Behind the Scenes With the Saints and Scoundrels of American Business (And Everything in Between)

By Joe Nocera; Portfolio, 292 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Cecil Johnson

In Omaha, Neb., on the first Saturday of May in 1998, the skies did for Warren Buffett something similar to what the Red Sea did for Moses, writes New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera in one of the highlight articles of this splendid collection of reprised reports.

The column, which first appeared in Money magazine, is titled "Saint Warren of Omaha." It details the happenings during the three-day Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual meeting that year. Warren throws the annual party for the legions of Buffett followers and investors who flock to Omaha to partake of the wit and wisdom of the widely acclaimed investment genius. About 11,000 of them packed the largest arena in the city for the teach-in.

Other events included a huge cocktail party at Borshiem's Fine Jewelry store (owned by Berkshire Hathaway); a meal at Buffett's favorite steakhouse, Gorat's; and another feast at the Dairy Queen, a company that is also owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

It appeared, however, that one of the big events, an Omaha Royals baseball game, would be rained out. Buffett owns 25 percent of the team and likes to throw out the first pitch before heading to the upper decks to sign autographs and pose for pictures during the course of the game.

That Saturday, however, it had been raining all day, and there was no end to it in the forecast. Shareholders who had come from far and near were nervous. They would be at a loss to fill the rest of the day if the game were rained out.

"But then the clock struck 5 p.m., and the rain suddenly stopped, and the sun broke through the clouds. Two hours later, when Buffett threw out the first pitch, the field was dry enough to play on and the weather was just about perfect. It stayed that way for the duration of the game. And wouldn't you know it? The moment the game ended and Buffett headed for home, the skies darkened. By the time the stands emptied, the downpour had begun again in earnest," writes Nocera.

He notes that none of the faithful seemed at all surprised by the break in the weather, because among investors, many believe that Buffett can walk on water.

Nocera uses the episode involving the baseball game as a way of segueing into his opinion of just how extraordinary Buffett is, how his way of investing and his success fly in the face of so-called random-walk theory, which has to do with luck, and also belies the notion that anyone could achieve Buffett's kind of investment success merely by imitating him.

"But you know that's not true; it's like saying that the reason the ball goes in the basket more often for Michael Jordan has to do with luck, not skill. No, like Jordan, Buffett has something we mortals have no real hope of emulating. Just as Jordan is far more likely to ascribe his success to hard work than to his supernatural talent, so, too, does the greatest investor of our time make investing seem easier than it actually is," Nocera writes.

Still, Nocera does not buy into the "hard work" explanation completely. He says he came away from the Berkshire Hathaway weekend "utterly convinced that what Buffett does is, in its own way, as unreachable as anything Michael Jordan does."

He maintains that what Buffett has accomplished is really "miraculous."

Buffett is only one of dozens of prominent members of the business community and associated professions revisited in the pages of this captivating anthology. Others include T. Boone Pickens, Henry Blodget, Michael Milken, Steve Jobs, Ivan Boesky, Peter Lynch, Charlie Merrell, and several attorneys that Nocera labels "Lawyers From Hell."

Good Guys & Bad Guys

is an extraordinary achievement in recycling. Nocera spices the assortment of previously published articles with insightful and often witty introductory commentaries that give them historical context and present-day relevance.

The result is enjoyable and informative reading for both those who have read the articles before and those partaking of them for the first time.