Buffett lets public down…again

Jan 21, 2010 18:29 UTC

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.


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Buffett: Shareholder activist

Jan 5, 2010 15:48 UTC

Shareholder activism is a tactic typical of Carl Icahn, not the Oracle of Omaha. Yet Warren Buffett has issued a press release asking other Kraft shareholders to reject Kraft’s proposal to use up to 370 million shares of stock to buy Cadbury.

To state the matter simply, a shareholder voting “yes” today is authorizing a huge transaction without knowing its cost or the means of payment.

What we know with certainty, however, is that Kraft stock, at its current price of $27, is a very expensive “currency” to be used in an acquisition. In 2007, in fact, Kraft spent $3.6 billion to repurchase shares at about $33 per share, presumably because the directors and management thought the shares to be worth more….

Rolfe here. Buffett argues that KFT stock is an “expensive” acquisition currency because he thinks the shares are worth more than $27. He has a special history on this, as I get to below…

Would the directors use stock as merger currency if the price were, say, $20 per share? Surely the true business value of what is given is as important as the true business value of what is received when an acquisition is being evaluated….

At this time…we believe no shareholder should vote “yes” when he can’t possibly know what he is voting for.

Buffett is famous for his hands off approach to management. He invests in companies as much for the franchise value as for the folks running the business. That’s because management is often the crucial variable to generating value over the course of the business cycle.

But Buffett REALLY hates to use stock to pay for acquisitions. Here’s an instructive passage from his ’07 shareholder letter:

Finally, I made an even worse mistake when I said “yes” to Dexter, a shoe business I bought in 1993 for $433 million in Berkshire stock (25,203 shares of A). What I had assessed as durable competitive advantage vanished within a few years. But that’s just the beginning: By using Berkshire stock, I compounded this error hugely. That move made the cost to Berkshire shareholders not $400 million, but rather $3.5 billion. In essence, I gave away 1.6% of a wonderful business – one now valued at $220 billion – to buy a worthless business.

For those that don’t follow: 25,203 shares of Class A Berkshire stock are today worth far more than the $433 million they fetched in 1993. In the fullness of time, as BRK stock has risen, the Dexter purchase price has ballooned 10x.

Buying a business with stock that’s going up gives the seller more value over time. It’s tantamount to selling the stock yourself, which doesn’t make sense if you think it’s worth more.

Conversely you have an example like Steve Case, who brilliantly sold all of AOL’s overvalued stock to Gerry Levin in exchange for Time Warner’s great media assets.

On another note: Is Buffett getting sloppy in the credit bubble age? He paid up for Burlington Northern (28x FCF!), even admitting that the price paid was pretty high.  His purchase of Kraft shares also at a high valuation similarly left him with little margin of safety.*

He got lucky on BUD, finding greater fool InBev to pay a premium to the high price he paid for the shares.

Appears that in the age of low rates and overinflated valuations, Buffett has no choice but to chase risk with the rest of us.

By the way, this is not to argue with the fact that Buffett was the 20th century’s best investor. I believe firmly that he was. To me, his value methodology, when properly applied, is the dictionary definition of “investing.”

Trouble is, it seems to me he’s no longer able to apply it in the age of overinflated assets…


*Buffett bought his KFT shares near the end of 2007 for an average price of about $33.40. Today the stock is near $28. $33 per share implies a $67 billion enterprise value for KFT today. Forward unlevered FCF when Buffett bought his KFT shares (that is, for 2008) ended up at about $3.8 billion, implying a valuation of 18x EV/UFCF. Cheaper than the Burlington deal, but a rich multiple nonetheless.

Buffett’s imaginary economy

Aug 20, 2009 22:49 UTC

Warren Buffett is back as the nation’s financial conscience, publishing an op-ed in yesterday’s NYT lamenting the dangers of too much monetary and fiscal stimulus. As regular readers of this blog are aware, that’s a message with which I wholeheartedly agree. My problem with Buffett’s piece is that he makes a good argument and then totally undercuts it in his conclusion:

Our immediate problem is to get our country back on its feet and flourishing — “whatever it takes” still makes sense. Once recovery is gained, however, Congress must end the rise in the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio and keep our growth in obligations in line with our growth in resources.

This have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach is typically what we get from Paul Krugman: Yeah, debt is a problem and has to be dealt with long-term, but in the meantime we should jack up deficit spending in order to boost growth. To paraphrase St. Augustine, make us fiscally and monetarily prudent, just not yet. Ben Bernanke said something of that sort in a speech. He was trying to be funny.

The problem, it seems to me, is that rising GDP and employment—i.e. “recovery”—is not compatible with de-leveraging, which is what Buffett is talking about.

When consumers try to cut debt and boost savings, the economy goes into a deflationary spiral that Keynesians argue must be counteracted with fiscal and monetary stimulus.*

Consumers de-lever, government re-levers.

Private consumption and government spending now drive something like 80% of GDP. It can’t keep rising unless consumers, the government or both continue borrowing huge sums.

The goldilocks economy Buffett describes, in which we can have “recovery” without increasing debt, is a fantasy.

My point is that in order to reduce debt we have to endure some sort of deflationary recession. The alternative is to spend and print perpetually, which Buffett points out is the worse option.

What Buffett should have said? Suck it up folks, we’ve no choice but to learn to live with less.


P.s.: I think Buffett actually knows this, but being asset-rich, he’s boxed in. Deflation hammers the value of all non-cash assets, so he has to support monetary/fiscal stimulus in order to preserve his own and his shareholders’ wealth.  Hence the opening of the piece, which lauds the “wisdom, courage and decisiveness” of the Bush and Obama administrations in the face of collapse, and the end of the piece, which says their emergency measures continue to be necessary. He maligns the effects of stimulus, but he’s stuck supporting it.

*The “Paradox of Thrift” this is called, a particularly problematic economic theory used to justify heavy government borrowing.


But Giles, the “growth” you’re talking about is financed with more debt!

All of you Keynesians are in love with the Paradox of Thrift, but you’ve never considered the Paradox of Gluttony. To wit:

“Keynes worked out that the escape route from the “paradox of thrift” was to get some agent (the government) to spend more money, thereby boosting profits, encouraging more borrowing, generating more profits, leading to a virtuous cycle of economic expansion. Keynes was concerned with finding a policy to help economies escape the Great Depression leading him to emphasise the “paradox of thrift” element of the story. Minsky, however, took Keynes’ theory to the logical conclusion, arguing that borrowing can lead to a self-reinforcing positive spiral. This positive spiral could be though of as a “paradox of gluttony” whereby higher borrowing producers higher profits, thereby ratifying the decision to borrow and spend more.

The paradox of thrift and gluttony are important because they are linked to the same credit creation process that drives asset market instability…The additional borrowing associated with an asset price boom will likely flow back into additional asset purchases, but part will also be converted into higher levels of debt-financed spending…”

Every time we hit a recession, Keynesians argue to borrow and print more. Credit never stops expanding. That is, until the bond market makes it stop.

DeLong pretends the bond market doesn’t exist, or, Krugman-like, he dismisses it as a concern since we should have no trouble borrowing more.

But at some point we CAN’T borrow more.

DeLong thinks he’s really clever because he’s got a cute theory. But it doesn’t trump common sense — we can’t borrow forever.

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Great work!

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Buffett’s Betrayal

Aug 4, 2009 17:54 UTC

When I was 14, Warren Buffett wrote me a letter.

It was a response to one I’d sent him, pitching an investment idea.  For a kid interested in learning stocks, Buffett was a great role model.  His investing style — diligent security analysis, finding competent management, patience — was immediately appealing.

Buffett was kind enough to respond to my letter, thanking me for it and inviting me to his company’s annual meeting.  I was hooked.  Today, Buffett remains famous for investing The Right Way.  He even has a television cartoon in the works, which will groom the next generation of acolytes.

But it turns out much of the story is fiction.  A good chunk of his fortune is dependent on taxpayer largess. Were it not for government bailouts, for which Buffett lobbied hard, many of his company’s stock holdings would have been wiped out.

Berkshire Hathaway, in which Buffett owns 27 percent, according to a recent proxy filing, has more than $26 billion invested in eight financial companies that have received bailout money.  The TARP at one point had nearly $100 billion invested in these companies and, according to new data released by Thomson Reuters, FDIC backs more than $130 billion of their debt.

To put that in perspective, 75 percent of the debt these companies have issued since late November has come with a federal guarantee. (Click chart to enlarge in new window)


Without FDIC’s debt guarantee program, even impregnable Goldman would have collapsed.

And this excludes the emergency, opaque lending facilities from the Federal Reserve that also helped rescue the big banks. Without all these bailouts, the financial system would have been forced to recapitalize itself.

Banks that couldn’t finance their balance sheets would have sold toxic assets at market prices, and the losses would have wiped out their shareholder’s equity.  With $7 billion at stake, Buffett is one of the biggest of these shareholders.

He even traded the bailout, seeking morally hazardous profits in preferred stock and warrants of Goldman and GE because he had “confidence in Congress to do the right thing” — to rescue shareholders in too-big-to-fail financials from the losses that were rightfully theirs to absorb.

Keeping this in mind, I was struck by Buffett’s letter to Berkshire shareholders this year:

“Funders that have access to any sort of government guarantee — banks with FDIC-insured deposits, large entities with commercial paper now backed by the Federal Reserve, and others who are using imaginative methods (or lobbying skills) to come under the government’s umbrella — have money costs that are minimal,” he wrote.

“Conversely, highly-rated companies, such as Berkshire, are experiencing borrowing costs that … are at record levels. Moreover, funds are abundant for the government-guaranteed borrower but often scarce for others, no matter how creditworthy they may be.”

It takes remarkable chutzpah to lobby for bailouts, make trades seeking to profit from them, and then complain that those doing so put you at a disadvantage.

Elsewhere in his letter he laments “atrocious sales practices” in the financial industry, holding up Berkshire subsidiary Clayton Homes as a model of lending rectitude.

Conveniently, he neglects to mention Wells Fargo’s toxic book of home equity loans, American Express’ exploding charge-offs, GE Capital’s awful balance sheet, Bank of America’s disastrous acquisitions of Countrywide and Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs’ reckless trading practices.

And what of Moody’s, the credit-rating agency that enabled lending excesses Buffett criticizes, and in which he’s held a major stake for years?  Recently Berkshire cut its stake to 16 percent from 20 percent.  Publicly, however, the Oracle of Omaha has been silent.

This is remarkably incongruous for the world’s most famous financial straight-shooter. Few have called him on it, though one notable exception was a good article by Charles Piller in the Sacramento Bee earlier this year.

Buffett didn’t respond to my email seeking a comment.

What saddens me is that Buffett is uniquely positioned to lobby for better public policy, but he’s chosen to spend his considerable political capital protecting his own holdings.

If we learn one lesson from this episode, it’s that banks should carry substantially more capital than may be necessary.  You would think Buffett would agree. He has always emphasized investing with a “margin of safety” — so why shouldn’t banks lend with one?

Yet he mocked Tim Geithner’s stress tests, which forced banks to replenish their capital. Why? Is it because his banks are drastically undercapitalized?  The more capital they’re forced to raise, the more his stake is diluted.

He points to Wells Fargo’s deposit funding model being more robust than investment banks’, but that’s no excuse for letting tangible equity dwindle to three percent of assets.  At that low level, the capital structure would have collapsed were it not for bailouts.

And by the way, the strength of Wells’ funding model is a result of FDIC insurance, among the government subsidies Buffett complains about in this year’s letter.

To me this feels like a betrayal.  There’s a reason he’s Warren Buffett and not, say, Carl Icahn.

As Roger Lowenstein wrote in his 1995 biography of Buffett, “Wall Street’s modern financiers got rich by exploiting their control of the public’s money … Buffett shunned this game … In effect, he rediscovered the art of pure capitalism — a cold-blooded sport, but a fair one.”

But there’s nothing fair about Buffett getting a bailout, about exploiting the taxpaying public for his own gain.  The naïve 14-year-olds among us thought he was better than this.

What would Ben Graham say?


Sounds like “The Rich get Richer and the Poor get Poorer”

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