Don’t Get Conned By Buffett’s Kindly Grandfather Shtick. He’ll Profit From the Increased Regulation He’s Advocating.
There was another fiery derailment of a train carrying crude oil, this one in Lynchburg, Virginia. Some of the cars plunged into the James River, spilling oil into the stream that runs through Virginia via Richmond to the Chesapeake.
This is just the latest of a spate of such accidents. This is, to some extent, the inevitable consequence of the oil boom in the Bakken and Texas. The boom means that more oil has to move, and rail can adjust most rapidly to accommodate that need. Pipelines are cheaper and safer, but they take a while to build. Unfortunately, regulatory obstacles had impeded the more rapid buildout of pipelines.
To give an idea of how unexpected the oil-by-rail movement is, note that the US government (namely the Energy Information Agency) does not collect data on the volume of rail shipments. It tracks shipments by barge and pipeline, but not rail. Because oil by rail volumes were basically rounding error until the shale oil boom.
The recent spate of accidents has led Warren Buffett to call for stronger regulation, most notably, a requirement for safer rail cars. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway of course owns the nation’s second largest rail carrier, BNSF.
That Warren, always looking out for the public interest, and willing to sacrifice the interests of one of his major holdings to benefit us hoi polloi.
First, it’s long been known that some firms in an industry can benefit from the imposition of more stringent safety regulations. Yes, these regulations raise everybody’s costs, but some firms’ costs rise more than others. The less-impacted firms have an incentive to press for the regulations in order to raise their rivals’ costs. This raises market price. The effect on price more than offsets the effect on cost for the less cost-impacted firms.
Which means: always look askance at people like Buffett who are calling for regulation of their industry.
And this goes double for Buffett. For in addition to BNSF, Berkshire Hathaway owns the Union Tank Car Company, one of the largest manufacturers of oil tanker railcars. Meaning that some of the costs from requiring the purchase of more robust railcars goes from Buffett’s BNSF pocket into his UTLX pocket. He is, effectively, hedged against the rise in BNSF’s costs that would result from regulations requiring the use of safer cars. What’s more, his UTLX also pockets some of the costs incurred by his rivals. That’s a double win for Buffett. His rivals’ costs go up, raising prices for rail freight which benefits BNSF, and Buffett also books as profit (at UTLX) some of the higher costs his rivals incur.
Great work if you can get it.
So yeah, Buffett’s call for more stringent regulation of oil carrying railcars is totally altruistic. Totally.
It never ceases to amaze me how Buffett’s kindly grandfather shtick fools the world. He is utterly cynical in his actions and public statements. He demonizes derivatives, but engages in some huge exotic options trades. He claims he supports the estate tax out of interest of fairness and equity, not mentioning that his insurance businesses profit immensely from the estate tax (and that he can of course largely circumvent the tax). He has manipulated the silver market. And he poses as a defender of public safety, not mentioning his very strong economic interests in such regulation.
It’s not surprising that Buffett conceals his interests. What’s more surprising, and more discouraging, is that none of the media stories on his calls for tougher regulation that I have seen mention his economic interest. Reporters are either intimidated, gulled by his shtick, or shockingly ignorant of how Buffett would benefit from rules requiring railroads to upgrade their car fleets.
Just because reporters are credulous dupes doesn’t mean you have to be. Don’t fall for the Buffett shtick. Don’t pay attention to what he says. Evaluate the costs and benefits of increased safety standards on oil-by-rail shipments on the merits.
And don’t limit your analysis to rail shipments alone. Consider too the effects of expediting the approval and building of oil pipelines. Pipelines aren’t perfect, but they have a much better safety record than rail. Not that Grandpa Warren will tell you that.