First reader-suggested story in a while and we love to publish those, so keep’em coming! Harry Markopolos (the Bernie Madoff whistle-blower we posted about on March of last year) is back at it with a quick and scathing article on Business Week. Many ways to look at it, but we highlight three in our post. We also like that he doesn’t deny that genius exists, it’s just that he assumes fraud “until genius is proven” and advocates thorough investigation.
Landmark announcement today: the Berkshire board of directors has approved an “authorization” for a share repurchase program. Berkshire being what it is, it’s a bit different from the usual buyback: there’s no maximum amount, no set period of time and nor is there the obligation to buy any stock at all. There are only two rules: if share purchases do occur, Berkshire will not pay above 110% of book value per share and it must maintain a cash balance superior to US$ 20 billion. As Buffett likes it, there’s no “mandate” other than “intelligent investing”.
While researching for a future post about one of his Goldman Sachs’ “alumni”, we’ve had the pleasure to re-read Bob Rubin’s excellent commencement speech at Harvard in 2001. We’ve alluded to it in a previous Buysiders post: “No one would listen”, in March 2010. A bit over ten years have passed since his speech, but these are timeless concepts.
In what is admittedly light reading after yesterday’s trouncing of the equity markets – but loyal readers have read our “Don’t panic” post, right? – there’s bound to be intense debate around this proposition by scientists: it IS, apparently, possible to achieve speeds in excess of the speed of light in a vacuum (at least for neutrinos, that is). It was considered impossible until now (you know, E=mc2) and, if confirmed, it may change quite a few theories. Talk about a ‘black swan’ of enormous proportions. It’s one of those occasions where we’re supposed to remind you to seek the source material, remain skeptical and filter the signal from the noise. However, the ‘multidisciplinary geek’ in us wants to see some scientific foundations shaken up.
Two very public comments by high-level Brazilian authorities regarding currency wars: one by the highest possible authority – our President herself, in an editorial piece in the Financial Times. Another by our finance minister, Guido Mantega. Regardless of what one thinks about the global financial crisis and the state of macroeconomic policies each country should follow amidst the turmoil, it’s hard to see what diplomatic, political or practical gains could be achieved through this kind of rhetoric via the global press vehicles.
We’ve been arguing that “to finish first, first you must finish” for over twenty years. We’ve also recently argued for cash as a strategic weapon with both defensive and offensive features: it is as much “cushion” as it is “cannon”. Nicholas Nassim Taleb has given a lecture recently and the main takeaway is this: “(…) you live long by not dying, you win in chess by not losing—by letting the other person lose. So negative investment is not a sissy strategy. It is an active one.” He also highlighted the planning fallacy, something David Brooks wrote about even more recently, so we’re taking the opportunity to post both together.
We’d usually prefer to post “beefier” updates, but this article grabbed our attention. Alice Schroeder has a very interesting piece that, in the first part, sheds more light on Ted Weschler’s background and achievements. The next part is “noisy” and speculative, but it’s still thought-provoking enough to merit a highlight: Ms. Schroeder then looks at the details of the press release and comes up with interesting questions about Buffett’s succession – mainly that Mr. Weschler appears to have qualities that could make him more than a capital allocator.
The Acumen Fund has celebrated its tenth anniversary last week by launching an impressive “what we’ve achieved” website – impressive for the achievements, of course, but also a gem of a website by its own technical/ design merits. We salute the initiative. Buysiders.com is also about efforts to improve education and cultural awareness, as it is about NGOs and foundations who approach this – and are run – with the utmost efficiency, transparency and ambition. We’re also very interested in how such efforts are leveraged with new technologies and innovative practices. We link to several of our posts on the subject.
Roger Lowenstein (author of “When Genius Failed”) wrote a very favorable review of Sylvia Nasar’s “Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius” book. Now Booz & Co’s Strategy & Business magazine has published a “Thought Leader” interview with her, 10 pages strong. Sylvia Nasar is famous for her book on John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind” (yes, the one made into a blockbuster movie). We haven’t read the book yet and suspect both “heroes” in general (interestingly, each reviewer had a list of ‘heroes’ missing from the book!) and the ascribing of too much importance to Economics – and risk it looking like a “hard” science. We respect it and it belongs to our mental models/ toolkits, but we prefer to seek the high quality companies and business models, with great and aligned managers and controlling shareholders, trading at a price that allows for significant margin of safety.
The issue of conflict of interests is very important to us, as is the issue of information sourcing. As more and more people read the news and research specific topics via Twitter, Facebook and RSS it’s very important to understand that ALL sources have their biases, prejudices and conflicts of interest. The most important reminder is this: “The truth is that, no matter how loudly people protest that they have safeguards in place and will not abuse their power, conflicts of interest lead to abuses as surely as rivers flow to the sea. Even if they are disclosed in disclaimers, as banks now do with investment research, bad things will happen.”