How America’s favorite billionaire plays politics to make money
In 19th-century America, there was a concerted effort to ban alcohol sales on Sunday. “Blue laws,” intended to protect the sanctity and sobriety of the Sabbath, were pushed by what seemed like an odd alliance: Baptists and bootleggers. Baptists backed the ban publicly on moral and religious grounds, while the bootleggers lobbied for the ban privately to boost their own bottom lines. Blocking legal alcohol purchases for even one day each week meant more opportunities for their illegal sales. Bans were enacted state by state, and many blue laws still exist (in Arkansas, Indiana, Minnesota, and Mississippi, for example), although restrictions have been steadily disappearing in recent years. Economist Bruce Yandle immortalized the phrase “Bootleggers and Baptists” in a 1983 Regulation magazine article of the same name, making the point that ostensibly opposing sides will happily collude when it serves their mutual interests.
The old paradox continues in modern-day Washington. Politicians enrich their friends and allies—and sometimes themselves—by coming off as earnest “Baptists” for a worthy cause. Lobbyists for big corporate interests, by contrast, are widely considered bootleggers, no matter how nobly they cloak their arguments. This arrangement has created an opening for a third way: What if a capitalist could somehow manage to sound like a Baptist?
Consider Warren Buffett. Often seen as a grandfatherly figure above the rough-and-tumble of politics, Buffett appears to be immune to the folly and excess of finance as well. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska, in a house he purchased in 1958 for $31,000. He made a fortune for himself and his investors at the business conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway through the humble-sounding approach of value-based investing. He uses folksy expressions: “You don’t know who’s swimming naked,” he said during the height of the financial crisis, “until the tide goes out.” He frequently takes to the nation’s op-ed pages with populist-sounding arguments, such as his August 2010 plea in The New York Times for the government to stop “coddling” the “super-rich” and start raising their taxes.
Buffett the Bootlegger
But this image does not always reflect reality. Warren Buffett is very much a political entrepreneur; his best investments are often in political relationships. In recent years, Buffett has used taxpayer money as a vehicle to even greater profit and wealth. Indeed, the success of some of his biggest bets and the profitability of some of his largest investments rely on government largesse and “coddling” with taxpayer money.
During the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, Buffett became an important symbol on television. He filled the role of fiscal adult, a responsible father figure in the midst of irresponsible Wall Street speculators. While pushing for calm and advocating specific market interventions in both public and private, however, he was also investing (sometimes quietly) so he could profit once his policy advice was implemented. This put Buffett in the position of being both Baptist and bootlegger, praised for his moral character while shaking his finger all the way to the bank.
In the summer of 2008, when several investment houses and the government-sponsored mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac teetered on the brink of financial collapse, Buffett was “uncharacteristically quiet,” as the London Guardian observed. It was only on September 23 that he became a highly visible player in the drama, investing $5 billion in Goldman Sachs, which was overleveraged and short on cash. Buffett’s play gave the investment bank a much-needed cash infusion, making a heck of a deal for himself in return: Berkshire Hathaway received preferred stock with a 10 percent dividend yield and an attractive option to buy another $5 billion in stock at $115 a share.
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 bailout. In addition to Goldman Sachs, which was not as badly leveraged as some of its competitors, Buffett was heavily invested in several other banks, such as Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp, that were also at risk and in need of federal cash.
So it’s no surprise that Buffett began campaigning for the $700 billion Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) that was being hammered out in Washington. The first vote on the bill failed in the House of Representatives on September 29. But Buffett was in a unique position to help reverse its fate.
During the 2008 presidential campaign Buffett was mentioned as a candidate for Treasury secretary by both John McCain and Barack Obama. But it was clear where his loyalties lay: He had been a financial supporter of Barack Obama going back to 2004, when Obama ran for the U.S. Senate. Each had been impressed when they met, and Buffett said at a 2007 fundraiser in Nebraska that the two “had a lot of time to talk.” During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama made it clear that while he received plenty of advice on the campaign trail, “Warren Buffett is one of those people that I listen to.” Obama added that the Oracle of Omaha was one of his “economic advisers.”
Several senators and congressmen were shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway and therefore in a position to earn big returns by passing the bailout bill. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), for example, held between $1 million and $6 million in Berkshire stock, by far the largest asset in his portfolio. Initially resistant to the bailout bill, Nelson ended up voting in favor of it. Buffett’s support was hardly the deciding factor in passing the bill. But his Baptist-bootlegger position was strong in both directions: Many people heeded his advice, then he (and they) made a lot of money after the bailout.
Throughout the financial crisis and the debate over the stimulus in early 2009, several members of Congress were buying and trading Berkshire stock. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) bought Berkshire shares four times over a three-week period in September and October 2008, up to $130,000 worth. He bought shares during the debate over the bailout, during the vote, and after the vote. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) bought the stock, as did Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who bought up to $500,000 worth just days after the bailout bill was signed. Some legislators also followed Buffett’s example by buying shares in Goldman Sachs after the bailout. Among them were Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.).
Early in the financial crisis, Obama, then a senator and his party’s presidential nominee, had been cautious and lukewarm about a possible bailout. But in the days following Buffett’s multibillion-dollar play for Goldman Sachs, and with fears of economic collapse mounting, Obama became a powerful champion of the government rescue. As the top Democrat in the country, he had an important vote. The New York Times reported that Obama “intensified” his efforts to “rally support for the $700 billion financial bailout package” after September 28, 2008. The plan was necessary, said Obama, “to safeguard the economy.”
Publicly, Buffett struck a posture of cheering on the bailout from the sidelines. “I’m not brave enough to try to influence the Congress,” he told The New York Times in a September 24 article. But Buffett’s actions directly contradicted his words. Days later, he participated in a conference call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other House Democrats during which he pushed them to pass the bill, warning that otherwise the country faces “the biggest financial meltdown in American history.”