Introducing Symposium: The Essays of Warren Buffett
posted by Lawrence Cunningham
We at Concurring Opinions are delighted to welcome a dozen luminaries and thousands of readers to this week’s on-line symposium featuring The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate.
I began studying Warren Buffett’s letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway in 1992 when researching what became my first scholarly article, tracing the intellectual history of efficient market theory. The letters went against the grain of prevailing academic work, so they served as a sort of contrary exhibit rather than supporting many standard assertions.
The letters were smart, witty, arresting and expansive, addressing governance, mergers, investing, accounting, taxes and many other topics I would spend my career teaching and writing about. I could not put them down. Yet nor could I, acting alone, give them a place of respect in the academy that I thought they deserved but had not received.
So I decided to host a symposium featuring the letters, gathering a group of 20 scholars to dissect their content. Through Monroe Price, then Dean of Cardozo Law School, where I worked, I contacted Bob Denham, a close Berkshire adviser then and now, who passed along my proposal, which Warren embraced.
We held a two-day conference in New York on October 27-28, 1996, with five separate panels of four to six people each. Warren was in the front row participating actively in the discussion throughout, flanked by his wife Susie (pictured at left), son Howard, insurance maven Ajit Jian and business partner Charlie Munger (likewise pictured)—who also had a lot to say during the conference.
The centerpiece of the conference was a collection of Buffett’s letters, which I had rearranged thematically, and would later publish as The Essays. The arrangement both enabled a correspondence between the collection and the panel topics and papers, as well as the emergence of an unmistakable organizing principle: the fundamental idea that price and value are different things.
That meant that stock markets are not so efficient as to invariably produce a price that is a reliable proxy for value. This idea is so deep, and was so contrary to academic literature and classroom teaching, that it received an entire section of the collection and separate panel at the symposium. But it was even larger because pretty much all the other principles in The Essays—about governance, mergers, accounting and so on—followed from that tenet.
Since the conference edition (1997), we published a revised first edition (2001), a second edition (2008) and now a third edition (2013), in each case maintaining the themes that have animated the material from the beginning while adding discussion of contemporary issues that radiate from them.
We have often thought of hosting a reunion symposium on The Essays and this week, thanks to the generosity of a dozen luminaries, we do so. Following is a run-down of the participants in this week’s symposium, half of whom participated in the original. They are listed in roughly the order in which their contributions appear (with links to pieces as they have been posted).
[To see all posts in the symposium grouped together, click the following link, which also appears below every post in the symposium: "Symposium: The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America."]
● Carol Loomis, the 59-year veteran of Fortune magazine, and Warren’s close friend of four decades who has edited his annual shareholders’ letters for 36 years and recently published Tap Dancing to Work, a collection of the magazine’s writings about Buffett. For Carol’s post, click here.
● Simon Lorne, Berkshire/Buffett confidant, who played a vital role alongside Buffett in helping to turn around Salomon Inc back in the 1990s, Sy is an expert on corporate governance now serving as vice chairman of Millennium Management. For Sy’s posts, click here and here.
● Donald Graham, Chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Co., one of Berkshire’s earliest significant capital commitments, dating to the 1970s, exhibiting one of the most successful relationships between shareholder and management on record. For Don’s post, click here.
● Robert Mundheim, another BRK insider, who also worked with Buffett and Lorne on Salomon and is now of counsel at Shearman & Sterling, will post about his role in brokering the deal that brought Benjamin Moore into the Berkshire family. For Bob’s post, click here.
● Kelli Alces (Florida State): a relatively younger and outstanding scholar of corporate governance, Kelli reviews so much that is unique about Berkshire to ask whether there could be other Berkshires; for Kelli’s post, click here.
● Deborah DeMott (Duke): a veteran of our original conference on Buffett Essays in 1996, and perhaps the world’s leading authority on the law and practice of agency, Deborah considers how rarely Berkshire uses agents in business transactions and why; for Deborah’ post, click here.
● Jill Fisch (Penn): also an alum of our 1996 Buffett conference, Jill is one of the world’s top scholars of corporate governance and the intersection there of law and business, and considers the enigmatic aspects of Berkshire’s success and what it means for the company post-Buffett; for Jill’s post, click here.
● William Bratton (Penn): yet another recidivist from our 1996 conference, Bill is an internationally renowned interdiscplianry scholar, expert in law, accouting, finance and economics alike, he examines Berkshire’s no-dividend/share buyback policy, how it has evolved and where it seems to be heading. For Bill’s posts, see here and here.
● Steven Davidoff, the New York Times columnist who writes “The Deal Professor” weekly and teaches in both the business and law schools of Ohio State, an outstanding scholar, thinker and journalist who ran column about Buffett the same day he contributed to this symposium.
INVESTORS AND TEACHERS
● Chris Begg and Ken ShubinStein, two prominent investors who also teach at Columbia University Business School, that magical institution whose graduates include not only Warren Buffett ’51, but also Mario Gabelli ’67, Glenn Greenberg ’73, and Charles Royce ’63
● Guy Spier, contemporary exemplar of the value investing tradition, and well-known in the value investing community for winning the opportunity to have lunch with Buffett by making a $625,000 charitable contribution; one of the most philosophical yet modest investors we know. For Guy’s post, click here.
Welcome one and all! We look forward to the posts and hope for further discussion in the comments.