Colin Barr

Following the money in banking, economics, and Washington

Fed caution favors Buffett over Goldman

November 15, 2010: 5:31 AM ET

A cautious Fed is going to mean more money in Warren Buffett's pocket.

Regulators have delayed signing off on Goldman Sachs' (GS) request to repay a crisis era $5 billion preferred stock investment, pending the formulation of new bank dividend guidelines, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Gets much-needed financial boost

The decision means Goldman will have to continue paying Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) $500 million in annual dividends for at least another quarter or two. Goldman has the right to call, or repay, the preferred stock at any time but needs regulatory approval to do so, and a Fed official Friday signaled the bank watchdog will be taking its time in making such decisions.
Goldman would love to pay the money back, but Buffett clearly is in no hurry. He said at Berkshire's annual meeting in May that his firm ends up getting about $15 a second on that investment. A repayment would put $5.5 billion in Berkshire's coffers, but the firm would likely plow those funds into Treasury securities yielding next to nothing.

"Every day that Goldman doesn't call our preferred is money in the bank," Buffett said.

The report comes on the heels of Friday's speech from Fed governor Daniel Tarullo, who said the Fed would be "conservative" in deciding when to allow big lenders to resume sizable dividend  payouts. Most banks cut their dividends to pennies or at most a nickel a share from much higher levels during the financial meltdown to conserve capital.

Tarullo said that before signing off on higher payouts to investors the Fed would oblige banks to run another stress test of their financial strength, considering how they would do in an economic downturn and what kind of losses they might take on mortgage putbacks. He said he expected new rules to be formulated during the first quarter.

Berkshire made a $5 billion preferred stock investment in Goldman in September 2008, at the height of the financial crisis. The shares pay Berkshire more than $15 a second, Buffett said.

But with investigations swirling around Goldman and the economy looking less than robust, regulators aren't exactly racing to allow bankers to run down their capital bases. So every day that Goldman is in regulatory purgatory means more free money for Buffett.

"That's $15 a tick," Buffett said at May's annual meeting. "Tick, tick, tick. I don't want those ticks to go away."

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Colin Barr
Colin Barr
Senior Writer, Fortune

Colin Barr has covered finance for Fortune.com since November 2007. Previously he was a writer and editor for TheStreet.com, winning a 2006 Society of American Business Editors and Writers award for "The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street," and for Dow Jones Newswires. He is a 1991 graduate of Penn State and lives in Port Washington, N.Y., with his wife Meena Bose and their two kids.

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