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Capitol Cronyism: Obama-Backer Warren Buffett Helped Shape Bailout Rules, Then Made Massive Profits from Them

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In the wake of the $700 billion TARP bailout, Warren Buffett apparently shaped a plan to clean up toxic assets that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner later adopted–resulting in massive profits for Buffett.

That’s the latest bombshell revelation from investigative journalist and Breitbart editor Peter Schweizer’s sensational new book, Throw Them All Out.

According to Schweizer, after the bailout bill’s passage, Warren Buffett sat down and wrote then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson a four-page private letter laying out a plan to clean up the toxic assets plaguing numerous financial institutions. Buffett proposed something he called a “public-private partnership fund.” For every $10 billion the private sector invested, Buffett said the government should put up $40 billion.

After Paulson’s exit, incoming Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner tweaked the plan and rolled it out in March 2009. But according to quarterly reports from Buffett’s holdings company, Berkshire Hathaway, between the time the billionaire crafted his plan and Geithner adopted it, Buffett quietly purchased 12.4 million shares of Wells Fargo stock and 1.5 million shares of U.S. Bancorp. Once the government unveiled its “Public-Private Investment Program,” bank stocks jumped, resulting in large profits for Buffett.

How much Buffett profited is hard to calculate, since there’s no way to know what his purchase price was. But prior to the government adopting Buffett’s plan, Wells Fargo had been trading at roughly $20 a share. In the weeks after Geithner’s announcement, the stock jumped to $30 a share. Likewise, U.S. Bancorp went from $8 in February 2009 to more than $20 a share by May.

Schweizer’s revelations contradict the image Warren Buffett has worked hard to create as that of a folksy, grandfatherly figure who stays above the political fray and rarely gets mired in the muck of partisan politics. Indeed, Throw Them All Out uncovers other alarming acts of apparent crony capitalism performed by the so-called “Oracle of Omaha.”

For example, Schweizer examines Buffett’s intense private lobbying efforts and deftly-timed stock buys that leveraged TARP bailout monies to create up to $3.7 billion in windfall profits for Berkshire Hathaway.

In September of 2008, Buffett invested $5 billion in the over-leveraged investment house of Goldman Sachs, having obtained impressive terms: Berkshire Hathaway would receive preferred stock with a 10% dividend yield, and the option to buy another $5 billion at $115 a share.

As the political debates surrounding the proposed $700 billion TARP bailout bill heated up, Buffett maintained an appearance of naivete, an “aw shucks” shtick that deferred to the judgment of politicians. “I’m not brave enough to try to influence the Congress,” Buffett told the New York Times.

Behind closed doors, however, Buffett had become a shrewd political entrepreneur. With his Goldman bet in place, the billionaire exerted his considerable political influence in a private conference call with then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats. During the meeting, Buffett strongly urged Democratic members to pass the $700 billion TARP bill to avert what he warned would otherwise be “the biggest financial meltdown in American history.”

Buffett had a strong financial interest in the bailout’s passage, says Schweizer. “If the bailout went through, it would be a windfall for Goldman. If it failed, it would be disastrous for Berkshire Hathaway.”

Yet Buffett had little reason to worry; his insider political connections afforded him two guarantees. First, many members of Congress were themselves investing heavily in Berkshire Hathaway throughout the bailout talks–a move that may simply have been a good investment in an unsteady time, or else a shrewd exploitation of unique information. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), for example, snatched up $130,000 worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) also bought shares in Berkshire Hathaway, as did Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who purchased half a million dollars’ worth just days after the Wall Street bailout bill was signed. Second, Buffett knew he had an ally in the surging Barack Obama. Buffett had backed Obama in 2008. And as Obama has himself conceded, “Warren Buffett is one of those people that I listen to.”

When the TARP bailout passed, Berkshire Hathaway firms received a staggering $95 billion in bailout cash from U.S. taxpayers. In total, TARP-assisted companies made up almost a third (30%) of Buffett’s entire publicly disclosed stock portfolio. The payoff: by July 2009, Buffett’s Goldman bet and his congressional jawboning had yielded profits as high as $3.7 billion.

Incredibly, in a breathtaking public relations move, Buffett publicly complained that the government bailouts had put his company at a disadvantage, because funders “who are using imaginative methods (or lobbying skills) to come under the government’s umbrella–have money costs that are minimal.” Rolfe Winkler of Reuters best captured Buffet’s audacity: “It takes chutzpah to lobby for bailouts, make trades seeking to profit from them, and then complain that those doing so put you at a disadvantage.”

Still, despite Buffett’s apparent, and brazen, display of crony capitalism and political manipulation to produce billions in profits, Schweizer says that the most egregious part is that his behavior appears to have been entirely legal. Buffett merely leveraged his unique and powerful political connections to turn taxpayer money into massive private profits.

Now, with the 2012 presidential election right around the corner, Buffett plans to back President Obama again. In August 2011, the two men vacationed together in the plush surroundings of Martha’s Vineyard. Shortly thereafter, Buffett hosted an Obama fundraiser in New York City where contributors spent $35,800 for VIP tickets and the chance to discuss the economy with the Berkshire Hathaway CEO.

If Buffett’s political track record is any indication, his time spent alongside President Obama was an investment intended to yield a high rate of return–at taxpayers’ expense.


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