Hedge fund legend Michael Steinhardt was on CNBC yesterday. As usual, he had much to say and held little back. One of my favorite observations: When he started in 1967, "you had to be a special money manager to run a hedge fund because you were expected to do well. It's a very different world today." So true.
Among the more controversial comments was aimed at Warren Buffett's philanthropic efforts. Says Steinhardt:
"[Buffett] is the greatest PR person of recent times. He has managed to achieve a snow job that has conned virtually everyone in the press to my knowledge, and it is remarkable that he continues to do it. ...
"As a great measure of the man's wonder, he gave away 2.5 cents for the first 70-some-odd years of his life. He gave away nothing. And then in one fell swoop he gave away almost all of his money, thoughtlessly, to one guy. Thoughtlessly! And from that moment on he became the greatest advocate to philanthropy. He pitched to all the bumbling billionaires to do the same thing. And many of them did. ... What does that say? I think that's worth reflecting. ... I gave much more of it away much earlier than he did."
Well, sort of.
The claim that Buffett gave away "2.5 cents" during his first 70 years isn't really accurate. Buffett and his late wife, Susie, started the Buffett Foundation -- later renamed the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation -- in the 1960s, which gave away tens of millions. He gave away $134 million in 1999 to "unnamed charities," and had been donating $5 million per year to Ted Turner's Nuclear Threat Initiative for years, on top of a $50 million matching gift. Tens of millions more went to charitable causes directed by his children.
And while it may not have come until late in his life, donating the bulk of his fortune had been Buffett's plan since he was in his 20s. He explained in a 2006 interview:
"When we got married in 1952, I told Susie I was going to be rich. That wasn't going to be because of any special virtues of mine or even because of hard work, but simply because I was born with the right skills in the right place at the right time. ...
"We were totally in sync about what to do with it -- and that was to give it back to society. In that, we agreed with Andrew Carnegie, who said that huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society. ... Certainly neither Susie nor I ever thought we should pass huge amounts of money along to our children."
But Steinhardt's big question still remains: Why did Buffett wait so long to donate most of his money? Why not start decades ago, giving the bulk of his Berkshire Hathaway
This, too, isn't a secret. Buffett has explained why, and it makes a ton of sense:
"I always had the idea that philanthropy was important today, but would be equally important in one year, 10 years, 20 years, and the future generally.
"And someone who was compounding money at a high rate, I thought, was the better party to be taking care of the philanthropy that was to be done 20 years out, while the people compounding at a lower rate should logically take care of the current philanthropy."
Why donate millions today when you can donate billions tomorrow? When you can compound money at 20%+ per year, delaying made perfect sense. Had he given away the bulk of his fortune when he was a multimillionaire in this 30s, the philanthropic impact would have been admirable, but not astounding. By waiting until he was worth $50 billion, the effect is almost unprecedented. Classic thinking of a long-term investor.
As for the "thoughtless" move of donating his wealth to the charity of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Buffett has tackled this criticism before, too. According to his biography, The Snowball:
"I sat down and thought about who could do a better job dispensing the wealth than myself. It's really quite logical. People ... are always saying, Who should handle my money? And they quite willingly turn their money over to people with a certain expertise. But they don't seem to think about doing that very often in the philanthropic world. They pick their old business cronies or whomever to administer wealth after they're gone, at a time when they won't even be able to observe what's happening. ...
"It was clear that Bill Gates had an outstanding mind with the right goals, focusing intensely with passion and heart on improving the lot of mankind around the world without any regard to gender, religion, color, or geography. He was just doing the most good for the most people. So when the time came to make a decision on where the money would go, it was a simple decision. "
Steinhardt asked for reflection. Hopefully, this provided some.
What do you think?
Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares of Berkshire and Microsoft. Berkshire Hathaway and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Microsoft. Motley Fool Alpha LLC owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.