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Michael Lewis Explains Why He's Not Betting Against Warren Buffett .. This Time

A book review of Warren Buffett's authorized biography published last fall is featured on the cover of the latest New Republic magazine.

It's not especially timely, but it is especially interesting because the review was written by Michael Lewis, the well-known author of several business best-sellers, such as Liar's Pokerand Moneyball.

Lewis likes The Snowball by Alice Schroeder, in part because she "sought to describe Buffett's psychological landscape as clearly as his financial one... For the reader, the results are pretty terrific ... but for Buffett they are no doubt upsetting."

In his lengthy review, Lewis focuses on some of the tidbits and themes from the book that Buffett might indeed not like very much, including his "pathological" childhood shoplifting, his life-long "diet of an eight-year-old", his "tendency to seek safe harbors", his physical and emotional "cowardice", and his "obsession with money."

Is Lewis attacking Buffett? Reuters blogger Felix Salmon sees it that way, writing a post headlined Michael Lewis Takes Down Warren Buffett.

Seeking Alpha and The Atlantichave posts defending Buffett, and Dealbreakertakes some pleasure in "excerpting the most juvenile parts" of the Lewis review.

But Lewis wraps up his piece with his own defense of Buffett.

Lewis notes that "there has never been a better time to bet against Warren Buffett" than right now. He cites Berkshire's anemic book value and stock price, its troubled derivatives contracts, and the "possibility that Buffett might have gone a bit soft in his old age," giving away his fortune and talking publicly about how love is more powerful, and important, than money.

Lewis, however, declines to join those betting against Buffett and explains why.

He points out that Buffett is "sitting on a huge pile of increasingly precious capital, and has the power to extract the most onerous terms for its use."

Lewis notes that while Buffett is now in the "awkward" position of writing derivatives contracts after having "railed incessantly" against them, "the problem, as he most surely knew, was never derivatives... The problem was stupidly priced derivatives."

Lewis argues that it's not surprising that Buffett drifted from selling insurance against natural disasters to selling insurance against financial catastrophes "when the price beckoned him to drift."

And Lewis praises Berkshire for avoiding the fate, collapse or near-collapse, of "every other AAA-rated financial institution (that) essentially rented out its credit rating to the great subprime mortgage boom."

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"The problem in this sorry episode was not that we suffered too much of Warren Buffett's instincts, but that we suffered from too little."

Finally, Lewis says he doesn't want to bet against Buffett because he "did it once and lived to regret it."

Back in 1992, Lewis wrote a "long critical" article that he now says "dwelled on Buffett's small hypocrisies ... and downplayed his virtues."

Explaining why he wrote that article many years ago brings Lewis to his present-day pro-Buffett conclusion:

"Even then I thought that his virtues far outweighed his vices, and 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. Now Schroeder's brave book offers a close-up of the same cellulite, but more fairly, in the context of a genuinely delightful character.

Buffett might not like it, but this book has done him a very Buffett-like service. Twenty years from now, when the financial markets have forgotten our current trauma, and finance is once again fashionable, some young person will pick it up and discover that history's most legendary investor was not a cartoon but a real live human being. And still, somehow, deeply admirable."

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