If you're looking for proof that Too Big to Fail is still alive, and that Washington won't leave large financial institutions to the mercies of capitalism, consider billionaire Obama fundraiser Warren Buffett's $5 billion bet on struggling Bank of America.
Buffett, who recently won plaudits for advocating higher taxes, has spent four years betting on bailouts and big government -- and tilting the playing field in that direction by putting his money and prestige at the service of Barack Obama.
Buffett gave the maximum donation to Obama in 2007 -- $4,600 to his campaign, and $28,500 to the Democratic National Committee -- and also hosted a fundraiser for Obama in Omaha. By mid-2008, Obama had tapped Buffett as an official economic adviser to the campaign.
When Wall Street nearly collapsed in September 2008, Buffett rallied behind the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and bet big on its passage. He put $5 billion into failing investment bank Goldman Sachs. "If I didn't think the government was going to act, I would not be doing anything this week," Buffett said on CNBC at the time.
Obama had campaigned against policies that mainly serve wealthy Americans, belittling the notion that "somehow prosperity will trickle down." Obama was the only man in position to block the bailout, but he voted aye and took much of his party with him.
As Congress was passing TARP and Republicans were falling in the polls, Buffett made another investment in Obamanomics, taking a $3 billion stake in General Electric.
Goldman got $10 billion in TARP funds, and by late 2009 was reporting record profits. Buffett made more than $3.6 billion in profit off the investment.
GE never got TARP money, but a month after the Buffett investment, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation gave GE a $139 billion guarantee on its debt, and GE was a regular recipient of other Federal Reserve bailouts besides TARP. Then GE forged an intimate alliance with the Obama administration, boosting investments in greenhouse-gas credits, embryonic stem cells, wind power, battery technology, and trains -- all technologies subsidized by Obama. GE Chief Executive Officer Jeff Immelt, who lauded Obama's "reset capitalism" in which government would be an "industry champion," became Obama's "job czar."
More recently, Buffett said he's considering investments in ethanol pioneer Archer Daniels Midland, nuclear-power king Exelon, and government contracting giant General Dynamics. ADM was built on close ties to politicians, as was Exelon. ADM relies on ethanol subsidies for profits, while Exelon lobbies for greenhouse-gas restrictions that will profit the company's nuclear-power holdings. And General Dynamics, with $139 billion in federal contracts since 2000, is also cozy with government.
In this light, and recalling his Goldman-bailout profit, consider Buffett's investment last week in Bank of America.
Investors had been dumping Bank of America shares, presumably over worries about the mortgages it holds. But B of A holds ugly mortgages mostly because it bought Countrywide in 2008 -- a move government officials encouraged because they thought it would stabilize the financial sector. Similarly, B of A bought up Merrill Lynch with some nudging from the Treasury Department.
Finally, the Obama administration is simultaneously siding with struggling mortgage-holders against their banks while also trying to promote more lending. You could say Uncle Sam owes Bank of America.
At least Moody's, the credit-ratings agency, seems to think so. In a June 2 announcement, Moody's (owned by Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, by the way) wrote that Bank of America's credit rating "currently incorporates an unusual amount of 'uplift' from Moody's systemic support assumptions that were increased during the financial crisis." In other words, Moody's -- and thus most creditors -- assumes the government will not let Bank of America fail.
By putting $5 billion in B of A, Buffett seems to be following his mantra: "Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful." But does the Oracle of Omaha, as he did in 2008, find his courage in the promise of a bailout? And does he have good reason to expect one?
Last week, when Buffett spoke with Obama and decided to invest in Bank of America, we learned that he is hosting another Obama fundraiser. This all sounds familiar.
It's beginning to look a lot like 2008, which is bad news economically -- unless you know how to profit off bailouts.
CORRECTION: This column originally understated the size of Buffett's investment in Bank of America. The correct figure is $5 billion, not $3 billion.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.