Why Warren Buffett Isn't a Hypocrite

By Alex Crippen
|  Thursday, Feb 19, 2009  |  Updated 4:15 PM EDT
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Warren Buffett is getting some heat from CNBC's Jim Cramer for Berkshire Hathaway's sales of big chunks of stock last fall, including billions of dollars worth of Johnson & Johnson.

On a CNBC Special Report Tuesday, Cramer advised investors not to follow Buffett's lead this time around.

Then Cramer wrote on his site, TheStreet.com, that Buffett was "selling America" even as he was writing an op-ed piece titled Buy American. I Am. for the New York Times.

Last night, on his Mad Money program, Cramer revisited Buffett as he listed what he sees as the 10 biggest myths and misperceptions in the market today.

Cramer is not only accusing Buffett of making bad decisions, he's implying that Buffett has been hypocritically ignoring his own public call in the Times to buy U.S. stocks, misleading all those investors who 'copy' Berkshire's buys and sells.

But there is another way of looking at it.

Buffett was clear in his Times piece that he was buying U.S. stocks for his personal account.  For himself, and for many investors, he saw cheap equities as the best way to put cash to work.

But Berkshire has other opportunities to make money that simply aren't available to everyone else.   Most notably it can become a lender of last resort to solid companies going through a difficult time, and it can collect a very hefty interest rate for those loans.

Last fall, Buffett wasn't "buying American" for Berkshire, but he was "loaning American."  A total of eight billion dollars went to General Electric and Goldman Sachs.  Those loans pay 10 percent a year, guaranteed.  The major risk is a collapse of these enormous icons of American business, a risk small enough for Buffett to accept.

And those billions of dollars of loans may very well have come from stock sales.  After all, Buffett always wants to have a base level of cash on hand and resists borrowing money to finance investments.

Even if Buffett thought Johnson & Johnson would ultimately generate a solid return, it seems unlikely to expect that return would be 10 percent a year.

Buffett is not just looking for good investments for Berkshire, he's looking for the best investments he can find, that carry as little risk as possible.

Loaning billions to GE and Goldman at 10 percent over a few years could easily be a better use of that money than letting it ride in the stock market.  (It does imply that he saw the stocks he sold as less likely to move higher than other equities in the portfolio.)

Buffett does not encourage anyone to replicate his Berkshire investments.  He wasn't necessarily trying to send a "sell" signal on J&J and P&G, or U.S. stocks in general.

He was probably raising money to take advantage of GE and Goldman's need for quick cash, an opportunity unique to Berkshire Hathaway.

Current stock prices:

Berkshire Class A: (NYSE: US;BRK.A)

Berkshire Class B: (NYSE: US;BRK.B)

Johnson & Johnson: (NYSE: JNJ)

Procter & Gamble:(NYSE: PG)

General Electric:(NYSE: GE)

Goldman Sachs:(NYSE: GS)

For more Buffett Watch updates follow alexcrippen on Twitter.

Questions?  Comments?  Email me at buffettwatch@cnbc.com

For more stories from CNBC, go to cnbc.com.

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