The Master of Money

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

In The Snowball, Alice Schroeder writes about the Master of Money, Warren Buffet. Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, Home Game) reviews the book, which includes some bits about Buffet’s early life:

Born in 1930, the son of an emotionally abusive mother and a father whom he adored but who was unable to absorb the full shock of his wife, Buffett was emotionally problematic. In Schroeder’s telling, the young Warren was sneaky, socially awkward, and generally a wiseass with a cruel streak. As a man he would reserve his harshest criticism for those who lied or cheated or stole, but as a boy he shoplifted pathologically — not because he wanted a particular thing, but simply for the pleasure of stealing. At ease in Omaha, he was unhappy everywhere else, and so he suffered especially when his stockbroker father Howard was elected to the House of Representatives and he became the new kid at middle school in Washington, D.C. He was young for his class. In the most important social departments, he started out well behind his classmates and, as he puts it, “I never caught up, basically.” He had terrible social anxieties and, right up until the time he married, at the age of twenty-one, a special lack of talent with girls.

In spite of all this he was deeply, ferociously competitive. Here is one of the odd things about the man whom Schroeder describes: the plain facts of his young character assemble themselves into something like a portrait of a universal loser — and yet right from the start Buffett himself seems to have been able to believe that the universe was wrong and he was right. What other people thought of him, and how other people measured him, did not prevent him from establishing his sense of himself as someone who might win. In his Washington, D.C. school (before he talked his parents into letting him return to Omaha) Buffett did well in only one class, typing. Here, in his own words, is how he went about it:

I made A’s every semester in typing. We all had these manual typewriters and, of course, you’d slam the carriage back to hear this ding. I was by far the best in the class at typing out of twenty people in the room. When they’d have a speed test, I would just race through the first line so I could slam the carriage back. Everybody else would stop at that point, because they were still on the first word when they would hear my ding! Then they’d panic, and they’d try to go faster, and they’d screw up. So I had a lot of fun in typing class.

The young Buffett’s ambition found a number of conventional if implausible outlets — bodybuilding, for instance; he devoured books with such titles as Big Arms and Big Chest — and one strange one, at least for a little kid: money-making. At a shockingly young age Buffett learned the pleasure of having more money than his friends. To accumulate it he worked paper routes, bought and managed pinball machines, and created a horse-racing tip sheet that he sold at the local track. Upon arriving in Washington he asked his father to use his congressional status to request from the Library of Congress every book it had on horse handicapping. By the time he was sixteen, Buffett had accumulated the equivalent in today’s dollars of $53,000, and hardly saw the point of taking the spot he had been offered at the Wharton School. He knew what he wanted to do for a living — live in Omaha and invest in stocks — but his parents prevailed and off he went to college. He lasted three years before he returned and finished at the University of Nebraska.

One of the patterns that Schroeder teases out of Buffett’s life — not just in his investments but also in his relationships — is his tendency to seek safe harbors. And yet once he has found safety, he isn’t content to remain there. Instead he waits for opportunities to stage surprise attacks on the outside world. Omaha is his fort; the outside world is lucrative but dangerous, and Buffett never enters it without some cost-benefit analysis.

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