Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Snowball: Chapters 37, 38, 39 & 40

Warren Buffett chose Alice Schroeder to be his biographer, granting her access to his personal life like no outsider has ever been granted. In The Snowball, she is rather frank and is not always complimentary of the investing legend, which has apparently led to a rift between the two. Here follows a summary of the book.

In the early 1970's the market began to fall, and by a substantial amount. In 1973, Buffett and his friends saw their portfolios fall by significant margins. Munger's portfolio had halved, and Buffett's was down a third.

Of course, Buffett took advantage of the situation by buying even more stocks, and there were many bargains to be had. Buffett was able to buy many newspapers including a stake in the Washington Post. Shares in Berkshire had also fallen, causing some of Buffett's former partners to sell their shares. Buffett took advantage of the opportunity and snapped the shares up himself. It wasn't that the textile business at Berkshire was any good; Buffett was making a bet that he would be able to to deliver returns by buying other businesses through Berkshire.

At the same time as their portfolios were taking a hit, Buffett and Munger were also dealing with lawsuits from one of their businesses, and an SEC investigation into their operations. The SEC felt that Buffett and Munger's actions on a bank deal were illegal. (Buffett and Munger had convinced a bank's controlling shareholders to rebuff an offer and to instead sell to them.) The SEC also felt that the complicated ownership structure (which had Buffett, his family, and some of his friends and their families own shares of several companies, many of which had cross-holdings of the other companies!) was meant to hide and mislead. Eventually, the SEC relented, mainly on the favourable (towards Buffett) opinion of a lawyer whom the SEC investigator respected.

Shortly thereafter, GEICO shares drop from the 40's to $2 per share, as the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Buffett had recognized that the previous management was poor, and set out to meet the new manager assigned with the task of bringing the company back to life. Buffett meets with John Byrne for two hours, asking him his plan for saving the company and for growing it thereafter. Buffett likes what he hears; he goes on to once again buy shares of this company he had followed ever since he bought and sold its shares decades ago. The author describes the business decisions Byrne undertook in order to right the ship, making Buffett a ton of money in the process.

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