Despite controlling Scrooge McDuck-levels of wealth, Warren Buffett enjoys a reputation as a caring, down-home fella who is better than most other Scrooge McDucks. A new report may put at least a slight ding in that reputation.
Buffett runs Berkshire Hathaway, which is not a single coherent company so much as a vast and sprawling collection of companies that Buffett chose to invest in. One of those companies is Clayton Homes, the nation’s biggest mobile home dealer. The day after Christmas, the Seattle Times and Buzzfeed dropped an investigative story that finds that Clayton Homes employees engaged in “a pattern of deceptions” in which the company “systematically pursues unwitting minority homebuyers and baits them into costly subprime loans, many of which are doomed to fail.” It is the tactics that led to the subprime mortgage crisis all over again, with an extra dose of discrimination.
In essence, the report identifies a pattern of Clayton Homes salespeople soaking the poor. Here is one way to build a profit center in America:
In minority communities, Clayton’s grip on the lending market verges on monopolistic: Last year, according to federal data, Clayton made 72 percent of the loans to black people who financed mobile homes.
The company’s in-house lender, Vanderbilt Mortgage, charges minority borrowers substantially higher rates, on average, than their white counterparts. In fact, federal data shows that Vanderbilt typically charges black people who make over $75,000 a year slightly more than white people who make only $35,000.
Clayton Homes also has a majority share of the Latino and Native American mobile home markets. Read the full report for a raft of data that shows exactly how America’s wealth gap is perpetuated, one horrible subprime loan at a time.
Clayton Homes issued a long and unconvincing statement disputing the report. Much of the subsequent coverage has explored the questions: Will this tarnish Warren Buffett’s reputation? Did he know? The answers are that it should, and he did (he personally defended their lending practices after an earlier story), and, furthermore, that this highlights exactly why one man should not control $67 billion.
Warren Buffett is folksy! Warren Buffett is lovable! Warren Buffett lives in a modest home and speaks about fairness and has pledged to give away his money! All of this is beside the point. It is impossible to accumulate and control $67 billion without presiding over many sorts of repugnant business practices. Yes, “Behind every fortune is a crime.” But more accurately: The fortune is the crime.