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23.10.2008 Business & Finance

A sage that knows his onions The authorised biography of the world's greatest investor, Warren Buffett

By The Statesman

In 1940, a stockbroker from the Midwest took his ten-year-old son on a trip to New York City. They dropped in at the office of Sidney Weinberg, who was trying to restore the reputation of Goldman Sachs, the investment bank that had been disgraced during the great crash of 1929.

Weinberg took the time to chat to the precocious youngster, even asking the name of his favourite stock.

That may have been the most productive half-hour of Weinberg's life. Sixty-eight years later, Goldman Sachs turned to that lad, now one of the richest men in the world, for a capital injection of $5 billion.

The infusion of Warren Buffett"s money, and the backing of his reputation, means that Goldman has so far escaped the fate of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers during the recent credit crunch.

The broad outline of Mr Buffett's story is widely known. Like many shy small boys, he liked collecting, categorising and measuring things.

Money was just another way of keeping score and he steadily built up his boyhood savings through paper rounds and small businesses like recycling pinball machines.

 These savings were the basis of his fortune—the snowball of Alice Schroeder's title growing steadily bigger as Mr Buffett pushed it through life.

A period studying under Ben Graham, the doyen of investment analysis, allowed Mr Buffett to strike out on his own, managing other people's money.

Those residents of his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, who backed the scruffy young man in 1956 have become fabulously rich.

From buying shares, it was but a small step to purchasing whole businesses and one of these, an unpromising textile mill called Berkshire Hathaway, became the basis for his current fortune.

As his wealth grew, so did the legend. He has a reputation for shrewdness. Mr Buffett buys when others are selling and he acquires stakes in businesses that he believes will last—franchises like Coca-Cola and the Washington Post.

As a result, he tends not to sell, letting the snowball gather weight as it rolls downhill. Equally celebrated is his homespun wisdom. Annual reports are normally dull stuff, but Berkshire Hathaway's publishings are collectors' items, thanks to Mr Buffett's pithy prose (polished by Carol Loomis, a renowned Fortune journalist).

 The sage of Omaha, as he has come to be known, has been on the right side of most financial issues, warning against the excesses of the dotcom boom in the late 1990s and describing derivatives as "financial weapons of mass destruction'.

A man renowned for stinginess in his early years has become a great philanthropist. Not only is Mr Buffett giving away the bulk of his fortune, but he is also handing it to the Gates Foundation, reasoning that the Microsoft founder and his wife would do a better job of disbursing it.

As Ms Schroeder remarks, he 'was giving away his money without leaving a trace of himself behind...no Buffett hospital wing, no college or university endowment or building with his name on it'. Indeed, Mr Buffett is remarkably liberal for such a wealthy man.

He favours inheritance tax and gives money to such causes as birth control and anti-nuclear campaigning.

The fascination with Mr Buffett's rise means that bookshelves are already groaning under the weight of books about his life and his investment approach. This latest effort is certainly the heaviest.

Those hoping for detailed analyses of his investment record will be disappointed that the author focuses so much on the state of the Buffett marriage.

This reviewer, for example, wanted answers to several questions that are not addressed. How much of Mr Buffett's success can be put down to his shrewd use of insurance company funds, or a few stock picks in the 1970s?

What is the make-up of his business empire today and how does it differ from the 1980s? Because his insurance companies write policies against catastrophes, how vulnerable is he to the kind of 'black swan' effect described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, such as an earthquake or hurricane that could wipe out his wealth? The reader is left none the wiser.

Mr Buffett deserves careful scrutiny rather than the mostly hagiographic portrayal he has generally received from the press. He has relied heavily for advice and support on his advisers and his family, yet the role of his grumpy business partner, Charlie Munger, the Walter Matthau to Mr Buffett's Jack Lemmon, has been underplayed.

His businesses have survived investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, including one crucial episode that appears only in an epilogue to this book.

The author seems unable to decide whether Mr Buffett is a hands-off executive who lets his managers get on with it (and is thus not responsible when they step over the line) or a man so obsessed with detail that he monitors weekly sales figures from the group's sweet shops.

All in all, though, over a 50-year career the Buffett balance sheet has a lot more entries in the credit than in the debit column. Those who wish to know more may read this book. But Mr Buffett's collected essays and annual reports would be a better place to start. The Economist

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