Buffett is rare beacon of common sense in the US
83-year-old is full of philanthropic good advice and investing wisdom
Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, speaking at Georgetown University in Washington DC last Thursday. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
When you’re trapped in a city with House Republican gargoyles who don’t understand maths or history, much less reality, sometimes you crave a dose of grandfatherly wisdom.
Speaker John Boehner, trapped under the thumb of Tea Party anarchists, called last Friday’s vote to defund Obamacare and invite a government shutdown “a victory for common sense”.
More like a triumph of nonsense.
The victory for common sense last week was not in Congress, but at Georgetown University. Speaking to an excited crowd of students and others last Thursday night beneath soaring stained-glass windows, the 83-year-old Warren Buffett offered inspiring lessons in patriotism and compassion – traits sorely missing here as Republicans ran headlong toward a global economic cataclysm and gutted the food stamp programme.
“I am sorry I’m late,” Nancy Pelosi murmured sardonically, as she arrived at the Buffett event. “We were busy taking food out of the mouths of babies.”
Questioned by Brian Moynihan, the chief executive of Bank of America, and later students, Buffett seemed happy to be back in one of his hometowns, where, as the son of an investor from Omaha who became a congressman, he had once worked as a waterboy for the Redskins and a paperboy for Georgetown Hospital.
His taste for making money was whetted when his customers at the hospital would give him bet suggestions for the numbers racket, big in Washington in those days.
“They would tell me if there was a woman that had given birth to a baby that was, say, 8 pounds, 11 ounces,” he said, or the time of the birth.
The chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway said he had begun investing at 11 in 1942, a couple of months after Pearl Harbor, after spending five years saving up $120.
Upside of 1929 crash
He even joked that he had fond thoughts of 1929 because it was when he was conceived: “My dad was a stock salesman and after the crash he didn’t have anything to do.”
I wrote about Buffett in 1996, when Ted Turner upbraided fellow billionaires like Buffett and Bill Gates as “ol’ skinflints” for not loosening up “their wads” because they were afraid to fall off the Forbes 400 list. Back then, Buffett said he would wait until after he and his wife died, when he planned to give the bulk of his $15 billion to population control (even though, of course, every moment counts on that cause).
But then, about five years ago, Buffett said at Georgetown, he and Gates began plotting about philanthropy and now they have enrolled 115 plutocrats pledging a majority of their net worth.
“I’ve been dialing for dollars,” he said, adding that when billionaires resist, he gives them a warning: “If I’m talking to some 70 year old, I say, ‘Do you really think your decision-making ability is going to be better when you’re 95 with some blonde on your lap, or now?’”
He calls the Fed “the greatest hedge fund in history” and observed of the moment the US nearly went off the cliff: “I give enormous credit to Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and, frankly, even though I didn’t vote for him, president Bush.”
Ten words from Bush
W’s “great insight”, one worthy of Adam Smith, he said, was expressed in 10 words in September 2008: “He went out there from the White House and he said, ‘If money doesn’t loosen up, this sucker could go down.’”
The populist voice of the 1 per cent stressed that “inequality is getting wider” and that we must figure out how to “share the bounty”.
“We’ve got something that works and we don’t want to mess that up,” he said. There will be periodic recessions and the occasional panic, he noted, advising that those times are good to buy stock at “silly prices”.
“It’s very hard to write regulations that will keep people from acting foolishly, particularly when acting foolishly has proven very profitable over the preceding few years,” he said. “Humans, they all think they’re Cinderella at the ball, and they think, as the night goes along, the music gets better and the drinks flow, they all think they’re going to leave at two minutes to 12 and of course there’s no clocks on the wall and they’re still dancing, so it will happen again.”
“But,” he added slyly, “buy when it happens.”
He doesn’t worry about keeping up with modern technology. He buys what he knows, like Coca-Cola, which he drank all evening. Evoking Ted Williams “waiting for the right pitch”, he counselled that: “You don’t need 20 decisions to get very rich. Four or five will probably do it over time.”
Being a successful investor is not about having a high IQ, he said, “but it does take a temperament that’s willing to step up and actually act. I always tell people, if they’re going in the investment business and you’ve got a 160 IQ, sell 30 points to somebody else because you won’t need it.”
Or sell some to the House Republicans.