Be sceptical, says Buffett, but 40,000 followers pay homage

The reluctant guru goes out of his way to prove his fallibility, writes John Addis.

The reluctant guru goes out of his way to prove his fallibility, writes John Addis.

Over the weekend, Warren Buffett hosted his insurance-to-ice cream conglomerate's annual meeting. Known as Woodstock for capitalists, the two-day jamboree has all the elements of a religious festival, with devotees basking in the reflected glow of their guru.

There's something stomach-churning and perhaps, in an investing sense, costly, about such veneration. This year, up to 40,000 followers attended the jamboree, visiting the sites of religious significance: a barbecue at Nebraska Furniture Mart; an exclusive shareholder shopping day at Borsheim Jewellers; a NetJets tour.

True believers can get even closer to god in the most intimate way by wearing the exclusive $5 Fruit of the Loom "Berky Boxers" featuring a motif of Buffett and Munger themselves.

But for an overwhelmingly reverential experience, nothing beats a slab of meat, chips and a root beer at Gorat's, Buffett's favourite steakhouse and the closest value investors get to an ashram.

I've never been to Omaha and have no plans to do so (although I have attended Munger's Wesco meeting). I hate crowds and there's nothing that investors get from the meeting not available online, except the experience of being there, which, of course, is the point.

Omaha is to investors what Lourdes is to Catholics. The very act of attending inducts you into the cult and confirms the extent of your belief, whether you like it or not.

Which is of course where the danger lies. In adopting a guru, one abdicates a sense of autonomy and self-reliance, skills crucial to investing success.

This isn't Buffett's fault. In fact, he goes out of his way to prove his fallibility. This year Buffett called on hedge fund manager Douglas Kass, who has been shorting Berkshire stock, to make the case against the company. By all accounts he failed, thus reaffirming the mythology of Buffett's munificence in the eyes of his followers.

The cult of Buffett is so entrenched that its most vociferous critic is Buffett himself, who regularly administers large doses of self-reproach for poor decisions.

Such hero worship is dangerous, dispensing as it does with the one thing that all successful investors need: scepticism.

The idea that there is one true way, one path to riches, sign-posted by a pair of octogenarians with a fondness for peanut brittle, is one that Buffett and Munger themselves would be first to reject.

To be a successful investor you need to think independently and correctly, a phrase Buffett regularly trots out. That means the last thing you should do is join the cult of Buffett.

John Addis is a director at Intelligent Investor.

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