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Stock Market News: Buffett Makes a Sale, Equifax Takes Heat on the Hill

By Dan Caplinger – Updated Apr 23, 2019 at 11:22PM

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Stocks were close to flat despite some encouraging news.

Wednesday morning brought losses to the stock market, as investors reacted negatively to geopolitical news of escalating actions between India and Pakistan, as Pakistani forces shot down two Indian military aircraft. As of 11:30 a.m. EST, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 0.23%) was down 132 points to 25,926. The S&P 500 (^GSPC 0.30%) dropped 8 points to 2,786, and the Nasdaq Composite (^IXIC 1.01%) was lower by 39 points to 7,511.

Warren Buffett has gotten a lot of attention this week after the release of his annual letter to shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A -0.64%) (BRK.B -0.45%). But the Oracle of Omaha also made news for considering something he almost never does: selling off a part of his business. Meanwhile, testimony on Capitol Hill held some potential landmines for Equifax (EFX -0.62%), as the credit rating agency faced tough questions about data breaches.

A rare sale for Buffett

Berkshire Hathaway shares were little changed Wednesday, continuing their relatively narrow stock-price range since the weekend release of Buffett's shareholder letter. Yesterday, though, the Berkshire CEO said that the company is looking to sell off one of its insurance subsidiaries.

Warren Buffett, with several people in background behind him.

Image source: The Motley Fool.

The division up for sale is Applied Underwriters, and it specializes in writing workers' compensation insurance policies. In an interview with CNBC, Buffett said that he's successfully negotiated an agreement to sell the insurance company, but as with many things in the industry, regulatory agencies at the state level have to approve the deal before it becomes final.

Insurance has been a key part of Buffett's success, but not all of Berkshire's insurance operations have been equally successful. For Applied Underwriters, challenges in facing up to large competitors in the workers' comp space have put added pressure on the Berkshire unit. As rare as it is, Buffett hasn't hesitated in the past to sell off a business if it's unlikely to succeed in the long run -- and that appears to be the story behind his move with Applied Underwriters.

Lawmakers attack Equifax

Equifax saw its stock drop almost 2% Wednesday morning. The credit reporting bureau had to deal with awkward questions yesterday that highlighted the reputational damage done by a 2017 data breach that exposed key financial information.

The most noteworthy exchange was between Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California and Equifax CEO Mark Begor. Porter asked Begor if he would share his Social Security number, birthdate, and address with representatives at the congressional hearing. Begor declined, citing identity theft concerns, at which point Porter retorted by noting the apparent inconsistency between the CEO's stance and Equifax's arguments in federal court that the data breach of such information caused no injury or harm to individuals.

The attack comes at a time that's already challenging for Equifax. The company relies on credit-check volume for revenue, and because interest rates have been on the rise, there's been less refinancing activity in the mortgage market requiring lenders to pull borrowers' credit histories. In addition, costs related to the data breach have piled up, and despite efforts to get things back to normal, Equifax still saw weakness in its most recent quarterly results.

Some of the concerns lawmakers have about credit data apply equally to all of the credit reporting bureaus. But the 2017 breach put a target on Equifax's back, and it'll have to keep working hard to redeem itself in the eyes of many.

Check out the latest Equifax earnings call transcript.

Dan Caplinger owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). The Motley Fool is short shares of Equifax. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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