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Lessons from Warren Buffett - XLVII

Jul 23, 2008

In the previous article based on Warren Buffett's 2002 letter to shareholders, we got to know the master's views on derivatives and the huge risks associated with them. Let us go further down the same letter and see what other investment wisdom the master has to offer.

The demise of the good CEO?
The great bull run of the 1980s-1990s in the US also brought with it a host of corporate scandals. A lot many CEOs, in their attempt to amass wealth quickly did not think twice to do so at the expense of their shareholders. It is fine for a CEO to take home a hefty pay package if the company he heads has put up an impressive performance. But to rake in millions when the shareholders i.e., the real owners of the business get nothing or only a tiny percentage of what the CEOs earn, amounts to nothing but daylight robbery. This is of course impossible without the complicity of the board of directors, whether voluntary or forced. Sadly, these people are increasingly failing to rise to the responsibilities entrusted to them by the shareholders, allowing CEOs to get away scot-free. It is this very issue of corporate governance that the master has talked about at length in his 2002 letter to shareholders. Alarmed by the rising incidents of CEO misconduct, Warren Buffett argues that in a room filled with well-mannered and intelligent people, it will be 'socially awkward' for any director to stand up and speak against a CEO's policies and hence he fully endorses board meetings without the presence of the CEO. Furthermore, he is also in favour of 'independent' directors provided they have three essential qualities. What are these essential qualities and why he deems them to be so important? Let us find out in the master's own words.

The master's golden words
On the nature of directors, Buffett said, "The current cry is for 'independent' directors. It is certainly true that it is desirable to have directors who think and speak independently - but they must also be business-savvy, interested and shareholder oriented."

He goes on to add, "In my 1993 commentary, those are the three qualities I described as essential. Over a span of 40 years, I have been on 19 public-company boards (excluding Berkshire's) and have interacted with perhaps 250 directors. Most of them were 'independent' as defined by today's rules. But the great majority of these directors lacked at least one of the three qualities I value. As a result, their contribution to shareholder well-being was minimal at best and, too often, negative. These people, decent and intelligent though they were, simply did not know enough about business and/or care enough about shareholders to question foolish acquisitions or egregious compensation. My own behavior, I must ruefully add, frequently fell short as well: Too often I was silent when management made proposals that I judged to be counter to the interests of shareholders. In those cases, collegiality trumped independence."

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