The Oracle of Omaha: Buffett’s Remarkable Leadership During the Salomon Crisis

StandardDAO
Corporate Case Series
6 min readJan 12, 2023

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Warren Buffett, known as the “Oracle of Omaha” for his unparalleled investment acumen, has had a storied career in the world of finance. But one of his most notable and significant ventures came in the form of his involvement with Salomon Brothers. The story of Buffett’s involvement with Salomon Brothers is a tale of crisis, leadership, and ultimately, redemption. The events that transpired in 1990 would put Buffett’s mettle as a businessman to the test, and ultimately solidify his reputation as one of the most capable leaders in the world of finance.

In 1987, Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, acquired a 12% stake in the investment banking firm of Salomon Brothers. The firm was a Wall Street powerhouse, known for its bond trading and underwriting. However, in 1990, the firm was hit with a scandal involving a rogue trader, Paul Mozer, who had submitted bids in excess of Treasury rules and CEO John Gutfreund had failed to take disciplinary action. The U.S. government threatened to hold Salomon accountable and shut them down, which would have been a devastating blow to the financial system.

Faced with the potential downfall of the company, Buffett stepped in to take control. He directly intervened with the Treasury department, using his reputation and influence to reverse a ban on Salomon bidding in government bond auctions. Such a ban would have crippled the investment bank. He took on the role of CEO, to steady the ship and guide the company through the crisis, despite not having any experience in investment banking.

The weight of the responsibility he took on was immense, and the tension is palpable as we see the emotion on Buffett’s face, the sleepless nights and the countless hours spent trying to save the company. Despite the fine of $290 million levied on Salomon, Buffett’s leadership and intervention ultimately paid off. In 1997, Salomon was bought by Travelers Group, and Berkshire Hathaway’s stake in the company more than doubled.

This episode in Buffett’s career not only showcases his ability to turn a crisis into an opportunity, but also his willingness to take bold actions and make difficult decisions in order to save a struggling company. This is a prime example of his leadership and business acumen that has cemented his status as one of the most successful investors and business leaders of our time.

Leaders are born

The leadership traits that were present in Warren Buffett during the Salomon Brothers crisis were numerous, but perhaps the most striking was his ability to remain calm and composed in the face of extreme adversity. Despite the immense pressure and responsibility he took on, he was able to maintain a clear and level-headed approach to the situation. This allowed him to make critical decisions that ultimately saved the company.

Another important trait was his willingness to take bold actions. He intervened directly with the Treasury department, using his reputation and influence to reverse a ban on Salomon bidding in government bond auctions, which was a bold and decisive move that was crucial in saving the company. He also took on the role of CEO, despite having no experience in investment banking, this showed his willingness to step up and take charge in a time of crisis.

Buffett’s integrity and transparency were also key traits that were evident throughout the crisis. He took responsibility for the actions of the company and did everything in his power to make things right. He was open and honest with the traders, executives and the government, this helped to rebuild the trust and confidence in the company.

It is also important to note that during this crisis, Buffett was under intense pressure from all sides. He was facing pressure from the government, the traders, the executives, and the shareholders to save the company. In addition to this, he was also under intense personal pressure, as his reputation and the reputation of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, were on the line. The weight of the responsibility he took on was immense, and it is clear that he must have experienced a great deal of tension and stress during this period.

The tension was even more pronounced as the crisis was unfolding in a public manner, with the media closely monitoring the situation and reporting on every development. This added an extra layer of pressure on Buffett as he had to consider how his actions and decisions were going to be perceived by the public and the media.

Despite all of these pressures, Buffett was able to maintain his composure and make the necessary decisions to save the company. This is a testament to his leadership abilities and his ability to navigate through difficult situations. This crisis also served as a learning experience for him, strengthening his leadership and decision-making skills, which he would go on to use in other successful ventures in the future.

Drawing Parallels

The situation with Salomon Brothers in 1990 paralleled the financial crash of 2008 in several ways. Both crises were caused by a lack of oversight and regulation in the financial industry, and both resulted in significant damage to the financial system. However, there are also several key differences between the two crises.

In terms of size and scope, the financial crash of 2008 was much larger and more far-reaching than the crisis at Salomon Brothers. Rather than an isolated incident, the crash of 2008 was a global financial crisis that affected nearly every aspect of the financial system, from banks and investment firms to insurance companies and even the housing market. It led to the collapse of some of the largest and most well-known financial institutions in the world, such as Lehman Brothers, and resulted in trillions of dollars in losses.

There were also some key differences in how the two events were handled. During the financial crash of 2008, much of the focus was on bailouts, as governments around the world rushed to prop up struggling banks and investment firms with massive injections of capital. The U.S. government was the main contributor with a massive package that included the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) which infused tax payer capital into the major banks to protect the economy from a severe recession.

The crisis at Salomon Brothers was addressed in a much different way. Rather than government intervention, it was primarily Warren Buffett’s leadership and intervention that saved the company. He intervened directly with the Treasury department, using his reputation and influence to reverse a ban on Salomon bidding in government bond auctions. He also temporarily took on the role of CEO to steady the ship and guide the company through the crisis.

This comparison tells us that crisis can be handled differently, and that the severity of the crisis, the size and scope of the damage, and the actions of the government and other key players all play a role. It also serves as a reminder that the financial industry is always at risk of crises, and that it’s important to have proper regulations and oversight in place to minimize the damage caused by such crises.

As we look back at the events of 1990, it is hard not to question whether the crisis at Salomon Brothers could have been prevented. It is clear that better oversight and regulation could have prevented the actions of the rogue trader, and that a more proactive approach by the CEO could have mitigated the damage caused by the scandal. However, it is also important to remember that in times of crisis, it is the actions of leaders like Warren Buffett that can make all the difference. His willingness to step up and take charge, and holding true to values of integrity and transparency, ultimately saved the company and ensured its continued success.

The story of Warren Buffett and Salomon Brothers is a testament to the importance of strong leadership and integrity in the face of adversity. It also serves as a reminder that even the most successful companies and individuals can face challenges and obstacles, but it is how they handle those challenges that truly defines them. As the world continues to face economic turmoil in 2021, the values and actions of leaders like Buffett are more important than ever.

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