Image credit: “Fight with a Bear,” The Crockett Almanac, 1838, Library of Congress
By Jason Zweig | 12:05 pm ET May 6, 2013
What did Warren Buffett hope to accomplish when he invited a short-seller to grill him at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting this past weekend?
Buffett declined last week to elaborate on why he invited Doug Kass, whose performance as an inquisitor has gotten mixed reviews, to join the panel of journalists and analysts who pose questions at each year’s meeting to Buffett and Berkshire’s vice chairman, Charles T. Munger.
But I got a sense of his thinking first-hand in October 2008, when Buffett asked me to be on the panel of journalists who would gather and pose questions to him and Munger. His main concern, he told me in a telephone conversation, was that the questions at the annual meeting were getting frivolous — so he had come up with the idea of having reporters solicit questions in advance and select only the hardest and most interesting.
Buffett told me then that he hoped shareholders would learn more about Berkshire this way — but also that he hoped some of his own assumptions would be challenged.
“Charlie [Munger] and I won’t ask to see the questions in advance,” he told me. “We don’t want to know the questions in advance.” (The Wall Street Journal instructed me to decline Buffett’s invitation to join his panel, on the grounds that it could create a perception of coziness. The role was later filled by a reporter for the New York Times.)
What Buffett knows is that if you have no one else but yourself to challenge your own most cherished assumptions, your preconceived notions will harden in your own head like concrete. From his mentor, Benjamin Graham, Buffett learned always to test beliefs against the evidence. If you can’t do that on your own, you need to bring in outsiders to help you. Over the years, Munger has frequently challenged Buffett to change his thinking — most notably, by learning that it can be justifiable to pay a high price for a great business.
As I point out in my column today, all investors could benefit from the same approach. To paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman, the easiest person to fool is yourself.
Source: WSJ.com, Total Return blog, http://blogs.wsj.com/totalreturn/2013/05/06/buffett-and-the-bear/