There goes my hero,
Watch him as he goes.
There goes my hero,
I have been a fan of Warren Buffett for a very long time. In fact, I consider him one of my most important mentors. However, I have become a bit less enchanted by the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ recently.
After reading Alice Schroeder’s biography, “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life,” I thought it was a fearless, well-written review of both Buffett’s accomplishments and his failures (which are more numerous and significant than most accounts would have you believe – he IS human). I finished it with a better understanding of Buffett the man and somewhat disabused of my idea of Buffett the myth. In response to what I believe was an even-handed chronicle of his life, Warren lashed out at Schroeder and has punished her for not lionizing him as most journalists have done over the years. I doubt that Buffett’s mentor, Dale Carnegie, would approve.
More recently, I was surprised to hear him stand behind Goldman Sachs at Berkshire Hathaway’s recent shareholder meeting after railing against Wall Street ethics (or lack thereof) for decades. In addition, after famously calling derivatives “weapons of mass financial destruction” and vilifying their use on Wall Street Warren has been increasing Berkshire Hathaway’s activities in the area and even gone so far as to lobby Washington to curtail their pursuit of regulating them. To make matters worse, these two, clear hypocrisies seem to be inspired by a simple profit motive. Berkshire’s investment in Goldman Sachs and its large derivatives positions are obviously blinding Buffett to the uncompromising values he expounded for so long.
As a fan of his, I have always wanted to make the trip to Omaha to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. But I have to agree with Schroeder, who writes in a piece today for Bloomberg that, “the thrill is gone.”
[At the last shareholder meeting Buffett] touted one quarter’s earnings of NetJets as if they were meaningful, defended Berkshire’s lobbying in Washington, justified the firm’s use of “financial weapons of mass destruction” (derivatives), trashed the actions of the CEO of Kraft Foods Inc. while defending those of the CEO of Goldman Sachs, and talked of a future of higher inflation rates and lingering unemployment on the heels of a year of cheerleading investors to buy U.S. stocks at high valuations.
You can get this kind of corporate gobbledygook on company conference calls every quarter. So the main reason to go now is the circus. In an unprecedented and death-defying move, Buffett has already scheduled both the 2011 and the 2012 meetings. Assuming the pattern continues, these will be bigger than ever, but no better. And if the shareholder meeting has become a bubble, then the question is, how long before it pops?
I have to think that there are other shareholders and Buffettites out there that feel the same as Schroeder and me. People gravitated towards Warren because he was a different breed of Wall Street tycoon; both Warren and his company held themselves to a higher standard of discipline, ethics and excellence. Berkshire and Buffett, however, have started to look a lot more like your average company and CEO than the paragon of capitalism that they were.
I, for one, hope the bubble doesn’t pop – that I can one day attend the ‘Woodstock for Capitalists’ and feel the thrill of seeing Warren in all his glory of preaching intelligent investing and on his high horse of righteous repudiation of Wall Street abuses. That is the Warren Buffett the world loves and desperately needs, especially during times like these.