I left Santa Monica for Omaha less than 3 months before the collapse of the global financial infrastructure in September 2008. The impending problems in housing and credit markets – obvious from early 2007 and exacerbated by the pile-on effect of derivatives gone wild – were increasingly in the bank of my mind. I made the decision to leave the dense urban population center of southern California and head to a place where —as recently described in an episode of The Walking Dead – there is a small population and lots of guns. I figured if the world was going to fall apart (something short of being over-run by zombies but worse than a minor recession) I’d rather not be sitting with my back to the ocean and no boat.
Omaha has turned out to be blessed. The farm economy is strong. It is home to 5 of the Fortune 500: ConAgra, Berkshire Hathaway, Union Pacific, Peter Kiewit Sons’ and Mutual of Omaha Insurance all call Omaha home. Best of all, Omaha is home to Warren Buffett – the Oracle of Omaha and financial genius of Wall Street, one of the world’s richest men, head of legendary Berkshire Hathaway and, best of all for me, patron of the arts, humanities, community and politics in Nebraska.
We all hail Uncle Warren’s beneficence but we may not want to look too closely at where the money comes from – like the 15 percent return he’s earning on the $5 billion investment he made in Goldman Sachs the week before they got a $10 billion bailout; or the fact that Berkshire Hathaway was the largest shareholder in American Express Co. when they received $3.4 billion from Uncle Sam. Nebraska may be a red state but Buffett has chosen Democrats, like retiring Senator Ben Nelson, to service his economic agenda. According to data from the Federal Election Commission, Uncle Buffett’s political contributions go almost exclusively to Democrats. I could write a whole story just on what Ben Nelson has done for Nebraska, but to conserve space, let me just say “Cornhusker Kickback” – you get the picture. We have more roads, bridges, and military contractors than can likely be required in a state with a population of 2 million – about the same as the population of Manhattan. This in a place where rush hour means there is a car in front of you and you can see more than 12 cars on either side of the road – compare that to Los Angeles (see photos above). The one electoral vote from Nebraska that went to Obama in 2008 is the one that includes Uncle Buffett’s house.
Author Peter Schweizer (Reason March 2012) describes Buffett using a “bootleggers and Baptists” comparison that’s too close to Immanuel Kant’s “Private vice, public virtue” dichotomy to be accurate. I think Uncle Buffett is much more open about his vices. He does his good works in public but clearly publically influences his politicians. Buffett made that $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs on September 23, 2008 – a week before Senator Nelson voted “aye” on the bailout that greatly enhanced Goldman’s value and protected it from the massive losses which would have resulted from the need to raise capital by liquidating assets at collapsing market prices. The Wall Street Bailout not only gave Goldman Sachs an infusion of capital but it also covered the credit default swap payments that Goldman Sachs demanded from American International Group (AIG) as it was going into bankruptcy. Goldman’s share of the AIG bailout was $2.5 billion in credit default swap payments, plus $5.6 billion in payments from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and another $4.8 billion as “vig” for lending securities to AIG. That’s enough to cover the dividend payments to Buffett for 14 years with enough left over to pay back the principle. Ten percent rate of return with zero risk – not the risk/reward tradeoff I learned about in college.
Most Omaha residents know Buffett’s political savvy and appreciate his understated style. Ben Nelson does. He bragged at a Chamber of Commerce meeting that he took advice from Warren before he voted for the Wall Street Bailout. He completely ignored the irony: a Senator asks a banker for advice on a bank bailout, the banker encourages the senator to payout $750 billion of taxpayer money to banks. This is something much less benign than drinkin’ likker on Saturday night and singin’ in the choir on Sunday morning.
Ben Nelson is among the members of congress who invested in shares of Berkshire Hathaway before passing the Bailout that Benefited Buffett – a move that would probably have gotten them fired from Berkshire Hathaway. The very fact that Buffett was reported as saying something so banal as “I’d never be so brave as to try to influence congress” is all you need to hear to know that he’s not telling the truth. According the Congressional testimony of former- Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SigTARP) Neil Barofsky, and a report from the Government Accountability Office, the TARP bailout program was rigged. Firms with “political connections,” were more likely to get TARP funds. This was reported to Congress at hearings and reported here in 2009:
“Treasury, the New York Federal Reserve and even Presidential Economic Advisor Larry Summers may be passing information to their friends that can be used for financial gain, giving positions in bailout programs to business associates, and engaging in ‘too cordial relationships’ with bailout recipients.”
We may object to Warren Buffet’s manipulations on moral ground but residents of Omaha and Nebraska get to enjoy his largess. The procession of bailouts is anathema to many here. Uncle Buffett may live halfway from Wall Street but he is an insider in the classic sense. His huge bets on municipal bonds mean he needs to work to keep cities and counties from bankruptcy. In March 2008, just months after credit markets began to seize up, Buffett told CNBC he had “written 206 transactions in the last three weeks” which were default swaps on municipal bonds – the financing used by cities, counties and states to fund everything from building schools to running services. Since that means Buffett will have to payout if the municipalities experience “credit events” (like missing bond payments), he has the incentive to push for another bailout. The virtue? The bailout will also benefit the millions of people who live and work in places like Detroit, Illinois, and Jefferson County, Alabama. The vice? He controls enough bank stock to have managed a refinance for those municipalities without siphoning off significant premiums for profit. Buffett is willing to pay to get a government that caters to profligate cities and offers bailouts to companies in his industry, too. Buffett hosts a fundraiser for Obama’s political campaign and Obama names a tax-reform after Buffett – one hand washes the other, all done in the bright sunshine of Sunday morning.
There is no denying that Buffett is smart with his money. In the same way, it would be foolish to suggest that he does this for some personal gratification instead of for profit. His long-hailed strategy of “value investing” has now gone by the wayside in favor of a strategy that can only be described as “grab the profit while you can but don’t stray too far from the government teat.” When the music stops Uncle Buffett will get bailed out, again, by his good friend Uncle Sam.
So I’m not disagreeing with the point being made by Shweitzer and others that “America’s favorite billionaire plays politics to make money.” I’m not even disagreeing that this is bad for America. In fact, I side with Nebraska’s Republican Governor Dave Heineman when it comes to the doings of Buffett and Nelson: If it’s bad for America in the short run, it can’t be good for Nebraska long term. I don’t agree with what Buffett and Nelson have been doing for Nebraska but I am enjoying the benefits. And maybe that’s your answer – move into their neighborhoods, enjoy the protection, but whatever you do – don’t drink the Kool-Aid.*
*Wikipedia cites a reporter from the Washington Post who wrote about seeing “’packets of unopened Flavor Aid’ scattered in the dust in Guyana….”, not actual Kool-Aid. (Source: Krause, Charles A. (Dec. 17, 1978). "Jonestown Is an Eerie Ghost Town Now.") As an aside, Kool-Aid was invented in the 1920s by a Nebraska mail-order entrepreneur.
Susanne Trimbath, Ph.D. is CEO and Chief Economist of STP Advisory Services. Dr. Trimbath’s credits include appearances on national television and radio programs and the Emmy® Award nominated Bloomberg report Phantom Shares. She appears in four documentaries on the financial crisis, including Stock Shock: the Rise of Sirius XM and Collapse of Wall Street Ethics and the newly released Wall Street Conspiracy. Dr. Trimbath was formerly Senior Research Economist at the Milken Institute. She served as Senior Advisor on United States Agency for International Development capital markets projects in Russia, Romania and Ukraine. Dr. Trimbath teaches graduate and undergraduate finance and economics.
Lead Photo: 7:15pm May 21, 2011, Santa Monica Freeway, Eastbound © STP Advisory Services, LLC