The Myth of Warren Buffett's Economic Non-Self-Interest


Reach for your wallet!

New York Times biz columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, in a column hailing the brave policy outspokenness of Berkshire Hathaway investment super-genius Warren Buffett, writes this passage:

In the midst of what is becoming a very political season, Mr. Buffett made it clear that he never considered politics when studying an investment.

"I don't know the politics of Muhtar Kent, Ken Chenault, Ginni Rometty — I don't know her politics or religion," referring to the chiefs of Coca-Cola, American Express and I.B.M., among Berkshire's biggest holdings. "It doesn't make any difference and I just want to know how he or she will run the business," he said. "I don't think it makes sense to make investment decisions based on politics."

Well said.

It might have been well said, but the private political beliefs of various CEOs of companies Berkshire invests are as irrelevant as can be to the question of whether Buffett "consider[s] politics when studying an investment." On that issue, you're much better off referring to Peter Schweizer's feature in the March issue of Reason, "Warren Buffett: Baptist and Bootlegger." Sample:

Step 1: Invest in troubled, too-big-to-fail companies. Step 2: Lobby for a bailout. Step 3: Get hailed as being a patriot working for the common good. Steps 4-10: Profit.

[In fall 2008], Wall Street was on fire, and Buffett was running toward the flames. But he was doing so with the expectation that the fire department (that is, the federal government) was right behind him with buckets of bailout money. As he admitted on CNBC at the time, "If I didn't think the government was going to act, I wouldn't be doing anything this week." […]

Buffett needed the TARP bailout more than most. In all, Berkshire Hathaway firms received $95 billion in TARP money. Berkshire held stock in Wells Fargo, Bank of America, American Express, and Goldman Sachs, which received not only TARP money but also Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) backing for their debt, worth a total of $130 billion. All told, TARP-assisted companies constituted a whopping 30 percent of Buffett's publicly disclosed stock portfolio. The folksy outsider with his home-spun investment wisdom, the Houston Chronicle concluded in an April 2009 investigative piece, was "one of the top beneficiaries of the banking bailout."

Buffett received better terms for his Goldman investment than the government got for its bailout. His dividend was set at 10 percent, while the government's was 5 percent. Had the bailout not gone through, and had Goldman not been given such generous terms under TARP, things would have been very different for Buffett. As it stood, the arrangement with Goldman Sachs earned Berkshire about $500 million a year in dividends. "We love the investment!" he exclaimed to Berkshire investors. The General Electric deal also was profitable. As Reuters business columnist Rolfe Winkler noted on his blog in August 2009: "Were it not for government bailouts, for which Buffett lobbied hard, many of his company's stock holdings would have been wiped out."

By April 2009, Goldman share prices had more than doubled. By July 2009, Buffett had already received a return of $2.5 billion from his investment.

Whole thing here. In February, I wrote in CNN Opinion about how "the man who has become the left's favorite billionaire in the service of bashing plutocrats could be…the single most successful crony capitalist in the country."