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Will Warren Buffett Be Forced to Become Chairman of Goldman Sachs?

In August 1991, Salomon Brothers was about to go under, because the U.S. government was planning to revoke the company's license to trade U.S. Treasury securities, the firm's bread and butter business because of blatant trading violations.

Into the breach stepped Warren Buffett, the firm's largest investor, whose appointment to Chairman quickly reassured the crowd. Part of the reason was that Buffett almost alone had enough capital to save the firm, and also had the most "skin in the game.". But the main reason was Buffett's reputation for probity, meaning that the SEC could count on the company's avoiding previous violations (except inadvertent ones, e.g. due to clerical errors) on Mr. Buffett's watch.

The trading ban was partially lifted; Salomon could trade Treasuries for its own account, but not yet for clients, pending a further probationary period. Mr. Buffett was tasked with conducting an executive "house cleaning" (including a purge of all former senior executives except Deryck Maughan, the CEO), instaling a new code of ethics, and generally changing the corporate culture enough so that it followed the rules.

Said he, regarding the experience: "Paul Mozer [the chief wrongdoer] was sentenced to four months in jail, and I was sentenced to ten months as Chairman of Salomon." Apparently Mr. Buffett got the heavier "sentence."

The circumstances would be different, but we could not rule out a comparable crisis at Goldman (financial, not necessarily criminal), with Mr. Buffett being called to ride to the rescue. His cash would be welcome, but what would most be needed is his presence. And he is some two decades older, in the twilight of his life, meaning that another ten months would be a heavy sentence indeed. 

 

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