The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, Fifth Edition
Lawrence A. Cunningham opens this book with an appropriate excerpt from the essays of Michel de Montaigne: "The speech I love is simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in mouth; a speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much dainty and well-combed as vehement and brusque."
There is no shortage of books on Warren Buffet. It is an interesting state of affairs: numerous writers, pundits, and other Warren Buffet "experts" opining on the life and investing decisions of perhaps the greatest investing and capitalist "expert" of all time.
Others opining on the life of a genius is often necessary, when it comes to understanding the broader impact that genius has had on society. A masterful investor, scientist, engineer, or whatever is not also necessarily always an effective writer and communicator. Mr. Buffet, however, is a rare breed.
Not only has Mr. Buffet, across his lifetime, compiled the most impressive track record capitalism has ever produced- one of growth, achievement, societal awareness and improvement, but he can also write. He writes in a language that is, in the words of Montaigne, "simple...succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed...brusque."
Lawrence A. Cunningham through this book expresses an important truth- when a man such as Mr. Buffet writes with the clarity and power that he does, not much benefit is given to the reader by adding words on top of what is already clear and powerful prose. If one is trying to make sense of Mr. Buffet and his philosophies, the best place to start is with Mr. Buffet's own "sinewy" words, which are presented, unadorned except with a short preface, in this book.
"Essays" is a bit of a misnomer for the content of this book. In fact, this book is actually a compilation of excerpts from the Annual Letters Mr. Buffet has written to the shareholders of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, over the last thirty plus years. Worth noting, these very letters are available, in their entirety, on the World Wide Web for free. Something, however, is definitely gained through reading Mr. Buffet's words as Mr. Cunningham has arranged them.
Mr. Cunningham has arranged this book by subject, rather than time- and the effect is pleasing and effective. The way that Mr. Cunningham chose to arrange Mr. Buffet's letters is into the following categories: Corporate Governance, Corporate Finance and Investing, Alternatives to Common Stock, Common Stock, Mergers and Acquisitions, Accounting and Valuation, and Accounting Policy and Tax Matters.
The effect of Cunningham's carefully-chosen delineations is a book that has more the feel of an educational guide, than a story of Mr. Buffet's investing career and his company, Berkshire Hathaway.
What emerges out of this educational guide is the philosophy and teachings of a gifted Professor and practitioner. No matter whether Mr. Buffet is waxing poetic on business or outlining his scruples over how corporations account for equity stock options, out of his writing emerges a consistent and eloquent philosophy on the "right" and effective approach to business, investing, capitalism, and life.
The "Buffet Way", perhaps impossible to summarize fully in a few short sentences, is stoic and original. The practitioner of this philosophy is one who stands apart from society, ignores any "institutional imperative" that may impede rational decision-making. The "Buffet Way" is a mode of analysis that knows the bounds of its own limitations, and is free of emotion. The Buffet Way demands that every decision require a "margin of safety" or room for error.
Most importantly, Mr. Buffet's view of investing, and particularly of investing in the stock market or in other marketable securities, grasps a simple but important concept that is lost on so many market pundits and practitioners: stocks are not abstractions. Stocks are certificates that represent a share of ownership in an underlying business. Too often people don't look through stocks to the underlying business they represent. This book aptly is subtitled, "Lessons for Corporate America", because Mr. Buffet is after all an evaluator of businesses.
Stocks and their prices are only relevant when they become disjointed, in a favorable way, from the underlying realities of the business they represent.
To think the "Buffet Way" takes more, though, than knowing the concept's basic precepts. It takes discipline, and a stoic fight against the animal spirits that so often lead investors astray. This book and its precepts are worth reading, and rereading, until hopefully its lessons are engrained in the psyche in a way that they become impossible to ignore.