The public has always seen in Warren Buffett a different kind of capitalist, an honest observer providing sound financial advice regardless of his personal interests. But is he?
When it comes to his own holdings Buffett seems to use a carefully cultivated reputation for financial rectitude to feather his own nest.
On Wednesday he came out against Obama’s proposed bank tax, but his comments were inconsistent. On one hand he’s always maintained banks needed to be bailed out, yet he opposes ways to make them pay for it. At this point, financial giants in which Buffett has large stakes — Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and General Electric — all benefit from an implicit too-big-to-fail government insurance policy. How can Mr. Buffett, an insurance executive, argue that it’s inappropriate to charge them for it?
This is just the latest example of Buffett talking his book.
Buffett also lobbied for and profited greatly from the bailouts. He invested in Goldman, he said, with the expectation that Congress would “do the right thing” by passing the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In other words, it was a bet on a bailout.
Later he mocked the stress test, which forced over-leveraged banks to raise needed capital. This was bad for Buffett because it diluted his stakes in banks.
Less well-known is that Buffett was the first to propose a private-public partnership structure in order to rescue troubled banks. In a letter to Hank Paulson in the fall of ’08, cited in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s recent book, Buffett pitched his idea for a “public-private partnership fund” that would use public debt to finance private bets on toxic assets. When Tim Geithner rolled out a similar plan a few months later, it was widely panned as a giveaway to banks.
Buffett later complained about bailouts in his annual letter to Berkshire investors, saying that government subsidized funding put firms like Berkshire at a disadvantage. He failed to note that public subsidies — in particular FDIC’s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program — helped to keep afloat the eight banks in which Berkshire had a stake. From the end of ’08 through July of ’09, 75 percent of the debt sold by these eight banks came with the explicit government guarantee offered by TLGP. Without it, many might have failed, wiping out Berkshire’s equity stake.
It takes chutzpah to lobby for bailouts, make trades seeking to profit from them, and then complain that those doing so put you at a disadvantage.
Those who follow him closely are well aware that he talks his own book, but the wider public still believes him to be a trustworthy broker of unbiased financial advice and commentary. They shouldn’t.
Buffett didn’t respond to requests for comment.