“I know, like and respect Warren Buffett,” writes activist investor Carl Icahn in Barron’s. Not an uncommon opinion of America’s most beloved billionaire. But Icahn thinks Buffett is really wrong on Coke–and he also thinks Buffett knows it. Buffett recently decided not to exercise his substantial power in limiting exorbitant compensation packages for management at Coca-Cola. Buffett has in the past expressed dissatisfaction with the top-heavy salaries, but since he “loves management,” in Icahn’s accusatory phrase, has decided to stay quiet. He didn’t toss his considerable weight around (Berkshire-Hathaway owns a 9% stake in Coke) and vote against big CEO pay.
Icahn even drags out Amazon #1 bestseller Thomas Piketty–the Master of the Unequal Universe–to help make his point: “As Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, points out, much of the increase in inequality in the U.S. in the past 40 years is the result of the meteoric increases in wages among highly paid executives.” But Buffett won’t rock a beautiful ship like Coca-Cola just because its captain is lining his pockets. Sail on, Coke, is Buffett’s take. Icahn has a different opinion: he thinks Coke could go a lot faster without the captain being weighed down by all the extra gold in his pockets. Icahn is on a lifelong crusade against corporate waste–and he has little trouble finding it wherever he looks. Unlike Buffett, Icahn thinks what he sees at Coke is “the real thing” as far as shareholder neglect and crony corruption at the top. Icahn’s ruffled. And he’s asking Buffett to get ruffled too, instead of just standing on the sidelines, whistling. Icahn writes “our corporate-governance system is a travesty.”
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