In the first place, Lawrence Cunningham, whose school it turns out is just a couple blocks from me here in Manhattan, has done a very fine public service in collecting these essays. If you've ever tried to wade through Buffet's annual letters yourself, you know that there are long bits of detailed financial discussions interspersed with the gems of wisdom, aphorisms, and humor that the amateur Buffet-ette is more apt to be seeking. So his collection and coalition, which is well-chosen, well-ordered, and well-edited is a treat for any Buffet fan looking for an accessible volume of the man's work.
Buffet has the strangest of powers in that he comes across as a homespun billionaire. Now that's different from just being homespun, the way Sam Walton was, or just being a billionaire, like Bill Gates. Buffet flaunts his wealth and his professional love of money, all the while expressing essential, eternal truths in simple, earthy phrases. When I saw Buffet speak at business school he tapped on the microphone to test it and said "testing, testing, one-million, two-million, three-million." It is that natural genius for combining wealth, truth and comedy that is most vividly on display in "The Essays of Warren Buffet.".
Of course, these timeless, simple truths are all known - the way we know that "eat less, exercise more" is how to lose weight. And yet, and yet, it takes Buffet to remind us to "think like an owner"; invest only in management that you "like, trust, and admire"; and buy pieces of business (stocks) when it costs less than the intrinsic value.
There are the excellent statements of managerial accountability, business valuation, and capital structure. Helpful warnings on accounting shenanigans, trading costs, and paying heed to Mr. Market. For clarity, brevity, wit, truth, and learning, there is no business writer in the 20th century that compares with Warren Buffet.
Buffet's sayings are irreplaceable (and I am not cherry picking here, but merely highlighting a half-dozen of the hundreds of bon mots in this book):
"On the other hand, working with people who cause your stomach to churn seems much like marrying for money - probably a bad idea under any circumstances, but absolute madness if you are already rich."
"The speed at which a business success is recognized, furthermore, is not that important as long as the company's intrinsic value is increasing at a satisfactory rate. In fact, delayed recognition can be an advantage: It may give us the chance to buy more of a good thing at a bargain price."
"Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds... any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops"
In regard to acquisitions, which usually fail to earn the cost of capital: "The managers at fault periodically report on the lesson they have learned from the latest disappointment. They then usually seek out future lessons."
"One of the ironies of the stock market is the emphasis on activity. Brokers, using terms such as `marketability' and `liquidity," sing the praises of companies with high share turnover... but investors should understand that what is good for the croupier is not good for the customer. A hyperactive stock market is the pick pocket of enterprise."
On acquiring bad companies for cheap prices: "In my early days as a manager I, too, dated a few toads. They were cheap dates - I've never been much of a sport - but my results matched those of acquirers who courted higher-price toads. I kissed and they croaked."
Buffet is approaching literature here - the nuance involved, and the delicious counter-pointing of toads, dates, sport are pitch-perfect. The payoff - "I kissed and they croaked" is as fine a line of found poetry as exists.
Buffet, having studied at the feet of the master of investment literature for the first half of the 20th century, has ascended to become the master of investment literature, unqualified. This is a book that will please Buffet-maniacs, investors, finance newbies, and anybody with an interest in the articulated evolution of managerial capitalism that has separated the finance and capital allocation specialties from the operational and day-to-day specializations.
In closing, it's appropriate to quote America's great investing wag quoting America's greatest political wag - the subject is, as always with Buffet, simple maths and simple truths:
"Managers thinking about accounting issues should never forget one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite riddles: `How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg?' The answer: `Four, because calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg'."
Enjoy this book.