Buffett's PR Disaster

Includes: BRK.A, BRK.B, MCO
by: Felix Salmon

From a PR point of view — and Warren Buffett cares deeply about his public image — yesterday was arguably the single worst day of Buffett’s life. He was dragged against his will — with a subpoena, no less — in front of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which grilled him on whether, as Moody’s (NYSE:MCO) largest shareholder, he took any responsibility at all for the disaster that happened there. His answer — no — was met with unanimous derision, both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere: see The Pragmatic Capitalist, or Bond Girl (”It’s funny how heroes end up cutting themselves down to size even when no one else can”), or Edmund Andrews:

Warren Buffett has turned into an evasive, disingenuous, bumbling buffoon…

When asked by Phil Angelides, the commission chairman, what the agencies did wrong, Buffett passed the buck as shamelessly as every other Wall Street powerhouse player: “I think they made the same mistake that virtually everybody else made,” Buffett told in the first in a long series of evasions…

Having basked for years in public adulation for his his investment brilliance, Buffett suddenly acted as if he hadn’t the slightest idea about the goings on at Moody’s even though Berkshire Hathaway had been one of its biggest shareholders.

Between his Moody’s investment and his Goldman (NYSE:GS) investment, Buffett is slowly working out that only half of his public adulation comes from his compounded annual returns. The other half comes from the fact that he seemingly got those returns investing in Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), motherhood, and apple pie. Rather than in entities without which the current wave of misery overtaking homeowners nationwide could never have happened.

Buffett is that rarest of institutional shareholders: someone who actually owns and runs lots of large companies of his own. As such, he can and should act much more like an owner than most shareholders. But he doesn’t, and he has no visible desire to fix the problems at Moody’s or at the ratings agencies more generally. He just says he wishes he’d sold his Moody’s stock earlier, passing on those losses to some other sucker. I don’t think he’s ever going to be able to live this one down.