Buffett: How Berkshire Gets Screwed When Government Props Up Weak Banks

In his annual letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett makes a fascinating point about the unintended consequences of the government’s decision to prop up weak banks. In this section he’s specifically talking about Berkshire’s Clayton Homes unit, a maker of pre-fab homes, which also has a lending operation.

Clayton’s lending operations, though not damaged by the performance of its borrowers is nevertheless threatened by an element of the credit crisis. Funders that have access to any sort of government guarantee — banks with FDIC-insured deposits, large entities with commercial paper backed by the Federal Reserve, and others who are using imaginitive methods (or lobbying skills) to come under the government’s umbrella — have money costs that are minimal. Conversely, highly-rated companies, such as Berkshire, are experiencing borrowing costs that, in relation to treasury rates, are at record levels. Moreover, funds are abundant for the government-guaranteed borrower, but often scarce for others no matter how creditworthy they are.

This unprecedented “spread” in the cost of money makes it unprofitable for any lender who doesn’t enjoy government-guaranteed funds to go up against those with favoured status. Government is determining the “haves” and the “have nots.” That is why companies are rushing to convert to bank holding companies, not a course feasible for Berkshire.

Though Berkshire’s credit rating is pristine — we are one of only seven AAA corporations in the country — our cost of borrowing is now far higher than competitors with shaky balance sheets but government backing. At the moment it is far better to be a financial cripple with a government guarantee than a Gibraltar without one.

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