The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder (buy on Amazon.com). This post covers Part V: The King of Wall Street, Chap. 43-52
The modern Buffett
In Part V of the Snowball, we see Buffett’s transformation from the early, cigar butt-picking, Grahamian value-minded Buffett, through the filter of his Fisherite partner, Charlie Munger, into the mega cap conglomerator and franchise-buyer Buffett who is popularly known to investors and the public the world round.
It is in this part that we also see Buffett make one of his biggest missteps, a stumble which almost turns into a fall and which either way appears to shock and humble the maturing Buffett. It is in this era of his investing life that we see Buffett make some of his biggest rationalizations, become entangled in numerous scandals he never would’ve tolerated in his past and dive ever deeper into the world of “elephant bumping” and gross philanthropy, partly under the tutelage of his new best friend and Microsoft-founder, Bill Gates.
Buffett made a series of poor investments but ultimately survived them all because of MoS. There will be challenges, struggles, and stress. But after the storm, comes the calm.
The keys to the fortress
From the late seventies until the late nineties, despite numerous economic and financial cycles Buffett’s fortune grew relentlessly under a seemingly unstoppable torrent of new capital:
Much of the money used for Buffett’s late seventies spending spree came from a bonanza of float from insurance and trading stamps
This “float” (negative working capital which was paid to Buffett’s companies in advance of services rendered, which he was able to invest at a profit in the meantime) was market agnostic, meaning that its volume was not much affected by the financial market booming or crashing. For example, if you owe premiums on your homeowner’s insurance, you don’t get to suspend payment on your coverage just because the Dow Jones has sold off or the economy is officially in a recession.
The growth in Buffett’s fortune, the wilting of his family
Between 1978 and the end of 1983, the Buffetts’ net worth had increased by a stunning amount, from $89 million to $680 million
Meanwhile Buffett proves he’s ever the worthless parent:
he handed the kids their Berkshire stock without stressing how important it might be to them someday, explaining compounding, or mentioning that they could borrow against the stock without selling it
Buffett had once written to a friend when his children were toddlers that he wanted to see “what the tree has produced” before deciding what to do about giving them money
(he didn’t actively parent though)
Buffett’s private equity shop
Another tool in Buffett’s investment arsenal was to purchase small private companies with dominant franchises and little need for capital reinvestment whose excess earnings could be siphoned off and used to make other investments in the public financial markets.
Continuing on with his success in acquiring the See’s Candy company, Buffett’s next private equity-style buyout involved the Nebraska Furniture Mart, run by a devoted Russian immigrant named Rose Blumkin and her family. And, much like the department store chain he once bought for a song from an emotionally-motivated seller, Buffett beat out a German group offering Rose Blumkin over $90M for her company, instead settling with Buffett on $55M for 90% of the company, quite a discount for a “fair valuation” of practically an entire business in the private market, especially considering the competing bid.
An audit of the company after purchase showed that the store was worth $85M. According to Rose Blumkin, the store earned $15M a year, meaning Buffett got it for 4x earnings. But Rose had buyers remorse and she eventually opened up a competing shop across the street from the one she had sold, waging war on the NFM until Buffett offered to buy her out for $5M, including the use of her name and her lease.
One secret to Buffett’s success in the private equity field? Personality:
“She really liked and trusted me. She would make up her mind about people and that was that.”
Buffett’s special priveleges
On hiding Rose Blumkin’s financial privacy: Buffet had no worries about getting a waiver from the SEC
Buffett got special dispensation from the SEC to not disclose his trades until the end of the year “to avoid moving markets”
The gorilla escapes its cage
Another theme of Buffett’s investing in the late 1980s and 1990s was his continual role as a “gorilla” investor who could protect potential LBO-targets from hostile takeover bids. The first of these was his $517M investment for 15% of Tom Murphy-controlled Cap Cities/ABC, a media conglomerate. Buffett left the board of the Washington Post to join the board of his latest investment.
Another white knight scenario involved Buffett’s investment in Ohio conglomerate Scott Fetzer, which Berkshire purchased for $410M.
Then Buffett got into Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street arbitrage shop that was being hunted by private equity boss Ron Perelman. Buffett bought $700M of preferred stock w/ a 9% coupon that was convertible into common stock at $38/share, for a total return potential of about 15%. It even came with a put option to return it to Salomon and get his money back.
But Buffett had stepped outside of his circle of competence:
He seemed to understand little of the details of how the business was run, and adjusting to a business that wasn’t literally made of bricks-and-mortar or run like an assembly line was not easy for him… he had made the investment in Salomon purely because of Gutfreund
Buffett’s disgusting ignorance and hypocrisy
I would force you to give back a huge chunk to society, so that hospitals get built and kids get educated too
Buffett decides to sell the assets of Berkshire’s textile mills– on the books for $50M, he gets $163,122 at the auction. He refused to face his workers and then had the gall to say
“The market isn’t perfect. You can’t rely on the market to give every single person a decent living.”
Buffett on John Gutfreund:
an outstanding, honorable man of integrity
Peter Kiewit, a wealthy businessman from Omaha, on reputation:
A reputation is like fine china: expensive to acquire, and easily broken… If you’re not sure if something is right or wrong, consider whether you’d want it reported in the morning paper
Buffett on Wall St:
Wall Street is the only place people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from people who take the subway