- Michael Lewis tore into Warren Buffett in a scathing article in 1992.
- The “Moneyball” author said the billionaire investor “sold his reputation” when he became chairman of Salomon Brothers, the scandal-hit Wall Street bank.
- Lewis backtracked 17 years later, describing Buffett as “genuinely delightful.”
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Author Michael Lewis once ripped apart Warren Buffett in 1992, painting him as a smug, self-righteous hypocrite who lucked into billions of dollars.
The author of “The Big Short” and “Moneyball” backtracked 17 years later, praising the famed investor as “deeply admirable” and “genuinely delightful.”
Morals or money
Lewis tore into Buffett in a piece titled “The Temptation of St. Warren” that ran in The New Republic in 1992.
He ridiculed the Berkshire Hathaway CEO’s claims of moral superiority over Wall Street bankers, and relished the irony of Buffett becoming the chairman of Salomon Brothers in 1991, which Lewis painted as a desperate attempt to save his $700 million investment in the scandal-hit investment bank.
“Salomon Brothers stood for most of the things Buffett stood against,” Lewis wrote, savoring the “delicious gap between what the moralist said and what he did.”
He argued Buffett “sold his reputation” when he joined Salomon, which was under federal investigation for making fraudulent bids for US Treasury bonds, exceeding its allowance, and cornering the market. Salomon was Lewis’ former employer and the subject of his debut novel “Liar’s Poker.”
Lewis went even further, dismissing Buffett’s billions as the product of blind luck. “The reason he is rich is simply that random games produce big winners,” he wrote.
The author also accused Buffett of quieting his conscience by lavishing praise on wholesome people and investments in his yearly shareholders letters.
He pointed to the billionaire’s celebration of the “stick-to-the-knitting virtues” of Mrs B, the founder of Nebraska Furniture Mart.
Buffett carefully built and aggressively defended his reputation for honesty and integrity, Lewis continued. “The legend of the virtuous Midwesterner made good has been swallowed and regurgitated whole and often,” he said.
In reality, Lewis added, Buffett was masking his “corrosion” with “moralistic charm” as he struggled to reconcile the compromises he made in business with the noble values he preached.
Lewis framed the quandary as “Buffett’s Dilemma: the choice between doing good and making money.”
A change of tune
Lewis struck a very different tone in “The Master of Money,” a piece he wrote for the same magazine 17 years later, in 2009.
In the story — a review of Alice Schroeder’s “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” — Lewis credited Buffett with single-handedly saving Salomon from going under.
He also praised Buffett’s prudent management during the financial crisis, which spared Berkshire when many of America’s biggest banks and insurers went bust.
“The problem in this sorry episode was not that we suffered from too much of Warren Buffett’s instincts, but that we suffered from too little,” Lewis wrote.
Aware of his change of tune, the author said he regretted betting against Buffett.
His previous story “dwelled on Buffett’s small hypocrisies … and downplayed his virtues,” he said.
Lewis added that when he wrote the takedown, he “felt a bit like the guy who, having grown weary of hearing others drone on about the physical perfection of some supermodel, went to the beach with a camera and snapped a photo of her cellulite.”
Getting a close up of Buffett through Schroeder’s biography changed his mind, Lewis said.
He added that he now saw the investor as “deeply admirable” and a “genuinely delightful character.”