Has Warren gone off the rails?

November 5, 2009: 1:01 PM ET

buffettI've been in a good mood all week about the announcement that Warren Buffett was investing $32 billion in Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the nation's 2nd largest railroad. "From my standpoint, it's a lot easier to make a $32 billion investment than 10 $3 billion investments," Mr. Buffett said, and also noted, with his customary dry wit, that he was probably doing it because his dad never bought him a train set as a kid.

At first blush, this is so radically counter-intuitive a move that you just don't know what to say about it.  A railroad? Really? Isn't that hopelessly brick-and-mortar? And so 19th century? Why not an investment in this and that? High-tech wazoos or something? Synthetic brain cells, maybe? Online gadgetrons? There's so much fascinating new stuff out there! But choo-choos? Seriously?

And then you think, wait... this is Warren Buffett we're talking about. The guy who never invests in anything he doesn't understand.  How much of what's going on right now do YOU understand? Want somebody to explain the business model for the latest Silicon Alley start-up to you again? How about stem-cell research? Cloning? Alternative energy sources that may be commercialized one day?

We do know one thing. As the American economy improves, people are going to need to ship things from one end of the country to another. Rail is a cheaper way for people to do so than a lot of other methods. If you believe in our nation and its businesses, the move makes tremendous sense, even if it doesn't adhere 100% to conventional wisdom.

How stupid has conventional wisdom been this year?

Let's take a little quiz. If you had $30 billion and you had a choice where to put it, would you invest in...

  • Railroads or Airlines?  (Railroads)
  • Railroads or magazines? (Railroads)
  • Railroads or newspapers? (Railroads)
  • Railroad or automotive companies? (Railroads)
  • Railroads or the latest social networking phenom? (Railroads!)
  • Railroads or chicken? (Chicken)

In the latter case, you should probably know that I will always bet on chicken if given the opportunity. The ubiquity of chicken in our daily lives shows no signs of diminution. Wherever you turn around, somebody's eating one.  You can bet that's going to continue. So compared with most other investments available right now, other than insured triple tax free bonds, chicken is even better than railroads.

Other than that, you have to like the way Warren is thinking.  It says that you don't have to be nuts or smoking something in order to put your money on the home team, which is not Wall Street -- it's America. It's a bet FOR something, not against.

Railroads? I'm on board.

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