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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Warren Buffett: Crony Capitalist

Warren Buffett’s reputation is bigger than his ability. How can this person outperform the market for so many years by simply buying stocks and bonds is the question most often asked? What makes him so much smarter than the average investor? It’s really very simple, he has billions of dollars of assets that people will go to extraordinary lengths to borrow ... and he’s a crony capitalist.

The first advantage is that he has lots of money. He uses the money to buy out closely held companies for pennies on the dollar when the family wants to cash out. You don’t, so you don’t get in on this deal. He uses more money to bail out troubled companies who give him special shares of preferred stock (see GS below) with a huge dividend plus an equity kicker. You don’t, so you don’t get to be called the “Sage of Podunk.”

He also designs government bailout plans and then buys stock in the companies he tells government to bail out. All the while he’s grinning his shit eating grin and telling us that with his billions in the bank he doesn’t pay himself a high income so that his secretary’s in a higher tax bracket. Here’s a question of Uncle Warren at the next board meeting: “Why do you bother to pay yourself any salary at all?”

From"Throw Them All Out."
In the wake of the $700 billion TARP bailout, Warren Buffett apparently shaped a plan to clean up toxic assets that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner later adopted–resulting in massive profits for Buffett.

According to Schweizer, after the bailout bill’s passage, Warren Buffett sat down and wrote then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson a four-page private letter laying out a plan to clean up the toxic assets plaguing numerous financial institutions. ...

After Paulson’s exit, incoming Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner tweaked the plan and rolled it out in March 2009. But according to quarterly reports from Buffett’s holdings company, Berkshire Hathaway, between the time the billionaire crafted his plan and Geithner adopted it, Buffett quietly purchased 12.4 million shares of Wells Fargo stock and 1.5 million shares of U.S. Bancorp. Once the government unveiled its “Public-Private Investment Program,” bank stocks jumped, resulting in large profits for Buffett.

How much Buffett profited is hard to calculate, since there’s no way to know what his purchase price was. But prior to the government adopting Buffett’s plan, Wells Fargo had been trading at roughly $20 a share. In the weeks after Geithner’s announcement, the stock jumped to $30 a share. Likewise, U.S. Bancorp went from $8 in February 2009 to more than $20 a share by May.

Schweizer’s revelations contradict the image Warren Buffett has worked hard to create as that of a folksy, grandfatherly figure who stays above the political fray and rarely gets mired in the muck of partisan politics. ..

For example, Schweizer examines Buffett’s intense private lobbying efforts and deftly-timed stock buys that leveraged TARP bailout monies to create up to $3.7 billion in windfall profits for Berkshire Hathaway.

In September of 2008, Buffett invested $5 billion in the over-leveraged investment house of Goldman Sachs, having obtained impressive terms: Berkshire Hathaway would receive preferred stock with a 10% dividend yield, and the option to buy another $5 billion at $115 a share.

As the political debates surrounding the proposed $700 billion TARP bailout bill heated up, Buffett maintained an appearance of naivete, an “aw shucks” shtick that deferred to the judgment of politicians. “I’m not brave enough to try to influence the Congress,” Buffett told the New York Times.

Behind closed doors, however, Buffett had become a shrewd political entrepreneur. With his Goldman bet in place, the billionaire exerted his considerable political influence in a private conference call with then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats. During the meeting, Buffett strongly urged Democratic members to pass the $700 billion TARP bill to avert what he warned would otherwise be “the biggest financial meltdown in American history.”

Buffett had a strong financial interest in the bailout’s passage, says Schweizer. “If the bailout went through, it would be a windfall for Goldman. If it failed, it would be disastrous for Berkshire Hathaway.”

Yet Buffett had little reason to worry; his insider political connections afforded him two guarantees. First, many members of Congress were themselves investing heavily in Berkshire Hathaway throughout the bailout talks–a move that may simply have been a good investment in an unsteady time, or else a shrewd exploitation of unique information. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), for example, snatched up $130,000 worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) also bought shares in Berkshire Hathaway, as did Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who purchased half a million dollars’ worth just days after the Wall Street bailout bill was signed. Second, Buffett knew he had an ally in the surging Barack Obama. Buffett had backed Obama in 2008. And as Obama has himself conceded, “Warren Buffett is one of those people that I listen to.”

When the TARP bailout passed, Berkshire Hathaway firms received a staggering $95 billion in bailout cash from U.S. taxpayers. In total, TARP-assisted companies made up almost a third (30%) of Buffett’s entire publicly disclosed stock portfolio. The payoff: by July 2009, Buffett’s Goldman bet and his congressional jawboning had yielded profits as high as $3.7 billion.

Incredibly, in a breathtaking public relations move, Buffett publicly complained that the government bailouts had put his company at a disadvantage, because funders “who are using imaginative methods (or lobbying skills) to come under the government’s umbrella–have money costs that are minimal.” Rolfe Winkler of Reuters best captured Buffet’s audacity: “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.”

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