The Times Tweaks the Sage of Omaha

If there’s a golden calf in capitalism—and by extension, its press—it’s Warren Buffett.

Hey, if you’re going to have one, and every system does, we’re lucky it’s someone like him. I like the guy, too.

But it’s great to see the Times publish a noticeably negative story—you don’t see many of them on him—about how Buffett conspicuously hasn’t condemned the ratings agencies—which were critical players in the scam that created the bubble. Why hasn’t he? Well, Buffett’s holding company Berkshire Hathaway has a big, long-held stake in ratings agency Moody’s. That’s a big chink in the Buffett armor.

Mr. Buffett, 78, one of the world’s richest men, is known for piquant and unsparing criticism of his own performance, as well as the institutional flaws of Wall Street.

But on the subject of the conflict of interest built into the rating agencies’ business model, Mr. Buffett has been uncharacteristically silent — even though that conflict is especially glaring in his case because one of the companies that Moody’s rates is Berkshire…

Mr. Buffett also seems to have said nothing about a problem that some contend is just as serious and endemic: because ratings are required in so many transactions, the agencies’ inaccurate ratings have no effect on their own bottom lines.

Buffett surely knew about the conflicts and their potential to distort the entire financial system. Yet he apparently has done nothing to use his influence to change them—either back then or since the crash. He needs to be called to account for that, as the NYT does here.

The Times tweaks Buffett for some recent investing missteps, too, while keeping it in context: Not every bet can possible to work out, and Buffett has a brilliant track record.

But it’s not false balance. There’s another example where the Times could have fallen into that unfortunate “objective” journalism tendency but didn’t (emphasis is mine):

Michael Adler, a Moody’s spokesman, said the company’s role was simply to assess the odds that a given bond issuer will default — in some cases, taking into account the possibility of government intervention. He said anyone who makes assumptions about the stock price of those issuers based on Moody’s findings about its bonds is misusing the data. (A lot of investors are misusing the data, in that case.)

That wasn’t so hard, now was it? Would that we saw more of this piercing of spin in everyday journalism.

And the reporter, David Segal, has a really nice tailored kicker here. He butters Buffett up a bit (fairly), and then gives him a nice nudge— Hey, Warren, do the right thing!

Mr. Buffett is more than just our reassurer in chief. He also has a history of speaking out against parts of the financial system he considers broken or unfair, even if those parts benefit him. He is one of the few superrich people in favor of steeper estate taxes, for instance.

Given how hard it would be to revamp the rating agencies, and given his credibility and the impact that reform would have on his portfolio, Mr. Buffett may be ideal for a job that no other executive or public official could do: rating agency reform.

“Nobody is better positioned than Buffett,” Mr. Fons says. “If he comes up with a good plan, people would pile on immediately. And if he really is a high-minded idealist, if he wants to leave a meaningful legacy, this would be it.”

That’s how you do it.

Bonus goodness: I have to point out this great quote from Frank Partnoy, who co-wrote a op-ed in the NYT two days ago about how to get rid of Moody’s and the like. Here he is explaining the problem with the credit raters:

“Imagine if you had a rabbi and said, ‘All the laws of kosher depend on whether this rabbi decides if food is kosher or not,’ ” says Mr. Partnoy, a former derivatives trader. “If the rules say ‘You have to use this rabbi,’ he could be totally wrong and it won’t affect the value of his franchise.”

The rating agencies have been mislabeling the goods for a long time. “A lot of investors have been eating pork recently,” Mr. Partnoy says, “and they’re not too happy about it.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.