While as a rule I prefer not to forecast, an undeniable attempt by the markets at a recovery has begun, with some asset classes enjoying historic gains since early March. Even with this news, Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, has appeared in the media quite a bit with some downright depressing comments about the future of the economy. While I certainly believe that a return to “normal” will include some potentially significant bumps along the way and that a quick and easy ride back to where we were in 2007 (which was not, by any measure, normal either) is not likely, I am equally pessimistic about the uncharacteristically morose view that the world’s second wealthiest man has taken of late.
I have spoken with many people over the last few weeks that share this negative outlook, often quoting Mr. Buffett as a source for their worries and concern. While a fan of his overall career and his disciplined handling of his personal finances, I would like to offer an opinion that may not be so popular with the Warren-nation. Is it possible the Oracle has misstepped of late and is struggling to acknowledge the error of his ways?
Warren Buffett is a human being. That’s right, I said it. He plays bridge, he drives a Caddy, he has lived in the same house for 51 years. He also happens to be one of the most successful, disciplined investors of all time. Yet even with all his discipline and all the information a man of his status has at his fingertips, he has proven just as likely to succumb to the “what goes up, must move higher” mentality as any of us.
Buffett’s primary reasoning behind his most recent comments is that he is not seeing recovery on the floors of the companies in his portfolio. Is that because the economic recovery is a pump fake and we should prepare to run and hide? Or could it be Berkshire Hathaway is not nearly as diversified as one might think?
Over the last several years, look at the companies Berkshire has acquired. Acme Brick, Borsheim’s Fine Jewelry, Clayton Homes, Helzberg Diamonds, MidAmerican Energy, RC Willey Home Furnishings, NetJets. These are home builders, mortgage companies, furniture stores, fine jewelry dealers, energy companies, even private jet charter services. Berkshire got caught up in the boom in housing, luxury goods, energy and credit just like the rest of the world.
Once things turned sour, he made a multi-billion dollar bet on General Electric before it subsequently tanked even further. This is certainly not just an attempt to point out fault (I actually think with the terms he secured, this will be a good deal for Buffett in the long run), but rather an attempt to point out that no one person, not even the Oracle, has all the answers. The ability to be right time and time again is a noble endeavor, but a sucker’s bet. Greed and a sense that some companies just simply never underperform are powerful emotional pulls for even the shrewdest investor.
As the U.S. and global economies get back on their feet, and they will, even if it’s a slow, volatile comeback over several years, we must remember to not take the wins too seriously or the losses too much to heart. In the long run, smart, disciplined investors with well diversified portfolios will be rewarded, while speculators and gamblers will win some, but lose most.
By Chip Workman