Big investments in Goldman Sachs ( GS) at the height of the financial crisis made a lot of money for Warren Buffett and much less for the federal government, but those results are actually not that surprising. A college professor's recent analysis showed that Buffett's preferred stake in Goldman has been much more profitable than the Treasury Department's. The results provided ammunition for critics who view big banks on Wall Street and wealthy counterparts elsewhere -- in Omaha, for instance -- as villains who took advantage of the government's largesse. But while the numbers might be fresh, the finding is not, since the terms of both agreements were hammered out and publicized nine or 10 months ago. It's also important to note the distinction between how the capital infusions came to be, since Goldman asked Buffett for money, while the government asked Goldman to accept federal funds. In late-September, Goldman and its banking brethren were starved for capital. The credit markets had seized up after the fall of Lehman Brothers -- soon followed to the brink by American International Group ( AIG) -- sending everyone on the hunt for cash. According to the Wall Street Journal, a Goldman investment banker with close ties to Buffett called him up, they hammered out details for a preferred-stock deal, and he was in bed by 10:30 p.m. Fast forward several weeks, and the heads of nine banking titans were sitting around a conference-room table in Lower Manhattan with Treasury Department officials, being told that they all would have to accept varying degrees of federal funding. In return for those cash infusions, the government would receive preferred stakes and warrants to buy common stock.
Of course, some of the banks, which included Goldman, Citigroup ( C), Bank of America ( BAC), JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), Morgan Stanley ( MS), Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo ( WFC), Bank of New York Mellon ( BK) and State Street ( STT), needed the funds more than others, but some of them still argue that they didn't need the funds at all. Therefore, it's little surprise that since the banks were accepting the cash under duress, and since the cash came with the stigma of corporate welfare and tighter oversight, it's little surprise that the government received an initial 5% annual dividend, vs. Buffett's 10% return. After five years, the TARP dividend rate jumps to 9%, but Goldman exited too quickly to face that hurdle. The terms Buffett mustered were more favorable because he was a private investor taking on a fair amount of risk. He handed over $5 billion to a bank whose competition was going belly up, before the government had pledged its support to institutions or the financial market. Throughout the crisis, Buffett had been approached by several firms, including Bear Stearns, Lehman and AIG, but ultimately invested funds in Goldman and General Electric ( GE). (He also holds stakes in US Bancorp ( USB) and Wells Fargo ( WFC) through his company Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.A).) Buffett chose Goldman as one of his investments because of its management, its history and his general gut feeling about the company. ("I didn't see a book. I just made a judgment," he told the Journal.) So far, it seems, he has been correct. Linus Wilson, who teaches finance at the University of Louisiana, determined that Buffett's preferred stake Goldman has increased in value by $4.1 billion, or 82%, in less than a year. If the oft-labeled Oracle of Omaha decides to cash in his perpetual preferred stock for common, giving him a sizeable stake in the firm, he would reap an annualized return of 111%.
For its $10 billion investment, the government received $1.418 billion, an annualized return of 23%. Goldman also didn't haggle over the pricing of its warrants, putting a premium on haste rather than cost, in its effort to leave TARP behind. American taxpayers looking at 401(k) returns over the past seven months would likely be happy if all investments were as quick and tidy as the Goldman stake. Furthermore, for all the talk of TARP, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is still allowing banks to make handsome profits by guaranteeing their debt cheaply, while private investors would charge a lot more for unprotected debt. The Federal Reserve has vastly expanded its balance sheet with riskier assets to foster liquidity in the same way. And several regulators have developed a plan called the Public-Private Investment Program with similar goals. While the government may have been able to get better terms, and taxpayers deserve to earn money for taking on risk, comparing federal programs to Buffett's investing prowess seems a bit silly. After all, the government's goal in the financial crisis is to get the private markets working properly again so it doesn't have to be involved at all.