.com said the incorrect posting cast the quotes as “fresh evidence that American support is dwindling for President Barack Obama’s health care law.”

“The notion that Buffett had recently turned on a president he supported by souring on his signature health care law could have been easily debunked using Google searches,” PolitiFact.com’s account said. “We rate the claim Pants on Fire.”

A trip down the aisle

Buffett’s latest wedding duty was to walk financial assistant Tracy Britt down the front steps of Joslyn Art Museum toward her husband-to-be, Scott Cool, as a stand-in for her late father, Richard.

U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp officiated, at one point remarking that Britt was the first asset that Buffett had ever given away.

But Britt, who also is chairwoman of some Berkshire-owned companies, is expected to remain at Berkshire and, no doubt, yield a return on Buffett’s investment. Wedding guests included dozens of her Harvard Business School classmates.

Biggest gain in wealth

Buffett’s $12.5 billion gain in wealth over the past year was the biggest among Forbes magazine’s billionaires, the Associated Press reported.

His $58.5 billion total ranked second in the U.S. behind Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ $72billion. The totals don’t count their donations to charitable foundations.

The reason for Buffett’s gain: Berkshire’s stock price is up 40 percent in the past year.

Exposure to Detroit’s debt

Berkshire Hathaway Assurance Corp., the Buffett conglomerate’s government bond insurer, has entered the City of Detroit’s bankruptcy case, the Bond Buyer reported, filing a brief objecting to creditors’ requests for documents.

The Berkshire company “has about $400 million in exposure to Detroit’s debt, mostly in sewer revenue bonds,” the story said, plus an amount related to the city’s defaulted pension plan.

The filings are in preparation for a trial to see whether Detroit is eligible to enter into bankruptcy. Municipal bond insurers are watching the case closely because of its implications for other government debt in times of crisis.

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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