An Irishman's Diary


WHEN THE legendary investor Warren Buffett announced a scheme for choosing his successor a while back, many commentators thought he got the idea from reality television. With typically earthy wisdom, the “Sage of Omaha” declared that he would present a shortlist of candidates with $5 billion (€3.7 billion) each to invest over two years, and then anoint the one who performed best as his heir apparent. “The Apprentice: Omaha Edition”, read the headlines.

In fact, the format was rather older than Donald Trump’s appallingly watchable TV series. Buffett did not call unto himself his servants and tell them he was travelling to “a far country” (although, as he nears 79, his mortality has become an issue for shareholders). And of course he was proposing to give equal amounts to each candidate. But in all other respects, the plan had uncanny echoes of the Bible’s Parable of the Talents.

As a child in church, I used to be vaguely troubled by that story. Not by its failure to address the question of ethical investment; or at least to explain how the servants who got the five and two talents, respectively, achieved such suspiciously high returns. And such neat returns too: precisely 100 per cent each. No, my conscience was not quite that highly developed at the age of 10.

What worried me was the treatment of the third servant, who “digged in the earth and hid his lord’s money” (Matthew 25:18) before giving it back exactly as it was. We are told he had a motive for his caution. “I knew thee that thou art an hard man,” he tells his master afterwards, “reaping where thou hast not sown and gathering where thou hast not strawed; And I was afraid [. . .]”

At this point, we expect the master to defend himself against what is presumably a gross mischaracterisation. But not a bit of it. His unshakeable self-esteem has clearly cut him out for a career in senior management.

Not only does he confirm the charges, unblushing, he does so with indignation at his employee’s ingratitude: “Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not and gather where I have not strawed: thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and the [. . .] I should have received mine own with usury.” The parable was confusing enough back in the good times. But today, as we grapple with the worst global recession since the 1930s, the moral of the story is even murkier. Now, the “bad” servant’s actions look even more excusable. Whereas the master and his “good and faithful” servants look like disciples of the discredited “Anglo-Saxon” economic model that landed us in the current mess.

Presumably those 100 per cent returns were achieved on the back of some dressed-up junk-bond packages that somehow secured triple-A status from the rating agencies despite being dodgier than three-pound notes. Or maybe they were from massively inflated property development schemes.

Either way, at least when placed in the context of the first half of 2008, the “bad” servant’s decision to bury his money in the ground now looks inspired. Yes, maybe he could have increased its value slightly by putting it on deposit. But thanks to the unregulated neoliberalism espoused by the “good” servants, not even banks were now safe. And anyway, considering the deflation that has set in since, the single talent is still worth more that it was.

Apparently in ancient times, a “talent” was a very large sum of money: sometimes comprising silver up to 70lbs in weight. So the comparisons with Buffett’s scheme are even more apt. But he seems to have gone quiet about the plan since he announced it back in June 2007, which is perhaps not surprising. It wasn’t long after that before an investment competition would have started to look like a very bad idea.

Or maybe he just thought better of a scheme that left him open to comparisons with Donald Trump (which would be understandable too). Certainly, when I think of the master in the parable of the talents these days, I see a man with a bad comb-over congratulating his “good and faithful servants” on getting through to the next round, before which they will enjoy a weekend in the penthouse of Trump Towers, with its gold plated taps and other ostentations.

Then I see him turn to his unprofitable servant and utter the famous catchphrase: “You’re fired!” Or as they said in biblical times: “Get thee hence into outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Cue pictures of the forlorn servant heading for the lift with his pull-along suitcase; and, in the taxi back to his hotel, explaining why he opted for his burying-the-talent-in-the-ground strategy, and why in similar circumstances, he would probably do the same again.