the audit

Warren Buffett, Talking His Book on Goldman

May 3, 2010

Warren Buffett can tout an investment like any other CEO. And the press can airbrush it as long as it’s Buffett doing the talking.

Neither of those statements ought to be surprising to business-press readers. But they ought to be concerning.

This weekend Buffett, a major Goldman Sachs investor, said he didn’t think the bank did anything wrong in the SEC case, saying sophisticated investors should have seen it coming. He also defended Lloyd Blankfein.

Well, how about that? Buffett has a $5 billion investment in Goldman (an Audit funder), and Goldman is paying him a 10 percent annual dividend on that—in no small part because it needed his stamp of approval in September 2008 when it was on the brink of collapse. He also has $5 billion worth of options on Goldman shares at $115 apiece. Goldman’s stock is at $148 as we speak, so he’s way in the money.

But he’s not nearly as in the money as he was before the pesky SEC (did I just put those two words together?) came along. They were at $184 just before the charges. A successful case by the SEC, much less a criminal case by the Department of Justice, could turn a winning bet into a big loser.

So Buffett’s major Goldman stake ought to be in the lede of every story on his comments. But The New York Times dropped it way down in the tenth paragraph of its piece this weekend. Oh yeah, and:

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Mr. Buffett has a significant investment in Goldman. In 2008, during the depths of the financial crisis, Berkshire invested $5 billion in preferred shares. Those shares carry a 10 percent interest rate, meaning that Berkshire is earning about $500 million a year from its holdings. (Or as Mr. Buffett put it, $15 a second.)

Still, that’s slightly better than The Wall Street Journal, which dropped this critical information in the eleventh paragraph, also with an “oh yeah, also” feel to it:

To some extent, Mr. Buffett’s defense of Goldman and Moody’s could be expected: Berkshire has invested billions in financial firms including Goldman, a close partner for decades. It is also an investor Moody’s, though it has been selling the firm’s stock in recent months.

The Journal mentions Moody’s there because Buffett defended the ratings agency’s business, too. Imagine that. The Times missed this. But the Journal, again, should have noted Buffett’s Moody’s stake in or near the sentence in which the paper talked about his defense of it.

This kind of disclosure isn’t difficult. Need an example? Here’s the first two paragraphs in the Financial Times:

Warren Buffett offered a strong defence of Goldman Sachs at his annual shareholders meeting arguing that clients lost money on the sale of mortgage-related investments brokered by the investment bank because they made “dumb deals” not because they were misled.

In Early April, US authorities accused Goldman Sachs of securities fraud that caused investor losses of more than $1bn leading to a hail of questions about the attitude of Mr Buffet, an investment guru known for his principles and his large stakes in the bank.

The thing is—in no small part because of fawning press coverage of Buffett—people trust Buffett. That’s why these stories are stories in the first place.

But people need to know that he’s talking his book here, and as we all know from the inverted-pyramid, more and more readers drop off a story as the paragraphs go by.

And they need to know the hypocrisy runs even deeper. Buffett has long taken an anti-Wall Street, man-of-the-people posture. As Peter Cohan notes, this isn’t the first time Buffett has forsaken his supposed principles to chase money on Wall Street. And this isn’t the first time the press has bent over backwards to minimize the ugliness. Buffett behaved similarly with Salomon Brothers two decades ago:

Why has Buffett escaped the kind of journalistic probing that might naturally follow the hypocrisy of publicly complaining about Wall Street being wasteful and then buying 12% of one of its chief sources of such waste?

After all, if there’s anything Buffett ought to condemn based on his past comments, it’s a toxic deal like Goldman’s Abacus, which was comprised of the very same derivatives the Good Buffett warned nearly a decade ago were “weapons of mass destruction.” Now the same guy has a multi-billion-dollar portfolio of them.

Again, the SEC’s case has cost Warren Buffett hundreds of millions of dollars and could potentially cost him billions. If you’re going to write a story on his comments, you’ve got to emphasize his self-interest—up high.

It’s long past time for the press to start holding Buffett’s feet to the fire.

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.