Warren Buffett and the Crisis: ‘Brilliant Moves Interspersed with Some Surprising Errors’

From CNBC, “Alice Schroeder’s authorized biography of Warren Buffett is now available in a trade paperback edition.

In an “updated and condensed” version of The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, [note: see my “best of”/review of The Snowball] Schroeder adds a new 31-page chapter covering events after the hardcover’s publication last year.

She details Buffett’s reaction to the credit crisis as it peaked in the fall of 2008, Barack Obama’s election as President, and Berkshire Hathaway’s loss of its coveted triple-A credit rating.

Schroeder candidly describes how Buffett made a “series of characteristic brilliant moves interspersed with some surprising errors.””

Here is an excerpt from the new book chapter [via CNBC] (emphasis added),

Treasury yields soon reached zero, but the flood of money failed to open the channels of business lending; credit remained virtually nonexistent. Buffett, who was at the time acting as the economy’s greatest cheerleader, lent at interest rates that in some instances bordered on usurious—$150 million of twelve percent notes in Sealed Air; $300 million of Harley-Davidson debt for a fifteen percent interest rate; $300 million of ten-percent contingent convertible senior notes from USG; $250 million of Tiffany bonds at ten percent; and a $2.7 billion, twelve-percent perpetual convertible stake in Swiss Re that would give Berkshire a thirty-percent ownership in the insurance giant.

This latter move baffled insurance industry insiders, including Swiss Re employees. Swiss Re was General Re’s biggest competitor; observers concluded that, on any terms, the investment to prop up Swiss Re made no sense because of its negative long-term strategic consequences to Berkshire—unless Buffett ultimately meant to take over Swiss Re and merge it with General Re. In the past, however, Buffett had made opportunistic insurance investments that worked against Berkshire’s long-term interests. Challenged on this, he would respond, “If we don’t do it, somebody else will.” Thus it was equally likely that there was no strategy whatsoever behind the deal besides extracting some fast cash from the pockets of the Swiss.

Throughout, Buffett became an even more frequent presence on CNBC and other networks. He filled the role of America’s statesman and father figure during the financial crisis, but he had also fallen into the trap of competing for attention instead of trusting that his sterling record would bring it to him. “Dignity, Warren, dignity,” counseled one of his friends—but Buffett had never wanted to be dignified; he had never minded looking silly if it would get people to pay attention to him. He was a performer and a showman, and now he feared the show might end. He would keep on giving as many performances as possible while there was time. And indeed, his profile grew and grew in proportion to how often he appeared on the magic medium of television.

[…] The actions he had taken with deals struck in 2008 and 2009, in accordance with his saying “Cash combined with courage in a crisis is priceless,” would enrich Berkshire shareholders for many years to come. At the same time, the crisis—which admittedly had so many episodes of heart-stopping disintegration into near economic collapse that in some ways it eclipsed the events leading to the Great Depression—left Berkshire a weaker company financially. It undercut Buffett’s reputation as a nearly infallible manager, and cost the company its top financial rating.

The 2009 shareholder meeting would prove to be both a celebration of Berkshire’s success and a chance for Buffett to defend himself. He had changed the meeting format so that half the questions would concern Berkshire and would be submitted through a panel of journalists: Carol Loomis, Becky Quick of CNBC, and Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times. A torrent of five thousand questions poured in, many of them tough-minded queries from people who wanted answers but who had not, in the past, been willing to wait hours for a position at the microphone […].

The new format and the unsteady economy attracted what was said to be a record thirty-five thousand people in attendance despite Berkshire’s stock price, which hovered at $90,000 per share. Buffett, who never said anything spontaneous, always seemed to have an answer prepared for every question that could be anticipated. The main difference in 2009 was that shareholders were asking truly challenging questions, rather than flattering him with their gratitude for being able to stand in his presence and receive his wisdom. At his most impressive he rattled off statistics and explained economics with a clarity that people were not hearing from anyone else. But his answers on other questions were more awkward. Buffett liked to deal with confrontation indirectly. Put on the spot, he behaved as he did in private, avoiding direct answers to some questions and meting out unpleasant information through hints and sometimes by omission.

One Response to Warren Buffett and the Crisis: ‘Brilliant Moves Interspersed with Some Surprising Errors’

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