What would Buffett do?

Posted Oct. 14, 2008, at 4:27 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:25 a.m.

As panic selling spread and stock markets plunged with no bottom yet in sight, Warren Buffett, the world’s richest person, followed the example of J. Pierpont Morgan in the Panic of 1907 and did some buying.

The two panics are strikingly different, but loss of confidence characterized both. The two financiers took similar steps toward restoring trust in the financial system. J.P. Morgan succeeded brilliantly. Mr. Buffett has put in some of his own $62 billion, supports the new bailout plan, and has made suggestions that he believes will make it succeed.

The 1907 panic began with the collapse of trust companies that handled wills and estates. There was no central bank to ride to the rescue. Mr. Morgan, in effect became America’s central bank. He and fellow financiers put up some of their own money and got $25 million (half a billion in today’s dollars) from the United States Treasury, and led the way in reinvestment and rebuilding the lost confidence. Within a few weeks, the system was on its way back to normal.

Mr. Buffett is a widely respected as a shrewd investor and economic analyst, but the $44 billion that The New York Times says his Berkshire Hathaway insurance company has in cash is nowhere near enough to deal with the current financial crisis. He has invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs and $3 billion in General Electric, and his GE investment led other investors to put up another $12 billion the next day. But his hopes rest on the U.S. government’s $700 billion rescue plan, which he supports with some reservations.

Mr. Buffett told his Berkshire Hathaway stockholders in 2003 that the then-profitable complex securities at the heart of the current crisis were “financial weapons of mass destruction.” Now that his dire prediction has come to pass, he is a calming influence in the midst of the panic. He sat down recently with Charlie Rose, the popular Public Broadcasting Service interviewer for a lengthy discussion of the situation.

He likened the American economy to “a great athlete that’s had a cardiac arrest.” It’s a time for resuscitation, not casting blame, he said.

He supported the plan to buy up mortgages and mortgage-related securities but insisted repeatedly that the government should pay only the low current market prices — not the somewhat higher prices advocated by the troubled holders and some government officials.

He said he would bet that the Treasury would get most of its money back if it bought at market price: “When Berkshire Hathaway laid out $3 billion for GE today, we didn’t spend it. We invested it.”

How long will it take for a turn-around? Mr. Buffett said not one month or two months, but maybe six months in a best-case scenario. In a worst case, maybe five years.

Amid all the gloom, it’s a relief to get some wise counsel from the Oracle of Omaha.

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