Berkshire’s Munger Says ‘Venal’ Banks May Evade Needed Reform

May 2 2009 (Bloomberg) -- Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Vice Chairman Charles Munger, whose company is the largest private shareholder in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co., said banks will use their “enormous political power” to prevent changes to the industry that would benefit society.

This is an enormously influential group of people, and 90 percent of that influence is being spent to gain powers and practices that the world would be better off without,” Munger, 85, said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “It will be very hard to accomplish the kind of surgery that would be desirable for the wider civilization.

Munger said policy makers should seek to impose limits on banks that are deemed “too big to fail” after financial institutions worldwide suffered more than $1 trillion in losses. The U.S. government and the Federal Reserve have spent, lent or committed $12.8 trillion, an amount that approaches the value of everything produced in the country last year, to stem the recession.

We need to remove from the investment banking and the commercial banking industries a lot of the practices and prerogatives that they have so lovingly possessed,” Munger said. “If they are too big to fail, they are too big to be allowed to be as gamey and venal as they’ve been -- and as stupid as they’ve been.

Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway, run by Munger’s long-time business partner Warren Buffett, nevertheless is a large investor in some of the biggest U.S. banks.

Goldman Sachs

Berkshire paid $5 billion in September for preferred stock and warrants in New York-based Goldman Sachs, which was the world’s most profitable and highest paying securities firm before converting to a bank holding company. Goldman is now the fifth-biggest U.S. bank by assets.

Berkshire’s second-largest holding by market value after Coca-Cola Co. is Wells Fargo, the sixth-biggest U.S. bank. Berkshire also owns stakes in Bank of America Corp., the biggest U.S. bank by assets, as well as U.S. Bancorp, M&T Bank Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc.

Munger said the financial companies spent $500 million on political contributions and lobbying efforts over the last decade. They have a “vested interest” in protecting the system as it exists because of the high levels of pay they were earning, he said. The five biggest U.S. securities firms, only two of which still exist as independent companies, paid their employees about $39 billion in bonuses in 2007.

They would like to get back as closely as possible to business as usual, and they have enormous political power,” he said.