OFF THE GRID

Can Warren Buffett (and Andrew Ross Sorkin) Save Goldman Sachs?

May 5, 10 | 7:45 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Business reporters love successful people. One reason more scrutiny was not brought to bear on financial institutions during the boom years by more reporters is that financial institutions are (or were) run by successful people.

You can’t argue with success.

Of course there are fewer successful people today. Even people who still have a lot of money, like partners at Goldman Sachs, now find themselves in an equivocal position. They have diminished reputations, which means they have diminished power, which could mean they will have diminished fortunes (although that hasn’t happened yet).

Andrew Ross Sorkin, the New York Times business reporter, may be even more in love with successful people than most of his colleagues. This is because he is charming and young and successful people love him back.

Sorkin went out the other day to Omaha to attend the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway at the invitation of its CEO, Warren Buffett, the most successful man in America. Sorkin was actually there as part of a three-person panel of journalists to question Buffett. That is, Buffett loves Sorkin, and Sorkin was there expressly to love Buffett in return.

Sorkin then wrote about the meeting in the Times using the most successful man in America’s defense of Goldman Sachs as a way to help rehabilitate the firm. This is, on Buffett’s part (and, no doubt, on the part of Goldman’s PR strategists), a precise and canny use of the New York Times, possibly the most significant outlet for making, preserving, and protecting the reputations of successful people. It is also canny on Sorkin’s part to have placed himself smack in the middle of the matrix for success. (The most canny business reporters are not only smitten by the success of successful men, but are always figuring out a way to get some of it for themselves.)


(AP Photo)

Sorkin does point out that Buffett, with a $5 billion investment in Goldman, has a mother of a conflict of interest (as does Sorkin himself, in writing this article, having been Buffett’s guest). But Sorkin’s sleight of hand is to say, “Cynics might regard Mr. Buffett’s statements as predictably self-serving.” In other words, if you do regard it this way, you’re demoted—you’re a cynic rather than a successful person. But his larger point is clear: Regardless of Buffett’s conflict, because he is the most successful man in America his logic is of a much higher order than less successful people (like the SEC or prosecutors), or even Sorkin himself, who, like other business reporters, has been distancing himself from Goldman Sachs.

Buffett’s argument is that Goldman shouldn’t be liable for not disclosing what might be pertinent information about a security it was marketing because investors should be able to judge for themselves the intrinsic value of the security (ie, that’s investing). In other words, sophisticated investors shouldn’t need (and don’t deserve) efforts to regulate and bring transparency to the market. Which, if you think about it, would make a good part of the SEC’s job meaningless. If it’s fishy, you should be able to smell it, is in essence Buffett’s principle, which, following Buffett’s logic, ought to have saved the financial system from caving, except it didn’t.

Anyway, my friend Andrew Sorkin, too young and successful to be much of a cynic (or to value cynicism), got to Omaha and found himself in the presence of success too large to question. To be so starstruck happens, at one time or another, to all of us. But I would have thought we’d come finally to understand that as a business model, being starstruck—loving success for itself—is broken.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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