PERSPECTIVE: In pursuit of the one true sage in a world of market madness

Could the appearance of the best-known investor on the planet on the share register of Omnicom call time on the two-year slump in the advertising sector on the grounds that it means the sector is at, or near, rock bottom?

Ah, how wonderful that would be ... media stocks return to glamour status (or at least start publishing profits), clients start oozing money, redundancies halt and Garry Lace's salary begins to look positively puny.

This optimistic scenario occurred to many when it emerged late last week that Warren Buffett, aka the billionaire Oracle of Omaha, the world's second-richest man and the most successful investor this century, had taken a stake in Omnicom in August.

Investors duly chased WPP shares on the news, indicating that, as ever, there is a touch of the self-fulfilling prophecy about the workings of the finance markets. In other words, as soon as Buffett or his equivalent shows an interest in a company or a sector, its shares are marked up.

It seems that if you work on Wall Street or in the City of London your key daily task is to lean out of the window, note the mob on the move, announce that you are its leader and join in.

Look more closely, however, and two interpretations are possible. As optimistic as the next advertising person, here's my rose-tinted one.

Buffett famously never went near any new-media stocks; he claimed, wisely as it turned out, not to understand the internet bubble. But he loves brands and media - in other words, companies such as advertising agencies, which can grow on the back of bigger corporations. He is known for the world-class returns (more than 25 per cent compound growth) he has produced for over 30 years from his investment conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway. So one view is that here is convincing evidence that the market has bottomed out. There are other signs too; WPP and Reuters stocks did not plummet when they issued profit warnings and the collapse in the share prices of such companies as Cable & Wireless remained localised and did not wreak havoc across the whole index.

A more measured view suggests that "watch this space" still applies more than anything else. The stake was actually taken by Geico, an insurance subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. Is it, therefore, a step too far to assume that Geico investment equals Buffett investment? Also, the stake, worth about $30 million, amounts to only a quarter of 1 per cent of Omnicom, so it is small by his standards and could be no more than a punt. Will he just sell on the rise? It seems the key indictor will come early in 2003 when Geico/Buffett have to disclose if they have built on their initial stake in Omnicom.

So there you have it. Two opposing views, one 72-year-old investor wiser than the rest of us put together. Take your pick.

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