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Behind Buffett's Bond Gambit

The Berkshire Hathaway chief's offer to reinsure $800 billion in munis may signal a move to dominate the bond insurance biz

The role of the white knight who swoops in to rescue a business in distress is one that Warren Buffett plays well, and he's profited nicely from it in the past. Remember his bailout of Salomon Brothers in the early 1990s? But the financial guaranty outfits whose municipal-bond liabilities the billionaire investor offered to take over last week may not wish to take part in Buffett's latest performance.

In an interview on CNBC Business News on Feb. 12, Buffett said that in the prior week his company Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) had offered to reinsure about $800 billion worth of tax-exempt municipal bonds insured by three leading financial guaranty firms, which would allow them to preserve their coveted triple-A ratings. He would also put $5 billion of capital into his new bond insurance company, Berkshire Hathaway Assurance, to provide it with the wherewithal to cover the assumed liabilities.