Warren Buffett, who controls the biggest shareholding of the No. 1 U.S. mortgage lender, said banks were victimized by some homeowners who refinanced their loans before getting evicted.
"Large numbers of people who have 'lost' their house through foreclosure have actually realized a profit because they carried out refinancings earlier that gave them cash in excess of their cost," Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said Feb. 25 in his annual letter. "In these cases, the evicted homeowner was the winner, and the victim was the lender."
Foreclosures have claimed about 5 million homes since the property market began its slide in 2006. That has saddled lenders like Bank of America Corp. with defaults, vacated properties and lawsuits. Berkshire, whose stake in Wells Fargo & Co., the largest U.S. mortgage lender, is valued at more than $11 billion, invested $5 billion in Bank of America last year.
"It's the mercenary side of Buffett," said Jeff Matthews, a Berkshire shareholder and author of "Secrets in Plain Sight: Business & Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett." "Rationally, it's an interesting observation. But it ignores the huge human-cost side of the equation."
Buffett, who publicly defended Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in 2010 against accusations it misled clients, used the letter to renew his support for banks. The industry is facing criticism from Democrats including President Barack Obama, who in his January State of the Union address said bets by lenders prompted the 2008 credit freeze and "left innocent, hard-working Americans holding the bag."
'Enough with the Lambasting'
Buffett, an ally of Obama's, has won praise from Democratic lawmakers as the billionaire campaigned for higher taxes on the wealthy. Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire owns warrants to purchase $5 billion of stock in New York-based Goldman Sachs.
"Maybe this was kind of a message to his Democratic buddies," said David Rolfe, chief investment officer of Berkshire shareholder Wedgewood Partners Inc. "Buffett is saying, 'We know where the egregious acts were, so enough with the lambasting of the banking system and all these bankers.'"
Blame for the housing bubble and subsequent slump should be shared among lenders and borrowers, as well as the government, bond-rating firms and the media, Buffett has said. In his letter, read by investors around the world, Buffett praised Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Bank of America's Brian T. Moynihan. JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have all repaid U.S. bailout funds.
"The banking industry is back on its feet," Buffett said.
Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charles Munger, 88, have criticized bankers for contributing to the housing bubble. Munger, in July, blamed the real-estate boom on "megalomania, insanity and evil in, I would say, investment banking, mortgage banking." Buffett said in October 2010 that Wall Street helps society through finance, while its bets may do harm, "like a church that's running raffles on the weekend."
Charles Ortel, managing director of Newport Value Partners, said lenders failed to do sufficient underwriting because they counted on selling the mortgages to investors.
"So nobody had any skin in the game, except we the taxpayers, as it turned out," Ortel said. "Banks didn't do the required credit work."
Wells Fargo posted record profit for the fourth quarter as mortgage financing improved, the San Francisco-based company said last month. Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America has gained 42 percent this year in New York through Feb. 24 as it swung to a quarterly profit.
"Wells Fargo is prospering," Buffett said. "At Bank of America, some huge mistakes were made by prior management. Brian Moynihan has made excellent progress in cleaning these up."