How Warren Buffett plays politics to make money

Wall Street was on fire, and Buffett was running toward the flames. But he was doing so with the expectation that the fire department (that is, the federal government) was right behind him with buckets of bailout money. As he admitted on CNBC at the time, “If I didn’t think the government was going to act, I wouldn’t be doing anything this week.”

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Buffett needed the bailout. In addition to Goldman Sachs, which was not as badly leveraged as some of its competitors, Buffett was heavily invested in several other banks, such as Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp, that were also at risk and in need of federal cash.

So it’s no surprise that Buffett began campaigning for the $700 billion Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) that was being hammered out in Washington. The first vote on the bill failed in the House of Representatives on September 29. But Buffett was in a unique position to help reverse its fate…

Throughout the financial crisis and the debate over the stimulus in early 2009, several members of Congress were buying and trading Berkshire stock. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) bought Berkshire shares four times over a three-week period in September and October 2008, up to $130,000 worth. He bought shares during the debate over the bailout, during the vote, and after the vote. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) bought the stock, as did Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who bought up to $500,000 worth just days after the bailout bill was signed. Some legislators also followed Buffett’s example by buying shares in Goldman Sachs after the bailout. Among them were Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.).

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