Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life - Micro Review

Anyone with a serious interest in Warren Buffett will like this book. Alice Schroder has done an excellent job in "Snowball" and one can find a wealth of information on her facebook page, as well as links to mainstream reviews.

I am going to split my comments into a few sections, and focus on things that may not have been covered in a more typical, balanced book review.  

Reasons to read Snowball:

1.  His transformation from what we might refer to today as a "nerd" into the uber wealthy, popular business icon is fascinating and inspirational.  Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Buffett, and Bill Gates have made this transformation.  It isn't just wealth and it isn't just starting out in technology or with technical expertise [in Buffett's case, security analysis].  It's also capturing the public's imagination and becoming larger then life.  Compared to the Gatsby fable, where wealth is created out of the ether by someone with personal beauty and charisma -- bootstrapping one's way to  success based on technical excellence and imagination is closer to the authentic American dream.  And more accessible, at least in fantasy, to numbers people with more brains then charm.

2.  Salomon Brothers.  An insider's view of the 1991 Treasury Bond scandal.  This section alone is worth the price of the book -- the near meltdown of the investment bank was eeriely prescient of the collapse of investment banking in 2008. The most interesting thing is that at the time,  the Fed and Treasury seem oblivious regarding the possibility of systemic risk that might have been caused by its failure.

3.  Perhaps it will discourage a few people from trying to casually beat the market averages.  Graham warned that an average result easier to achieve then most people imagine and even slightly superior results are strikingly more difficult. Buffett's idea of fun is spending hours devouring annual reports, 10k's, financial newspapers and publications.  Unless the idea of devouring the Bond Buyer Daily with coffee sounds energizing, think about indexing.

4.  It's exhaustive but not exhausting and well written.  Lots of detail, footnotes for those that are interested, and well edited.  I found one mistake (very minor).  I'm willing to defer to other reviewers opinions on this, but I found it "a good read."

5.  A person can learn a lot about running a business from Buffett.  People tend to be blinded by his capital allocation skills, but Buffett does a lot of things right that a "ham sandwich" could copy.  This is not the main focus of the book, but it is in there.  A hint -- think incentives.  But in a smarter way then just tossing out zillions in options to senior management.  Buffett has spend a significant part of his life figuring out how to use money as an incentive -- with his children, himself, family, and businesses.  Buffett is true expert at this, and the examples in the book are more informative then typical B school or psychological perspectives.  There was a lot of press about how the TARP plan should have been more like Buffett's investments in Goldman and GE.  This could be debated for hours, but for all the rhetoric about corporate perks and jets, the Senate should have just insisted on this stipulation:  Require senior management to refrain from selling any shares for 3 years and to hold at least 75% of their net worth in the firm.  The auto guys would have just turned around and re-boarded their private jets.  

6.  Alice Schroder is not only an MBA and a noted insurance security analyst, but:
Schroeder worked as a certified public accountant at Ernst & Young from 1980 to 1991. Until 1993 she was project manager with the Financial Accounting Standards Board.
She not only has a rock solid accounting background,  but she also worked at FASB! I would consider a person with that background an expert in not only the practice of accounting, but also the more theoretical nuances of the field.  Accounting is the place where real economic activity is translated into figures on balance sheets and income statements. Warren's world.

Whatever passion Buffett reveals regarding social and political issues, he is a zealot regarding issues like amortization of good will and expensing employee stock options.  So much of Buffett's life is wrapped up in the decades of financial deals that a biographer who could immediately pick up the financial underpinning of this activity has a tremendous advantage.  I don't remember a single line of technical jargon in the bok -- no debits, credits, or accruals. Rather, her descriptions of the economic form and substance of the deals are uniformly spot on. Buffett is a master at making arcane financial concepts sound like ordinary common sense in his annual shareholder letters. Yet I can't enumerate the number of occasions where I have seen people try to discuss those same subjects using a Buffett analogy and end up horribly off key. In Snowball, the descriptions have the feel of a Buffett explanation -- a sort of effortlessness that belies the underlying complexity. [pop quiz:  Is insurance float an asset or liability?  Hint:  Read the paragraph after the second balance sheet in a prior post.]

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