Can Warren Buffett Save Bank of America?

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Yesterday, Warren Buffett saved America -- again. Or to be precise, he tried to save Bank of America (NYS: BAC) , purchasing a sizeable preferred stake in our eponymous bank and receiving a tidy 6% yield, plus a passel of cheap warrants in exchange.

As you've probably heard by now, the news set off a bit of a buying frenzy at B of A, whose shares were up as much as 25% at one point yesterday. They closed up just 9%, however, which gets this Fool to wondering: Was investors' initial Pavlovian reaction to the opening bell the right one? Can the mere fact that Berkshire Hathaway (NYS: BRK.A) (NYS: BRK.B) has put $5 billion of its shareholders' cash behind B of A really save the bank?

Lessons from history
At least one analyst cast cold water on that hope yesterday. Specifically, the professors at StreetInsider.com opened up their history books and instructed students to examine the lesson of two of Buffett's other big bets on "stop the bleeding" stocks: General Electric (NYS: GE) , and Goldman Sachs (NYS: GS) . Allow me to demonstrate:

Buffett Bought Preferred Shares of:

Priced Initially At...

Bottoming At...

Now Worth...

GE$25.50$5.87$15.65
Goldman$125.05$47.41$111.83

* Initial price is the closing price on the day of Buffett's investment. Bottom price is the lowest intraday price reached subsequently.

In the case of GE and GS, Buffett's investment that "stopped the bleeding" did indeed bring an immediate, and sharp, spike in the price of the shares affected -- but it didn't last long. Within six months of the Oracle's Sept. 30, 2008, investment in GE, for example, GE common shares had lost 77% of their value. Within just two months of his taking a preferred stake in Goldman (on Sept. 23, 2008), that stock bottomed down 62%. Most crucially, neither one of these stocks sells today for anything near what Buffett paid for them nearly three years ago.

Or as SI puts it: "Buffett got a sweet deal for himself" when he rode to the rescue of GE and GS. Unfortunately, "any common shareholder that would have followed him in would have been hurt badly."

Case closed?
Not quite. SI's right on the facts, of course. But the analyst neglects to mention two of Buffett's other Great Recession-era investments -- when the Oracle from Omaha chose to buy not stocks but bonds, from Harley-Davidson (NYS: HOG) and USG (NYS: USG) :

Buffett Bought Bonds From:

Common Stock Sold For...

Bottomed At ...

Now Worth ...

Harley$13.14$7.99$35.25
USG$7.07$4.16$8.35

As with the higher-profile bets on Goldman and GE, shares of both Harley and USG reacted positively to news of Buffett's support. As with Goldman and GE, Buffett's vote of confidence wasn't enough to keep the companies' shares rising in perpetuity. Unlike with investors in Goldman and GE, however, investors in Harley and USG did indeed manage to make a profit from following in Buffett's footprints.

Foolish takeaway
Now, I don't mean to be too hard on StreetInsider. The analyst there is correct to remind us that "monkey see Buffett, monkey do what Buffett's doing" is not a foolproof investing strategy. (Ahem!BYD Co.Cough-cough.)

Fact is, while Warren Buffett is a very smart man, and an ace investor, he's not an actual miracle worker. Sometimes his investments pay off. Sometimes they don't. Only time will tell for sure if Bank of America succeeds or fails -- but with the bank's shares selling for just one-third of book value, and barely five times next year's earnings, I think Buffett has the odds in his favor.

Want to watch how this investment works out?Add Bank of America to your Watchlist.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorRich Smithdoes not own (or short) any company named above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Bank of America.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of USG and Berkshire Hathaway. Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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