The D & O Diary
Book Review: "Tap Dancing to Work" -- The Latest Buffett Bio
In her authorized 2009 biography of American business icon Warren Buffett, The Snowball, Alice Schroeder admirably captured how Buffett’s long and successful business career resulted in the accumulation of not only vast wealth, but also of an impressively large and loyal network of close friends. Among Buffett’s buddies is Fortune Magazine’s editor-at- large, Carol Loomis. Loomis not only befriended Buffett and his wife, along the way becoming a Berkshire shareholder and an occasional Buffett bridge partner, but also for the last 35 years she has served as the pro bono editor of Buffett’s widely-read and admired annual letter to Berkshire shareholders.
Owing to her unique access to Buffett, Loomis has written a number of perceptive and even revelatory Fortune articles about Buffett. She also provided editorial direction to Fortune colleagues on numerous other articles about Buffett that appeared in the magazine. Many of these articles from the Fortune archives have been collected in a new book, entitled Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012. The title is a reference to Buffett’s frequent statement that he enjoys his work so much that he “tap dances to work ” As befits a book with such an upbeat title, the book is a rousing celebration of Buffett’s life and business success. (A disclosure statement seems appropriate at this point: I own BRK.B shares, although not merely as many as I wish I did.)
If Schroeder’s book represented a personal biography of Buffett, Loomis’s book is more of a business biography. The Fortune articles about Buffett are arranged essentially in chronological order, as a result of which the book charts the long arc of Buffett’s business life. Buffett himself recently said that “when you look at Berkshire, you are looking across corporate America.” Reading this book is in many ways a guided tour not only through Buffett’s career and business success, but also through the ebbs and flows of the American business scene over the last four decades.
There is much to commend and admire about this book. Among other things, the book includes several excellent examples of masterful magazine writing. Loomis’s own April 1988 article entitled “The Inside Story of Warren Buffett” (a version of which can be found here) may be the single best short description available of Buffett and his business philosophy. (Indeed, if you read Loomis’s article, you arguably could dispense with the need the now growing collection of book-length Buffett biographies.)
Loomis’s October 1997 article entitled “The Wisdom of Salomon?” (a version of which can be found here), about Buffett’s fraught 1991 involvement in the near-collapse of the Salomon Brothers investment banking firm, is a gripping account of perhaps the greatest crisis in Buffett’s long career.
There are also a number of minor gems in this book, including a charming 1978 article about how a still–relatively unknown Buffett helped produce an enormous investment profit for the endowment of tiny Grinnell College (on whose Board of Trustees Buffett served at the time) through a clever and well-timed acquisition of a Dayton, Ohio television station. (The book also reveals that the Grinnell trustees included, during the time that Buffett served on the board, one of the founders of Intel and some guy named Steve Jobs. I have no idea how Grinnell managed to recruit so many corporate titans to its board. I do know that the current value of the college’s endowment is approximately $1.5 billion -- or more than $800,000 for each of the school’s 1,700 students.)
The book also reprints a 1995 book review written by Bill Gates about yet another Buffett biography. Gates’s book review contains an amusing retelling of the occasion in 1991 when Gates and Buffett first met, as well as a touching account of the friendship of the two men. (In an introduction to the Gates piece, Loomis reports that Gates had not wanted to come to the event at which he met Buffett, but was only persuaded to attend after he learned that Washington Post CEO Katherine Graham was going to be there as well. Loomis also reports that while Buffett arrived at the event in the back seat of Post Managing Editor Meg Greenfield’s “ancient and cramped” Subaru, “Bill and his girlfriend (soon to be wife) Melinda French, arrived more grandly, in a helicopter.”)
Another very interesting feature of this book is how its chronological structure highlights the way earlier events can foreshadow later developments (even though not apparent at the time). For example, Loomis’s riveting account of the Salomon fiasco provides an almost painful premonition of the Lehman collapse 17 years later. And you can’t read the excerpt in the book of Buffett’s 2002 letter to Berkshire shareholders characterizing derivatives as “weapons of financial mass destruction” without thinking about what happened at AIG just six years later. Indeed, if one were to write a work of fiction with so much heavy-handed foreshadowing, most readers would immediately reject it as hopelessly contrived.
While this book is both enlightening and enjoyable to read, it has its shortcomings. Among other things, even though there were slight mentions of Buffett in the magazine at earlier times (including one April 1966 item that managed to misspell Buffett’s last name), Fortune didn’t write about Buffett as Buffett until the late 70s, and didn’t get around to writing a feature article about him until the early 80s. By that time, Buffett was already in his 50s and by any measure already a phenomenally successful investor and businessman. Simply put, other than Loomis’s one article mentioned above, this book lacks a detailed examination of how Buffett got started and how he developed the iron-clad business principles that have guided him ever since.
There is another shortcoming with this book’s approach, one that is perhaps an inevitable result of the fact that the book is an anthology of magazine articles written over many decades. Its coverage of Buffett, as thorough as it was, has been episodic and intermittent. Loomis makes up for this somewhat with a running commentary interspersed throughout the book, but inevitably there are gaps. Some of the gaps are huge.
For example, there is nothing in the book about Berkshire’s investment in BNSF, by far the largest investment of Buffett’s entire investing career, one that was so large it cost the company its triple-A rating. There is nothing in the book about what I think is one of the most interesting phases of Buffett’s investing career, that is, his opportunistic investment of $15.6 billion in the 25 days of panic that followed the Lehman bankruptcy. There is nothing in the book about the series of unprecedented moves Buffett has made in recent years, including, for example, Berkshire’s $10 billion investment in IBM (following years of repeated statements that Buffett would never invest in technology because he doesn’t understand it) or Berkshire’s 2010 move to buyback its own shares.
And in an omission that is common among all of the various Buffett biographies, there is little in the book about the criminal prosecution of the top officers of what was at the time the largest Berkshire subsidiary, General Re, owing to a complex, appearances-only transaction between Gen Re and AIG, of which Buffett may well have been aware at the time and with which Buffett may even have been involved. We don’t know much about whether or not Buffett was involved or not, as to this date no one, especially not Buffett, has provided a comprehensive written account of the events from Buffett’s perspective. (More disclosure: During the relevant period, I worked at a subsidiary of Gen Re.)
In addition, one of the great strengths of the magazine’s coverage of Buffett – that is, Loomis’s privileged access to Buffett -- may also be another of the book’s shortcomings. By her own admission, Loomis is not objective about Buffett. Her biases are well-disclosed – she describes herself as Buffett’s “close friend.” Over the years, Loomis controlled much of the magazine’s content about Buffett, either by writing it herself or by managing the editorial process of others’ articles. The result is that some of the magazine’s Buffett coverage, especially when read in quick succession as this book’s format requires, starts to feel like hagiography.
In short, while I think this new book is great and I have no trouble recommending it, in my view, the quintessential Buffett business biography still has yet to be written. I will say that for anyone interested in getting a handle on Buffett’s investing philosophy and business approach, as well as on the early days of his business career, the best bet may be Roger Lowenstein’s 1995 bio entitled Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist. Indeed, the Bill Gates book review I mentioned above was written about Lowenstein’s book, of which Gates said “until Warren writes his own book, this is the one to read.”
I have managed to get this far in my review of Loomis’s book about Buffett without mentioning what is by far its best part – that is, the numerous pieces written by Buffett himself that are interspersed throughout the book. One of the most interesting items is an article Buffett wrote for the magazine in May 1977 entitled “How Inflation Swindles the Equity Investor” (a version of which appears here). I had not previously read this article, but it may be the single best piece I have ever read encapsulating Buffett’s conception of equity investing. It also reflects a detailed and edifying analysis of the dangers economic inflation poses, a theme to which Buffett has returned time and again over the years (including his provocative essay in his 2011 letter to Berkshire shareholders about investing in gold).
The fact that the best parts of this book are the ones that Buffett himself wrote suggests that the optimal approach to trying to understand Buffett may be to just cut to the chase and read Buffett’s own personal anthology, in the form of his annual letters to Berkshire shareholders. Thirty-five years’ worth of the letters is freely available on Berkshire’s website, here. My own analysis of the most recent years’ letters, along with my other writings about Buffett, can be found here.
Some readers may well find it a daunting task to try to work through hundreds of pages of the shareholder letters. Here’s a secret: there is a shortcut. George Washington Law School Professor Lawrence Cunningham has compiled an indexed, thematically arranged anthology of Buffett’s writings in a splendid book entitled The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, the most recent edition of which can be found here. As I noted in my review of an earlier edition of Cunningham’s book, here, “Cunningham has done a masterful job distilling Buffett’s writings and organizing them according to topic. This arrangement not only facilitates a quick reference to Buffett’s comments on any given topic, but it also provides insight into how Buffett’s views on the topic may have evolved over time.”
For readers who may be interested, my review of Alice Schroeder’s Buffett biography can be found here.
The Wit and Wisdom of the Sage of Omaha: One of the great pleasures of reading (or just reading about) Buffet’s various essays is his gift for the homey aphorism, often told with great humor. Loomis’s book captures a few of the good ones, including Buffett’s own summary of his experiences running (and saving) Salomon: “I felt like the drama critic who wrote, ‘I would have enjoyed the play except that I had an unfortunate seat. It faced the stage.’”
Loomis also recounts some career advice Buffett gave to an audience of University of Washington business school students: “I’d advise you when you go out to work , work for an organization of people you admire, because it will turn you on. I always worry about people who say, ‘I’m going to do this for ten years. I really don’t like it very well. And then I’ll do this…’ That’s a little like saving up sex for your old age. Not a very good idea.”
Some of my favorite Buffet anecdotes appear in his letters to Berkshire shareholders. In his 1986 letter, he wrote about the tailor who went to see the Pope, whose friends asked him what the Pope is like. Buffett writes that “our hero wasted no words: ‘He’s a forty-four medium.’” Another favorite is the story about the man who asked his vet what to do for his horse that limped sometimes but seemed fine at other times. Buffett states that “the vet’s reply was pointed: ‘No problem – when he’s walking fine, sell him.’”
My own personal favorite, from the 1985 letter, is one that I have quoted previously on this blog, but I like it so much, I am reproducing it again here:
An oil prospector, moving to his heavenly reward, was met by St. Peter with bad news. “You’re qualified for residence”, said St. Peter, “but, as you can see, the compound reserved for oil men is packed. There’s no way to squeeze you in.” After thinking a moment, the prospector asked if he might say just four words to the present occupants. That seemed harmless to St. Peter, so the prospector cupped his hands and yelled, “Oil discovered in hell.” Immediately the gate to the compound opened and all of the oil men marched out to head for the nether regions. Impressed, St. Peter invited the prospector to move in and make himself comfortable. The prospector paused. “No,” he said, “I think I’ll go along with the rest of the boys. There might be some truth to that rumor after all.”
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