I can only imagine what it might be like to be Warren Buffett. When your every word moves the global financial markets you carry tremendous responsibility. Few carry greater weight in this regard than the Oracle of Omaha.
This must be why he has mellowed in recent years. As his popularity has grown (witness the rise in attendance at the Woodstock for Capitalists) along with his influence on investors and markets, his rhetoric has softened.
For example, in 2001 he wrote for Fortune:
On a macro basis, quantification doesn’t have to be complicated at all. Below is a chart, starting almost 80 years ago and really quite fundamental in what it says. The chart shows the market value of all publicly traded securities as a percentage of the country’s business–that is, as a percentage of GNP. The ratio has certain limitations in telling you what you need to know. Still, it is probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment. And as you can see, nearly two years ago the ratio rose to an unprecedented level. That should have been a very strong warning signal.
Today, this measure is very nearly as high as it was at the peak of the dotcom mania. So you would think that this would naturally serve, in the words of Mr. Buffett, as yet another “very strong warning signal.”
What you need to know about Mr. Buffett, though, is that he was eager to share this warning signal with investors only well after stocks had peaked. In fact, the Nasdaq Composite had already crashed by more than 70% before the words above were published.
It’s true that he did make an earlier warning in Fortune but both articles were the products of the enterprising (or kindhearted – I’ll let you choose) reporter Carol Loomis who learned of Buffett’s private worries about the stock market and convinced him to make them public.
And it seems he has had very similar private concerns again recently which differ greatly from what he has been saying in public.
I think the simple reason for this is that Mr. Buffett doesn’t want to go down in history as they guy who burst the “everything bubble.” He clearly has much more concern for his own legacy. Still, I had greater admiration for the man who saw more value in promoting the truth in finance than protecting his image as a stock market Santa Claus.