Rolfe Winkler - Reuters
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.
[Buffett] 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...
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...
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?
So the Oracle of Omaha is just another manipulative self-aggrandizing hypocrite.
What a shock.
I often say : show me a billionaire, and I'll show you a greedy bastard.