Warren Buffett CEO Porn Gone Wild

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's that time of year. The media is turning its collective eyes to Omaha, where Warren Buffett has just issued his annual letter to shareholders, preparatory to the annual ritual of the Berkshire Hathaway investor meeting in May. It's like that old Cole Porter song, "I Concentrate on You," with the "you" being the Sage of Omaha and the "I" being the press.

Welcome to CEO porn season, Berkshire Hathaway edition. "CEO porn" is inside-baseball journalism terminology that I would define as "overemphasis on the (ghost-written) writings and overhyped achievements of chief executive officers, with negative or contrary elements given little or no attention." I respect Buffett as much as the next journo. I've met him and found him charming and likable. I've been a customer of his insurance and (until recently) candy subsidiaries for decades.

But enough already! The Warren Buffett CEO Porn epidemic is getting out of hand. I beg my colleagues in the media: Make it stop.

This year, the fascination with every word emanating from Buffett is even more embarrassingly lavish than usual, and the reason is not that Buffett has been especially prescient or skillful in the preceding year. In fact, as I'll be coming to in a moment, one of the pronouncements in his shareholder letter was downright goofy. The cause of the media's hyperfocus has been totally predictable: An 81-year-old CEO may be handing over the reins of Berkshire Hathaway any time now.

The hand-wringing over this in the media has been remarkable. It's as if the media were suffering from a kind of premature separation anxiety. What makes it ludicrous is the fact that his deputy, Charlie Munger, is old enough to be a World War II veteran, which he is. Compounding the absurdity is that Buffett, utilizing a false-suspense trick straight out of vaudeville-era press agentry, has said the Berkshire board has picked his successor, but that his lips are sealed.

Why, for heaven's sake? I think he won't identify his successor -- something that, by the way, his shareholders have every right to demand that he disclose -- because he loves the publicity that comes from the successor speculation, which combines the solemnity of a meeting of the College of Cardinals after the death of a pope with the pretentiousness of David O. Selznick's search for Scarlett O'Hara in the 1930s.

What Buffett is doing "is unorthodox" because "you create a distraction," a management consultant told the Deal Journal. Personally, I wonder if the distraction is intentional, to divert attention from two things, one of them being that Buffett's investment acumen has been disappointing of late.

Yes, we all know how well Berkshire has done over the long term. But over the past two years, while market indices have staged impressive gains, both classes of Berkshire stock have pretty much broken even.

Another aspect of his performance that I suspect Buffett doesn't want to highlight is that the Sage of Omaha hasn't been as right as a sage ought to be. He concedes that he was "dead wrong" when he said in 2011 that the housing market would be back on its feet in a year or two.

Now, I don't blame him for being wrong. I blame the media for giving so much attention to his statements so that this particular CEO being wrong is far more likely to hurt people than other CEOs being wrong. Anyone who relied on Buffett's prediction to make market bets would have been in for a rude awakening.

To his credit, Buffett has been vocal in opposing the inequities in the tax system that favor the 1% over the 99%, and Obama has picked up on his opposition to absurdities like the carried interest deduction, propounding what he calls the "Buffett Rule." You have to admire his outspokenness. It's terrific that a billionaire is willing to talk like a thousandaire on stuff that matters.

But I wonder if Buffett's common-man posturing is as sincere as it appears. As Bloomberg highlighted the other day, one of the stranger things in his annual shareholder letter was this:

"Large numbers of people who have 'lost' their house through foreclosure have actually realized a profit because they carried out refinancings earlier that gave them cash in excess of their cost. In these cases, the evicted homeowner was the winner, and the victim was the lender."

This unfortunate comment is condescending, cynical (note the scare quotes around "lost"), and demonstrates an ignorance of the behavior and motivations of hard-pressed homeowners. Sure, one can assume that many of the homeowners who lost their homes through foreclosures had previously carried out refinancings. Of course they did -- in order to keep their homes, while at the same time not destroy their credit rating. But in an economy as awful as this one, refinancing, if successful, is not always sufficient to keep a roof over one's head. So those homeowners default, and go through the humiliation of being thrown out on the street.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a "sage" to figure that one out. But somehow the reality of desperate homeowners just isn't apparent to Buffett, regular-guy posturing notwithstanding. Then again, he's a major shareholder in banks including Wells Fargo, right?

Let's not be mad at Buffett for saying things like that. If we're angry, it's not because Buffett let us down, but that we were let down by Buffett's carefully cultivated image. Time for the media to do a little soul-searching about the Sage of Omaha. I would suggest the following points to ponder:

* Is he really the Sage of Omaha or a refugee from the Efficient Market Hypothesis?

* To what extent is his "common-man" image a product of successful manipulation of the media?

* Does the media overhype his accomplishments and underemphasize his failures and mistakes?

* Is the media cutting him too much slack on his refusal to name his successor?

*And, lastly: Haven't we produced enough CEO porn about this man?

Yes, I realize that there's a fine line between CEO porn and satisfying readers' justifiable curiosity about a famous investor. But it's just as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about the other kind of porn: "I know it when I see it." And I've seen far too much of it about Warren Buffett.

Gary Weiss's most recent book, AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, was published by St. Martin's Press on Feb. 28.
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