Taking (Apart) Buffett At His Words

By Stephen D. Simpson, CFA | June 06, 2010 AAA

On Wednesday, June 2, 2010, Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK.A) CEO and chairman Warren Buffett, testified live in front of Congress's Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. As much as I admire and respect him, I stubbed my eye more than once while reading the reports of his testimony. Here are some of the statements that really stood out. (Find out what makes the Oracle of Omaha so great in Warren Buffett: The Road To Riches.)

In Pictures: The Baby Buffett Portfolio

Why No Written Record?
Warren Buffett elected not to provide any written testimony. Perhaps that is no big deal (he might have just been speaking extemporaneously), but it is notable for at least one reason - he was the only person to speak in front of the Commission that day to not offer written testimony.

A Foggy Crystal Ball?
Two of the most often cited passages from Mr. Buffett's testimony were that he did not see the drop coming and that he does not believe that the collapse in housing, credit and the economy was predictable. That is a shocking admission. Mr. Buffett has always portrayed himself as a classic value investor. How then could he not see a problem with all-time highs in housing prices across the country, an unprecedented spread between housing prices and rental value, and rates of growth not seen in decades? What's more, there were issues like persistently low interest rates (despite rising deficits and input prices), poor underwriting standards (liar loans, anyone?) and rampant house-flipping all suggesting a disordered market. (For related reading, check out Subprime Lending: Helping Hand Or Underhanded?)

As for the predictably of the crash, that is a more debatable position. Certainly there were economists like Shilling, Roubini and Baker warning of dire consequences to the ongoing bubble. Simply put, there was no shortage of people saying the emperor was buck naked. On the other hand, it seems that no matter what period of time you pick you can always find a few charging bulls and snarling bears offering their opinions and forecasts. Then again, Mr. Buffett repeatedly spoke out about the dangers of derivatives as "weapons of mass destruction", so how could he not appreciate the risks of a major crack in the credit markets?

Buy and Hope?
Mr. Buffett is held up as a paragon of buy-and-hold investing, but some of his testimony would make it seem that he is more of a buy-and-hope investor. Mr. Buffett claims that, despite the sizable holdings of Berkshire Hathaway in Moody's (NYSE:MCO) stock, he did not know much about the credit rating market. (You'll never guess who's selling. Find out more in Stocks That Buffett Is Unloading.)

Now, Mr. Buffett has always made quite a fuss about how smart investors should only invest in those business that they know well and understand. He has always avoided tech stocks like Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT), he says, because he cannot understand the markets or the technology.

Mr. Buffett attempted to explain that he does not have the time or opportunity to know all of the details of his portfolio companies, using the example that he did not understand every part of Procter & Gamble's (NYSE:PG) business. That is only true to a point. The fact is P&G runs a relatively simple set of businesses that is easy to understand; you do not need to understand the details of emulsifiers and surfactants to understand P&G's market share and leadership in cleaners. Given that credit ratings represent a huge percentage of what Moody's really is as a business, not understanding the details seems shocking to me.

The Bottom Line
It is not my purpose or intent to bury Warren Buffett for his testimony in front of Congress. That said, as a man who has frequently lectured the financial services industry on its excesses and faults, I find it odd that he would make some of these statements during his time under the bright lights.

All of that said, the most important lesson is not that he said some questionable things when asked about the financial crisis, but rather that nobody could ever live up to the mythological standard established for him by his supporters. All investors screw up. All investors miss things and sometimes find themselves engaged in magical thinking or "buy and hope". It is not such a bad thing, then, to remember that Mr. Buffett is mortal and fallible - just like the rest of us.

Catch up on the latest financial news in Water Cooler Finance: Buffett Speaks Up, AIG Deal Collapses.

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