Warren Buffett is the closest we have to a clean-up hitter in the US economy. He would chuckle at the description, but there is more than madness to it. Berkshire Hathaway, the company he built with his partner Charlie Munder, has defied palpitations of the US equity markets for reasons that became clearer yesterday.
Buffett, who warned years ago that securitized debt represented “weapons of mass financial destruction”, is offering to reinsure $800 billion underwritten by three insurers (MBIA, the Ambac Financial Group, and FGIC) of municipal debt that undergirds the American empire. The New York Times noted today on A1, ” the financial burdens of three insurance companies have become a threat to the financial system.”
Equity markets reacted positively to Buffett’s appearance at the plate, more like, deus ex machina. I take a more nuanced view.
There are a couple of ways to view Buffett’s move, which carefully excluded debt related to the mortgage crisis.
In annual letters to shareholders, he comes across wise, prudent, and an optimist. Buffett believes in America, even if profits in his portfolio increasingly flow from international markets. In this light, his offer is a vote of confidence that there is significant opportunity for Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in the credit crisis.
On the other hand, Buffett may be more worried than he has ever been in his investing life.
He is not given to the blank-check, nonsensical patter of top federal officials from President Bush to Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke: that the economy is essentially sound, that the credit crisis is “contained” ad nauseam.
Buffett may have decided that the threat from frozen credit markets to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders is so severe that he had to step to the plate.
I have no evidence what Mr. Buffett is thinking. But from the financial news, there are certain inescapable conclusions to draw. US equity markets have been reflecting general public discontent with government mixed with insecurity about the economy in a way that increasingly resembles mass bipolar disorder. Indexes fluctuate manically yet remain relatively high despite an avalanche of bad news-for instance, yesterday’s news that blue-chip AIG risk analysts failed shareholders.
It can’t get much worse than that. Or, can it?
Perhaps senior citizen Buffett is less a clean-up hitter than like an agile free safety, the last defender on a football team worn out by steroid abuse.
The credit crisis is carrying the ball, running to the end zone that NYU economist Nouriel Roubini calls “systemic financial risk”.
The modern era has never experienced a time when markets for municipal mortgage debt seize up. If the insurance companies that underwrite protections for that debt can no longer meet their capital requirements, or they can’t pay out claims, if municipalities can’t borrow to fund operations and deficits burgeoning from the precipitous decline of real estate markets, the US economy will undergo a contraction. A contraction as catastrophic, perhaps, as the one that followed Calvin Coolidge and his somber assertion that “the business of America is business.”
If Mr. Buffettt sees opportunity in backing $800 billion in debt, who am I to say different? We are at different pay grades. But even from the perch he keeps purposefully modest, I doubt Mr. Buffett sees what I see from Miami, the epicenter of the housing bust.
It hasn’t made me rich, but it has made me wise enough to know there is hell to pay for the cheating, lying and demagoguery that passes for stewardship of the economy, Warren Buffettt or not. Hundreds of billions are vanishing in a crisis triggered by the hubris and arrogance of the Growth Machine, US consumers and voters who owe more than they can pay back, because they couldn’t have cared less and no one was around to tell them, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
ALAN FARAGO of Coral Gables, who writes about the environment and the politics of South Florida, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.