The investing world loves Warren Buffett. He's not called "the Oracle of Omaha," for nothing -- a great many investors look to him for wisdom and insight on the markets. His folksy annual letters to shareholders of his company Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A) (NYSE: BRK-B) are required reading for many financial types, whether they own Berkshire stock or not.
But there's one billionaire investor on the scene who apparently isn't as impressed with Warren -- and he isn't shy in letting everyone know why.
Making a point
The wealthy man in question is Daniel Loeb, founder and CEO of activist hedge fund Third Point. At a recent financial industry conference in Las Vegas, Loeb fired some bullets at Buffett.
"I love how he criticizes hedge funds, yet he really had the first hedge fund," Loeb said. "He criticizes activists, but he was the first activist. He criticizes financial service companies, yet he likes to invest in them. He thinks that we should all pay more taxes, but he loves avoiding them himself." Yikes. Loeb was essentially calling Warren a hypocrite.
The hedge fund manager didn't specify exactly what raised his ire. A good guess would be the Berkshire Hathaway chief's recent update of a bet he placed some years ago with Ted Seides.
Seides is president of Protege Partners, a company that invests in hedge funds. The bet was that, over a 10-year period, an S&P 500 index fund from Vanguard would outperform a portfolio of funds with stakes only in hedge funds.
Warren's update, delivered at Berkshire Hathaway's most recent annual shareholders meeting, passed along the news that the S&P 500 racer was in the lead. Actually, it seems like it's not much of a contest at all -- Vanguard has gained nearly 64%, compared to the hedge fund portfolio's 19%, since the bet was made in 2008.
The corporate insult master
We can't know the level of anger felt by Loeb when he made his remarks -- or if he was, deep down, genuinely angry at all. After all, he did later roll back his remarks a bit, saying his words were "gratuitous" and that he was only taking a "potshot" at Buffett. His attack could have just been an attempt to score points with fellow hedge fund captains and associated parties.
It's hard to tell, because Loeb throws fireballs at everybody. One thing that makes him so effective as an activist investor is his frequent, insulting, and often funny tirades against officials at companies targeted by Third Point, written in very public letters to those companies.
For instance, there was this gem in a missive to Ligand Pharmaceuticals regarding its CEO at the time, David Robinson:
I must wonder how, in this day and age, the Company's Board of Directors has not held you and [then-CFO] Paul Maier responsible for your respective failures and shown you both the door long ago -- accompanied by a well-worn boot planted in the backside.
One can only pity the poor student who suffers the indignity of attaching your name to his academic record.
So, tearing down the high and mighty is an intrinsic part of Loeb's way of doing things. I very much doubt the Robinsons and the Sevins of the corporate world truly make his blood boil. Instead, spitting his poison draws attention to the shortcomings of their companies (and, by extension, gives Third Point a shot at getting the changes it wants made there).
I think that is what's ultimately behind the Buffett jibes. That wager doesn't make the hedge fund guys look good, and a lot of people are noticing this, because the message bearer is the great Warren. Loeb and his colleagues probably want to see the man taken down a peg or two.
Whatever the motivation, there's no better person to deliver a stinging critique than the feisty Third Point leader. We can expect more of them aimed at the great and good as long as he's around.