Each year about this time, the media gears up for a major event: Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholders' meeting. This year's meeting will be held on Saturday, May 1. As usual, everyone's interest turns to Berkshire CEO Warren Buffett, who is perhaps America's most-loved business executive. Not only is Buffett considered one of the world's greatest businessman, he is also thought to be one of the most ethical.
Because I wrote a book about Buffett, I am often asked about him. Usually, people want to know how he became so rich, what stock or company he might buy next, or what they should do to be like him.
About a week ago, Betty Liu of Bloomberg television interviewed me about Buffett. Her questions were a bit more sophisticated. She seemed particularly interested in his investment in Goldman Sachs. Given today's announcement that the SEC is suing Goldman Sachs for subprime mortgage fraud, her timing couldn't have been better.
Liu wanted to know if Buffett had tarnished his image by getting involved with an investment bank that is not exactly loved on Main Street. After all, Goldman's executives seem to exist in a world of their own. They have little in common with the ordinary "man on the street." These are people who think nothing of getting paid several million dollars each year. No doubt, some of them think they are entitled to more. In comparison, Buffett is one of the most underpaid executives. He gets just $100,000 per year to run Berkshire Hathaway. Despite Goldman's excesses, I defended Buffett's investment in the bank. Buffett felt he was getting a great deal, so he took it.
Over the years, Buffett has strongly criticized the investment banking industry. However, he has also made it clear that Goldman Sachs was the best of the lot. He often praised former Goldman executive Byron Trott. And during the recent financial crisis, Buffett invested $5 billion of Berkshire's money in Goldman Sachs preferred stock. Berkshire also received warrants to buy Goldman's common stock at $115 per share.
Today, after the SEC made its announcement, shares of Goldman plunged 13% to close at just under $161 per share. Berkshire lost a ton of money on paper. Although its warrants are still well in the money, Buffett's armor looks at least a little bit less shiny.