Low-priced merchandise isn't necessarily cheap. Consider, if you will, the "Strategic Asset Securities" that Wachovia Securities is touting as a low-priced way to buy a piece of legendary investor Warren E. Buffett. The Sage of Omaha, of course, runs the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, whose famously expensive A shares would set you back $89,190 each (before brokerage commissions) at Monday's closing price and whose Baby Berkshire B shares closed at $2,960.
Sometime soon, possibly today, Wachovia is scheduled to offer Berkshire-linked securities in mere $15 pieces. My advice: Steer clear. These securities are low-priced, but they're sure not cheap. They come festooned with fees, including total commissions projected at a whopping 11 percent over their 10-year life, of which 8 percent goes to your brokerage house.
You're not in partnership with Buffett, as owners of Berkshire A or B shares are. You're making a 10-year unsecured loan to Wachovia, which pays you no cash interest and actually charges you 1 percent a year for lending it your money.
In return for taking on this credit risk -- even though Wachovia is an enormous bank company, lending to it does involve some risk -- you get a security whose value is tied to the price of Berkshire B stock via a complicated formula. Wachovia says it will redeem your securities for cash at some point within the next 10 years -- but you'll never own B stock and the Wachovia security you get is certain to underperform it.
There are even more problems that I could tell you about, but I think I've made my point.
Wachovia, which doesn't need Berkshire's permission to issue these securities, declined to discuss the offering or my analysis of it. Buffett declined to comment, too. So I'm just giving you a plain-English version of what Wachovia says in documents it filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission describing these securities, which are scheduled to trade on the American Stock Exchange.
Please note that although I'm warning you about this particular security, I'm not offering you an opinion about Berkshire. About 20 percent of my Newsweek 401(k) is in Berkshire -- but that account is only part of a widely diversified portfolio. More disclosure: Newsweek's owner, and the owner of The Washington Post, The Washington Post Co., owns more than $250 million of Berkshire stock; in addition, Berkshire makes up almost a quarter of The Post Co.'s pension fund. Finally, Berkshire owns 18 percent of the Post Co., and Buffett sits on its board.
Since I'm down on the Wachovia securities, how should a small investor get a piece of Buffett's action? By buying a B share through a discount broker. If you can't afford three grand or so for a B share, don't play the Berkshire game. Sure, seeing 200 Berkshire-linked Strategic Asset Securities in your brokerage account might make you feel better than seeing 1 share of Berkshire B. But owning B is a much better deal.
The B's exist only because Buffett felt the need in 1996 to take stock promoters off at the knees. They were offering $1,000 unit trusts that would invest solely in Berkshire, then trading for about $33,000 a share. Buffett offered investors a better deal by creating B shares, which are equivalent to 1/30th of its regular stock, now known as Berkshire A. This time around, I don't know what (if anything) Buffett did to discourage Wachovia from exploiting his reputation to take advantage of small retail investors. I can't wait to hear what he has to say at Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting next spring.
This isn't just about Wachovia trying to lure small investors. There's a larger point: Be suspicious when Wall Street offers little old you a chance to run with the big dogs.
Take the funds of hedge funds aimed at retail investors. Instead of having to write a six- or eight-digit check to buy a hedge-fund stake, you may need only $10,000 to buy shares in some mutual funds that use investor money to buy stakes in hedge funds. But these "funds of funds" are loaded with fees and may have to invest in runt-of-the-litter hedge funds, because hedge funds with great long-term records generally don't welcome mutual-fund money.
So whenever Wall Street offers you a chance to put up small money to buy into something that's out of your price range, remember that the Street's more interested in its own welfare than in yours. In its SEC filings, Wachovia couldn't be more clear about that. It warns, in bold type that, "The brokerage firm at which you hold your securities and the broker through whom you hold your securities may have economic interests that are different than yours." Enough said.
Sloan is Newsweek's Wall Street editor. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.