Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is Buffett's purchase into Goldmans really just insurance?

Much has been said and made about Warren Buffett's $5 Billion purchase into Goldman Sachs.

There's no doubt that Mr. Buffett is a very cagey investor, having waited until Goldman was (effectively) permitted to turn itself into a commercial bank. This lowered the risk of Goldman Sachs measurably, since they can now step up to the Fed and secure further funding, making the risk of failure fade considerably.

That he bought into an investment now that competitive forces have been considerably reduced should surprise no one, given Mr. Buffett's oft-stated opinion that he likes businesses with "pricing power". If a passel full of your competitors just bit the dust, or found themselves in the arms of a much more conservative commercial lending culture this, as an owner, can only have you rubbing your hands with pleasure.

Of course, you can't ignore the fact that he invested in what amounts to convertible preferreds (at WB's option effectively), happily collecting his 10% interest along the way. He's, as always, limiting his downside, while maximizing his upside.

But my final thought about this purchase is this: Mr. Buffett would happily see lower prices for some indeterminate period of time, but a financial melt-down wouldn't be in his interest, no matter how low the prices got.

Aside from his strong humanist streak (making him well aware of the human suffering that would cause), he's well aware of how long markets can potentially take to recover lost ground. In the case of the US and the Great Depression, the Dow Jones did not surpass the 1929 heights until 1954. Yes, 1954. One can only look at Japan today to see a similar market (if not Main Street) phenomenon in play.

So, I wonder whether, knowing that a more orderly decline of the stock market can play just as well - and probably better - into his hands, he stepped up with this purchase. A purchase, with his reputation, large enough to salve the panic-stricken, and yet with many of his classic down-side protection hallmarks. As a percentage of his total portfolio, and even of his cash holdings, $5 billion represents a small fraction of Berkshire's total assets.

I wonder if, in effect, Warren Buffett wrote a very large, very public, insurance policy against a disorderly market decline? An insurance policy that effectively rests upon his reputation, more than anything else?


The Confused Capitalist

No comments: