Paulson is No Warren Buffett

News accounts of the Treasury Department’s meeting with major bank executives have suggested that Henry Paulson had to pressure the financiers to go along with his plan to have the federal government purchase substantial holdings in their institutions. But for someone who was supposedly throwing his weight around, Paulson did not exactly drive a hard bargain.

On some key points, Paulson’s deal with the banks looks much worse than the terms Warren Buffett was able to extract from General Electric and Goldman Sachs when he provided them with comparable capital infusions. Paulson (left in photo) is requiring the banks to pay a dividend of only 5 percent to the feds. Buffett (right), by contrast, will receive a 10 percent dividend both on his $3 billion investment in GE and his $5 billion investment in Goldman.

In addition, the Treasury’s preferred shares are callable after three years with no premium. Buffett’s shares in GE are callable after three years with a 10 percent premium. At Goldman the shares are callable at any time with the same premium applied.

It is true that Buffett is not imposing the same limits on executive compensation Treasury is applying, but given that Paulson is representing the power of the federal government at a time when there is intense public anger at the big banks, he could have forced them to make a lot more concessions, beginning with an insistence on voting rights for the shares (even though this is not typical for preferred stock).

Paulson seems to want to have it both ways. He is carrying out an extraordinary intervention into the private sector, but aside from placating public sentiment about overpaid executives, he is not demanding that these institutions change their core practices in a way that might benefit their victims (subprime mortgage holders et al.) and reduce the chances of future financial crisis.

The banks are not innocent parties in this crisis. They need not be treated with such deference.

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