Apple's penchant for secrecy could ultimately backfire --- Warren Buffet has hinted that the company might have violated the law by not revealing months ago that Steve Jobs was scheduled for a liver transplant.
Apple is well-known for being exceedingly secretive --- some would say paranoid --- in the way it hides information. It has fired employees for leaking information, and sued bloggers who managed to find out information about upcoming Apple products and wrote about it.
In the case of Jobs' health, Apple has changed its story several times, or simply given out no information. First the company said he had no health problem, then said he had a hormone imbalance, and then only revealed he had a liver transplant after the Wall Street Journal ran a story about it.
When a run-of-the-mill employee has a health problem, a public company like Apple has no responsibility to reveal it. However, when someone like Steve Jobs has a health problem, it has a responsibility to let the world know about it, because without Jobs, Apple is a very different company. Because Apple is a public company, it has an obligation to tell the truth about Jobs' health.
That's the gist of what Warren Buffet said today in an interview on CNBC. He told the interviewer:
"If I have any serious illness, or something coming up of an important nature, an operation or anything like that, I think the thing to do is just tell the American, the Berkshire shareholders about it. I work for 'em. Some people might think I'm important to the company. Certainly Steve Jobs is important to Apple. So it's a material fact. Whether he is facing serious surgery or not is a material fact. Whether I'm facing serious surgery is a material fact. Whether (General Electric CEO) Jeff Immelt is, I mean, so I think that's important to get out. They're going to find out about it anyway so I don't see a big privacy issue or anything of the sort."
Buffett's repeated use of the phrase "material fact" indicates he may believe Apple violated the law by not disclosing that Jobs would be having the surgery.The government defines a material fact as something that a reasonable investor would want to know when making an investment decision, and companies are required to disclose "material" information in a timely way.
Did Apple break the law? I think it did, and appears that Buffet believes that as well. This time, Apple went too far with its veil of secrecy.