Buffett and B of A

In today’s Financial Times, Dan McCrum cites one of my books and quotes me when portraying Warren Buffett as the investor of last resort in the US.  Inspired by Buffett’s investment in preferred stock and warrants of Bank of America (in which I have owned stock for 20 years, through predecessors), it is interesting to think of Buffett as rescuer of troubled American financial institutions: from Salomon Brothers in the late 1980s through Goldman Sachs in the 2008 crisis and B of A today. 

But please note that it is not altruism or patriotism that induces the rescues.  Instead, Buffett’s value investing philosophy leads him to show up when the chips are down.  Value investing means to commit private capital only when the price you may is substantially below the value you get.  “Be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy,” Buffett has written.

In the depths of the 2008 crisis, Buffett shrewdly negotiated great investment deals at Goldman Sachs, with a 10% dividend rate, and at General Electric. He made a calculation that what he paid was way less than what he got. (And he was correct.)

Buffett, a friend of mine for 15 years whom I admire greatly,  also turned down other opportunities presented to him during the crisis, including at AIG. He found the price insufficiently below the value.

He also proposed an investment opportunity in 1997 in Long Term Capital Management, giving the firm an hour to accept, but they balked. He offered a steep discount, which he insisted on and they could not accept.

The Bank of America position today is likewise a shrewd value proposition: preferred stock with a hefty 6% dividend, along with warrants (options) to buy common shares at the bargain basement price of $7.14.  Notably, that price was above the trading price when the deal was inked but, foreseeably, the market shot up on news of Buffett’s investment and is now in the money—an instant profit.

So Berkshire is certainly a fortress (a kind of Fort Knox in American folklore) and Buffett, a patriot and altruist, is as beloved as Will Rogers for all his folksy home-spun wisdom and “tax me and other billionaires” populism. But Buffett is an investor first and foremost and you see him stepping up in these big ways in times of stress because that’s where value investing takes him.

Photo Credit: Cardozo Law School (Buffett guest teaching my class in 1998).

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