How Warren Buffett's Cellphone Killed Lehman Brothers

On Monday, Sept. 15, 2008, the world woke up to a radically reconfigured Wall Street. Giant investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Bank of America swallowed the humongous toxic asset spill that was Merrill Lynch. The stock market plummeted 500 points. But what if the story didn't have to go that way? What if Lehman Brothers could have been saved by Warren Buffett ... if only he knew how to use his cellphone? This is a pretty extraordinary story, from TIME's Karen Tumulty:

Buffett was hearing from a lot of people on that crazy weekend exactly a year ago, when the financial world was falling apart. AIG, desperate to come up with $18 billion, begged him for help. "Don't waste your time on me," he told them. "I'm not going to be able to do anything for you." And around 6 p.m. on that Saturday night, as Buffett was rushing out to a social engagement in Edmonton, Alberta, he got a call from Bob Diamond, the head of Barclays Capital. Diamond was trying to buy Lehman Brothers and rescue it from oblivion, but he was having trouble with British authorities. So he had come up with another plan, one in which Buffett would provide insurance that might make it all work. It was all too complicated for Buffett to take in in a quick phone call, so he asked Diamond to fax him the details. Buffett got back to his hotel room around midnight and was surprised to find ... nothing. Lehman went under, and within days, the world was in a full-blown financial crisis.

Fast forward 10 months. Buffett, who admits he never has really learned the basics of his cell phone, asked his daughter Susan about a little indicator he had noticed on the screen: "Can you figure out what's on there?" It turned out to be the message from Diamond that he had been waiting for that night.


Of course, the Times' Joe Nocera would argue that Buffett's Luddite ineptitude paid off with dividends for the country. He argued in this article that Lehman's falling was good, because it gave Congress the swift kick to the tuchus it needed to pass the crucial $700 billion Treasury plan to buy bad assets from troubled banks. I'm not saying he's right -- in fact here I said he's probably not -- but when dealing with counter-factuals it's easy to assume the alternative world's course of events proceeded predictably smoothly. Lehman or no Lehman, this crisis would still have been a financial calamity.