I just got a 'butt phone call' from Omaha, Nebraska. A buddy of mine is there and he must have sat on his phone because I could hear him in the background talking to somebody else. 'Look at all those clowns, ' he was saying. 'What are they doing?' 'Oh,' the other guy said, 'You gotta remember this is Omaha.'
Ah yes, Omaha in the Spring. While the swallows are returning to Capistrano, the Berkshire Hathaway investors, 35,000 of them, are returning to hear the 'Oracle of Omaha' wax about the economy. Warren Buffett is holding court, ice cream cone in hand.
What a bunch of baloney.
First, let me get this out of the way. God Bless Warren Buffett. He's the second richest man in the world, so what's not to like? Granted he's played this 'small town investor-drives his own car-man of the people' thing to the hilt, but who can blame him? If you've ever visited Omaha then you get the picture. I was at the opening of the opera house there a few years back and virutally all the names on the 'wall of donors' owed his or her fortune to Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett's pharmarcist, Buffett's tire salesman, they were all there decked out in black tie and gowns. He's done right by Omaha, and Omaha has done right by him.
So enough already.
There was a time of course that Warren Buffett was someone you wanted to listen to. There was a time that following his mantra--'I only invest in things that I understand'--was nearly contrarian. Who invests in underwear? Bricks? Cowboy boots? Buffett did and it worked. But it's time to move on, to look forward, and quite frankly, it's time to take a hard look at even the 'Oracle's' track record. The reality is that Warren Buffett does well when the economy does well. And he doesn't do well when it tanks. Sound familiar? Like maybe your own investments? The only difference is that Buffett has more money to win with, and more that he can afford to lose. But is there anything he can say about the economy that is worth listening to? Is there any real advice he can give you?
The question comes up of course because of all the attention this annual Omaha gathering now garners. It used to pass without a mention. In fact, as hard as it is to believe, there was a time that Buffett didn't give interviews. Ah the good ole days. But that was then, this is now. The two so-called business networks now invade Omaha with a vengence. 'Special' reports. Hours of never ending 'exclusives' with the great man himself. (BTW--notice this. Most, if not all, of Buffett's interviews are conducted by a select group of attractive, young, female, reporters. Why is that exactly?) But what is the news value? Listen to all the interviews. Comb through all the text. Blink through all the Tweets. What exactly happened in Omaha?
One of the most telling moments came when Buffett's business partner, 85 year old Charlie Munger, talked about the newspaper business. He and Warren love newspapers Charlie said, but they wouldn't want to own one. A doomed business he said. Gee, so much for inventive thinking. The business world, the economy, the USA, doesn't need Warren Buffett right now. In fact, it doesn't need Buffett's 'best friend' either. Bill Gates. What we need is who they used to be. We need the inventive, future thinking, ground breaking, risk taking, new idea generating, business building, versions of them.
You won't find them in Omaha. Uh oh, did you guys hear all that? I must have sat on my phone.