Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012

  • Carol Loomis
  • Penguin
  • 325 pp.

This not-quite-a-biography of the Sage of Omaha offers advice from a guy who clearly knows what he’s talking about.

Reviewed by Randy Cepuch

Many people, including me, have written books about Warren Buffett. More than a few of us have been fortunate enough to receive at least some help and encouragement from The Wizard of Omaha himself.

But unless and until Buffett decides to write a book, it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to writing about him than Fortune senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, who first wrote about the famed investor in 1966 (and made the rookie mistake of spelling his last name with a single “t”). Loomis has been among Buffett’s close friends for more than 40 years and serves as the editor for his annual report letters to shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway, the huge conglomerate he heads. (Berkshire’s dozens of wholly owned subsidiaries range from GEICO to Dairy Queen to Fruit of the Loom, while it also owns sizable interests in dozens of other companies, such as Coca-Cola and American Express.)

Those long and folksy letters, which Buffett says he writes as if he’s explaining Berkshire’s year to his sister, are easily among the most popular and most-read business communications in any given year. That’s not so much because of their insights into the company itself, but because Buffett discusses other things, too — using his keen intellect and superb storytelling skills to explain (and sometimes suggest solutions for) problems in the financial world. In recent years, for example, Buffett has decried derivatives (“weapons of financial mass destruction”), investment advisers and mutual fund portfolio managers (“helpers” who often make investors poorer) and our foreign-trade deficit (illustrated by contrasting the populations of “Thriftsville” and “Squanderbucks”).

Loomis’ book includes major excerpts from many of those annual report missives, plus several pieces Buffett wrote for other purposes and a broad array of excellent Fortune articles about and interviews with the modest Midwesterner, who is currently ranked as the world’s third-richest man. The result is easily the most useful and accessible compendium of Buffett wit and wisdom yet, although the title’s suggestion that it covers his views on “Practically Everything” may be a bit of a stretch.

While Tap Dancing isn’t a biography, it takes a chronological approach. That works well, although some might want to skip past a long, slow and dated piece on inflation, written by Buffett for Fortune in the 1960s, that appears early in the book. The stories of key developments in Berkshire’s history, such as the sad fate of its unique program that enabled shareholders to designate pro-rata contributions to charities of their choices, are interesting reading. So are the chapters focusing on Buffett and his family — among them, a very funny look at why he and “Margaritaville” singer Jimmy Buffett probably ought to be related (but aren’t), interviews with Buffett’s children about his belief that parents with vast fortunes shouldn’t leave all the money to the kids, and the unlikely tale of how he and Bill Gates became close pals.

The chapters on investing are the heart of the matter, though, and even casual readers skipping from chapter to chapter are sure to stumble on sage advice from a guy who clearly knows what he’s talking about. Of course, people are prone to doing the wrong things when it comes to investing, and they seldom appreciate that when the prices of groceries are low, it’s the best time to buy. “I always say you should get greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy,” Buffett observes, before conceding, “But that’s too much to expect. Of course, you shouldn’t get greedy when others get greedy and fearful when others get fearful. At a minimum, try to stay away from that.”

Overall, Buffett’s theme has always been “Keep it simple,” and there are plenty of reminders here to focus on “businesses so good that even a dummy can make money” and to avoid those likely to change unpredictably in the next decade or so. He says that it’s often useful to look at opportunities from different perspectives, and suggests that in the early heyday of the automobile industry, the smartest investment would have been to “short” (bet against) horses — noting there were 21 million horses in the United States in 1900 and just 5 million in 1998.

Throughout, the book is enlivened by Buffett’s self-deprecating humor. Unlike most investment pros, he doesn’t hesitate to admit to mistakes: “If you were a golfer and had a hole-in-one on every hole, the game wouldn’t be any fun. At least that’s my explanation of why I keep hitting them in the rough.” Of course, as Loomis points out, it’s not so hard to say that when your track record’s as good as Buffett’s.

At 82, Buffett is still going strong, although he was treated for prostate cancer during the past year. Among Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, there has long been concern about succession plans. Buffett has long joked that he intends to continue running the company via séance for years after he dies.

Kidding aside, over the past few years Berkshire has added a few investment managers capable of taking over the portfolio responsibilities. Buffett’s son Howard has been tapped to be the company’s chairman, carrying on the company’s culture.

Most importantly, Buffett has reversed course on his longtime vow to wait until after his death to divest his fortune. He subscribes to Andrew Carnegie’s philosophy — huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society — and began, in 2006, giving huge amounts of money each year to the Gates Foundation (run by his friend, Bill), which focuses on eradicating disease and improving educational opportunities around the world. Buffett’s announcement of the change was typically humble, noting that when others give to charities they’re often making sacrifices that will affect their lives — fewer dinners out, skipping a movie or two – and are therefore giving more than he will. It’s one more terrific point to ponder in a book full of them.

Randy Cepuch’s A Weekend With Warren Buffett and Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures (Perseus Books, 2007 — and one of more than 40 books about Buffett that have been translated into Chinese!) was inspired by attending Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meeting, sometimes called the “Woodstock of Capitalism.” Cepuch was surprised and delighted when he sent an advance copy of the manuscript to Buffett and received an e-mail response just three days later suggesting a few minor corrections and adding, “I think you’ve got a winner.”

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