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Fake Warren Buffett filings shows the SEC still has a problem

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett plays bridge during the Berkshire annual meeting weekend in OmahaBerkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett plays bridge during the Berkshire annual meeting weekend in Omaha
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett Photograph by Rick Wilking — Reuters

Warren Buffett may want to add his voice to those who think the Securities and Exchange Commission needs to fix its filing system.

On Thursday night, a pair of filings showed up on the SEC website claiming Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) had taken new stakes in both Kraft Heinz (KHC) and Phillips 66 (PSX). The filings said the new investments were jointly owned by Berkshire and a company called LMZ. The SEC forms appear to have been submitted by someone named Loreto M. Zamora, who listed a Philippines address in the filings. The Kraft Heinz filing listed Zamora as a director of Kraft Heinz. He is not.

Buffett told the Wall Street Journal that the filings are fakes. The famous investor says he has no relationship to Zamora, had never heard of the person, and has not taken new stakes in Kraft Heinz or Phillips 66.

The fake Buffett filings are just the latest sign that there is something very wrong with the SEC’s filing system. In May, a firm called PTG Capital filed a document with the SEC saying it had made an offer to acquire Avon Products (AVP), the door-to-door cosmetics company. Avon’s shares quickly jumped 15%, before it was revealed that the offer was a sham. Last October, a pair of studies also found that the SEC was allowing high-frequency traders sneak peaks at its filings.

The Avon fake filing made it apparent how easy it was to game the SEC’s system. To make a filing, all you have to do is provide Edgar, which is the SEC’s database, with an address and a letter signed by a notary—in the Avon case, the notary letter was faked as well—and you are good to go. Now you’ve got access not just to make filings for the company you claim to own, but you can submit filings for any company, in the most recent case Buffett’s.

In May, the SEC shrugged off its role in the Avon scam, and its statement that its filling system was a “repository for what is filed, not what is accurate,” was clearly a case of passing the buck. It also took the SEC more than a day to remove the fake Avon filing from its website. The SEC’s response time appears to have improved. By Friday morning, the fake Buffett filings had been removed from its site. The good news from all this is that many people have pointed out that the SEC’s initial shrug as just another way it is falling down on its role of protecting investors. Last Spring Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called for the SEC to review its procedures, and the commission has said it is doing that.

Thousands of companies file thousands of documents with the SEC annually. And you can’t expect the SEC to verify that all of those filings are correct. That’s what accountants are for. But the SEC can do a better job of verifying that the people doing the filings have some relationship to the companies they are filing for, i.e., an approved list of filers. Investors already have a 10-day window to make a filing, such as the one that was faked in the Buffett case. The SEC could delay those filings slightly further for a once-over to make sure they seem legit.

What’s really weird about the fake Buffett filings is that in terms of manipulating the stock market, the scheme doesn’t seem the most thought-out. Warren Buffett is a pretty lousy target if you’re trying to manipulate stocks, and Berkshire already has investments in Heinz Kraft and Phillips 66. If you really want to pump up a stock, you should pick one that the world’s most famous investor doesn’t own, and make sure it’s kind of small. That would really send the shares of a company flying. Zamora might not have chosen not to do that because he figured the filings would have to seem somewhat real to make it into the SEC’s database. But that’s moot. Zomaro could have said anything he wanted in those filings. The SEC is still not going to stop him.