Tuesday, May 4, 2010

From Buffett, Thought-Out Support for Goldman - By Andrew Ross Sorkin

Why is Warren Buffett sticking his neck out so far in defense of Goldman Sachs?

That was the question so many Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, some in disbelief, kept asking here over the weekend, after Mr. Buffett offered his full-throated support of Goldman and its chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, as they fight a civil fraud suit brought by regulators.

Yet by the end of Berkshire’s annual meeting, at least some of the 40,000 shareholders in attendance who had been skeptical of Goldman had come to the same conclusion: Mr. Buffett may actually be right.

Mr. Buffett’s view — conventional, perhaps, on Wall Street but contrarian on that mythical place called Main Street that Mr. Buffett usually occupies — is worth considering for at least one reason: No one else of prominence has spoken out so publicly in support of Goldman. In his trademark way, he made a plain-spoken case that makes sense.

To him, investors should make their investment decisions based on the quality of the securities, not on who helped put them together or who else was betting for or against them. He suggested those factors were irrelevant.

“I don’t care if John Paulson is shorting these bonds. I’m going to have no worries that he has superior knowledge,” he said, adding: “It’s our job to assess the credit.” The assets are the assets. The math either works or it doesn’t.

Mr. Buffett, who has always approached investing as a dispassionate exercise based on his reading of the numbers, said IKB and ACA had all the relevant facts that any investor would need. They were able to see all the mortgages, which were referenced in full, and yet they made what turned out to be a very bad bet.

“It’s a little hard for me to get terribly sympathetic,” he said. When he makes his investments for Berkshire, he said, “we are in the business of making our own decisions. They do not owe us a divulgence of their position.”

On Sunday, Mr. Buffett said that the case against Goldman seemed to be based only on hindsight.

“It’s very strange to say, at the end of the transaction, that if the other guy is smarter than you, that you have been defrauded,” he said. “It seems to me that that’s what they are saying.”

With so many easy targets of the financial crisis — Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, A.I.G., Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers — it does seem odd that the government, and the public, has chosen to vilify one of only a couple of firms that made fewer mistakes than the rest.

Still, the chorus of Goldman opponents has become so loud that, predictably, some people have called for Mr. Blankfein’s head.

On that subject, Charles Munger, Mr. Buffett’s vocal sidekick and vice chairman, put it bluntly: “There are plenty of C.E.O.’s I’d like to see gone in America. Lloyd Blankfein isn’t one of them.”