Alice Schroeder's 'The Snowball'

by: David Merkel, CFA

I had wanted to read this book for a long time, and I asked the publisher for a copy of the book. No copy came, and I asked years ago.

Recently, Alice Schroeder came to speak to the Baltimore CFA Society, and after hearing her good talk, I decided to get a copy from the local library (12 copies available in the system).

This book is complex. It's a great book, but you have to appreciate why it was designed the way it was. Buffett is a complex guy, as you might expect from the only man to become ultra-rich from investing alone. That's why the book is long. I did not mind that; I even read the footnotes to get the nuances on when Alice's sources did not agree.

Those that criticize Alice Schroeder as not being capable to be a biographer, neglect her significant abilities understanding investment, insurance, and from what I can gather, how a complex man ticks. She spent years with him, and had access to all of the major sources still living. Other authors did not have that.

As such, the book focuses on Buffett the man, and less on Buffett the investor. That's not a bad thing. This is a book about Buffett, not a book about how Buffett did it (and how you can too).

The rest of my review will focus on the grand themes of the book as I see them. Others may differ, but I see it this way:

Overcoming Insecurity

1. Buffett's mother was a harsh woman, if the book is correct, and did not love her first two kids, of which Warren was one. On the Mother's side of the family, there was a history of mental illness. In terms of early influences, this is the large one. His father was at home less, and Leila Buffett was a large influence.

Buffett was industrious as a child, and even during Great Depression earned money. He quickly realized the value of reinvesting profits, and the concept of compounding came to the young man.

But as with many young men, he had his challenges in his teenage years. He was not popular. He got ripped out of his environment to accompany his family to DC, where his father had become a Congressman. (Think of Ron Paul, but with more idealism, and less contact with his kids.)

Warren became a bit of a rebel, and his grades suffered. Still amid all of it, his small businesses did well. In High School, he eventually focused on his studies, and his grades recovered, such that he was able to go to college at the University of Pennsylvania, before transferring to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

2. Warren overcame insecurity through the women who cared for him. In this sense, initially he was a sponge for love, and later, one who would learn to care for friends. The main women in his life were Leila Buffett, Susie Buffett (wife), Susie Buffett, Jr. (daughter), Kay Graham (Washington Post), Sharon Osberg (bridge partner), and Astrid Menks (mistress, and current wife). If I may, let me say that men need women to admire them, or they don't feel whole. Because Buffett's mother was sparing with love, Buffett sought a wife, and against all odds, found one that would care for his emotional needs.

Susie was more complex than that, and with Warren's significant travel, after two decades, she began to seek activities that rewarded her. This was the beginning of the end of their marriage in real terms, though not legal terms.

More to come in part two.

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