Is Buffet beyond criticism?

The Snowball Effect is as close to an autobiography as the stock market maestro's fans will get, says an admiring John McLaren. But some awkward questions go unasked...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If Gordon Brown has had a good war with his wheeze of sticking bucket-loads of our cash into wobbly banks, he could at least admit where he got that big idea from. I have it on the best possible authority that all the talk in the Treasury and at Number 10 was of Warren Buffett’s investment in Goldman Sachs. The Oracle of Omaha had struck again.

There have probably never been so many Buffett groupies, and The Snowball is the nearest they’ll get to his autobiography. Indeed, in some ways it’s better, since Buffett offered Alice Schroeder unlimited access, and, even if he’d been tempted to pick up the pen himself, it’s unlikely that he would have had the time to compile 960 pages.

You get microscopic detail on his background, his mildly improbable ménage, his business deals and philosophy – the lot. Schroeder’s style is attractive, unstuffy. She dodges the accusation of blatant hagiography by throwing in the odd critical remark, but it still reads like the way you might candidly discuss your boss – if you knew he was listening in. But this is a well-executed big book on a subject whose record demands attention.

The title comes from Buffett’s metaphor that if you want to win big, you start with a small snowball, pick a long slope draped in wet snow, and let gravity do the rest. I could really stop there, or follow the line of most other reviews of this book. They go like this…

Humble origins, all-round good egg (but ruthless when he needs to be), obsessive, still lives in small house, driving modest car and consuming nothing fancier than hamburgers and Cherry Coke, makes large fortune, declares presciently that there is no such thing as a paradigm shift and the whole thing is a scam, gets proved right, becomes world’s richest man, then stuns everyone by pledging most of his fortune to the Gates Foundation without requiring the Buffett name to be inscribed above bene­ficiaries’ doors.

It seems the only thing that would beat him is if Nelson Mandela had founded an investment company when in Robben Island and outperformed Fidelity. I’m not sure I disagree, but I idly wondered what a less sympathetic biographer might have written. As Schroeder says, Buffett loves money, but why is it so very saintly to have little use for the stuff? It’s like assembling a fantastic collection of fast cars and never driving them, or being one of those saddo wine buffs who collect Pétrus and Cheval Blanc but drink Tesco Shiraz. Think about it – if you’d bought a two-up, two-down in Rotherham for 50 quid in the ’50s and proceeded to amass a cool $60bn, wouldn’t you feel like moving somewhere a wee bit smarter?

While our more bitchy biographer is at it, he might remind us that Buffett thinks it would be bad for his kids to inherit most of the loot, which – since there are no pockets in a shroud – leaves him with only two ways to dispose of all that money: a) drop it from a helicopter or b) give it to charity.

And laudable as it may be not to crave recognition by attaching your name to the charitable programmes, the cash wasn’t pledged anonymously. In fact, there’s no-one in the business or charity community who doesn’t know about it.

As to his investment philosophy, he almost always targets businesses that are solidly mature, and he gently mocks people who invest in innovation, pointing out that of the thousands of companies that made aircraft and cars, very few survived. Which is fine for Buffet’s wallet, but if all investors were as hard-headed, we’d have no micropro­cessors, mobiles or cancer cures.
Nor is his investment philosophy readily copied. Most investors who adopt similar approaches rarely come close to matching his performance. As The Snowball faithfully relates, Buffett started devouring textbooks on markets when he was about three, so if he makes it all seem easy, it’s like Vladimir Ashkenazy making a Chopin étude sound simple. If you want to play it like that, you need more than raw talent – it takes a willingness to practise for hours on end every day for decades. You won’t match him by flicking through Piano for Dummies, and the same goes for investing.

But, however much the devil’s advocate might reach for that pinch of salt, he can’t deny that Buffett is a genius, and an interesting one. The things from this book that resonate most for me are his admiration for his father’s maverick nature, and the encouragement this gave him to stick to his guns even when his approach was unfashionable; and his insistence that the central purpose of life is to be loved by as many as possible of the kind of people you want to love you. Which, unlike most super-rich people, he has achieved.

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the business of life by Alice Schroeder, is published by Bloomsbury, price £25.00

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