Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Snowball: Chapters 53, 54, 55 & 56

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.

Buffett had lost a lot of credibility during the technology bubble in the year 2000. Because he didn't have technology stocks, he didn't have the returns; for the first time, he had been outperformed by the market index over a five-year period! One media pundit even suggested that Buffett should apologize to shareholders. He was called a "has been", and attendance at his annual meeting dropped by 40%.

After the bursting of the bubble, people jumped back on the Buffett bandwagon. Crowds to the Berkshire annual meeting came back even stronger than before, as investors sought Buffett's wisdom. As he became more trusted as not just a wise investor but also as a wise person, his opinion was asked on a number of issues that were not related to investing. In response, Buffett did take up a couple of causes where his credibility could bring about actual change.

For example, Buffett fought for higher estate taxes, arguing that wealth passed down over several generations subtracted from the health of society. Buffett was also instrumental in the fight against those who opposed the expensing of stock options. Coke was one of the first large companies to start expensing stock option hand-outs, and eventually they became an accounting requirement.

In the years leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Buffett actually advised his insurance companies to avoid taking on terrorism risk, likely because such business was under-priced. Following the attacks, Berkshire made a lot of money selling insurance against future attacks, as customers were now willing to overpay (from an odds point of view) for protection.

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