The Boardroom November 2004

American Everyman

Warren Buffett's billions—and the oft told tale of how he made them—have become the least interesting thing about him. It's Buffett the symbol that matters now

Such gestures betray an underlying arrogance. Biographers and magazine writers love to detail Buffett's austerity—his middle-class house, his bare-bones corporate headquarters, his decision to stay put in Omaha—but they make a mistake when they accuse him of modesty. In a man worth tens of billions of dollars, self-deprecation is a boast. When, after returning from a high-profile rescue mission at the scandal-plagued bond firm Salomon Brothers, Buffett joked in his 1992 report that Berkshire "didn't miss me while I was gone," he was complimenting himself for creating a company so successful, so replete with its founder's systems, methods, and attitudes, that it could beat the Street on autopilot.

Buffett's false modesty would be annoying if it weren't so clearly an act—an act meant to instruct rather than to deceive, and one that his followers are eager to learn from in the hope of getting rich themselves. By calling himself "your Chairman" in the reports, by endlessly dissecting his own investment mistakes even when they've done his firm no damage, and by constantly pointing up the unattractiveness of the stock that accounts for his stupendous $40 billion net worth, Buffett is using a form of show-and-tell—exaggerated, dramatic, humorous—to teach lessons about humility, skepticism, and other qualities that he believes are crucial to profitable long-term investing. That is, he's playing the part of Warren Buffett, and a lot of the time he's hamming it up, one senses, in the spirit of Clemens playing Twain.

Once he has dispensed with reporting on Berkshire's performance, Buffett likes to spread out as a writer and indulge his flair for aphorism. "Fear is the foe of the faddist," he wrote in the 1994 report, "but the friend of the fundamentalist." This is the soul of the Buffett program: Stay cool. Exploit the follies of the crowd. It's the oldest investment advice there is, but Buffett has personalized it over the years by showing a certain contempt for the financial markets themselves, which he likes to portray as dens of waste and vanity rather than basically efficient systems for allotting capital. It's one of the reasons he's adored: he treats his shareholders as fellow members of a morally solid, wised-up in crowd surrounded by ethically wayward crazy people. It's us against them, the sane versus the mad, the prudent versus the greedy, and it's our right, perhaps even our duty, to grab the money from their trembling, sweaty hands. After all, left to their own unsound devices, they'd only fritter it away.

To be both an overlord and an underdog, an opportunist and a populist, is quite a trick, but Buffett manages to pull it off by implying that contemporary capitalism has fallen into a self-indulgent decadence that requires a puritan resistance movement led by the likes of Berkshire and its subsidiaries, whose CEOs he loves to praise as exemplars of uncorrupted, old-school enterprise. In 2002 he singled out the founder of The Pampered Chef, Doris Christopher, relating the Horatio Alger tale of how she parlayed $3,000 she had borrowed against a life-insurance policy into a business with annual revenues of $700 million, and fondly noting that Christopher had started her operation in her own basement. For Buffett, the ideal corporate leader is someone who grabs hold of his own bootstraps and never stops pulling up, no matter how far he rises.

Bracing stories of Buffett's clear-eyed managers stand in contrast to his chronic warnings about the dangerous softheadedness of almost everyone else. "Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money," he observed in the 2000 report, in an essay on the difference between investment and speculation. With the S&P 500 down almost 10 percent for the year, after a prolonged bull run that Buffett had been mocked for missing out on, and with Berkshire showing a 6.5 percent gain, the time had come for the old man to gloat. His 1999 letter had predicted an imminent comeuppance for the markets, and payback had arrived as if on schedule. He shamed everyone involved, but especially the promoters of hyped-up tech stocks, whom he accused first of running a con game and then of suffering from a disease. "It was as if some virus, racing wildly among investment professionals as well as amateurs, induced hallucinations," he wrote.

Mental illness is one of Buffett's pet metaphors. (Indeed, his fixation on it makes one wonder if losing his own mind is his deepest fear.) Again and again in his letters he compares—by implication, at least—his own stability with the manic-depression displayed by Wall Street, which Buffett and his mentor Benjamin Graham, of Columbia University—the author of The Intelligent Investor, the classic primer on value-based stock picking—have famously personified as the flighty "Mr. Market." According to this conceit, investing success is a matter not of intelligence, social position, or inside information but of simple common sense and psychological self-control—an encouraging message for the average person, and perhaps the best reason for Buffett's popularity with the aspiring middle class. Suppressing emotion is the key to wealth, he preaches; the dull and steadfast will inherit the earth from the fancy and neurotic.

Not many people have Bill Gates's IQ, Donald Trump's brazenness, or Tom Cruise's looks, but almost anyone—with a bit of discipline—can have Warren Buffett's temperament. That, at least, is the promise he holds out: unlike most tycoons, he can be imitated, because he's just like the rest of us, only more so.

Buffett's public image represents a singular cultural accomplishment whose difficulty is hard to overstate. Until Buffett came along, the notion of a folk-hero investor was an oxymoron in America. Before the 1920s, buying and selling corporate securities was regarded by ordinary people as an occult activity practiced by a shadowy elite acting in nobody's interest but its own. This view changed, of course, when a prolonged bull market, widely promoted as unstoppable, started sucking in the Main Street masses. It was a golden moment. Then came the Crash. Suddenly the denizens of Wall Street seemed even more sinister, selfish, and cynical than they had before—an impression that lingered for decades. When the markets recovered a portion of their lost honor in the 1950s and 1960s, ordinary Americans kept their distance, intimidated by a Brahmin hauteur. The leading investment personality of the 1970s, Louis Rukeyser, for more than thirty years the host of TV's Wall Street Week, had the patrician profile of a Founding Father, the flowing hair of a concert pianist, and the clubby nasal voice of a Harvard English professor. He was a true blue blood or a smooth fraud or some of both. What he wasn't was one's neighbor. Identifying with Rukeyser was impossible; this marble bust could only be beheld.

The market's next media star was less pretentious, but his affect and appearance were equally odd. The Street-beating mutual-fund manager Peter Lynch, of Fidelity Investments, had prematurely white hair, a pink complexion, a face and body nearly devoid of flesh, and a nerdy, asexual demeanor that seemed to mark him as a sheltered prodigy who had lived indoors all his life to spare his allergies, and had researched stocks while soaking in the tub. Lynch's message was not dissimilar to Buffett's: buy shares in firms whose products you like and use; don't get the willies when prices drop, or succumb to euphoria when they go up; and turn a deaf ear to tipsters, sharpies, and analysts. But the messenger resembled a friendly alien possessed of uncanny intuitive gifts that seemed normal only to him. Lynch insisted that any earthling could use his methods, but one sensed that he overestimated us. The best bet was to buy into his fund, Magellan—which, by the time most Americans had heard of Lynch, had risen so high that its potential seemed spent. And then, abruptly, Lynch gave up his post and faded inexorably from the public's view, despite Fidelity's decision to send him around as its roving corporate ambassador. He had stopped making money for people, so who cared?

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Walter Kirn is the author of Up in the Air.

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