Warren Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, probably the most respected man in American finance, has ridden up on the great white steed of Berkshire Hathaway to rescue the crippled former investment bank Goldman Sachs. But has he also saved the US financial system as we knew it?

US stockmarkets thought so. After a 1.5% plus fall, futures trading after hours saw the markets jumped 1% on the Buffett news, but the surge faded in Asian trading.

That was after Tuesday’s fall, on top of Monday’s plunge, produced the steepest two day fall in the sharemarket since 2002, outdoing the rough days of last week.

The Buffet intervention isn’t a silver bullet, mind you, just a cheque for $US5 billion of much needed capital for the fallen hero, Goldman Sachs, plus options to cough up another $US5 billion in the next five years.

The boost allowed Goldman Sachs to raise a further $US2.5 billion in fresh capital from the market. You can bet your sidesaddle that had Buffett not been involved, Goldman Sachs would not have gotten a cent from other investors.

It was the most dramatic move by Buffett in recent times. Last week one of his companies bailed out struggling energy company Constellation at one third the cost, and pumped in an immediate $US1 billion to stabilise that group.

But that had been Buffett’s only deal related to the credit crunch: he had helped finance two major deals by Mars Inc and Dow, but had passed on all the dogs and sods so far, from Bear Stearns, to AIG (significant because if there’s one thing Buffett really understands, it’s insurance) and Lehman Brothers.

Two days after the Fed rushed through approval for Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to become full regulated banks (and easing restrictions on ownership of said banks by private equity and other investors), Morgan Stanley sells 20% of itself to Mitsubishi of Japan for $US8.4 billion and Goldman Sachs gets $US5 billion and the promise of more from the biggest name in US finance.

Amazing coincidence? Hardly. A cleverly orchestrated bailout of both banks by the Fed.

Mitsubishi’s move into Morgan Stanley hardly galvanised the US markets, which fell Monday when it was confirmed. Buffett’s move into Goldman came after the close of trading. Goldman’s shares rose 3.5% in regular trading, and another 7% in after hours dealings. The price for the extra option for Buffett is $US115 per Goldman’s share, its already in the money with the shares closing the day at $US133.80.

The decision to seek new capital is a reversal for Goldman, which less than a year ago was posting record profits and paying record bonuses. CEO Lloyd Blankfein (who succeeded Hank Paulson, the present US Treasury Secretary) and his two top deputies reaped payouts totaling more than $US67 million apiece in 2007. I wonder if that largesse will be allowed to continue now that Goldman has a new best friend and is a more sedate commercial bank?

Goldman so far has booked $US4.9 billion of losses on devalued assets, a fraction of the write-downs taken by rivals such as Citigroup, UBS, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. That totals in excess of $US130 billion.

Buffet’s move came after a noisy day also in Washington as the $US700 billion bailout fund idea was battered around the US Senate’s banking and Finance Committee.

In a small burst of realism Fed chairman Ben Bernanke outlined what would happen if the bailout deal wasn’t approved.

Giving evidence to the Senate committee, Mr Bernanke warned that markets were “under extraordinary stress” and “action by Congress is urgently required to stabilise the situation … The financial markets are in quite fragile condition, and I think absent a plan they will get worse.”

Ominously, he added: “I believe if the credit markets are not functioning, that jobs will be lost, that our credit rate will rise, more houses will be foreclosed upon, GDP will contract, that the economy will just not be able to recover in a normal, healthy way.”

That’s probably the most honest appraisal of the US economic outlook and the damage being done by the crunch that we have heard from the conservative central banker so far.

Mr Paulson added that the plan would “avoid a series of financial institution failures and frozen credit markets that threaten American families’ financial well-being, the viability of businesses both small and large and the very health of our economy”.

What worried the markets though was this comment by Senator Chris Dodd, Banking Committee chairman, who said “What they have sent us is not acceptable.”

Peter Fray

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