Warren Buffett Is a Better Writer Than I Am. Damn It.

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett

Periodically, I experience a sinking sensation roughly verbalized as, “The person who wrote what I’m reading isn’t a writer by trade, but does what I do better than I do. Damn his eyes.” When I had such a reaction to the memoirs of Alec Guinness and Bob Dylan, and the diaries of Richard Burton, I could at least comfort myself with the fact that they are, or were, creative types.

But not so with my most recent sinking feeling. It came a couple of weeks ago, while I was reading Warren Buffett’s annual state-of-Berkshire Hathaway letter to shareholders. The text had “clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech”—to quote Mark Twain on the memoirs of another nonprofessional writer, Ulysses S. Grant. Twain was happy to offer those encomiums. He apparently was not as small a person as I am.

I hesitate to shower praise on Buffett, because he is so lionized already. Genius investor. Maker of sense on tax equity. All-around good guy. But he deserves one more garland: terrific writer. (Some of the credit is due to Carol Loomis, whom he thanks as his “editor” on the letter, but Buffett’s voice rings loud and clear.)

What’s initially most striking is the contrast with most corporate writing, which is dense, dull, impersonal, abstract, often deliberately obfuscatory, and thickly interlarded with deadly jargon. It grasps for any available credit and deflects any possible blame. Not so Buffett, who starts off with “the bad news,” noting that although the company’s stock had increased 14.4 percent in value, its performance was “subpar” compared with the record of  Standard & Poor’s 500:

For the ninth time in 48 years, Berkshire’s percentage in book value was less than the S&P’s percentage gain. … In eight of those nine years, it should be noted, the S&P had a gain of 15% or more. We do better when the wind is in our face.

Besides straightforward clarity, a hallmark of Buffett’s style is the old-fashioned sort of metaphor at the end of that quotation. In his hands it comes off as appealingly redolent of a vanished era, rather than flowery or self-consciously folksy. He uses expressions like “cover the waterfront,” “shot the lights out,” “left me in the dust,” and “no sense going crazy.”  “I rub my eyes,” Buffett writes, “when I look at what [the Geico CEO] Tony [Nicely] has accomplished.” As with most first-rate writers, his language limns a personality. He thanks staff members who, among other things, “even get me hamburgers for lunch. No CEO has it better; I truly do feel like tap-dancing to work every day.”

Another colorful character emerges in the letter as well. This is “my partner Charlie Munger, the company’s Vice Chairman.” Charlie (as he’s subsequently referred to) comes across as a game and intrepid companion on the corporate journey. Another disappointment in 2012, Buffett tells us, “was my inability to make a major acquisition.” But he is not discouraged: “Charlie and I have again donned our safari outfits and resumed our search for elephants.”

He knows that such a course of action might seem risky in a struggling economy. No matter: “Charlie and I love investing large sums in worthwhile projects, whatever the pundits are saying. We instead heed the words from Gary Allan’s new country song, ‘Every Storm Runs Out of Rain.’”

Buffett devotes a significant chunk of the letter to his thoughts about the newspaper industry, relevant because, in a 15-month period, Berkshire Hathaway—already the owner of the Omaha World-Herald and The Buffalo News—bought an additional 28 daily papers. This section deserves special mention because Buffett builds a cogent, contrarian, and (to my admittedly receptive ears) convincing brief for the survival of the industry. He (deftly) runs through the familiar dismal recent history, acknowledges the challenges ahead, and makes a vigorous case for, first, the public’s strong desire for professionally reported and delivered local news and, second, the inevitability of a business model based on online paywalls. In short, “Charlie and I believe that papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time.”

My favorite part of the letter, improbably, is where Buffett explains why the listed operating expenses for Berkshire Hathaway’s Manufacturing, Service and Retailing group do not conform to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). I know, right? It’s just that Buffett’s evident belief that such matters can and should be explained lucidly is touching. And he succeeds. At least while reading the letter, even as unreconstructed an English major as I grasped his point about “the disparate nature of intangible assets: Some truly deplete over time while others never lose value.” He closes the section this way:

“And that ends today’s accounting lecture. Why is no one shouting ‘More, more’?”

Midwestern wry humor, understatement, modesty: that’s what you will find in Buffett’s prose. Especially appealing is the last quality, which stands in blessed contrast to the hyperbole and hokum that tarnish most communication today (and which I can suggest merely by setting down the words “Donald Trump”).

Buffett cannot escape hype-y characterizations, of course. “He is widely considered the most successful investor of the 20th century,” say the crowds of Wikipedia. But that sort of most/best/greatest rhetoric is for others. The closest he comes to boasting is:

“I have made plenty of mistakes in acquisitions and will make more. Over all, however, our record is satisfactory.”

Twain would approve, I think.

[Note: as several commenters noted, I mixed up the direction of the wind in the block quote, which I've now corrected.]

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