Please enjoy my “time saver” audio recording of the 2023 Daily Journal Annual Meeting. I reduced the meeting runtime by ~36 minutes by editing out the formal business meeting, eliminating long pauses & fillers, and trimming questions down to their core components.
And as always, check back soon for my full transcript of the annual meeting! Or subscribe if you’d like it emailed directly to your inbox after it’s posted.
It’s always a wonderful pleasure to hear Charlie Munger speak at the Daily Journal Annual Meeting. Once again, the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger was on full display at the deceptively youthful age of 98!
This transcript has been enhanced with clickable links to various curated resources. In addition to the transcript, you may also listen to my “time-saver” edit of the meeting’s audio, or watch the entire meeting on YouTube.
I would like to thank Mr. Munger for energetically entertaining our questions and graciously sharing his wisdom, insights, and time with all of us.
I hope you all enjoy!
(Note: I frequently summarized the questions that were presented by the host Becky Quick, but as for anything that Charlie or Gerry said, I translated them verbatim and as accurately as possible.)
Start of Transcript
Charlie Munger: The sole business of the meeting is to elect four directors; Munger, Conlin (link 1, 2), Maryjoe Rodriguez and John Frank (link 1, 2, 3). We have the proxies, we have the inspector of elections, we have everything here, that is now done. The Daily Journal’s former business is over. Now we’re going to answer questions in the tradition that’s come to both the Daily Journal and Berkshire Hathaway. So you’re on for the first question.
Becky Quick: How does the Daily Journal plan to handle its investment portfolio after Charlie steps back?
Gerry Salzman: Charlie, I think you should answer that.
Charlie Munger: Well, I’ll handle it as long as we can, and when I’m gone or sufficiently impaired, we’ll get somebody else to do it.
Becky Quick: Ok, the second part of that question is, what are the reasons for Gerry and Peter Kaufman leaving the board?
Charlie Munger: Well, we are going to have to make changes in the future because Gerry and I are so superannuated. And Peter didn’t want to do it anymore, and that’s all we have to say.
Becky Quick: What is the current Daily Journal’s management succession plan and who will be in charge after Mr. Salzman’s retirement?
Charlie Munger: Well, our long-term plan (is) to replace both Gerry and I because he’s eighty-three and I’m ninety-eight. So obviously, we have a succession planning to do in the near future, and we’ll do it as fast as we can.
Becky Quick: I notice that the Daily Journal is using margin debts to purchase overseas securities, and the overseas security is not reported in the SEC filing. As a shareholder, am I entitled to know what overseas security we own on margin?
Charlie Munger: Well, the practice at Daily Journal and Berkshire is the same. We disclose what we have to under the rules because we don’t want people to know what we’re buying and selling, so we tell everybody what we have to under the rules, and we keep it confidential until then. That’s our system.
Becky Quick: Our company stated that Journal Technology serves 30 states in the United States on the website and all the other older 10-Q and 10-K. It said that JTI serves 42 states. I just wonder what is the reason for the decline? I would appreciate any explanation.
Charlie Munger: Gerry, you take that one.
Gerry Salzman: The reason for the decline, to a certain degree, is several years ago, we decided not to support a very old legacy system. Which had a number of smaller agencies, in addition to a number of larger agencies, and as we expected, many of the smaller agencies decided not to go to our main system, which we call eCourt, eSystems, eProbation, eProsecutor and ePublic Defender. And so that’s the reason the decline in those numbers.
Charlie Munger: And by the way, other software companies avoid obsoleting a system because they lose some business. But we want the customers to have the more modern system.
Becky Quick: Who are your principal competitors in supplying software to court systems, and do you have a guess as to who has what market share?
Charlie Munger: Well, Journal Technologies has the big share, and the rest is scattered. Now, pardon me, I mean, Tyler Technologies has the big market share.
Becky Quick: In the annual report, you noted that the prospects in software now seem especially interesting, would you care to expound on that thought?
Charlie Munger: Well, I’m glad to. What’s interesting is that. The courts of the world have been in the Stone Age, and there’s no reason where lawyers should go down through heavy traffic and wait for some little motion, it should all be done on Zoom and so forth. And the filing should be done electronically… What there is a huge market for the automation of the courts, and it’s early. That’s the good news. It’s a big market and the bad news is it’s a slow damn tough way to grind ahead in software because it’s very bureaucratic…RFP, Government bodies. It’s a huge market, and it’s intrinsically going to be very slow to get done. That’s the good news and bad news, we have a huge market and it’s going to be slow and bureaucratic. There isn’t any doubt about what’s going to happen, the courts are going to get more efficient and get with the modern world. And also the district attorney’s offices and the probation offices.
Becky Quick: In January Jeff Gundlach was quoted, “China is uninvestable, in my opinion at this point. I’ve never invested in China long or short. Why is that? I don’t trust the data. I don’t trust the relationship between the United States and China anymore. I think that investments in China could be confiscated. I think there’s a risk of that.” Obviously, with a significant percentage of the Daily Journal’s marketable securities invested in BYD and Alibaba, you feel differently. Please explain why you are right.
Charlie Munger: Well, of course, only the future knows who’s going to be right. But China is a big, modern nation. It’s got this huge population and this huge modernity that’s come in the last 30 years. And we invested some money in China because we could get more value in terms of the strength of the enterprise and the price of the security than we could get in the United States. Other people, including Sequoia, the leading venture capital firm in the United States, have made the same decision we have. But I’m sympathetic to Gundlach. If he’s nervous he doesn’t have to join us. Different folks have different opinions. I feel about Russia the way he feels about China. I don’t invest in Russia, so I can’t criticize the Gundlach’s point of view. It’s just I reached a different conclusion.
Becky Quick: Charlie, you and Warren have been making concentrated investments since the nineteen fifties. Many of these investments have led to gains, but even more impressively, none of them have led to significant losses. As far as I can tell, neither one of you has lost more than a few percentage points of equity on any single investment. Daily Journal has recently bet a large amount of its capital on Alibaba (link 1, 2) and foreign traded stock. It’s also taken on an additional $40 million in margin debt to make these investments. What makes you so sure that these investments won’t lead to a substantial impairment of Daily Journal’s equity capital, which would impact the company’s ability to reinvest the resources needed to develop the company’s software operating business?
Charlie Munger: Well, of course, if you invest in marketable securities, you have the risk that they’ll go down and you’ll lose money instead of make it. But if you hold a depreciating currency, that’s losing purchasing power. On balance, we prefer the risk we have to those we’re avoiding, and we don’t mind a tiny little bit of margin debt. (link 1, 2, 3)
Becky Quick: I got lots and lots of questions on Alibaba. That was the one question that I received more than any other, so I’ll dig a little deeper through some of these. As a Daily Journal owner, do we own local shares of Alibaba? Does that actually give us legal ownership of that business, or do we have a variable interest? And is that the same? Net-net, what do we own? And I did get a series of questions related to that same sort of sort of thought.
Charlie Munger: When you buy Alibaba, you do get sort of a derivative. But assuming there’s a reasonable honor among civilized nations, that risk doesn’t seem all that big to me.
Becky Quick: Got a lot of questions just about the investing in China risks. He’s interested in your take on China and Chinese stock exposure for the long term. He says it’s becoming quite evident that Chinese companies could be banned from doing business in the western world or maybe some of the eastern countries too, because of the number of the following reasons. One, the security threat issues. Two, the potential conflict over Taiwan. Three, inability to meet western accounting standards and number four, human rights issues. Considering all of the risks mentioned above, why would anyone as smart as Munger or Buffett consider investing in China or any of the Chinese companies?
Charlie Munger: Well, we did it for a very simple reason we got more strength per dollar invested in China. The companies we invest in are stronger relative to their competition and priced lower. That’s why we’re in China. (link 1, 2)
Becky Quick: Although the financials seem strong, do the political pressures from the Chinese government worry you at all?
Charlie Munger: Well, the Chinese government is worrying all the capitalists in the world way more than it used to. And of course we don’t like that, and we wish that China and the United States got along better. If you stop to think about it, think about how massively stupid both China and the United States have been to allow the existing tensions to arise. What bad is ever going to happen to China or the United States if we two are close? If we make good friends out of the Chinese and vice versa, who in the hell is ever going to bother us?
Of course we should make friends with China. And of course we should learn to get along with people who have a different system of government. We like our government because we’re used to it, and it has advantages of personal freedom. China could never have handled its life with a government like ours. They wouldn’t be in the position they’re in. They had to prevent five hundred million or six hundred million people from being born in China. They just measured the women’s menstrual periods when they came to work and aborted those who weren’t allowed to have children. You can’t do that in the United States. And it really needed doing in China. And so they did what they had to do using their methods. And I don’t think we should be criticizing China, which has terrible problems, because they’re not just like the United States. They do some things better than we do. They should like us, and we should like them… I think nothing is crazier than people who foment resentments on either side of that one.
Becky Quick: How do you think the Ukraine situation will be resolved in your opinion?
Charlie Munger: Well, I have no insight that’s any better than anybody else on that one. Most of these things in the days when both parties have huge numbers of hydrogen bombs get resolved because the alternative is so awful that even an idiot can see that the question ought to be resolved. That’s the way it’s worked so far, and I hope it keeps working that way. We live in the ‘pax nucleana‘. We’ve gotten an absence of World Wars for a long time because we had these nuclear weapons, it’s been a blessing to humanity. But it does make you nervous every once in a while, and it’s quite irresponsible when the leaders in the modern age get over tensions over border incidents and so forth.
Becky Quick: You said that we should partner up with China. Does it concern you to see Russia partnering up with China and that relationship getting a little cozier?
Charlie Munger: It’s hard to think of anything that’s more stupid. And both sides are doing it. The political leaders on each side are trying to make points with their own constituencies by showing how tough they are. That is massively stupid on both sides.
Becky Quick: Charlie, Alibaba is a top three holding for you. It sells at a steep discount to its U.S. peers. Best comparable is Amazon, which is triple Alibaba’s P/E. So what discount should U.S. investors seek when buying Chinese stocks considering the political, regulatory and especially the ownership structure risk? Oh, and considering the fortune Berkshire made on your bid suggestion, why doesn’t Buffett buy Alibaba?
Charlie Munger: Well, Warren, like many other intelligent people, likes to invest where he’s personally comfortable. And for some reason I’m more comfortable with the Chinese than he is. That’s a minor difference. But I have all kinds of places where I’m just like Warren. I have all kinds of things where I’m not comfortable and I just don’t go near them. I think an old guy is entitled to invest where he wants to invest. It’s OK to have some things that you just don’t want to bother with. I don’t think Alibaba is as entrenched as something like Apple and Alphabet. I think the internet is going to be a very competitive place, even if you’re big internet retailer.
Becky Quick: Crypto was another question that I got a lot of, I’ll ask this one. Crypto is a two trillion-dollar asset class. Are you willing to admit you missed something?
Charlie Munger: Well, I certainly didn’t invest in crypto. I’m proud of the fact I’ve avoided it. It’s like, you know, something venereal disease or something. I just regarded as beneath contempt. Some people think it’s modernity and they welcome a currency that’s so useful in extortions and kidnappings and so on and so on…tax evasion. And of course the envy. Everybody has to create his own new currency. And I think that’s crazy too. So. I wish it had been banned immediately, and I admire the Chinese for banning it. I think they were right, and we’ve been wrong to allow it.
Becky Quick: Mr. Munger, you’ve been warning of the evils of cryptocurrency in the past. How do you feel about the Federal Reserve preparing to launch a central bank digital currency? Do you think that this will be beneficial or harmful to the strength and resilience of our markets?
Charlie Munger: No, no, the Federal Reserve could have a currency if they want one… We’ve got a digital currency already, it’s called a bank account. The banks are all integrated with the Federal Reserve System. We already have a digital currency. I like digital currencies for the United States.
Becky Quick: Two years ago at this meeting, you said, I think there are lots of troubles coming, there’s too much wretched excess. Since that meeting, we have seen something like 860 SPACs, IPOs like Rivian and Robinhood and the GameStop phenomenon. I can’t imagine you’ve changed your mind. I wonder what your favorite story of wretched excess is from the last year.
Charlie Munger: Well, certainly the great short squeeze in GameStop was wretched excess. Certainly, the bitcoin thing is wretched excess. I would argue that venture capital is throwing too much money, too fast, and there’s a considerable wretched excess in venture capital and other forms of private equity. And so…
We have a stock market which some people use like a gambling parlor. And the transactions of the people who love the gambling parlor aspect of the business and those who want to make long term investments, to take care of their old age and so forth…I mean, muddle that in one market and it goes out of control because the stock market becomes an ideal gambling parlor activity. I don’t think that ought to have been allowed, either. If I were the dictator of the world, I would have some kind of a tax on short term gains that made the stock market very much less liquid and drove out this marriage of gambling parlor and legitimate capital development of the country. It’s not a good marriage, and I think we need a divorce.
Becky Quick: How would a divorce work?
Charlie Munger: Well, you’d have to have some kind of a rule that just made stocks way less liquid. We have all the real estate we want, all those shopping centers and auto agencies and so forth without having a perfect liquid market. We would have a stock market that was way less liquid. When I was young, we had a stock market that was way less liquid, way fewer shares. When I was at the Harvard Law School, we seldom traded a million shares in a day. Now we trade billions. We don’t need a stock market that liquid. What we’re getting is wretched excess and danger for the country, and everybody loves it because it’s like a bunch of people get drunk at a party, they’re having so much fun getting drunk that they don’t think about the consequences. We don’t need this wretched excess. It has bad consequences, you can argue that the wretched excesses of the twenties gave us the Great Depression and the Great Depression gave us Hitler. This is serious stuff. But it’s awfully hard. A lot of people like a drunken brawl. And so far, those are the people that are winning. And a lot of people are making money out of our brawl.
Becky Quick: You mentioned we’re in a big bubble. Can you elaborate on that and how is this likely to play out?
Charlie Munger: Well, I think eventually there will be considerable trouble because of the wretched excess that’s the way it’s usually worked in the past. But when it’s going to come and how bad it will be, I can’t tell you.
Becky Quick: Charts, technicals, momentum and A.I. seem to dominate the market these days. Are old school Ben Graham valuation methods dead?
Charlie Munger: They’ll never die. The idea of getting more value than you pay for, that’s what investment is, if you want to be successful, you have to get more value than you pay for. And so it’s never going to be obsolete. Now you can get a whole body of people that don’t even know what they’re buying, they just quote quotations on the ticker. I don’t think it’s helpful to have… Think of the past crazy booms and how they worked out, the South Seas bubble, the bubble in the late 20s, so on and so on. We’ve had this since the dawn of capitalism. We’ve had crazy bubbles.
Becky Quick: Do you think it’s likely that we will experience a major increase in interest rates in the upcoming decades, like, for example, in the period between 1950 and 1980?
Charlie Munger: Well, that of course is a very intelligent question and a very difficult question. When you throw money…when you print money on the scale that modern nations are printing it, Japan, the United States, Europe, et cetera. We’re getting into new territory in terms of size. The Japanese bought back not only a lot of their own debt, but a lot of their common stocks. So the Federal Reserve system… You can’t imagine how much money printing Japan has done, and they haven’t had all that much inflation and it’s still a very admirable civilization. In fact, you could argue that Japan is one of the more admirable civilizations in the whole world. And in spite of all this very extreme government money printing they’ve done, they haven’t had terrible consequences. Now they’ve had 25 years of stasis, with living standards not improving very much. I don’t think that came from their macroeconomic policies. I think that came from the rise of tough competition for their export powerhouse from China and Korea.
But at any rate, it’s weird what’s happening, and nobody knows for sure how it’s going to work out. I think it’s encouraging that Japan could print as much money as it has and remain as civilized and calm and admirable as it has. And so I hope to God the United States has a similar happy outcome. But I think the Japanese are better adapted for stasis than we are. I think it’s a duty filled, civilized bunch of people. A lot of them older, not many young people. And they just suck it in and cope. In our country. We have terrible tensions. It’s way harder to run a country which is not monoethnic like Japan. There’s some professor at Harvard that has written extensively on this subject. It’s way harder to run a nation like the United States with different ethnicities and groups and so forth than it is to run Japan. (link 1, 2) Japan is basically sort of a monoethnic civilization which is proud of its ethnicity. And of course they can cope with troubles…better than some other people can. There’s never been anything quite like what we’re doing now, and we do know from what’s happened in other nations if you try and print too much money, it eventually causes terrible trouble. And we’re closer to terrible trouble than we’ve been in the past, but it may still be a long way off. I certainly hope so.
Becky Quick: What are your current thoughts on the inflationary environment, and please compare and contrast it to the 1970s?
Charlie Munger: Well, when Volker, after the seventies, took the prime rate to 20% and the government was paying 15% on its government bonds, that was a horrible recession. Lasted a long time, caused a lot of anger and agony. And I certainly hope we’re not going there again. I think the conditions that allowed Volcker to do that without an interference from the politicians were very unusual, and I think in 20/20 hindsight, it was a good thing that he did it. I would not predict that our modern politicians will be as willing to permit a new Volcker to get that tough with the economy and bring on that kind of a recession. So I think the new troubles are likely to be different from the old troubles. You may wish you had you had a Volcker style recession instead of what you’re going to get. The troubles that come to us could be worse than what Volcker was dealing with. And harder to fix.
Becky Quick: Like what?
Charlie Munger: Think of all the Latin American countries that print too much money. They get strongmen and so forth. That’s what Plato said happened (link 1, 2) in the early Greek city state democracies. One person, one vote. A lot of egality and you get demagogues, and the demagogues lather up the population and pretty soon you don’t have your democracy anymore. I don’t think that was a crazy idea on Plato’s part. I think that accurately described what happened in Greece way back then, and it’s happened again and again and again in Latin America. We don’t want to go there. At least I don’t.
Becky Quick: Conventional economic theory argues that excessive monetary and fiscal stimulus over the last two years has triggered the highest inflation in 40 years. Do you broadly agree with this thesis? And more importantly, do you think there will be a high economic price to pay as the Fed attempts to bring inflation back under control?
Charlie Munger: Well the first part, I agree with it, we’ve done something pretty extreme, and we don’t know how bad the troubles will be, whether we’re going to be like Japan or something a lot worse. What makes life interesting is we don’t know how it’s going to work out. I think we do know we’re flirting with serious trouble. I think we also know that some of our earlier fears were overblown. Japan is still existing as a civilized nation. In spite of unbelievable excess by all former standards in terms of money printing. Think of how seductive it is. You have a bunch of interest-bearing debts, and you pay them off with checking accounts, which you’re no longer paying interest. Think about seductive that is for a bunch of legislators. You get rid of the interest payments and the money supply goes up. It seems like heaven. And of course, when things get that seductive, they’re likely to be overused.
Becky Quick: How will (inflation) all play out and what’s the best advice you have for individual investors to optimally deal with the negative impact of inflation other than owning quality equities?
Charlie Munger: Well. It may be that you have to choose the least bad of a bunch of options that frequently happens in human decision making. The Mungers have Berkshire stock, Costco stock, Chinese stocks through Li Lu, a little bit of Daily Journal stock and a bunch of apartment houses. Do I think that’s perfect? No. Do I think it’s OK? Yes. I think the great lesson from the Mungers is you don’t need all this damn diversification. That’s plenty of… You’re lucky if you’ve got four good assets. I think the finance professors…that sell the idea that perfect diversification is professional investment. If you’re trying to do better than average, you’re lucky if you have four things to buy. And to ask for 20 is really asking for egg in your beer. Very few people get have enough brains to get 20 good investments.
Becky Quick: Which part of Berkshire Hathaway bought the Activision’s stake and if Berkshire had any inkling about the likely Microsoft bid for Activision Blizzard?
Charlie Munger: I’ve got no comment about that, except that I really like Bobby Kotick (Interview; link 1, Articles; 2, 3, Boards; 4, 5, 6, 7), who one of the smartest business executives I know. And I do think gaming is here to stay. But there again, I’m an old man, I don’t like a bunch of addicted young males spending 40 hours a week playing games on the TV. It does not strike me as a good result for civilization. I don’t like anything which is so addictive that you practically give up everything else to do it.
Becky Quick: Could you please ask his views on the Metaverse and the recent acquisition of Activision Blizzard? Was this something that Charlie Munger had any input on? Does he think that there is value in the metaverse or is this something similar to the bitcoin and cryptocurrency hype?
Charlie Munger: Well, without any metaverse, just the existing technology of games on the internet, Activision Blizzard and a lot of other companies have gotten very large and some of the games are kind of constructive and social and others are very peculiar. Do you really want some guy 40 hours a week running a machine gun on his television set? I don’t. But a lot of the games are harmless pleasure, it’s just a different technique of doing it. I like the part of it that’s constructive, but I don’t like it when people spend 40 hours a week being an artificial machine gunner.
Becky Quick: Recent appointees, Lina Khan as Chair of the FTC and Jonathan Kanter as Assistant Attorney General of the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department, have each pledged to follow an aggressive approach to antitrust enforcement. Do you believe there’s a need for new antitrust legislation and or more stringent antitrust scrutiny with respect to the largest technology companies?
Charlie Munger: Well, I think what’s happened is so important and so tied up with national strength, that I’m not trying to weaken the internet companies of the United States. I like the fact that we have strong national champions that are big, strong companies, and I think other nations are proud of their big, strong companies too. So I don’t think business is bad in the end. I don’t want the whole internet to be dominated by foreign companies. I want big, strong American companies that stand well in the world. So I’m not as worried about anti-trust aspects of the internet.
Becky Quick: Are you worried about the aspects of antitrust breaking it down though?
Charlie Munger: Well, there’s no question about they’re going to get more attacks from the present administrators than they got from the previous ones. That doesn’t worry me that much, no. I don’t think it’ll have that much practical consequence.
Becky Quick: Currently, Congress is considering legislation to address the trading and ownership of individual stocks by members of Congress. What are your views on this subject?
Charlie Munger: I don’t think we’ve had big, serious moral lapses in Congress. Maybe a fairly scattered minor amount of minor miscreancy. So I’m not much worried about it.
Becky Quick: Charlie, in the past, you’ve stated that the USA should keep all oil and gas production domestic and let the rest of the world deplete the supplies of other exporters. Do you still believe that position has merit? What’s your opinion of President Biden’s position on oil and gas energy production here in the USA, given that he’s cancelled the Keystone Pipeline and is curtailing drilling on Bureau of Land Management lands? Is this just a concession to the Green Progressives? Will we ever have a stable supply of renewable energy given the issues of wind power we’ve seen in Europe? And do you believe there’ll be enough renewable electrical generation capacity to offset the use of coal and petroleum to generate electricity?
Charlie Munger: Well that’s a lot to talk about. There is no question about the fact that we’ve got a lot of renewable energy we can get from solar and wind and that it’s gotten pretty efficient and competitive. And I am in favor of conserving the hydrocarbons instead of using them up as fast as possible. And I’m in favor of all this new generating capacity now that it’s gotten so efficient from solar and wind. If there were no global warming problem, I would be in favor of exactly what the government is now doing which is encouraging a hell of a lot more solar and wind. I think it would be smart to do that just to conserve the petroleum. The petroleum has enormous chemical uses in fertilizers and chemistry and so on and so on, it’s precious stuff, and I don’t mind having a goodly part of it that remains in the ground. It’s a good place to store it. I regard the petroleum reserves of the United States about the way I regard the black topsoil of Iowa. I regard it as a national treasure. And just as I’m not in favor of sending all the topsoil of (Iowa) down and dumping it in the ocean, I’m not in favor of using up all the petroleum as fast as possible.
So I love the idea of conserving the natural resources. They’re all going to be used eventually. And I’m in no hurry to use them up rapidly. That is a very unusual attitude, but it’s mine. And I’m very encouraged by how much energy we can get that is renewable from solar and wind with modern technology. We have a huge potential for getting renewable energy that way. And I think now that it’s so efficient, we ought to go ahead and do it. But, global warming… I’ll be very surprised if global warming is going to be as bad as people say it’s going to be. The temperature of the Earth went up, what, one degrees centigrade in about Two hundred years? That’s a hell of a lot of coal oil that was burned and so forth, and it was one degree. I’m just skeptical about whether it’s as bad as these calamity howlers are saying.
Becky Quick: Berkshire recently announced plans for an in-person annual meeting. What are yours and Warren’s thoughts on COVID and Omicron, both here in the United States and around the world? And then in terms of the Berkshire meeting, will attendees be required to show proof of vaccination to enter the arena?
Charlie Munger: Well, I’m not familiar with it. I’m not sure that’s all even been decided. We’re going to make it a real meeting if we can. And that’s the current plan… My personal guess is it’s going to happen.
Becky Quick: The other part of that question was just your thoughts on COVID and Omicron here in the United States where do you think things stand with what we’ve been through?
Charlie Munger: Well, if we get lucky, it’ll fade away due to a minor problem. We kill 30,000 people a year with flu every year in the United States. Suppose that were 60,000 and it included Omicron. You know, I think we’d get used to it.
Becky Quick: Pandemic has made the difference between big business and small business more clear than ever. It also made it harder for harder than ever for small businesses to thrive. All businesses were ordered closed in some states, yet Home Depot and Shop & Stop were allowed to operate. Do you think that we will ever see small businesses have a more even playing field? Or is this a never-ending spiral down the rabbit hole until there’s nothing but big business left?
Charlie Munger: Well, I think we will have small business as far ahead as you can see. And if you stop to think about it, every shopping center is full of small business. Now they’re not flourishing as they were a while ago. But we’re not going to get rid of the small business in the United States. In a sense, we need a big business. It makes sense to have something like Apple and Google as big as they are and serving as well as they’re doing. And just as I didn’t mind AT&T when it ran the whole television network, I don’t mind Apple or Google being a big company. So I’m not worried about having some big companies and a lot of small ones, I think that’s our system.
Becky Quick: You think it’s an uneven playing field right now, the Russell 2000 is more than 15% off its all-time high right now. It’s had a pretty rough go, especially in recent months.
Charlie Munger: Well, if you stop to think about it, my way in life was not predicting little short-term differences between the Russell Index and the Standard & Poor’s index. I don’t have any opinion about which index is better at any given time. I never even think about it. I’m always just looking for something that’s good enough to put Munger money in. Or Berkshire money in or Daily Journal money in. I figure that I want to swim as well as I can against the tides, I’m not trying to predict the tides. I expect to be suffering in the… If you’re going to invest in stocks for the long term or real estate, of course there’s going to beperiods when there’s a lot of agonyand other periods when there’s a boom. And I think you just have to learn to live through them. As Kipling said, treat those two impostors just the same. You have to deal with daylight at night, does that bother you very much? No. Sometimes it’s night and sometimes it’s daylight. Sometimes there’s a boom, sometimes there’s a bust. I believe in doing as well as you can and keep going as long as they let you.
Becky Quick: Do the great tech franchises of our day, specifically Microsoft, Apple and Alphabet, have the same long-term durability that Coca-Cola had 30 to 40 years ago.
Charlie Munger: Well. Of course, it’s a lot easier to predict who flourished in the past because we know what happened in the past. But you know, (inaudible) what’s going to happen in the future, of course that’s harder. It’s very hard for me to imagine…it doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen…but I would expect Microsoft and Apple and Alphabet to be strong fifty years from now. Really strong, still strong. But, if you’d asked me when I was young what was going to happen to the department stores that went broke, the newspapers which went broke and so on, I wouldn’t have predicted that either. So I think it’s hard to predict how your world is going to change if you’re going to talk about 70, 80, 90 years. (link 1, 2, 3) Just imagine, they wiped out the shareholders of General Motors, they wiped out the shareholders of Kodak, who in the hell would have predicted that? This technological change can destroy a lot of people. And I think it’s hard to predict for sure in advance. But the telephone company is still with us, it’s just, it uses a different way of doing it. So some things remain and some vanish.
Becky Quick: Geoffrey Malloy from San Francisco writes in, he says, much media attention has been focused on the large numbers of Americans who’ve resigned from their jobs over the last year. What do you make of this trend and what advice would you give to CEOs seeking to retain their employees?
Charlie Munger: Well, this is a very interesting thing that the pandemic has given us. An awful lot of people have gotten used to not being in the office five days a week. And I think a lot of those people are never going back to five days a week. It’s amazing the percentage of the people in computer science that don’t want to be in the office for a normal life. They want to do a lot of it from locations that are more convenient to them. I think a lot of that’s going to remain forever. I don’t think we’re going back to… I don’t think the average corporation is going to fly its directors around so they can sit at the same table for every meeting of the year. Maybe they’ll have two meetings where the directors are together. By the way, Berkshire’s directors have done that forever. The Berkshire directors have met face to face twice a year forever and done everything else on the telephone or with consent minutes, and it’s worked fine for Berkshire. I don’t think we needed all these goddamn meetings and airplane flights. So I think part of what’s happening is quite constructive that it’ll make life simpler and cheaper and more efficient.
I don’t think we’re going back for some kinds of work. Now on the other hand, they made the welfare so liberal with just helicoptering this money out, that it was just hell to even man your restaurant so you can serve the patrons. I think we probably overdid that a little. I think Larry Summers is quite possibly right that we overshot a little with some of the stimulus and we would have been smarter to do a little less. If you stop to think about it. What makes capitalism work is the fact that if you’re an able-bodied young person, if you refuse to work, you suffer a fair amount of agony. And it’s because of that agony that the whole economic system works. And so, the only effective economies that we’ve had that brought us modernity and the prosperity we now have, they imposed a lot of hardship on young people who didn’t want to work. You take away all the hardship and say you can stay home and get more than you get if you come to work. It’s quite disruptive to an economic system like ours. The next time we do this, I don’t think we ought to be quite so liberal.
Becky Quick: What about the last part of that question where he asks, what advice would you give to CEOs who are seeking to retain their employees?
Charlie Munger: Well, every CEO I know is adapting somewhat to some people who work differently than they did in the past. So I think some of these changes are here, here forever. If your job in life is to get on the telephone and talked to other engineers all over the world while you solve problems, why do you have to do it from an office? And the commutes get harder and harder with more traffic, and it’s harder and harder to handle more traffic and more people, it may be a good thing that more people are going to commute less.
Becky Quick: There’s many examples of public company executive compensation programs that produce misaligned outcomes for executives and for shareholders. What are some of the most important compensation related changes investors and boards of directors could make to create a better alignment of interests between the shareholders and the management?
Charlie Munger: Talking about what the economists call agency problems, if you’re managing your own affairs you’re going to be pretty efficient because taking care of your own property. If you’re working for somebody else, the truth of the matter is you care more about yourself and your future and your family than you care about the telephone company you’re working for. So, capitalism is efficient when the people who are making the decisions, they’re doing it about their own property instead of just as hired employees of some say, state owned enterprise. That’s just the way it is and it’s just amazing to me how important it is to have a majority of the property of a civilization owned by somebody who’s in charge of caring for it. That way, the property is properly taken care of. When the Chinese went away from collectivist agriculture and let each peasant have his own plot of land, and he got to keep the crop after his costs. The grain production went up 60% the first year. Now, who in the hell would want collectivist agriculture when it was that inefficient compared to capitalist agriculture? Well, the Chinese communist decided the hell with this communism. When it comes to collectivist agriculture, they’d rather have the extra 60% of the grain production. And they just change the whole system. I greatly admire what they did.
I think Deng Xiaoping is going to go down as one of the greatest leaders that any nation ever had because he had to give up his own ideology to do something else that worked better. You don’t see the Catholic cardinals suddenly deciding there’s no afterlife. But that’s what Deng Xiaoping did, he gave up his ideology, his communist ideology, in order to make the economy work better. And being an absolute ruler, he could arrange it. And he brought that whole nation out of poverty into prosperity over the course of 30 years after he made the decision. That is a very admirable thing to have done. And it was kind of a miracle. It’s just amazing how well capitalism has served the communist Chinese. Deng Xiaoping called it communism with Chinese characteristics, he meant one party government, but with most of the property in private hands and a fair amount of free enterprise. That’s what he meant when he said communism with Chinese characteristics. I don’t care what he calls it, he was right. It was a marvelous thing to have done for China, and it worked wonderfully well. And of course, we shouldn’t be trying to transfer more and more functions to the government… What they gave up on, we don’t want to go that way I don’t think.
Becky Quick: How do you value Mr. Gensler and the SEC’s role in protecting the integrity of the American financial system?
Charlie Munger: Well. It’s hard to fix. What happens of course is that people rationalize their own way of making a living, there’s some moral compromise in most activity that people are in where they make a living. Particularly so in things like finance and wealth management and so forth. And of course the people making the decisions care more about their own families than they care about the people whose money they’re managing because that’s just the way human beings are constructed. And that means that when you hire somebody else to manage your money to take care of your old age, it’s very hard to get the job done right. It’s very difficult. Nowadays, every director in a big company gets $300,000 a year, and everybody thinks we arranged all this wonderful independence. A man who needs $300,000 extra a year as a director is not an independent. The one thing you can guarantee is he’ll try and stay a director. I don’t think that’s an ideal system. And yet, I don’t think there’s anything easy to do about it. I just think it’s hard to get things managed as well as they should be. In the early days of my life I was I worked a little bit on the fringes of the motion picture industry, and I would say practically everyone sort of took advantage of the shareholders. That was just the culture. That is just deeply into human nature that people are going to behave that way. And of course it makes it makes it hard to run a proper civilization.
If you look at Berkshire and the Daily Journal, look at the Daily Journal Corporation. Charlie Munger age 98. Gerry Salzman age 83. Enormous delegations of powers to Gerry Salzman. As I say, the Berkshire Hathaway system of managing a subsidiary is just short of abdication. And look at how well it’s worked. Of all the newspapers in the United States, most of them are going out of business. The Wall Street Journal will survive. The New York Times will survive. The digital newspaper of Thomson Reuters will survive. But most of the other newspapers are going to go out of business. And yet in that climate, this little Daily Journal Corporation has…one business is dying, and we have all this liquid wealth and marketable securities, and we got another business that we’re trying to make into a respectable big business. It’s quite an achievement. If there were five hundred newspaper companies there maybe two or three that have had a result like that. And look at how old the people are that have done it. Neither Guerin or I ever took one penny out of the Daily Journal all the years we worked here.
No directors fee, no President’s fees, no expenses, no nothing. And Gerry’s been a miracle worker wearing five six different hats at once and so forth, doing everything and very little cost. And Berkshire has like 30 people in headquarters who aren’t internal auditors and look at how well Berkshire has done. It’s hard to run a bureaucracy that doesn’t get terrible slowness and terrible waste… It’s a very serious problem. Think of the big bureaucracies that have died, U.S. Steel, Eastman Kodak, Federated Department Stores, Sears Roebuck. Yet some things have come through and survived, and in some cases the whole business had to die, and they had to take the capital out, and we owned a new businesses, that’s just to survive.That’s what Berkshire did. Look at the three companies that Berkshire had, they all they all went out of business. And yet we wrung enough money out of before they died. Berkshire now has more audited net worth on its balance sheet than any other corporation in the United States. Now, that’s weird. And we don’t have this bureaucracy that other places have. There isn’t anybody at headquarters to be bureaucratic. Just a little handful of people are running an empire. I don’t think there’s any chance for the rest of the world that it’s going to be like Berkshire.
I think we were kind of a fluke that lasted for a while. And the Daily Journal is a mini-Berkshire. What are the chances that a little flea-bitten newspaper in Los Angeles would be as prosperous as it is after all this trouble, which is making all the other newspapers go broke? By the way, we’re going to miss these newspapers terribly. Each newspaper, all those local monopolies, was an independent bastion of power. The economic position was so impregnable, they were all monopolies…and the ethos of the journalist was to try and to tell it like it is. They were really a branch of the government. They called them the Fourth Estate, meaning the fourth branch of the government. It arose by accident. Now about 95% of (them are going) to disappear and go away forever. And what do we get in substitute? We get a bunch of people who attract an audience because they’re crazy. I have my favorite crazies and you have your favorite crazies, and we get together, and all become crazier as we hire people to tell us what we want to hear. This is no substitute for Walter Cronkite and all those great newspapers of yesteryear. We have suffered a huge loss here. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the creative destruction of capitalism. But it’s a terrible thing that’s happened to our country. And having these new journalists come in and tell the nuts on each side, the right-wing nuts and the left nuts only what they want to hear and slant all the facts so that they hear a lot of stuff that isn’t so.
This is not good for our Republic, and I don’t have the faintest idea what to do about it. I sometimes think maybe we should have a third party. In almost every state now, it doesn’t matter whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in charge, they rejigger all the maps so everybody has a safe district. Now we get these permanent careerist people with their safe districts. The only fear they have is in the primary they face a another might throw them out. And every 10 years or so, the nutty rightist is the nutty leftist get together and maybe there are 10 sane people in the California Legislature…(and) they throw them out! One group of nuts throws out the people in the middle and so does the other. The one thing they can both agree on is they don’t want any balanced, sensible people in the Legislature. This is a very peculiar kind of government. This was not our ideal when we went to democracy. But it’s what has happened and it’s getting worse and worse, and it’s quite serious. I haven’t the faintest idea what we’re going to do about it. It’s not good.
Becky Quick: How would you fix it?
Charlie Munger: Well, you could have a third party. We did that once before, we got rid of slavery. And maybe we’ll get a third party. There are rump sessions… There are members of Congress who have some little organization, maybe there’s 40 of them, and they say, “we’re the same core”. And they’re half Republican and half Democrats. I welcome anything like that. We may need a new party. This thing is getting so dysfunctional, and people hate each other so much that it’s just not constructive. How would you like to have your life as full of hatred as the average state legislature? They really don’t like or trust each other at all. And if you took my generation, my generation after World War II, we said politics stop at the water’s edge and we took our enemies… Japan had marched our soldiers to death in the Bataan March, Hitler had killed all the Jews and also slaughtered everybody…and we made our best friends on Earth, practically, are the Germans and the Japanese. That was a real achievement. But can you imagine our legislators as now constituted doing anything like that? Well, with that cheerful thought, let’s go on to some other question.
Becky Quick: Mr. Munger, how do you see the value proposition of college certificates and degrees for future students and the role of the federal government in terms of increasing Pell Grants, student loans and student debt forgiveness?
Charlie Munger: Well, that’s another complicated subject. Of course, one of the glories of modern civilization is modern education. The American universities have been perfectly marvelous in their achievements. And modern technical civilization has been perfectly marvelous in its achievements. We owe a lot to all the free education we provided, and we probably ought to do more of it. However, the way we’re constructed… We’ve had a lot of for-profit educators that sort of pretended to educate the people who weren’t really very educatable and they send the bills to the federal government. So there’s been a fair amount of disreputable private education that kind of lures people in with dreams and cheats them. And that’s not a credible part of the past. But we’re going to end up with more public education. Once you start a social safety net. Everybody wants more and more of it. The people who have the loans, they want the loans forgiven. And it gets to be a big body of people clamoring for money. Benjamin Franklin was suspicious of this, he said that when the citizens of a republic learn they can vote themselves money, the end of the Republic is near. Well, it may not be as near as Benjamin Franklin thought, but we’re probably closer to the end than we were two hundred years ago. It is not good when everybody wants to get their money by a lot of government help. (Inaudible) ought to be not to need any help. Not to maximize this help from the government.
Becky Quick: What was it specifically that prompted the idea for windowless dorm rooms? Please walk us through this decision. I guess this is in regard to your design for student housing with no windows.
Charlie Munger: Nobody in his right mind would prefer a blank wall in a bedroom to a ball with a window in it. The reason you take the windows out is you’re getting something else from the design considered as a whole. If you stop to think about it, a big cruise ship has a huge shortage of windows in bedrooms because too many of the state rooms are either below the waterline or they’re on the wrong side of the aisle. And so in the very nature things, you get a shortage. You can’t change the shape of the ship. You have to do without a lot of the windows to have a ship that’s functional, that’s required by the laws of hydrodynamics. And so, we get the advantage of a big ship, but it means a lot of the staterooms can’t have windows. Similarly, if you want a bunch of people who are educating each other to be conveniently close to one another, you get a shortage of windows and in exchange you get a whole lot of people who are getting a lot of advantage from being near one another and they have to do without a real window in the bedroom. It doesn’t matter, the air can be as pure as you want it, and the light that comes in through an artificial window can mimic the specter of daylight perfectly. It’s an easy trade off. You pay twenty thousand dollars a week or something in a big cruise ship to have a stateroom with an artificial window. And for a long time on a Disney cruise ship, they had two different kinds of staterooms, one with a window and one without a window. And they got a higher price in rent for the one with an artificial window than they got for a real one. In other words, they reduced the disadvantage to zero. In fact, they made it an advantage. And so it’s a game of tradeoffs. That poor, pathetic architect who criticized me is just an ignoramus. He can’t help himself. I guarantee the one thing about him, he’s not fixable. Of course you have to make tradeoffs in architecture.
Becky Quick: Charlie, another question came in about Costco. You recently talked about bubbles and high valuations in your home conference talk. Is Costco a part of that? Costco has never traded at a higher price to sales or price to earnings multiple. How should new investors think about Costco given its record run?
Charlie Munger: Well, that’s a very good question, and I’ve always believed that nothing was worth an infinite price. So at some, even an admirable place like Costco could get to a price where you would say that’s too high. But I would argue that if I were investing money for some sovereign wealth fund or some pension fund on a 30, 40, 50-year time horizon. I would buy Costco at the current price. I think it’s that strong and enterprise and that admirable place. Now I’m not saying I would. I can’t bring myself with my habits to pay these big prices, but I never even think about selling a share of Costco just because it’s selling at a high price. So. If you stop to think about it, I bought at Christmas time, a flannel shirt, a bunch of flannel shirts at Costco. They cost seven dollars each more or less. And it was a soft flannel, and it was better and so forth. And then I bought pants, I think they were Orvis pants, and I pay like seven dollars, and they stretch around my waist and they’re partly water resistant and what have you. Costco is going to be an absolute titan on the internet because it got curated products that everybody trusts and huge purchasing power on a limited number of stocking units. So, I’m not saying I’m buying Costco at this price, but I’m certainly not selling any. I think it’s going to be a big, powerful company as far ahead as you can see. And I think it deserves its success. I think it has a good culture and a good moral ethos. I wish everything else in America is working as well as Costco does. Think what a blessing that would be for us all.
Becky Quick: Can you please update us, Charlie, on your view of 3G Capital and zero-based budgeting? Has your thinking evolved over the last five years?
Charlie Munger: Well, of course, if you have a very rich corporation, human nature, what it is, it will get a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of excess cost in it and a lot of meetings and so forth. And there’s huge waste in that. In fact, a lot of the extra meetings make you worse off, not better off. So you’re not only spending a lot of extra money… It’s not that you aren’t getting as much as you’re paying for… Many places after they’ve wrung out 30% of the excess costs, they run better than they did before. In other words, getting rid of the people and changing things around, it runs better, not worse. So there’s a lot of over-manning in big successful places. And of course, it’s human nature that people kind of relax a little when they get prosperous and so forth. I have a friend who was on a corporation with headquarters in Europe, and they would fly him from Los Angeles to Europe on a Concorde! It cost them $100,000 just to take one director from Los Angeles to Germany and back. I mean, the excess just creeps into these places. And of course it isn’t good.
On the other hand, you can cut too much. And there should be some mercy for people who’ve been around a long time and have served well in the past. So you don’t necessarily want 100% perfect efficiency. But you wouldn’t want a rule that nobody could ever go to some over-manned place and cut out a lot of the fat. The director’s table in the Heinz Corporation cost $600,000. The goddamn director’s table. The director’s table at Costco cost about three hundred dollars. They’re different places, different ethos. And of course, if you get fat like that, somebody like 3G comes along and says, I want to buy you and cut you back to normal. And of course, it’s possible to overcut. But my guess is there’s a lot of fat in our successful places. Think of the fat on the average rich family. I don’t think we want unlimited fat in these places, on the other hand, we don’t want too much brutality and too much… It’s complicated like everything else.
Becky Quick: This other question is what impact does passive investing had on stock valuations?
Charlie Munger: Oh, huge! That’s another thing that’s coming. We have a new bunch of emperors, and they’re the people who vote the shares in the index funds. Maybe we can make Larry Fink and the people at the Vanguard Pope. All of a sudden we’ve had this enormous transfer of voting power to these passive index funds. That is going to change the world. And I don’t know what the consequences are going to be, but I predict it will not be good. I think the world of Larry Fink, but I’m not sure I want him to be my emperor.
Becky Quick: Who will fill the gap of lending to global governments after quantitative easing ends. As an example, as FOMC paper matures and rolls off their balance sheet, where were the additional money needed to run governments come from? Who’s the lender and at what expected rate? Please remember, the FOMC has also…
Charlie Munger: Are you talking about the China or the United States?
Becky Quick: United States.
Charlie Munger: That’s a big problem because the (Chinese) government has been living by land sales and of course they’ve had a boom. They’re having to shrink that sector a little. So it’s creating an awkward problem. In the United States. We have a hugely strong economy and a hugely strong technical civilization, and that’s not going away. And the knowledge and so forth. And you can’t believe what a modern factory looks like when you fill it with robots. And that’s coming more and more and more, and it’s coming to China too for that matter. And so those trends are inevitable. And I don’t know how it’s all going to play out, but I think it does create adjustment problems. If you have a fine unionized job and they replace you with a robot, you’ve got a difficult problem. And if you got a company like Kodak and they invent something new that obsolete your product, you have a problem too, and you solve that by dying. A lot of people don’t like that solution. I don’t much care for it myself.
Becky Quick: Prior to the pandemic, it seemed like the U.S. was getting used to borrowing and running revenue deficits of close to 20%. There are all kinds of reasons for this through multiple administrations of either party. Now we’re marching closer to the well-known demographic storm that will drive deficits still higher. He estimates that we are currently running about a 33% total deficit if you include unfunded future Social Security and Medicare obligations. Meantime, we’re headed to higher interest rate costs on top of our 30 trillion in debt. Today interest comprises 6% of our spending and the potential to double or triple interest expense is only going to make the problem worse. How can we get the public companies and politicians to recognize the seriousness of this problem and begin to take action?
Charlie Munger: Well, because all those problems are real, and because it’s so tempting to get rid of your debt by just giving a guy a non-interest-bearing checking account where you used to have to pay him interest every month… Not only do we have a serious problem, but the solution to it that is the easiest for the politicians, and for the Federal Reserve too for that matter, is just to print more money and solve the temporary problems that way. And that, of course, is going to have some long-term dangers. And we know what happened in Germany when the Weimar Republic just kept printing money, the whole thing blew up. And that was a contributor to the rise of Hitler. So all this stuff is dangerous and serious, and we don’t want to have a bunch of politicians just doing whatever is easy on the theory that it didn’t hurt us last time so we can double it and do it one more time and then we double it again and so forth. We know what happens on that everlasting doubling, doubling, doubling. You will have a very different government if you keep doing that enough. And so you’re flirting with danger somewhere, unless there’s some discipline in the process. But I don’t regard Japan as in some terrible danger. They’ve done a huge amount of this and gotten by with it. I don’t think we’ll be as good at handling our problems as Japan is.
Becky Quick: If taxes were not an issue, what are your thoughts on going to cash today and waiting for better opportunities to deploy that cash over the next 12 months? Is it a sensible idea in your mind?
Charlie Munger: In my whole adult life I’ve never hoarded cash waiting for better conditions. I’ve just invested in the best things I could find, and I don’t think I’m going to change now. And the Daily Journal has used up its cash. Now Berkshire has excess cash. Quite a bit of excess cash. But it’s not doing that because it thinks it knows how to time investments. He just can’t find anything he can stand buying. So we don’t have a solution to your problem. We’re just coping with it as I’ve described.
Becky Quick: Given the valuation and market correction in early 2022, why is Berkshire not picking up or adding any new companies to its profile? Is the management getting too conservative with M&A?
Charlie Munger: No. The reason we’re not buying is we can’t buy anything at prices we’re willing to pay. It’s just that simple. Other people are bidding the price up. And a lot of the buying is not by people who really plan to own them. A lot of it is fee driven buying. Private equity buys things so they can have more fees by having more things under management. Of course it’s a lot easier to buy something when you use somebody else’s money. We’re using our own money. Or at least that’s the way we think of it.
By the way, it’s not a tragedy that Berkshire has some surplus money they’re not investing. And you can argue that the little old Daily Journal, what a good thing it was we had 30 million extra coming in from a foreclosure boom and that we invested it shrewdly. It gives us a lot of flexibility. And by the way, that piled up money helps us in wooing these governmental bodies who we are selling the software to. We look more responsible with the extra wealth, and we are more responsible with the extra wealth. But the shareholders who are worried about the future because it looks complicated and difficult and there are hazards, I want to say to them with my old torts professor said to me, “Charlie”, he’d say, “Charlie, tell me what your problem is, and I’ll try and make it more difficult for you.” And he did me a favor by treating me that way. And I’m just repeating his favor to you. When you’re thinking the thoughts…at least you’re thinking in the right direction, you’re worried about the right things. All you people that are worried about the inflation and the future of the Republic and so forth.
Becky Quick: Seeking investing advice for a 22-year-old neighbor. Is it better to advise him to continually slow drip into monthly income and dividend investments, as opposed to swinging for the fences with A.I. and growth stocks? What would you advise?
Charlie Munger: Oh, I don’t think I have a one size fit all investment for… I think some people are gifted enough that they can invest in hard to value, difficult things, and other people, I think, would be very wise to have more modest ambitions in terms of what they choose to deal with. So I think you have to figure out your level of skill, or the level of skill your adviser has, and that should enter the equation. But, to everyone who finds the current investment climate hard and difficult and somewhat confusing, I would say, welcome to adult life. But of course it is hard. It’s going to be way harder for the group that is graduating from college now. For them to get rich and stay rich and so forth, it’s going to be way harder for them than it was for my generation. Think what it costs to own a house in a desirable neighborhood in a city like Los Angeles. And I think we’ll probably end up with higher income taxes, too and so on. No, I think the investment world is plenty hard and I don’t think the… In my lifetime, 98 years, it was the ideal time to own a diversified portfolio of common stocks that updated a little by adding the new ones that came in like the Apples and the Alphabets and so forth. I’d say the people got maybe 10-11% if you did that very intelligently before inflation and maybe 8 or 9% after. That was a marvelous return. No other generation in the history of the world ever got returns like that. And I don’t think the future is going to give the guy graduating from college this year nearly that easy an investment opportunity. I think it’s going to be way harder.
Becky Quick: What worries you most about our economy and the stock market, and on the other hand, what makes you optimistic?
Charlie Munger: Well, you have to be optimistic about the competency of our technical civilization. But there again, it’s an interesting thing. If you take the last hundred years, 1922 to 2022, most of modernity came in in that 100 years. And in the previous 100 years, that got another big chunk of modernity. And before that, things were pretty much the same for the previous thousands a years. Life was pretty brutal and short and limited, and what have you. No printing press, no air conditioning, no modern medicine. I don’t think we’re going to get things in what I call the real human needs. Think of what it meant to get… Say first, you got the steam engine, the steam ship, the railroad, and a little bit of improvement in farming and a little bit of improvement in plumbing. That’s what you got in the hundred years that ended in 1922. The next hundred years gave us. Widely distributed electricity, modern medicine, the automobile, the airplane, the records, the movies, the air conditioning in the south and think what a blessing it was if you…wanted three children, you had to have six because three died in infancy, that was our ancestors. Think of the agony of watching half your children die. It’s amazing how much achievement there’s been in civilization in these last two hundred years and most of it in the last hundred years.
Now the trouble with it is, is that the basic needs are pretty well filled. In the United States the principal problem of the poor people is they’re too fat. That is a very different place from what happened in the past, in the past they were on the edge of starving. And what happens is it’s really interesting, is with all this enormous increase in living standards and freedom and diminishment of racial inequities and all the huge progress that has come, people are less happy about the state of affairs than they were when things were way tougher. And that has a very simple explanation. The world is not driven by greed, it’s driven by envy. The fact that everybody’s five times better off than they used to be, they take it for granted, all they think about is somebody else has more now and it’s not fair that he should have it and they don’t. That’s the reason that God came down and told Moses that you couldn’t envy your neighbor’s wife or even his donkey. I mean, even the old Jews were having trouble with envy. And so it’s built into the nature of things. It’s weird for somebody my age because I was… In the middle of the Great Depression, the hardship was unbelievable. I was safer walking around Omaha in the evening than I am in my own neighborhood in Los Angeles after all this great wealth and so forth. I have no way of doing anything about it. I can’t change the fact that a lot of people are very unhappy and feel very abused after everything’s improved by about 600% because there’s still somebody else who has more.
I have conquered envy in my own life. I don’t envy anybody. I don’t give a damn what somebody else has. But other people are driven crazy by it. And other people play to the envy in order to advance their own political careers. And we have whole networks now that want to pour gasoline on the flames of envy. I like the religion of the old Jews, I like the people who were against envy. Not the people who are trying to profit from it… Think of the pretentious expenditures of the rich, who in the hell needs a real Rolex watch so you can get mugged for it, you know? Yet everybody wants to have a pretentious expenditure, and that helps drive demand in our modern capitalist society. My advice to the young people is don’t go there. The hell with the pretentious expenditure. I don’t think there’s much happiness in it. But it does drive the civilization we actually have. And it drives the dissatisfaction. Steve Pinker (Video 1, 2) of Harvard is one of our smart modern academics. He constantly points out how everything has gotten way, way, way the hell better. But the general feeling about how fair it is has gotten way more hostile. And as it gets better and better, people are less and less satisfied. That is weird, but that’s what’s happened.
Becky Quick: What’s the toughest moment you’ve shared with Warren, and of course, what’s the very best memory you’ve shared during your life with him? You two seem like you are brothers by a different mother. May God continue to bestow his blessings on you together. You’re one of the United States of America’s greatest treasures, and individually, you ain’t too bad either.
Charlie Munger: Well. God is about to give a different kind of a blessing on word than me, he’s going to give us whatever afterlife there is. And of course, nobody knows anything about that. It’s been a great run. Warren and I have had a great run. And one of the really great things about it is that we’ve been surrounded by wonderful people. The people we shared in our work lives and what Gerry and I have done in this little business, it’s been a pleasure, hasn’t it, Gerry?
Gerry Salzman: Yes, sir.
Charlie Munger: It’s been a privilege to do it and a privilege to be here and so forth. And we haven’t had a dumb bureaucracy like a lot of other places, and we’ve managed to cope pretty well with the problems that came to us and the opportunities to. And so we’ve been blessed. It’s all old-fashioned virtue, Gerry and I don’t have any secrets. We tend to get the day’s work done and be as rational as we can in coping with whatever we have to cope with and that will always work for people who get good at it. But Warren and I have been very fortunate, and of course, there are lessons you can learn from our… There are so many people that live surrounded by tyranny. There are a lot of bosses in the world that are absolutely impossible to be under. They’re really psychotic and you really can’t do anything about it in many cases. Warren and I haven’t had those problems. That’s a blessing.
Becky Quick: You seem extremely happy and content, what’s your secret to lead a happy life?
Charlie Munger: Well, I always say the same thing, Realistic expectations, which is low expectations. If you have unreasonable demands on life, you’re like a bird that’s trying to destroy himself by bashing his wings on the edge of the cage, and you really can’t get out of the cage. It’s stupid. You want to have reasonable expectations and take life’s results good and bad as they happen with a certain amount of stoicism. They’ll never be any shortage of good people in the world. All you got to do is seek them out and get as many of them as possible into your life and keep the rest the hell out.
Becky Quick: In your storied investor career, which investment did you like the most and why? And which one was a dog?
Charlie Munger: Well, that’s rather interesting. One of the investments nobody ever talks about at Berkshire is a World Book Encyclopedia. I grew up on it, you know they used to sell it door to door. They had every word in English language graded for comprehension and had a vast amount of editorial input. So it was easy for a child who wasn’t necessarily a brilliant student to understand that encyclopedia. It was more understandable. And Berkshire made $50 million a year pre-tax out of that business for years and years and years. And I was always so proud of it because I grew up with it and it helped me and so forth. And of course I like the 50 million a year. And then a man named Bill Gates came along and he decided he’s going to give away a free Encyclopedia with every damn bit of his personal computer software. And away went our $50 million a year. Now we still sell the encyclopedia to the libraries, maybe make a few million a year doing that, but most of the wealth just went away and all that wonderful constructive product. It’s still a marvelous product. And it wasn’t good that we lost what World Book was doing for the civilization, and I was so proud of World Book… But now it’s pretty well gone away in terms of its worldly significant and the money went with it. That’s just the way capitalism works. It has destruction… And some of the things you lose, you’re really going to miss. And you’re not going to replace them. I don’t think these TV programs that charm our children are as good as the World Book was for them. World Book helped me get ahead in life. And the people who aren’t going to read the World Book and who are hanging in front of the TV set, they’re not blessed, they’re cursed. Now there advantages too in to having a television. By the way I’m not weeping any tears that I don’t have my World Book anymore. I’ve adjusted. I miss it, but I…
Becky Quick: Of the five people or so you most admire, could you please name a few so that we might become more familiar with and potentially learn from these individuals?
Charlie Munger: Well, I don’t have any one person that I admire. I would argue that the greatest governmental leader whose life overlapped mine was Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. I would argue that he was the one that taught Deng Xiaoping of China how to fix China the way Singapore had fixed itself. And so it was a huge achievement. So I’ve seen some remarkable… I think the Marshall Plan that my country did after World War II, was a marvelous thing and that was a credit to the human race. I’ve seen a lot that I’m proud of. On the other hand. I see a lot now that I’m not proud of. I don’t like this crazy hatred in our party system. I don’t see anything wrong with having a good size government safety net that goes up as GDP… I think we’d be crazy to be as rich as we are without a good governmental safety net. By the way, you know where that came from? Otto Bismarck. He was the “Iron Chancellor” of Germany, exercising the unlimited power of a German king. That’s who gave us Social Security and so forth. Nobody thinks of Otto Bismarck as a great hero of democratic capitalism, but he really was. It shows how complicated life is. Strange things happen. My hero, Otto Bismarck. I’ve never seen Otto Bismarck’s picture on an American wall. He should be there. Well, Becky, have you had enough?
Becky Quick: Yes, Charlie, I want to thank you very much for your time today, Gerry, thank you too and thank everybody for all the questions today. Appreciate everybody coming to the Daily Journal meeting today.
Charlie Munger: The weirdest thing happened. It isn’t that we want to be the guru for the world or something. We used to know all the shareholders and we felt they only come in once a year, we ought to at least stand here and answer questions. And they started asking these odd questions and we kept answering it. And there was a market for it we kept doing it. So Warren and I are artificial, accidental gurus. I used to be sort of bothered by it because I don’t ordinarily make this many pronouncements. But I’ve gotten used to it, and I hope you people have to.
Becky Quick: We have.
Charlie Munger: All right I guess we’re through.
End of Transcript
Thank you for reading. I hope you all thoroughly enjoyed the transcript. If you found any errors, kindly let me know and I will fix them. Furthermore, if you’d like to be informed of future posts, transcripts, or events, please subscribe.
Richard Lewis, CFA White Stork Asset Management LLC Partner, Investments
Last month I had the great pleasure of hearing Charlie Munger speak at the Daily Journal Annual Meeting for the fourth time. Once again, the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger was on full display at the deceptively youthful age of 95.
In addition to the transcript provided below, you may also watch the entire meeting on YouTube, or listen to it through my audio recording on SoundCloud.
I would like to thank Mr. Munger for energetically entertaining our questions and graciously sharing his wisdom, insights, and time with all of us.
I hope you all enjoy!
(Note: You will find that I frequently summarized the questions from the audience, but as for anything that Charlie, Gerry, or Peter said, I translated them verbatim and as accurately as possible.)
Start of Transcript
Charlie: Gerry, is there anything else that I’m suppose to do?
Gerry Salzman: That’s it Charlie.
Charlie: It’s very burdensome. (laughter) So many of you have come from such great distances (that) I’m going to speak briefly on a number of topics that may interest you and then I’m going to take questions.
It’s amazing the number of people at the meeting of the little Daily Journal Corporation which after all is a pretty small operation. We’ve got two businesses one a steadily declining legal newspaper which now earns about a million in a year pre-tax and shrinking, and a computer software business where we’re trying to automate courts and justice agencies and various other governmental departments. And that is now bigger by far in terms of prospects and customers and employees and so forth than our shrinking newspaper business. It hardly can be imagined how hard it is to deal with a whole bunch of different courts in different states and their advisers and the RFP process and the bureaucracy. This is a part of the software business that the giants tend to hate. They like a business where you just stamp out an extra copy of something and 98 percent of the revenues go immediately into the till as cash and there’s no extra work. And that is not handling a bunch of justice agencies, attorney generals, state courts, federal courts, and so forth all over the country with different requirements, different consultants, and of course steady and aggressive competition. The nature of our business it’s more like technical consulting than it is just stamping out software. It’s a very high service business. It’s very difficult. The computer science is time consuming and difficult. But just dealing with that much bureaucracy over that many different fields with the political realities…it’s just immensely difficult. So it’s a very slow grinding business and that’s the nature of the game. We have always liked it because a business like this requires a company that’s very rich and very determined and is willing to keep plugging. And of course that’s what the Daily Journal has done.
How are we doing? Well that’s hard to judge, but I would say watching it quite closely that it’s like a pharmaceutical company with seven wonderful drugs in the pipeline. We have a lot in the pipeline that is very very important to us. Australia, Canada, California. We’re talking big big markets.
Our main competitor is Tyler Technologies which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and of course they’ve been at it a long time and are way bigger, but we are getting some significant volume and we have some very pleased customers. How in the hell does the little Daily Journal Corporation attract the Government of Australia? Australia is a big place. But I’ve gotten to love the Australians and I think it’s going to succeed in Australia, mightily. And so it takes a long time and it’s hard work and it’s also very difficult work. Not everybody can do this. Just the mass of complexity. We would never be where we are if we didn’t have Gerry Salzman to do everything he’s done over the last ten years. Anybody else would have failed at this. Now Gerry is 80 and he and I have one thing in common, we both use canes. When I’m not in a wheelchair I use a cane. So the idea of taking on the whole world when the chairman is 95 and the vice chairman is 89 and the chief executive that does all the work is 80 and uses a cane…It’s a very peculiar place that you people have come a long way to. What the hell are you thinking about? (laughter)
It’s weird and what’s happened of course is that we’re standing a bit for some combination of basic morality and sturdy common sense. And it’s amazing how well Berkshire Hathaway, and the Daily Journal for that matter, have succeeded with nothing more than basic morality and sturdy common sense. But of course when people talk about common sense they mean ‘uncommon sense’. Every time you hear that somebody has a lot of common sense it means he’s got uncommon sense. And it is much harder to have common sense than it is generally thought.
Let me give you an interesting example. The investment world involves an enormous amount of high IQ people trying to be more skillful than normal. You can hardly imagine another activity that gets so much attention. And weird things have happened. Years ago one of our local investment counseling shops, a very big one, they were looking for a way to get an advantage over other investment counseling shops. And they reasoned as follows. We’ve got all these brilliant young people from Wharton and Harvard and so forth and they work so hard trying to understand business and market trends and everything else. And if we just ask each one of our most brilliant men for their single best idea then created a formula with this collection of best ideas, we would outperform averages by a big amount. And that seem plausible to them because they were ill-educated. That’s what happens when you go to Harvard and Wharton. So they tried it out, and of course it failed utterly. So they tried it again and it failed utterly. And they tried it a third time and it also failed. Of course what they were looking for is the equivalent of the alchemists of centuries ago who wanted to turn lead into gold. They thought if you could just buy a lot of led and waive your magic wand over and it turned into gold, that would be a good way to make money. This counseling shop was looking for the equivalent of turning lead into gold and of course it didn’t work. I could’ve told them but they didn’t ask me. Nothing.
The interesting thing about this situation is that this is a very intelligent group of people that’s come from all over the world. You’ve got a lot of bright people from China where people tend to average out a little smarter. And the issue is very simple. It’s a simple question. Why did that plausible idea fail? Just think about it for a minute. You’ve all been to fancy educational institutions. I’ll bet you there’s hardly one in the audience who knows why that thing failed. That’s a pretty ridiculous demonstration I’m making. How could you not know that? It’s one of the main activity of America with an obvious and important failure. Surely we can explain it! You have to have stayed awake in your freshman college courses to answer that question. But if you ask that question at a Department of Finance at a leading place, the professors wouldn’t answer it right. Now I’m going to leave you that question because I want you perplexed. (Laughter) And I will go on to another issue.
But that’s one you should be able to answer. It shows how hard it is to be rational on something very simple. How hard it is…How many kind of crazy ideas people have and don’t work, and you don’t even know why they don’t work even though it’s perfectly obvious if you’ve been properly educated. And by the way my definition of being properly educated is being right when the professor is wrong. Anybody can spit back what the professor tells you. The trick is to know when he’s right and when he’s wrong. That’s the properly educated person. And of course they’re frequently wrong particularly in the soft sciences. In fact if you look at a modern elite institution, it’s fair to say that a lot of the faculty are a little crazy. It’s so left wing now in the humanities and it’s very peculiar. That’s another thing. Why should 90 percent of the college professors in the humanities be very left wing? I leave that question for you too. But it happens.
Another issue of course that’s happened in the world of stock picking, where all this money and effort goes into trying to be rational, is that we’ve had a really horrible thing happen to the investment counseling class. And that is these index funds have come along and they basically beat everybody. And not only that, the amount by which they beat everybody is roughly the amount of cost of running the operation and making the changes in investments. So you have a whole profession that is basically being paid for accomplishing practically nothing. This is very peculiar. This is not the case with bowel surgery or even the criminal defense bar in the law or something. They have a whole profession where the chosen activity they’ve selected they can’t do anything.
Now in the old days the people in the profession always had some of this problem and they rationalized as follows. ‘We are saving our clients from the insurance salesman and the stock broker, the standard stock broker that serves the active trader.’ And they were saving people from the life insurance salesman and the hustling stockbroker who liked active trading. And I suppose in a sense that the investing class is still saving those people from an even worse fate.
But it is very peculiar when a whole profession that works so hard, and is so admirable, and the members of which we are delighted when they marry into our families, and they just can’t do what their profession is really trying to do, which is get better than average results. How is that profession handling this terrible situation, as index investing gets more and more popular and including a lot of fancy places?
Well it’s a very simple answer, they’re handling it with denial. They have a horrible problem they can’t fix, so they just treat it as nonexistent. This is a very stupid way to handle a problem. Now it may be good when you’re thinking about your own death which you can’t fix and it’s just denial all the way to the end. But in all the practical fields of life, this problem thoroughly understood is half solved or better coped with.
So it’s wrong to have all these people in just a state of denial and doing what they always did year after year and hoping that the world would keep paying them for it even though an unmanaged index is virtually certain to do better. It’s a very serious problem. And think of how much New York say needs a flow of money from finance. Think what would happen to Manhattan if there weren’t any fees for investment management or trading spreads and so on. So it’s a weird situation and of course it’s unpleasant. Big investment counseling shops, some of them shrink and some go out of business. And the value investors, of course who many of I know because we came from that tradition, the value investors who were honorable are quitting. Boom. Boom. Boom. And what worked for them for years stopped working and they’re honorable people they just quit. And they’re also rich which makes it easy. But those who aren’t rich have a hell of a problem. And it costs about fifty thousand dollars in the city of Manhattan to send your kid to pre-school. Non-deductible. And that’s just the start of an endless procession of years of vast expanse. So if your game is money management you have a serious problem. I don’t have any solution for this problem. I do think that index investing, if everybody did it won’t work. But for another considerable period, index investing is going to work better than active stock picking where you try and know a lot.
Now at a place like Berkshire Hathaway or even the Daily Journal, we’ve done better than average. And now there’s a question, why has that happened? Why has that happened? And the answer is pretty simple. We tried to do less.We never had the illusion we could just hire a bunch of bright young people and they would know more than anybody about canned soup and aerospace and utilities and so on and so on and so on. We never had that dream. We never thought we could get really useful information on all subjects like Jim Cramer pretends to have. (laughter) We always realized that if we worked very hard we can find a few things where we were right. And that a few things were enough. And that that was a reasonable expectation. That is a very different way to approach the process. And if you had asked Warren Buffett the same thing that this investment counseling did, “Give me your best idea this year.”, and you had just followed Warren’s best idea, you would find it worked beautifully. But he wasn’t trying to know the whole…he would give you one or two stocks. He had more limited ambitions.
I had a grandfather who was very useful to me, my mother’s grandfather, and he was a pioneer. He came out to Iowa with no money but youth and health and took it away from the Indians. He fought in the Black Hawk…he was a Captain in the Black Hawk Wars, and he stayed there and he bought cheap land and he was aggressive and intelligent and so forth and eventually he was the richest man in the town and owned the bank, and highly regarded, and a huge family, and a very happy life. He had the attitude…having come out to Iowa when the land was not much more than a dollar an acre, and having stayed there until that black topsoil created a modern rich civilization, and some of the best land in the world…His attitude was that in a favored life like his, when you were located in the right place, you just got a few opportunities if you lived to be about 90. And that the trick in coming out well was seizing a few opportunities that were your fair share that came along when they did. And he told that story over and over again to the grandchildren that hung around him all summer, and my mother who had no interest in money remembered the story and told it to me. But I’m not my mother’s natural imitator and I knew Grandpa Ingham was right. And so I always knew from…when I was a little boy that the opportunities that were important…that were gonna come to me…were few and the trick was to prepare myself for seizing the few that came. This is not the attitude that they have at a big investment counseling thing. They think if they study a million things they can know a million things. And of course the result is that almost nobody can outperform an index. Whereas I sit here with my Daily Journal stock, my Berkshire Hathaway stock, my holdings in Li Lu’s Asian fund, my Costco stock, and of course I’m outperforming everybody. (laughter) And I’m ninety-five years old. And I practically never have a transaction. And the answer is that I’m right and they’re wrong. And that’s why it’s worked for me and not for them. And now the question is do you want to be more like me or more like them?
The idea of diversification makes sense to a point if you don’t know what you’re doing and you want the standard result and not be embarrassed, why course you can widely diverse. Nobody’s entitled to a lot of money for recognizing that because it’s a truism it’s like knowing that two and two equals four. But the investment professionals think they’re helping you by arranging diversification. An idiot could diversify a portfolio! Or a computer for that matter. But the whole trick of the game is to have a few times when you know that something is better than average and to invest only where you have that extra knowledge. And then if you get just a few opportunities that’s enough. What the hell do you care if you own three securities and J.P. Morgan Chase owns a hundred? What’s wrong with owning a few securities? Warren always says that if you lived in a growing town and you owned stock in three of the best enterprises in the town, isn’t that diversified enough? The answer is of course it is…if they’re all wonderful places. And that Fortune’s formula which got so famous which was a formula to tell people how much to bet on each transaction if you had an edge. And of course the bigger your edge, the more close the transaction was to a certain winner, the more you should bet…And of course there’s mathematics behind it…But of course it’s true. It’s perfectly possible to buy only one thing because the opportunity is so great and it’s such a cinch. There are only two or three. So the whole idea of diversification when you’re looking for excellence, is totally ridiculous. It doesn’t work. It gives you an impossible task. What fun is it to do an impossible task over and over again? I find it agony. Who would want to do it? And I don’t see a way…
My father had a client, he was a lawyer in Omaha, he had a client whose husband had a little soap company. The guy died and my father’s sold the soap company. This woman was one of the richest people in town in the middle of the depression, and what she had was a little soap company and the biggest mansion in Omaha’s best neighborhood. When they sold the soap company she had a mansion in the best neighborhood and three hundred thousand dollars. But three hundred thousand dollars in nineteen thirty something was an incredible amount of money. A little hamburger it was a nickel a big hamburger was a dime, and the all you can eat cafe in Omaha would feed you all needed to stay alive for two bits a day. I mean 300,000… Well she didn’t hire an investment counselor, she didn’t do anything, she’s a wonderful old woman. She just took that, she divided it into five chunks, and she bought five stocks. I remember three of them because I probated her estate. One of them was General Electric, one was Dow, one was Dupont, and I forget the other two. Then she never changed those stocks. She never paid any adviser. She never did anything, and she bought some municipal bonds, she never spent her income, and she bought some municipal bonds from time to time with the (inaudible). By the time she died in the 50s she had a million and a half dollars. No cost. No expenses. I said, “How did you decide to do that?” And “Well…” she said, “I thought electricity and chemistry were the coming things.” She just chucked it all in and sat on her ass. I always liked that little old woman. My kind of a girl. But it’s rare!
But if you stop to think about it, think of all the expense and palaver that she didn’t have to listen to and all the trouble she avoided, and zero costs. And of course what people don’t realize, because they’re so mathematically illiterate, is if you make 5 percent and pay 2 of it to your advisors, you’re not losing 40 percent of your future you’re losing 90 percent. Because over a long period of time that little difference causes a 90 percent disadvantage to you. So it’s hugely important for somebody who’s a long term holder not to be paying a big annual toll out of the performance. And of course there are a few big time advisors now who are using indexation very heavily. And of course they’re prospering mightily. And of course every time they get somebody it’s just agony for the rest of the investment counseling business. This is a very serious problem. And I think these people who were used to winning as old-time value investors who are now just quitting the profession. That’s a very understandable thing to do. I regarded it as more noble than staying in…you know…playing along with the denial. It’s an interesting problem.
You can see I’m not trying to make your morning. I’m just trying to describe things the way they are. But this business… Why does Li Lu succeed so mightily? Well partly he’s sort of a Chinese Warren Buffet. That really helps. And partly he’s fishing in China! Not in this over-searched, over-populated, highly competitive American market, and there’s still pockets of ignorance and lassitude in China that gave him so unusual opportunities. The first rule in fishing has always been fish where the fish are. And the second rule of fishing has always been ‘Don’t forget rule number one’. And Li Lu just went where the fishing was good and the rest of us are like cod fishermen who are trying to catch cod where the fish have been fished out. It doesn’t matter how much you work, when there’s that much competition. Every little idea I see in the world some are going after. I sat once on an investment committee at the University of Michigan and in came one of their successful investors located in London. And what had this investor done in London? He decided to invest in sub-Saharan Africa. And the only marginal securities were a few banks that traded in the Pink Sheets, so he would buy very tiny quantities of these banks. And every time some poor person got tired of having their money in the mattress and put it in a bank he did a little better. And of course he made a lot of money. Nobody else was investing in little tiny banks in Africa. But the niche was soon filled. What the hell do you do for an encore after you put your client’s money in a bunch of little tiny banks in sub-Saharan Africa? The niche gets filled quickly. How many wonderful niches are there going to be when some guy in London is buying all these tiny little bank stocks in Africa? It’s hard.
Then if you take the modern world where people are trying to teach you how to come in and trade actively in stocks. Well I regard that as roughly equivalent to trying to induce a bunch of young people to start off on heroin. It is really stupid. And when you’re already rich to make your money by encouraging people to get rich by trading? And then there are people on the TV, another wonderful place, and they say, “I have this book that will teach you how to make 300 percent a year. All you have to do is pay for shipping and I will mail it to you!” (laughter) How likely is it that a person who suddenly found a way to make 300 percent a year would be trying to sell books on the internet to you! (laughter) It’s ridiculous. And yet I’ve described modern commerce. And the people who do this all day think they’re useful citizens. The advertising agents who invent the lingo. In insurance they say, “Well” they say, “the two people who shifted from Geico to the Glotz insurance company save four hundred dollars each.” But what they don’t tell is that there are only two such people in the whole United States and they were both nuts. But they mislead you on purpose. I get tired of it and I don’t think it’s right that we deliberately mislead people as much as we do.
Let me tell you another story that I think is an interesting one about the modern life, but this goes back to a different time. This man has this wonderful horse. And it’s just a marvelous horse. It’s got an easy gait, good looking, and everything. It just works wonderfully. But also occasionally it just gets so he’s dangerous and vicious and causes enormous damage and trouble and breaks arms and legs for his rider and so on. And he goes to vet and says, “What can I do about this horse?” And the vet says, “That’s a very easy problem and I’m glad to help you.” And he says, “What should I do?” And the man says, “The next time your horse is behaving well, sell it.” (laughter) Think about it immoral that is. And haven’t I just described what private equity has to do? (laughter) When private equity has to sell something that’s really troublesome, they hire an investment banker. And what does investment banker do? He makes a projection! I have never seen such expertise in my whole life, as is created in making projections in investment banking. There is no business so lousy that it can’t get a wonderful projection. But is that a great way to make a living to have phony projections and use it to make money out of people you look right into their eyes of? I would say no.
By and large Warren and I, we never tried to make money out…stupidity of our dumb buyers. We tried to make money by buying, and if we were selling horseshit we didn’t want to pretend it was a cure for arthritis. (laughter) And I think it’s better to go through life our way instead of theirs. I think it’s always been this way, I think there’s always been chicanery. Think of the carnivals, the carny operator. Think of how much trickery there is in a carny operation. People just seek out the weaknesses of their fellow man and take advantage. And you have to get wise enough so you avoid them all. And you can’t avoid them if they’re in your family. I have no solution to that one. (laughter) But where you have a fair choice, there are just so many people that should be avoided.
My father had this best friend and client and he also had this other client who is a big blowhard and he was always working for the big blowhard and he wasn’t ever working for his wonderful client whom I admired. And I said, “Why do you do this?” And he said, “Charlie you idiot…” He says, “the big blowhard is an endless source of legal troubles. He’s always in trouble. Overreaching and misbehaving and so forth. Whereas Grant McFadden treats everybody right. The employees, the customers, everything. And if he gets involved with some psychotic he walks over there and makes a graceful exit immediately. A man like that doesn’t need a lawyer.” My father was trying to teach me something and it really worked. I spent my whole life trying to be like Grant McFadden and I want to tell you it works. It really works. Peter Kaufman is always telling me if the crooks only knew how much money you could make by being honest, they’d all behave differently. Warren has a wonderful saying that I like, he says, “You take the high road. It’s never crowded.” And it’s worked.
Take the Daily Journal Corporation. We made quite a few millions of dollars out of the foreclosure boom because we published legal notices and we dominated the publication of foreclosure notices in the worst real estate depression in the history of modern times. And we could have raised our prices at the time and made more tens of millions of dollars. But we didn’t do it. You know what your fellow citizens are losing their damn houses in the worst recession…’Charlie Munger billionaire raises prices’. It would look lousy on the front page of the paper (if people read the story). Should you do it? And the answer is no of course not. Warren always said it’s probably always a mistake to marry for money and it’s really stupid if you’re already rich.
And it’s really stupid when you’re already rich to get a reputation of being a total nogoodnik. Rick Guerin always loved the story about the guy who had been a total miscreant all his life, and (when) he died the minister said, “Now is the time in the funeral ceremony when somebody says something nice about the deceased.” And nobody came forward and nobody came forward and nobody came forward. Finally one guy stood up and he said, “Well” he said, “His brother was worse.” (laughter) Well you can laugh but there are people like that. When Harry Cohn died here the saying was that everybody went to the funeral to make sure he was dead.
So there are a few simple truths that really work. And when it gets to this difficult business the Daily Journal is in, I wouldn’t say it is a real pleasure to be serving these courts and agencies. They need the automation. Other people are trying to take advantage of them in ways that we aren’t. And we’re struggling against the odds (being) a little tiny company. And we’re taking a lot of territory. It’s slow going but the prospects are good. And of course the nice thing about being rich is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a little slow. And how do we get rich? Well we remembered Grandpa Ingham, and when one of the few opportunities came along we reached out and seized it. Think of how your life works?
In my life, to give another example, the Mungers would have twice the assets they now have if I hadn’t made one mistake of omission back in nineteen 70s. And…really stupid. I blew an opportunity that would have doubled my present net worth. That is a normal life. You get one or two. And how things work out…We all know people that are out married, I mean their spouses are so much better. Think of what a good decision that was for them. And what a lucky decision. Way more important than money. A lot of them did it when they were young, they just stumbled into it. Now you don’t have to stumble into it, you can be very careful. A lot of people are wearing signs, “Danger. Danger. Do not touch.” And people just charged right ahead. (laughter) That’s a mistake. Well you can laugh but it’s still a horrible mistake.
It’s been fun for the people on this board to know one another and work on these oddball things and handle life’s vicissitudes. Of course it’s very peculiar that we’re so old. I mean imagine a place where Gary Wilcox is one of the young men. The guy’s wife is still in golf champion. But that’s (not because she’s good when she’s old.) I mean it’s an amazing group. That’s an interesting example too. Imagine me as an old and as impaired as I am and having a pretty good time. How does that happen? Well you…That is another story.
I’ll tell a couple of other stories too because you like stories. Here’s an apocryphal story that is very instructive. A young man comes to visit Mozart. And he says, “Mozart” he says, “I want to write symphonies”. And Mozart says, “How old are you?” The man says, “I’m 23.” And Mozart says, “You’re too young to write symphonies.” And he says, “But Mozart you were writing symphonies when you were 10 years old.” And Mozart says, “Yes but I wasn’t asking other people how to do it.” Now there’s another Mozart story. Here’s the greatest musical talent maybe that ever lived. And what was his life like? Well he was bitterly unhappy and he died young. That’s the life of Mozart. What the hell did Mozart do to screw it up? Well he did two things that are guaranteed to create a lot of misery. He overspent his income scrupulously, that’s number one. That is really stupid. And the other thing was he was full of jealousies and resentments. If you over-spend your income and be full of jealousy and resentments, you’re going to have a lousy unhappy life and die young. All you’ve got to do is learn from Mozart. You can also learn from that young man who was asking Mozart how to write symphonies. The truth of the matter is that not everybody can learn everything. Some people are way they hell better. And of course no matter how hard you try there’s always some guy who achieves more. Some guy or gal. My attitude is ‘so what?’. Does any of us need to be the very top of the whole world? It’s ridiculous.
Another thing that people do that I regard as amazing is they build these enormous mausoleums. I think they figure they want people to walk by that mausoleum and say, “Gosh I wish I were in there!”. (laughter)
Anyway. You can see we’ve have had some fun as we go along and it’s worked so well. But if you actually figure out how many decisions were made in the history of the Daily Journal Corporation or the history of Berkshire Hathaway it wasn’t very many per year that were meaningful. It’s a game of being there all the time and recognizing the rare opportunity when it comes and recognizing that the normal human allotment is to not have very many. Now it’s a very competent bunch of people who sell securities who act as though they’ve got an endless supply of wonderful opportunities. Well those people are the equivalent of the race track tout. They’re not even respectable. It’s not a good way to live your life to pretend to know a lot of stuff you don’t know and pretend to furnish a lot of opportunities you’re not furnishing. And my advice to you is avoid those people, but not if you’re running a stock brokerage firm. You need them. But it’s not the right way to make money. This business of controlling the costs and living simply, that was the secret. Warren and I had tiny little bits of money. We always underspent our incomes and invested. And if you live long enough you end up rich. It’s not very complicated.
Now there is a part of life which is, how do you scramble out of your mistakes without them costing too much? And we’ve done some of that too. If you look at Berkshire Hathaway, think of its founding businesses. A doomed department store, doomed New England textile company, and a doomed trading stamp company. Out of that came Berkshire Hathaway. Now we handled those losing hands pretty well when we bought into them very cheaply. But of course the success came from changing our ways and getting into the better businesses. It isn’t that we were so good at doing things that were difficult. We were good at avoid things that were difficult. Finding things that are easy.
By the way, when we bought the Daily Journal that was easy. What we’re doing now in this software business is difficult. But due to the accident of these good associations and the fact that these old colleagues have lived so long, we’re doing pretty well in the new business. It has potential. And it’s fun to do. How many declining newspapers have hundreds of millions of marketable securities lying around and a new business with some promise? We’re like the last of the Mohicans. (laughter)
Well I’ll take some questions now. We need some system of order.
Question 1: In the book outsiders William Thorndike lists eight CEOs that achieved superlative performance to the S&P 500 and their peers, so other than Mr. Buffett and Mr. Murphy, did Berkshire or you invest in the other six companies? And if not, why?
Charlie: Well I can’t answer that question, I don’t know the others six companies. But I would say, generally speaking as things have gotten tougher, we’ve been better at sitting on our asses with what we have than we have in buying new ones. It’s been hard to buy new ones. We haven’t bought a whole company of any size since we bought the truck stop operator. So if you’re having trouble with the present time with anything, join the club.
Question 2: Could you please comment on proposed legislation in Washington to restrict or tax share buybacks.
Charlie: Oh…(laughter)…Well. Rick tells a story about an old Irishman that used to steal from the church and drunk all the time. And when he’s dying the priest asked him to renounce the devil. And he said I can’t do that because in my condition I shouldn’t offend anybody. And I don’t think I should…If you get me started on politicians, I may be impolitic. So let’s go on to another subject.
Question 3: My question is about smaller banks. If you look at banks with assets greater than about a billion dollars in the U.S. and go up and stop at the super regional level, there’s about 250 of those banks. And my question is, is that a hunting ground that you would think, applying the principles of value investing, is likely to yield one or two great businesses?
Charlie: Well thank you for answering that question, the answer is yes.
Question 4: You and Warren have advocated for decades that CEOs should tell shareholders everything they need to know to value a business. From visiting and calling courthouses around the country, I’ve personally seen the success that you’ve had being awarded contracts against larger competitors for JTI. However your opaqueness regarding contracts that have been awarded but not completed leaves a wide range that an estimated value could fall for. So if a shareholder unwilling to cold call 50 courts around the country to find these contracts that haven’t been accepted yet, could you please provide a little bit of detail for us shareholders as far as the willingness for courts to accept these? Have you had any contracts that haven’t been accepted after you put in the work?
Charlie: Well we’ve got contracts or possible contracts at every stage you could imagine. And it’s very complicated and I don’t purport to understand each one because I’ve trusted Gerry and the people who are doing it. But generally speaking I can see that the trend is favorable. But more than that I can only say you would be horrified if you watched it up close how difficult it is. It’s difficult. But in spite of its difficulties we’re doing pretty well. But we haven’t got any magic wand. If you read all the reports…If I read all the reports in great detail and spent all my effort trying to understand it, I wouldn’t understand it very well. So I think your chances are very poor.
Question 5: One of my favorite lines from you is you want to hire the guy with the IQ of 130 that thinks it’s 120 and the guy with an IQ of 150 who thinks it’s 170 will just kill you.
Charlie: You must be thinking about Elon Musk.
Question 5 (continued…): How do you assess someone when making a hiring decision?
Charlie: Of course I want the guy who understands his limitations instead of the guy who doesn’t. On the other hand I’ve learned something terribly important in life. I learned that from Howard Ahmanson. You know what he used to say? “Never underestimate the man who overestimates himself.” These weird guys who overestimate themselves occasionally knock it right out of the park. And that is a very unhappy part of modern life. But I’ve learned to adjust to it. I have no alternative. It happens all the time. But I don’t want my personal life to be a bunch of guys who are living in a state of delusion, who happen occasionally to win big. I want the prudent person.
Question 6: What did you see in Li Lu versus other investors in China? Because in his biography it looks like he’s more of an outsider. And how similar or different is he versus Todd Combs and Ted Weschler? And Is there any reason why you gave that interview last year with Li Lu in China?
Charlie: Well I did it because he asked me and I sometimes do that, I am foolish that way. And I said what I believed when they asked me the questions. The answer is Li Lu is not a normal…He’s the Chinese Warren Buffet. He’s very talented. Of course I’ve enjoyed bagging him, but it’s interesting that way…I’m ninety five years…I’ve given Munger money to some outsider to run once in ninety five years. And it’s Li Lu, and of course he’s hit it out of the park. It’s very remarkable but it’s also pretty picky. And of course once I’ve got Li Lu if I’m comparing to him, who else am I going to pick? And by the way that’s a good way to make decisions and that’s what we do. If we’ve got one thing we can do more of, we’re not interested in anything that’s not better than that. That simplifies life a great deal because there aren’t that many people better than Li Lu. So I just sit. It’s amazing how intelligent it is to spend some time just sitting. A lot of people are way too active.
Question 7: Good morning Mr. Munger. You said in the past that you expect the U.S. to adopt a single payer health care system or Medicare for all the next time that Democrats control all three branches of government…
Charlie: I Do, yes.
Question 7 (continued): What will this mean for health insurers, hospitals, and medical device companies?
Charlie: Well it will be a hell of a mess. It’ll still be a big business but it will be a hell of a mess. The existing system is so over expensive and over complicated and has so much unnecessary cost. So much unnecessary overtreatment of the dying. So much overtreatment of items that would be best left alone. So much unnecessary expense. Yet on the other hand it’s the best system there is in the world in terms of the quality at the top. So it’s a very complicated subject, but it’s a hell of a mess. I find it demoralizing to see in Singapore they spend 20 percent of what we spend in America on medical care and their system is way better. And what they’re doing is just the most elemental common sense. But of course it was created by one Chinese guy who was in control. Of course it’s more intelligent than the outcome of our political process.
That Singapore system was created by Lee Kuan Yew. Of course it works better. But to have it cost 20 percent and work better in an advanced place likes Singapore…So there’s a lot to be demoralized about in terms of the potential of our medical care system. And of course it isn’t that our politicians are good at fixing systems like that. So if you don’t like it now, I confidently predict you won’t like it later either. (laughter)
Question 8: I read a lot of the stoic philosophers last year. Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius…
Charlie: Well I can see why you would. There’s a lot to be stoic about. (laughter)
Question 8 (Continued): And as I glean lessons from them there was one name that kept coming to mind, that is Munger, Munger, Munger….
Charlie: Well some people think that Marcus Aurelius is all right. (laughter)
Question 8: Can you talk to me about the influence that the Stoics had on you and some of your favorite advice from them.
Charlie: A lot. A lot have had (a lot of influence) on me, including Epictetus who started as a slave. No I like those old Stoics. And part of the secret of a long life that’s worked as well as mine is not to expect too much of human nature. It’s almost bound to be a lot of defects and problems. And to have your life full of seething resentments and hatreds, it’s counterproductive. You’re punishing yourself and not fixing the world. Can you think of anything much more stupid than trying to fix the world in a way that ruins yourself and doesn’t fix the world? It’s pretty stupid. I just don’t do it. I have a rule for politicians. It’s a stoic rule…I always reflect that politicians are never so bad, you don’t live to want them back. When I was young, the California legislature was full of small time insurance brokers and lawyers looking for an unfair advantage. They were being entertained by restaurants with prostitutes and bars, by racetracks, and liquor distributors and so on and so on. Fade in fade out. We have a different kind of a legislature now, and I just want all those old crooks and lobbyists and prostitutes back. (laughter) You laugh but you young people, you’re going to live to wish…Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump we’re immortal. (laughter)
Question 9: Could you share a reading recommendation for us, potentially a new one, that maybe fundamentally change your viewpoint on something?
Charlie: Well there are very few ninety-five year olds that are changing their viewpoint on things. But I do find that there are amusing anecdotes and so forth that I occasionally read and like. But I like the old anecdotes pretty well too. Like that one about the vet and the horse. It’s so obvious though, some of these pithy stories. The storytelling really works to get messages around. One of the interesting things is look at our modern politicians and then think about Abraham Lincoln. (Which) modern politician reminds you of Abraham Lincoln? In either party? Lincoln at one time was hired by some guy whose partner had died, leaving practically no money to a wife and three children. And he owed some money to his surviving partner and the surviving partner came to Lincoln and said, “I want you to collect this money.” And Lincoln said to this guy, he says, “Well” he says, “You look like an enterprising fellow who could get that much money back pretty easily through a little effort. And if you want to ring a little money out of this poor widow and her three children then you’ll have to get a different kind of lawyer.” Does that remind you of any of our modern politicians? That was Abraham Lincoln. What a story. No wonder he’s remembered.
And you know who deserves the credit for Abraham Lincoln and never gets it? It’s his stepmother! Abraham Lincoln was the child of two illiterates. But the step mother, who his father just married in desperation to help raise the children, she took a shine to Lincoln and saw he was bookish and she helped him all the way along. I am going to donate a picture of that stepmother eventually to a particular place because I admire what that stepmother accomplished in life. Imagine being responsible more than any other person for the life of Abraham Lincoln.
Question 10: My question is about the intellectual property because you are a lawyer by training. Given the complicated landscape in this field, is there a better way to share intellectual property across nations, especially in the case of Huawei, is there better legal framework to handle intellectual properties?
Charlie: Well you know, I don’t know that much about the world of intellectual property. I made my way i n insurance, and furniture stores, and little legal newspapers and so on. So other people are good at intellectual property. I’m good at avoiding subjects which I’m not good at. And one of them is intellectual property. I’m not surprised that the Chinese are stealing a little intellectual property. We Americans did it all the time. We stole Dicken’s work. We just reprinted his copyrighted stuff. We stole the technology from the English textile manufacturers. It isn’t as though people haven’t been pretty aggressive about wanting to know other people’s ideas. This is an old problem. I do think that allowing intellectual property to have these profits is desirable. But the exact complexities of how you handle it, I don’t spend much time thinking about.
Question 11: In last year’s Daily Journal meeting, you talked about one of the five aces of a money manager was a long runway.
Question 11 (continued…): I’m young and have at least hopefully a 40 year runway ahead of me.
Charlie: How are your legs? (laughter).
Question 11 (continued…): I passed my physical with flying colors, so thanks a lot. I’d like to compound my money at the highest rate and then give most of it away at the end. Which money managers would you recommend besides you and Warren?
Charlie: Well I just said I’ve only hired one myself in a lifetime, I don’t think that makes me an expert. Although I must say that one did work out rather well. No I can’t help you. Everybody would like to have some money manager that would make him rich. Of course we all would want that. I would like to be able to turn lead into gold. But it’s hard. It’s very hard. And if you’re finding it difficult that just shows you understand it.
Question 12: Charlie and Peter Kaufman. I don’t have a question, I just want to thank you both for putting together Poor Charlie’s Almanac. It has been an incredibly foundational book in my life and it has really helped inflect my thinking on many different things. So thank you both very much for your work on that.
Charlie: It was really Peter Kaufman’s idea. He did the whole damn thing, and he paid for it himself, being a rich and eccentric man. I just wish there was one change in Peter Kaufman. Peter Kaufman has made me adored in India and China. I wish the hell he could do more for me in Los Angeles. (laughter) The Chinese version of Poor Charlie’s Almanac has been pirated enormously in China. Totally pirated. But the legal sales are three hundred forty thousand or something. Peter has made me very popular in China but he does nothing for me in Los Angeles. (laughter)
Question 13: You’ve paraphrased Ben Graham in saying that good ideas are wonderful but you can suffered terribly if you overdo them.
Question 13 (continued…): How do you balance that against the risk that you potentially forego an opportunity altogether? Or are late to an opportunity for fear that a good idea has been overdone?
Charlie: The problem that is thoroughly understood is half solved. The minute you point out there’s a big tension between good ideas yet over done so much they’re dangerous, and good ideas that still have a lot of runway ahead, once you have that construct in your head and start classifying opportunities into one category or the other. You’ve got the problem half solved. You don’t need me. You’ve already figured it out. You’ve got to be aware of both potentialities and the tensions.
Question 14: In your letter on Berkshire’s past and future, you wrote about the principles that have made Berkshire successful over the years. My question is, why is it that Berkshire’s organizational principles as a holding company have not been copied more by others given its incredible success and track record?
Charlie: Well it’s a good question. I think the main reason is that it looks impossible. If you were in Procter and Gamble, with its culture and its bureaucracy, and you sat down to figure out, ‘How can I make Procter and Gamble more like Berkshire Hathaway?’, it wouldn’t go immediately to the ‘too hard pile’. It’s just too hard. There’s too much momentum.
But you raise by your question a very interesting thing that deserves more attention than it gets. One of the reasons that Berkshire has been so successful is there’s practically nobody at headquarters. We have almost no corporate bureaucracy. We have a few internal auditors who go out from there and check this or that. But basically we have no bureaucracy. Having no bureaucracy is a huge advantage if the people who are running are sensible people. Think of how poorly all of us have behaved in big bureaucracy even though we have a lot of talent because we couldn’t change anything.
So bureaucracy has a standard bunch of evils on a standard and bunch of stupid wastes and so forth, and avoiding it is hugely important. Of course there’s a tendency of successful places, particularly successful governments, is to have more and more bureaucracy. Of course it’s terribly counterproductive. And of course the bureaucracy, the individual bureaucrats they’re benefiting from more assistance, more meetings, more this, more that. So what looks like poison to us from the outside, because the decisions are so terrible, looks wonderful for them, it’s opportunity. I’ve just described the great tragedy of modern life. Modern life creates successful bureaucracy and successful bureaucracy breeds failure and stupidity. How can it be otherwise. That’s the big tension of modern life. And some of these places that go into a stupid bureaucracy and fire a third of the people and then place works better? They’re doing the Lord’s work. But you wouldn’t think so if you were working there. But there’s a lot of horror and waste in bureaucracy and its inevitable. It’s as natural as old age and death. With that cheerful thought, we can go on to the next one.
Question 15: I’m researching personality psychology and what makes partnerships successful, such as you and Warren. What are your thoughts on that?
Charlie: Well I’ll tell you what makes a partnership successful. Two talented people working well the together. Of course that works better.
Question 16: In the past you’ve praised the significance of cultures at firms like Glenair, Kiewit, and Costco. What are your views on the culture at Daily Journal and in particular Journal Technologies and similar to your Berkshire 50 year essay, can you share a multi-decade vision for Journal Technologies.
Charlie: Well you got to remember that I was old when Journal Technologies came into being. I guess I had a weak moment when…Guerin talked me into it. And it worked because Gerry took a hold of it and work miracles. So I don’t deserve much credit. It’s Guerin and Salzman who are responsible for Journal Technologies. I just clap. I’m good at clapping.
Question 17: You speak about the importance of fishing in waters with ample fish. If you were starting out today, what sea would you be fishing in, other than China of course.
Charlie: Well other than China, but…if there’s one good place in the world that’s more than my share. There are others I’m sure, but it’s hard for me to believe that any can get better for the Mungers than China. So I can’t help you. I’ve solved my problem. You’ll have to solve yours. By the way, the water’s fine in China. Some very smart people are wading in. And in due course I think more will wade in. The great companies of China are cheaper than the great companies of the United States.
Question 18: I have a question regarding long term investment and compound interest. In the last few years with very low interest rates out there it’s been difficult to find opportunities for having a long term compound interest based strategy. So beyond investing in Berkshire, Value Investing, or index funding, where would you invite us to find opportunities for long term investment where compound interest is really that force?
Charlie: Well, my advice for a seeker of compound interest that works ideally is to reduce your expectations. Because I think it’s going to be tougher for a while. And it helps to have realistic expectations. Makes you less crazy. I think that…you know they say that common stocks from the aftermath of the Great Depression, which was the worst in the English speaking world in hundreds of years, to the present time may be an index that’s produced 10 percent. Well that’s pre-inflation. After inflation it may be 7 percent or something. And the difference between 7 and 10 in terms of its consequences are just hugely dramatic over that long period of time. And if that’s 7 in real terms, but achieved starting at a perfect period and through the greatest boom in history, starting now it could well be 3 percent or 2 percent in real terms. It’s not unthinkable you’d have 5 percent returns and 3 percent inflation or some ghastly consequences like that. The ideal way to cope with that is to say, “If that happens, I can have a happy life.” Because why shouldn’t you be happy in spite of the fact that civilization wasn’t quite as easy as it was for my generation. Now beyond that, when it gets more difficult, how should you do it? Well the answer is, because it’s going to be very difficult, you should work at it. And if all that gets you is 6 percent for a lifetime of work instead of 5, you should be cheerful about it. If you want to hit it out of the park easily, you should talk to Jim Cramer. (laughter)
Question 19: Building on the question about the corporate culture at Daily Journal Corporation, could we ask the other board members about the long term succession plan for the board.
Charlie: I don’t think we want to go to another speaker. (laughter)
Question 20: Has the Berkshire Hathaway equity portfolio outperformed the S&P over the last five or ten years? And if it has not, why wouldn’t Berkshire just invest in the S&P for its equity portfolio?
Charlie: I think Warren, who is after all a mere boy of 89, thinks that Berkshire can do a little better than the S&P. From this point. I don’t think many people can, but he may be right about himself and the team he has in place. It won’t be by huge margins, that I confidently predict.
Question 21: How do you think about downside protection and how do you know when to exit an investment?
Charlie: Well you’re not talking to a great ‘exiter’. My Berkshire I bought it in 1966. My Costco I bought… I mean I’ve been a good picker. But other people know more exiting. I’m trying never to have to exit. So you’re talking to the wrong…I think there are working styles of investments that work well with constant exits. It just hasn’t happened been my forte. So I’m no good at exits. I don’t like even looking for exits. I’m looking for holds. Think of the pleasure I’ve got from watching Costco march ahead. Such an utter meritocracy and it does so well. Why would I trade that experience for a series of transactions that make me a little…In the first place, I’d be less rich not more after taxes. The second place is it’s a much less satisfactory life than rooting for people I like and admire. So I say find Costco’s, not good exits.
Question 22: You mentioned that in an interview with CNBC on May 2018, Berkshire too restrained on buying more Apple stock. Do you still believe so?
Charlie: No I don’t. I don’t think the world would be improved by more comments from me on Apple. You know, I’m a very opinionated man and I know a lot, but I don’t know everything. I like Apple but I don’t have the feeling that I’m the big expert.
Question 23: Last year you said that you wish you had more of Apple stock, but now its price has declined by a lot, so what is your opinion about its moat or the competitive advantage. Why do you think it has declined?
Charlie: Well I don’t know why Apple stock is going up or down. I know enough about it so I admire the place, but I don’t know enough to have any big opinion about why it’s going up and down recently. Part of our secret is that we don’t attempt to know a lot of things. I have a pile on my desk that solves most of my problems, it’s called the ‘too hard’ pile. And I just keep shifting things ‘too hard’ pile. And everyone once in a while an easy decision comes along and I make it. That’s my system. Everything was the ‘too hard’ pile, except for a few easy decisions which I make, promptly.
Question 24: When you’re assessing the quality of a business do you place more emphasis on quantitative metrics such as return on invested capital or qualitative ideas like brand strength or quality of management?
Charlie: Well we pay attention to qualitative metrics and we also pay attention to other factors. Generally we like to pay attention to whatever’s important in the particular situation and that varies from situation to situation. We’re just trying to have that ‘uncommon sense’ I’m talking about. And part of our uncommon sense is just to refer a lot of stuff to the ‘too hard’ pile.
Question 25: The simple life is the obvious right answer, but most of America ends up like Mozart, in debt and overspending. How did you maintain the discipline to live the simple life in the face of all these other temptations?
Charlie: I was born this way. (laughter)
Question 26: I’m an engineer at BYD, and I was interested to hear your perspective on the current state of infrastructure in the U.S. and some areas of growth that you might see in the future for infrastructure.
Charlie: Well I think infrastructure will be a big deal. Practically everybody…in China where BYD is so active, by the way the Daily Journal owns some BYD, but BYD is going to be huge electric vehicles. They are already huge. And they’re going to be much more huge. And then they’re going to be huge in monorails which is also a business whose time has come. And they’re also huge in these lithium batteries, and the lithium batteries are being improved…materially improved. And the place is full of fanatics, and by the way they’re a big supplier to Apple and Huawei. And they’re a very satisfactory supplier to those things. So I am terribly impressed with BYD and its been one of the real pleasures of my life to…Wang Chuanfu is the eighth son of a peasant. An older brother recognizing a genius had been born into the family, he just gave up everything in life to nurture that little brother genius. Now that’s Confucianism. And by the way Confucianism will do a lot better for civilization than the Ford Foundation did. Confucianism with a strong family ethos like that is a really constructive thing. And Confucianism partly created BYD. That older brother of Wang Chuanfu was a hero. And of course what Wang Chuanfu has done is a miracle. And of course that was a venture capital type investment. We bought marketable securities, not Berkshire, but Li Lu did. And it’s been a wonderful investment and it’s been a very admirable company. And I like being part of something that’s inventing better lithium batteries and better monorails and so on and so on. So if you work for BYD, you’re a very fortunate person and you’re gonna have a wonderful life watching and participating. You could hardly have a better employer. At least if you like demanding achievement and 80 hour weeks.
Question 27: You mentioned earlier that when you had an opportunity to raise prices you didn’t want to raise them during the Great Recession because it didn’t seem right for Charlie Munger to be raising prices on people that were losing their houses. So I wanted to thank you for that as well.
Charlie: Nobody else ever has.
Question 27 (continued…): I wanted to ask you about the causes of the Great Recession, specifically the credit ratings agencies, and your twenty four standard causes of human misjudgment. I think they hit them pretty much all. Pavlovian Association, denial,…
Charlie: You’re right about that. The financial behavior in our leading financial institutions was inexcusably awful. When other people were making money in a disreputable stupid fashion, everybody piled in because they didn’t want somebody else to be making money and they’re not participating. The standards in lending, the standards in managing…It was disgusting intellectually, disgusting morally, and of course it caused a whirlwind that could have taken the whole civilization down into a Great Depression. That’s a pretty major sin. And none of those people’s been punished. It’s usual that I agree so thoroughly with Elizabeth Warren, but it was wrong to have that big of a mess and have nobody punished.
Question 27 (continued…): I’ve written a blueprint for a nonprofit credit ratings agency and I’d love to get your feedback.
Charlie: Things that far out I usually leave to other people and not because Berkshire Hathaway owns a big chunk of one of the credit rating agencies. But I can see why the existing situation would draw your concern. But there are some human problems I don’t want to bother with. And you have just produced one. But you’re right it wasn’t perfect.
Question 28: My question relates to the country’s national debt. We’ve just recently passed twenty two trillion dollars and our debt to GDP is above 100 percent now. At a time when our GDP may be near a peak and interest rates may be rising. It seems to me that politicians seem fine running the deficit because there when the crisis comes, and consumers are happy to take a deficit because it’s better to consume now than tomorrow. My question is, do you think that there’s something we can do about this? And if so, what should be done? Or is human psychology such that until the crisis is upon us, it’s hard to imagine anything it’s done?
Charlie: Well that’s a very interesting question. The whole science of economics had no idea 15 years ago that it would be possible to print money on the present scale, and get so awash in internal debt as we have. And certainly in a place like Japan, which is way more extreme, nobody dreamed that was possible. And the people who did dream what was possible…and they were few…they would not have predicted 20 years of stasis in spite of everything the Japanese did which was very extreme.
There’s a lot that’s peculiar in what we’re doing and eventually if you try and solve all your problems by printing money there’ll be some disaster. When it’s coming and how bad it will be, nobody knows. Nobody dreamed 15 years ago we could do as much as we have now with as little bad consequence. Churchill use to say that Clement Attlee had a lot to be modest about. Well that’s the way I feel about the economics profession. They have a lot to be modest about. They thought they knew a lot, but turned out not to be so. There was a Greek philosopher that said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” You know the river is different the second time he comes in and so is the man. And that’s the way with economics. It’s not like physics where the same damn principles are going to apply. You do the same damn thing at a different time and you get a different result. It’s complicated.
And of course you’re raising a very important question. And of course nobody really knows the answer. Who knows how much of this we can get by with. My personal bet is that these democracies will eventually borrow too much and cause some real troubles. I don’t know when.
Question 29: A lot of people ask how you determine what investment or deal to do, and you tell people that you can do this fairly quickly. My question is how do you tell if a money manager or management of a company has the right character or the right integrity? How long does it take you to do that and what are some traits that you look for?
Charlie: Well now that I found Li Lu I don’t look for anybody else. So I’m the wrong person. What are my chances I’m going to get somebody better than Li Lu. So it’s very easy for me. What you need is a Li Lu and I don’t know how to get you one.
Question 30: Last year we saw a record amount of share repurchases, and now we’re hearing rhetoric out of Washington D.C. specifically legislation to curb stock buybacks. What’s your take on stock buybacks and do you think politicians should be telling companies what to do?
Charlie: Well generally speaking I’m restrained in my enthusiasm for politicians telling corporations what they should do. But I will say this. When it was a very good idea for companies to buy back their stock they didn’t do very much. And when the stocks got so high price that it’s frequently a bad idea, they’re doing a lot. Welcome to adult life. This is the way it is. But it’s questionable at the present levels whether a lot of it is smart. Was Eddie Lambert smart to buy back so much Sears Roebuck? No. And there’s a lot of that kind of mistake that’s been made.
Question 31: Similar to your Mozart anecdote, I wanted to ask you, what advice would you have for someone my age looking to live a long successful life like yourself.
Charlie: Well I haven’t had that much success changing any of my children. And I don’t think I can give helpful advice to a perfect stranger. It’s hard to improve the next generation, and the standard result is going to be mediocre. Some people are going to succeed. They’re going to be few. That’s the way human significance is allotted. Human significance will always go to the few. There’s no way of creating enough (few in significance), to meet the demand. I think personal discipline, personal morality, good colleagues, good ideas, all the simple stuff. I’d say, if you want to carry one message from Charlie Munger it’s this, “If it’s trite it’s right.” All those old virtues, they all work.
Question 32: You point out a great deal of human folly, but you don’t seem to be that upset about it. Has that always been the case and is that a correct perception
Charlie: That’s a very correct perception. It’s my system. I’ve copied it from the Jews. I saw it work well from them, and it was my natural inclination anyway. And so, humor is my way of coping.
Question 33: What is your proudest accomplishment in life and why?
Charlie: I don’t have a single accomplishment in life that I’m all that proud of. I set out to try and have more uncommon sense than most. Pretty limited objective. I am pleased I did as well as I did in that game. If I had to do it all over again, I think it’d be a lot harder. I think part of my success was being born in the right place at the right time. So, I’m not particularly proud of success that came from being born in the right place at the right time. I’m pleased but not proud.
Question 34: Mr. Salzman. I have a question for you. Could please comment on how Journal Technologies implements the invariant strategy principles? Things like trust, getting employees to go all in, positive sum, and win/win relationships.
Charlie: Gerry that’s a simple question. How do you solve the problems of God?
Gerry Salzman: First of all you have to deal with each individual because each individual, each employee, each independent contractor that we have to work with, each client is different. And so you have to relate to their specific circumstance. You do not handle it because it’s in a checklist or something.
Question 35: This question is for both of Charlie and Peter. Charlie once said any year that you don’t destroy one of your best loved ideas is probably a wasted year. Have either of you destroyed any of your beloved ideas in 2018? And if so, what are they?
Charlie: Guerin have you destroyed any good ideas 2018?
Rick Guerin: …Probably unbeknownst to me.
Gerry Salzman: We always think into the future, we’re not worried about the past. It’s just that simple. The day ends, we’re on to something different. It’s a different challenge every day. And the good part about my job, it changes every day. So I face something different. I’m more like a newspaper editor. I start with the blank page every day. Well how do I go to the next situation? How do I solve a particular problem? That’s my day. That’s what I do.
Question 36: In October 2008, a month after Lehman filed bankruptcy and in the depths of the abyss, Mr. Buffett famously wrote an editorial saying that he was buying stocks and he was bullish on America. You’re famous for bottom ticking Wells Fargo in March of 2009. What made you decide to buy Wells Fargo in March of 2009 instead of October of 2008?
Charlie: Well I had the money in the later period. And the stock was cheaper. Those are two very important parts of the purchase.
Question 37: I’ve heard that you started some new real estate developments. What are you developing now and what’s going to be the key to its success?
Charlie: No I bought some apartment houses for my grandchildren. It seemed like a good idea at the time. By the way that phrase, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’, came to me from a man I knew many years ago. In five minutes between trains he managed to conceive an illegitimate child by somebody he met in the bar car. And my father was asked by the young man’s father, he had a nice wife and three children, “What the hell were you thinking about?” And you know what the young man said? “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” (laughter)
Question 38:Herb Kelleher passed away recently and I’m hoping that maybe you have some anecdotes about Herb that you would like to share with us?
Charlie: Yeah well. Well he was a very remarkable business man. I never knew him, but he was an original and he created an amazingly sound company while drinking one hell of a lot of whiskey and smoking a hell of a lot of cigarettes. This is not my personal style. To do as well as he did with so much Bourbon and so many cigarettes, it set a new record in human life. So, we should all remember Herb Kelleher. And we should all wish we could have so much strength that we could abuse it so much and still perform. I didn’t get such a hand. I regarded it as a miracle.
Question 39: If you didn’t have access to Li Lu and to the Chinese exchanges through him, like many Americans don’t, would you feel comfortable investing in the American Depository Shares of most Chinese companies that are comprised of a V.I.E. Structure and offer shareholders few rights and minimal protections from the Chinese government?
Charlie: I don’t know much about depository shares. I tend to be suspicious of all investment products created by professionals. I tend to go where nothing is being hawked aggressively or merchandise…sold aggressively. So you’re talking about a world in which I don’t even enter. So I can’t help you. You’re talking about a territory I avoid.
Question 40: The derivative portfolios of major U.S. banks are getting quite large on the balance sheets. S.E.C. reporting doesn’t require much transparency. So do you worry about this kind of stuff in the banks that you own? And do you worry about other banks as well?
Charlie: All intelligent investors worry about banks because banks present temptations to their managers to do dumb things. There’s so many things you can easily do in a bank that looks like a cinch way of reporting more earnings soon, where it’s a mistake to do it, long-term considerations being properly considered. As Warren puts it, “The trouble with banking is there are more banks than there are good bankers.” And he’s right about that. So I would say that if you invest in banks you have to go in at a time when you got a lot going for you. Because there’ll be a fair amount of stupidity that creeps into banking.
Question 41: When you don’t have the luxury of picking your negotiation counter parties, what’s your best recommendation for dealing with somebody who, not only won’t negotiate rationally but will also criticize you for trying to negotiate rationally?
Charlie: You’re talking about a situation I try and solve by avoidance. If I can solve that problem I’d have a line around the block. I mean you wouldn’t be able to squeeze in here. Everybody who has an insoluble problem with a difficult person…Think of what we’d all do to solve that one? I’m afraid I don’t have a solution to that one. Avoidance is my general principle method.
Question 42: I have two questions. Both you and Mr. Buffett worked in Buffett’s grandpa’s grocery store during your teenage years. Do you think that your early working experience helped give you a strong advantage in this investing profession?
Charlie: Absolutely. I was able to learn from my dead great grandfather when I was a little boy. What I learned at a very young age when I was just a kid, I could see some of the adults around me were nuts and yet they were very talented. I could see how much irrationality there was in very talented people.
So I got interested in seeking out the patterns and understanding why it happened and learning tricks to cope and so on. And I did that when I was a little kid. And of course it helped me. Who is not helped by an early start in a promising activity? And what activity could be more promising than in diagnosing stupidity?
Question 43: What level of discount would you be applying to potential investments today?
Charlie: Well generally speaking, I think the professional investors have to accept less than they were used to getting under different conditions. Just as an old man expects less out of his sex life than he had when he was 20.
Question 44: I want to come back to William Thorndike books, and I now have the list of the eight companies. It is General Dynamics, Berkshire Hathaway, The Washington Post, DCI, Capital Cities, Teledyne, General Cinema, and Ralston Purina. I know that Berkshire Hathaway had the long-term investment in the Washington Post and Capital Cities and have been invested in companies of John Malone. But why did Berkshire not have a long-term investment into General Dynamics, Teledyne, General Cinema, or Ralston Purina?
Charlie: Well we did have a huge investment in General Dynamics for a long time and we made an enormous amount of money with it. After the defense business contracted, nobody else was willing to sell anything except for General Dynamics, which kept selling at higher and higher prices. And Warren noticed that. We had a huge position in general dynamics and made a fortune. We always admired the founder of Teledyne who was a genius. Henry Singleton. But we admired him from afar, we never invested. It’s just one of many mistakes of omission.
Question 45: I was happy to see you at this meeting turned 90, now you’re ninety-five…
Charlie: You think you’re happy, think of the way I feel! (laughter)
Question 45 (continued…): Well I hope you live to be 120 and I always thank you for your positive influence on our lives. My question is related to stress and sleep and longevity. In business, there are what I call ‘criminal competitors’. You’re honest and ethical but the competitor across the street is beating you by cheating and running a massive insurance fraud. Business and life can cause a lot of stress, but you’ve always seemed to stay cool. What mental tools do you use to de-focus and keep your equanimity for ninety-five years? How do you detach? And even during the Salomon Brothers scandal were you always able to get eight hours of sleep at night?
Charlie: Well that is not true. As a matter of fact, I had more difficulty sleeping when I was young, but I do have a tip that I’ve learned late in life. I never consciously blanked out my mind when I tried to go to sleep, so I allowed my mind to wrestle through my problems and keep me awake very very late while I lay in bed wrestling with problems. And then if I didn’t sleep well one night I figured, “What the hell I’ll sleep the next night.” But that was pretty stupid. But now I actually deliberately blank out my mind I can go to sleep rather easily and I recommend it to all of you. It really works. I don’t know why the hell I didn’t get to it before 93. (laughter)
Question 47: You gave Robert Cialdini one share of Berkshire for writing influence, and a twenty thousand dollar check to Atul Gawande for writing a New Yorker article on health care. Are there any other writers you gave something to for their writing or ideas?
Charlie: I’ve forgotten, but there aren’t many. Atul Gawande is a very remarkable person and so is Cialdini. So I do that kind of weird stuff occasionally, but I don’t do it all the time. I’m proud of those two by the way.
Question 48: If someone can invent a time machine and you can go back and have dinner with your 41 year old self, what piece of advice would you give your former self?
Charlie: Well I’d avoid that one mistake of omission that cost me half of the net worth I would now have if I’d been smarter. We can all go back and make some decision better. But it’s the nature of thing that you’re going to blow one occasionally. My general idea is there’s no point in fretting too much about what you can’t fix. It’s a big mistake to fill yourself with resentments and hatreds and so on. It’s such a simple idea but so many people ruin their lives unnecessarily. Envy is such a stupid thing to have because you can’t possibly have any fun with that particular sin. Who in the hell ever had any fun in envy? What good could envy possibly do for you? And somebody is always going to be doing better than you are. It’s really stupid. So my system at life is to figure out what’s really stupid and avoid it. It doesn’t make me popular, but it prevents a lot of trouble.
Question 49: Could you comment on why there’s so little health care in the Berkshire portfolio?
Charlie: I think we don’t understand it well enough and we don’t like a lot that we do understand. Those are two pretty good reasons for not investing.
Question 50: Do you have any thoughts on a winner-take-all business model, and have you seen it in the 50’s and 60′?
Charlie: That’s ideal if you can find one in advance and predict it accurately. It’s perfect. Winner take all. It’s obviously perfect. It’s very difficult to do because everyone’s looking for the same thing.
Question 51: I’m at a point in my life where I don’t really know my circle of competence, so I would like to know how you found yours.
Charlie: Well it’s a hugely important thing, knowing the edge. It’s hardly a competence if you don’t know the edge of it. You know, if you have a misapprehension regarding your own competency that means you lack competence, you’re going to make terrible mistakes. I think you’ve got to constantly measure what you achieve against other people of achievement, and you have to keep being determinedly rational, and avoiding a lot of self-delusion. But after a lifetime of observing it, I think the tendency to be pretty rational about one’s own competency is largely genetic. I think people like Warren and I were just born this way. Now it took a lot of education. But I think we were born with the right temperament to do what we did. And I have no way of taking you back and rebirthing you.
Question 52: In spite of being partners for so long, why is Warren so much richer than you?
Charlie: Well. He got an earlier start. He’s probably a little smarter. He works harder. There are not a lot of reasons. Why was Albert Einstein poorer than I was? (laughter)
We are coming to the end of our allotted time. I’ll take one more question and then we’ll quite
Question 53: You’ve been very positive on the investment prospects for China and you’ve said that most of Americans are missing out on China. What do you think we’re missing? And what should we be aware of when we invest in China?
Charlie: Well what you’re missing is that there’s more opportunities there than there is here. And I don’t see how I can guide you any more firmly than that. Are you finding things so easy here you don’t need China?
Well with that we’re through.
Gerry Salzman: Thank you all for attending the Daily Journal shareholder meeting this year. We welcome you all back for next year.
End of Transcript
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Last week I had the great pleasure of hearing Charlie Munger speak at the Daily Journal Annual Meeting for the third time. For two hours he captivated the audience with an abundance of whit, wisdom, stamina, and kindness. At 94 years young, Charlie shows no signs of slowing down.
I transcribed the full event from my audio recording which you may listen to on SoundCloud. Throughout the transcript you will find;
Time stamps, each linked to its corresponding recording location.
Links to relevant supporting information.
I would like to thank Mr. Munger for energetically entertaining our questions and graciously sharing his wisdom, insights, and time with all of us.
I hope you all enjoy!
(Note: You will find that I frequently summarized the questions from the audience, but as for anything that Charlie, Gerry, or Peter said, I translated them verbatim and as accurately as possible.)
2018 Daily Journal Meeting Transcript
0:00 Meeting Begins (Note: Tedious meeting details of the first 4 min. 33 sec. were edited out of the transcript.)
Charlie: We are waiting for some of our directors who are in the restroom. If you have a group of elderly males, they never get together on time. (laughter) Well I call the meeting to order, I’m Charlie Munger, Chairman, and here’s the rest of the directors… We will now proceed to the formal business of the meeting, and that will be followed by pontification and questions… (laughter)
Ellen Ireland: (Votes for independent accountants)…For the auditors, 1,283,388. Against, 275. And Abstaining, 244.
Charlie: That is very interesting. That is a lot of votes to vote against an auditor. Some of this stuff is really weird. (laughter) Maybe they fired somebody who doesn’t like them. (link)
Now on to pontification and questions. I’ll first comment briefly about the general nature of the Daily Journal’s traditional business. We are surviving but at a very modest profit, and it’s quite interesting what’s going on. There’s a huge…trove of valuable information burred in the court system that nobody could get out before under the computing power of the procedures of yore. And of course lawyers want to know what their judge did in all previous cases. And how many cases the opposing council has won or lost and so forth. So it’s going to be a big business of delivering more information to people. But of course there are a horde of people trying to get into that. Some of them are computer science types and some are just other types. God knows how it’s going to come out, but we’re doing our part of that struggle. The chances that we get as dominant a position as we had before when we were the only newspaper that had timely publications and print, all the court opinions of course where lawyers needed to have them is zero. In other words, our glory days are behind us in this traditional business. It may well survive creditably, but it’s not going to be a big business.
Most newspapers by the way I think are going to perish. It’s just a question of when. I mean they’re all going to die. You know the New York Times will continue because people will pay $5 for it in an airport. So there will be a few survivors, but by and large the newspaper business is not doing well. Berkshire Hathaway owns a lot of them. And buying them we figured on a certain natural decline rate after which the profits would go to zero. (link) We underestimated the rate of decline. It’s going faster than we thought.
On the other side we have this second business in the Daily Journal Company which is this software business. That of course has taken a lot of treasure and a lot of effort to get started. But our software business now produces a lot more revenue than our traditional print business, and it’s generally doing quite credibly. It’s a very competitive business, and it’s difficult. A lot of people in the software business don’t want to deal with a bunch of government agents. It’s just too much agony. They’re use to just printing money automatically…(inaudible)…not being overwhelmed by it, the money rolling in. And the way we’re making money is slow and hard. It’s a software business, but it’s a slow hard software business. We have internal arguments about whether the first real revenue comes four years after the first customer contact or seven. That’s the kind of business it is, it’s constantly spending money now just to…(inaudible)…returns for a long, long time…before we have a lot of difficult bureaucracies to get through in the mean time. And the funny thing is, we actually got to kind of like it. If you do it right, these courts eventually trust us, and district attorney offices, etc. etc. And it’s a real pleasure just slowly earning the trust of a bunch of customers by doing your job right and scrambling out of your glitches as fast as you can. I would say that business is doing well. Jerry would you make a few comments about this new business?
Gerry Salzman: The new business is slow in coming as Charlie indicated, but (it’s long-term) once you get there. You have to understand it’ll be quite long because government agencies do not want to spend additional time changing software companies. It’s very painful. And one of the problems is always the conversions and the interfaces. Some of our clients have upwards of 20 different interfaces and an appetite for many more because they recognize that if there’s an interface it probably takes a lot of effort. And so we have maybe 25 people primarily based in our office in Denver doing nothing but interfaces and conversion. And implementation of most systems depends on the implementation of the conversions and the interfaces. That is one of the continuing headaches because most government agencies have old systems and it’s extremely difficult to convert information that went into their system 30 years ago. That’s one of the problems we face on every single installation.
We have a large number of installations going on. Most will take upwards of a year, some much longer, depending on the client. Some clients have very few people that are assigned to work with us on the implementation. And other clients have upwards of 15 people. So we find that the 15 people is a great investment from the client’s standpoint because it’s much faster, and they learn how to do it and make changes into the future, and that’s our objective, is to have them be totally familiar with the system, and when their requirements change they are then able to configure it and create documents in a very effective way. In contrast, historically, the government agencies would ask their IT department to do something, and it would take forever for the IT department to do it. Now it’s much more efficient and very effective. And it helps the IT department feel important, and it’s important for us that the IT department feel important because then the IT staff will stick around rather than find greener pastures. That enables us to get in and out much faster and satisfy the Client.
Charlie: There are two things that shareholders should know about our software business. One is that our system is more configurable than that offered by many of our competitors. That is a hugely good idea on our part. And the other thing is that we’re slower to recognize revenue when somebody hires us than most of our competitors, and that is also a good thing because if you agree to give somebody selling computer software a lot of pay for developing a system, you can spend a lot of money and get nothing back. Buyers are very wary. And we are playing to that by…one of the advantages of being very rich is that we can behave better than other people.Not only are we very rich, we don’t give a damn about what we report in any given quarter, and that gives us an advantage in saying to these government agencies, “You’re not going to take a big risk with us because you’re not going to pay us until the system is working.” And I think it’s a very good idea that we’re using conservative accounting and have that attitude towards dealing with our customers. We want the customers to be right when they trust us. It’s rather interesting the way it has happened.
I will confess to one thing to this group of shareholders. I’ve fallen in love with the Justice Agency of South Australia. We have a contract there, and I think we trust them and they trust us. And we are going to do a hell of a good job for Australia. And it gives me an enormous pleasure. So I’m biased in favor of Australia. The shareholders will just have live with it. We may end up with pretty much all of our business in Australia. If we do, it will because we deserve it. That’s our system, we try and deserve the business, that’s the way we’re trying to get it. (link)
Well, that’s pretty much…It’s been a long slog to date and there’ll be a long slog ahead. We’re taking some territory, but it’s not rapid and it it’s never going to be the kind of thing that Google gets into, or Microsoft, where the sky just rains gold. It’s going to be a long, long slog. But we have a big pack of money and we have a strong will, and we have a lot of good people working in the system, and I think we’ll end up slogging pretty well.
Now, in addition to our businesses, we have a great bundle of securities. And I want to try and dispel for the hundredth time, that this is not…we do not have some minor version of Berkshire Hathaway which has a big bundle of securities in its insurance companies, plus a lot of operating business. We have a big bundle of securities by accident when we made a lot of money out of the foreclosure boom. And it just happened to come in about the time when the market hit bottom. And of course we look like a genius now because we put the money into securities because we preferred them to holding cash. But this is not a Berkshire Hathaway (version), this is a computer software company who has a stable but small print business, and we just have a lot of extra liquidity on hand, which came to us by accident. But of course when the money came to us by accident, we invested it as shrewdly as we could. But the chance that we will continually gain at the rate we have in the past 4 or 5 years is zero. Now having said that, we’re going to report in the next quarter a big increase in net worth because our deferred taxes have gone down thanks to the Trump changes in the tax code. So we’re going to look like a genius from another accident for one more quarter. (Laughter)
(Inaudible)…There’s one security in there that is very interesting because BYD has gotten to be a significant position around here. That with Berkshire Hathaway and the Munger family money that went into it was really a venture capital type play even though it was in the public market. And BYD has developed into a huge company. It’s got 250,000 employees more or less. It has a huge electric car business, it has a small gasoline car business, it has a huge battery business, it has a huge new lithium mine coming into production…(Inaudible)…near Tibet, but has a lake full of toxic water that if you drank it, it would kill you. But it’s perfect for mining lithium. And it’s a big lake. One of the biggest in the world. So we have an interesting venture capital type business, and BYD has gone into a business they were never in before, which is monorails. And they are selling monorails like you can’t believe. Boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom to whole cities in China. And some even in other countries. And they’re also selling those big electric buses, etc. etc. and so on. It’s weird that anybody at Berkshire or in the Munger Family, or the Daily Journal would have anything to do with a little company in China that becomes a big company, but it happened.
And there’s a buried story here that’s wonderful. The man who founded BYD was like the eighth son of a peasant, and an older brother noticed that he was a genius and then with their Confucian system, the older brother just devoted his life to making sure the genius got educated. (link 1, 2, 3, 4) And he got to be a PhD engineer, and then he decided to go in to the business of making cell phone batteries, in competition with the Japanese who had all the patents. And he got $300,000 from the Bank of China, he had a cousin that approved the loan…a very Confucian system. At any rate, from that tiny start, he created this enormous company. 250,000 employees. And of course the governments of Shenzhen and this province up in Tibet, love BYD. It’s not some partially owned joint venture, it’s a Chinese company created by Chinese, it’s high-tech, it does wonderful things. And it hasn’t disappointed anybody yet, in any significant way. So it’s heartening for me to watch. Think of how hard it would be to create a big mono-rail business that suddenly starts to gallop. Think how few mono-rails there are in the United States. But of course the Chinese permitting system is totally different from the United States. If the Chinese want to do something, they just do it. Of course I love that system. That’s the Salzman system. If Gerry wants to do something he just does it. But there are some varied stories like that, and it’s a pleasure to be affiliated with people who are accomplishing a lot. And of course it’s good that you have electric buses in place where you can’t breathe the air, which is a lot of places. And it’s good that we have a new lithium mine up in Tibet, or near Tibet, etc. etc. and so on. There are some weirdness around here. I don’t think we were very weird in buying into banks when they were very depressed.
The Wells Fargo position is interesting, and I know I’ll get questions about that, so I’ll answer them again in advance. (laughter) Of course Wells Fargo had incentive systems that were too strong in the wrong direction. And of course they were too slow in reacting properly to bad news when it came. Practically everybody makes those mistakes. (Note: See Question 16) I think around here we make fewer than others, but we still make them in the same direction. I think Wells Fargo will end up better off for having made those mistakes. Any bank can make a lot of money by making a bunch of gamier loans at higher interest rates or abusing their customers with very aggressive treatments. And of course banks really shouldn’t do that. And I think as a result of all the trouble, Wells Fargo’s customers are going to be better off (for) this event, and I think it’s time for the regulators to let up on Wells Fargo. They’ve learned. I can’t think of anything else that deserves a lot of comment in our basic businesses.
I’m looking at a bunch of shareholder that really didn’t buy Daily Journal stock because of its prospects. There’s one exception. Big exception. But most of you here for some other reason, you’re groupies. (laughter) I know a few nerds when I see them, of all ages, and all I can say is, “takes one to know one.” (laughter) Well I guess that’s enough of the…oh, I might go on.
One of our directors came up with a list of qualities that any investment advisor should have. And he gave it to a future picker of professional investors, and the picker immediately fire half his picks. And I thought that was such a peculiar outcome that I’ll let Peter Kaufman share with you his ‘five aces’ system for picking an investment manager. Peter, go ahead.
Peter Kaufman: So I came up with this list in giving reference to a very exceptional money manager. And I not only wanted to give what I thought was the correct reference, I wanted the person that I was giving the reference to, to in turn be able to relate this above to the real shot-caller. So that a compelling narrative would be transferred from me directly to the ultimate shot-caller. So I came up with what I call the “five aces”. The five aces being the highest hand you can have in a wild card poker game. Ace number one is total integrity. Ace number two is actual deep deep fluency on whatever it is you say you’re going to do on behalf of the client. Ace number three is a fee structure that is actually fair in both directions. Ace number four is an uncrowded investment space. Ace number five is a long run-way. Meaning that the manager is reasonable young in age. I further add that if you ever find a money manager who possesses all five of these characteristics, there are two things you should do. One, you should put money with them immediately. And number two, put as much money as you are allowed to put. Now I know we have money managers in the room, and we have…
Charlie: Do we ever! (laughter)
Peter Kaufman: And we have people who employee money managers who are in the room. If you employ money managers, this is an excellent formula to evaluate your money managers.
Charlie: Yeah, but it will cost you to fire half those you’ve hired..or you have hired. (laughter)
Peter Kaufman: But perhaps more importantly, if you’re a money manager, this should be your list of five aspirations. What characteristics should I seek as a money manager to possess? I should be completely trustworthy. I should have actual deep fluency in what I claim that I’m going to do. I should adopt a fee structure that’s generally fair in both directions. I should seek an uncrowded space because as we all know, in business where there’s mystery, there’s margin. What kind of margin are you going to have in a crowded space? (Note: See Question 21) And number 5, many of you in here, you’re very fortunate. You get to check that box for having a long runway. Some of the best money managers in history only get four out of these five aces because they don’t qualify for number five.
Charlie: Those include those who you’re invested with. We do not have a long runway. That doesn’t mean the company won’t do well, (laughter) but in terms of investment management runway, it’s rather interesting. Berkshire Hathaway’s peculiar in that its directors are so old and its managers are so old. The only institution that exceeds Berkshire Hathaway and the Daily Journal in terms of old directors in office is the Mormon Church. (laughter) The Mormon church is run by a group of people and they have two wonderful qualities. There’s no paid clergy in the Mormon church. And the ruling powers in a group of males between about 85 and 100. And that system is more successful than any other church. No paid clergy and very old males. Obviously we are copying that system at Berkshire and the Daily Journal. (laughter) And we are so much older than the Berkshire directors who are also very old. Warren says we’re always checking to see how the young fellows are doing at the Daily Journal versus Berkshire. It is slightly weird. But the world is…who would have guessed that the church with the best record for keeping people happy and so on and so on…(inaudible)…which is the Mormon church. Who would have guessed that it had no paid clergy, run only by males who are about 85 and up? Now that is a very odd result. I guess I should like odd results, because I’m sure as hell living a life of a lot of odd results. And I’m very surprised to be here. Somebody said, an old woman whom I liked, said at her 94th birthday party, “I’m very pleased to be here”, in fact she said, “I’m very pleased to be anywhere.” (laughter) Well that’s what it is, and it is weird.
I think the incentive structure in investment management is very interesting. If you look at the people who have a ton of money from the past, like say the Massachusetts Investor Trust (link) or something like that, which pioneered Mutual Fund investing in the early days after Mutual Funds were allowed. It was certainly a respectable and honorable place. But once it gets to be $700 billion or whatever it is, and hires a lot of young men and has a big staff and so forth…and young women too…and spreads its investment over 50 securities at least, the chances that it’s going to outperform the S&P average really shrinks to about zero. And of course they wondered what we’ll keep paying, whatever number of basis points Massachusetts Investor Trust’s management operation charges for the long-term, and they may feel under pressure and that their world is threatened.
Another place that’s threatened. Suppose you’re charging say 1 and 20, one percent off the top and twenty percent of profits…or even worse, two percent off the top and twenty percent of profits…and you’ve got $30 billion or so under management and an army of young ambitious people, all of whom want to get unreasonably rich very fast. What are your chances of doing better for your clients? Well the average entity that charges those fees, the chances the clients will do well is pretty poor. That’s the reason Warren won that bet against the hedge funds. Where he bet on the S&P averages and they bet on carefully selected bunch of geniuses charging very high fees. And of course the high fees will just kill you. It’s so hard in a competitive world to get big advantages just buying securities, particularly when you’re doing it by the billion, and then you add the burden of very high fees and think that by working hard and reading a lot of sell-side research and so forth, that you’re going to do well. It’s delusional. It’s not good to face the world in a delusional way. And I don’t think, when Berkshire came up, we had an easier world than you people are facing this point forward, and I don’t think you’re going to get the kind of results we got by just doing what we did. That’s not to say what we did and the attitudes that we had are obsolete or won’t be useful, it’s just that their prospects are worse. There’s a rule of fishing that’s a very good rule. The first rule of fishing is “fish where the fish are”, and the second rule of fishing is “don’t forget rule number one.” And in investing it’s the same thing. Some places have lots of fish and you don’t have to be that good a fisherman to do pretty well. Other places are so heavily fished that no matter how good a fisherman you are, you aren’t going to do very well. And in the world we’re living in now, an awful lot of places are in the second category. I don’t think that should discourage anyone. I mean life’s a long game, and there are easy stretches and hard stretches and good opportunities and bad opportunities. The right way to go at life is to take it as it comes and do the best you can. And if you live to an old age, you’ll get your share of good opportunities. It may be two to a lifetime, that may be your full share. But if you seize one of the two, you’ll be alright. Well with that pontification done, I’ll take questions.
Question 1: How do you define mid-western values, and how have they influence you? How much are they embedded into the DNA of Berkshire?
Charlie: Well I think there is some Middle Western values embedded in Berkshire. I don’t think it would be the same place if it had grown up in the middle of Manhattan island. There’s just so much buzz and craziness in finance in a place like Manhattan that I think it was actually an advantage for Warren to be brought up in a place out of Omaha. (link 1, 2) Certainly I have a deep ties of affection and respect for my life in Omaha and my parents and their friends. And so I like what I think of as Middle Western culture. And I really don’t like crazy culture. There’s a lot of it in a lot of places. So yeah, I…(inaudible)…Mid-Western culture. I don’t think it’s that bad in the South or the East or the Rocky Mountains, but I have less experience with that culture. And I go to Montana to fly-fish, and I like Montana when I’m there, but that’s too rugged for me. I like more intellectualism in the bigger cities. So Omaha was just right for me.
Question 2: My question relates to BYD. Given that you’ve successfully invested in commodities in the past, how do you view investing in things such Cobalt, Lithium, and Helium as technologies of the future?
Charlie: Well I’m hardly an expert in commodity investing, but certainly cobalt is a very interesting metal. It’s up about 100% from the bottom. And it could get tighter, but that’s not my game. (link) I don’t know much about…I haven’t invested in metals in my life much. I think I bought copper once with a few thousand dollars. I think that’s my only experience.
Questions 3: When I reflect on where I am here in my 30’s I often think about the multiple sufferings you went through when you were my age. I have the image of you walking the streets of Pasadena, shouldering your multiple griefs, alone. In contrast to that, would you tell us about some of the people and experiences that helped you through that period? And my friend also has a question…
Question 4: Did you ever have aspirations to be a comedian? Because your jokes per minute are off the charts. (laughter)
Charlie: Well, I think you understand me best. I’m really what I call a “gentile Jew”. You know if you look at the way the world is working and just about 2% of the people provide about 60% of the humor. And this is weird because this is a group that’s had a lot of trouble. And so I just like the Jews, I like the humor. My way of coping. And by the way, I recommend it to all of you. There are…I might tell a story about a darling little girl, wispy blonde hair, beautiful curls, charming lisp. She goes into the pet store, and the pet store owner says, “Oh you little darling blonde haired girl, what can we do for you?” “Wabbits, I want Wabbits.” “Oh we’ve got wonderful ‘Wabbits’. Grey wabbits, white wabbits, brown wabbits. What kind of wabbits do you want?” And she said, “I don’t think my lovely big snake is going to give a shit.” (big laughter) It does help to go through life with a little humor. One thing that’s nice about the human condition is that people are always doing these utterly ridiculous things. You don’t lack for new things to crack jokes about. (link)
Question 5: I have a question about the talk you did about the talk you did back in 1995 at Harvard on “the Standard Causes of Human Misjudgment” (link 1, 2), and I thought you ended it in a very interesting way where you said, “I don’t think it’s good teaching psychology to masses, in fact I think it’s terrible.” Would you elaborate on that comment?
Charlie: Well it sounds as though I’m somewhat misquoted. I do think it’s hard to teach the whole reach of psychology the way they do it in academia. Because the way they do it in academia is they want to do experiments and they want to learn things from the experiments that they can publish. Therefore the experiments have to be pretty simple, testing one particular triggering factor if they can. And by doing that over a vast number of triggering factors, they accumulate a big body of experimental events and you can drag some general principles out of it. The great utility of psychology is when you know those principles as bluntly as you know how to read or something, really fluently. And you use those principles in synthesis with the rest of knowledge. The interplay of psychology with the rest of knowledge is a vastly productive area for correct thinking. But the psychology professors can’t do it because they don’t know the rest of knowledge, and there’s no reward in psychology for synthesizing the rest of knowledge with psychology. The rewards are for doing another experiment and publishing. And so it’s mis-taught. It’s a subject that intrinsically works best when you use it in combination with some other discipline. But academia is not set up for people to get good at using a blend of two disciplines. So the whole damn system is wrong. On the other hand it gave great opportunity to me because I always figured when I was young that if my professor didn’t know it, it just didn’t matter I’d figure it out for myself. I could tell though from the first instance that the big territory was synthesizing psychology with the rest of knowledge. So I learned psychology so I could do it. But psychology professors, they just try and learn it the way it’s taught. There’s no reward if you’re a professor of psychology for synthesizing psychology with the rest of knowledge. Now you people should follow my example. Not the example of the psychology professors. I guarantee you that you won’t make any money doing it their way. Occasionally you find a group like Thaler’s group, Thaler just won the Nobel prize by the way. And he’s trying to synthesize the process. And I say more power to Thaler. May his tribe increase. (“Abou Ben Adhem” link 1, 2, 3) And it’s a good sign that the world has given it to Thaler…the Nobel Prize. He’s doing exactly what I’m recommending.
Question 6: Speaking of Munger’s system, if you had to teach the Munger system of mental models to primary children, would you focus on covering all the models or would you focus on teaching them how to figure it out themselves?
Charlie: I’d do both. Of course if you get the right number of models in your head it helps, and of course you want to get fluency of using the models, there isn’t any real road to getting it done fast. At least if there is I’ve never found it. You can keep at it. But that’s my system. My whole system in life is keeping at it. I’m a big admirer of Carlyle’s approach, which was quoted all the time by Sir William Osler, who was one of the most highly regarded physician in the world. Carlyle says that “The task of man is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” (link) I think that’s right. I think that most of the time, you should get the work that’s before you done and just let the future fall where it will.
Question 7: My Question is concerning commercial banks, obviously Berkshire has a very large $60 billion portfolio there, and Daily Journal has a very sizable one. My question is, as I look at that portfolio, especially the Berkshire portfolio, there are quite a few banks that appear to be at or close to the quality of what’s in that in that portfolio, some of which people like you think highly of. My question is, I realize they’re pretty fully valued now, maybe 4 to 5 years ago when they weren’t, why aren’t there more of those high quality banks in the Berkshire portfolio? Is it just the concentration of the portfolio? Because $60 billion’s a lot. Or is there some pattern among those banks to make them less attractive to you and Mr. Buffett?
Charlie: Well, banking is a very peculiar business. The temptations that come to a banking CEO are way…the temptations to do something stupid are way greater in banking than they are in most businesses. Therefore it’s a dangerous place to invest because there are a lot of way in banking to make the near term future look good by taking risks you really shouldn’t take for the sake of the long-term future. And so banking is a dangerous place to invest and there are a few exceptions. And Berkshire has tried to (pick) the exceptions as best it could. And I haven’t had any more to say on that subject except, I’m sure I’m right.
Question 9: This question is for Mr. Kauffman. You mentioned about the “five aces” and aligning the interests with investors with the right fee structure to benefit both. What have you seen as a good fee structure, both from a start-up fund with say $50 million in assets, and then the larger funds with assets over billion?
Peter Kaufman: I’ll let Charlie answer that because he can describe to you what he thinks is the most fair fee formula that ever existed and that’s the formula in Warren Buffett’s original partnership.
Charlie: Yeah, Buffett copied that from Graham. And Mohnish Pabrai is probably here…is Mohnish here? Stand up and wave to them Mohnish. This man uses the Buffett formula, and always has, he just copied it. And Mohnish has just completed 10 years…where he was making up for a high water-mark. So he took nothing off the top at all for 10 years, he sucked his living out of his own capital for ten long years, because that’s what a good money manager should be cheerfully willing to do. But there aren’t many Mohnish’s. Everybody else wants to scrape it off the top in gobs. And it’s a wrong system. Why shouldn’t a man who has to manage your money whose 40 years of age be already rich? Why would you want to give your money to somebody who hasn’t accumulated anything by the time he was 40. If he has some money, why should he on the downside suffer right along with you the investor? I’m not talking about the employees under the top manager. But I like the Buffett formula. Here he is, he’s had these huge successes. Huge in Buffett’s career. But who is copying the Buffett formula? Well we got Mohnish and maybe there are a few others, probably in the room. But everybody wants to scrape it off the top, because that’s what everybody really needs, is a check every month.That’s what is comforting to human nature. And of course half the population, that’s all they have, they’re living pay check to pay check. The Buffett formula was that he took 25% of the profits over 6% per annum with a high water mark. So if the investor didn’t get 6%, Buffett would get nothing. And that’s Mohnish’s system. And I like that system, but it’s like many things that I like and I think should spread, we get like almost no successes spreading that system. It’s too hard. The people who are capable of attracting money on more lenient terms, it just seems too hard. If it were easier, I think there would be more copying of the Buffett system. But we still got Mohnish. (laughter)
Question 10: Why have you chosen to have your friends call you Charlie Munger when you could have instead chosen to go by “Chuck” Munger?
Charlie: The only people who call me “Chuck”, call me blind on the telephone and ask me to invest in oil plays. (laughter) No I don’t mind being called Charlie. My Grandfather was Charlie Munger. When he got appointed as a federal judge he thought it was undignified to be a “Charlie”, so he reversed his initials, then he was T.C. Munger instead of C.T. But I didn’t follow my grandfather’s practice, I was quite willing to have an undignified name. (laughter)
Question 11: Two Questions. Could you give more detail around the Berkshire, J.P. Morgan, Amazon, healthcare partnership and why in the initial press release it said that the model would be spread beyond the employees of the three companies, but then the WSJ reported that the model would only be for the employees of the three companies? My second question is, can you give your view on ‘what is Li Lu’s talent’?
Charlie: Well those are two unrelated questions but there’s no rule against it. But three are too much just for the record. (laughter) On the healthcare system, the existing system runs out of control on the cost side and it causes a lot of behavior which is not only regrettable but it’s evil. There’s a lot of totally unnecessary crapola that’s crept into the medical system so that people can make more money. And the costs are just running completely out of control.
And other people have systems that have better statistics that cost maybe a fifth as much, if you talk about Singapore, or half as much if you talk about some liberal European country. So they’re just concerned about something that’s run out of control because the incentives are wrong and they want to study it and do something…for the three companies. Of course that’s a very difficult thing to take on. I don’t know how it will work out. The man in America that thinks about these subjects in a way that I much admire is Atul Gawande whose a professor of medicine at Harvard. He’s not only the best writer that I know of in the whole medical profession, he’s also a very honorable and very clear thinking man. Both his parents were physicians. This is a man that can check all the boxes. There’s a lot wrong and these people are looking at it to see if they can do something. They’re going to find it plenty difficult.
It wouldn’t be hard if you were a benign despot to do something pretty dramatic. Take macular degeneration of the eye. Old people who have it, which is a lot, need a shot on a regular (basis). Well I can give that damn shot. It’s not that hard to shoot a little gook into an eyeball if you know how to do it. It draws a lot of pay. And there are two different substances you use, and one of them costs and fortune and the other costs practically nothing and they both work about equally well. And of course what’s really being used in a lot of America is the more expensive of the two substances. There’s a lot wrong with that situation. It’s just crept in. A lot of unnecessary costs. Medicine’s just full of that kind of stuff.
And many a man whose dying is like a carcass in the plains of Africa, in come all the vultures and jackals and hyenas and so on. A dying old person in many American hospitals looks just like a carcass in Africa. Where the carnivores come in to feed. It’s not right to bleed so much money out of our dying people. And there’s not a hospital in America that doesn’t have people lying in the dialysis ward who have no chance of waking up, who are being dialysized to death. Easily immoral, stupid conduct. So the extent that somebody makes some assault on some of these asininities of our present healthcare system, I’m all for it. On the other hand, I’m glad I’m not doing it because it’s really difficult. I’m too old for that one. But I welcome somebody who’s trying to…It’s deeply wrong what’s happening. It’s deeply wrong. And some stuff is not getting done that’s very cost effect and a lot of totally unnecessary stuff is being done. Why shouldn’t we do that? Well I’m all for somebody trying to figure it out. But if they asked me to serve on such a panel I’d decline. It’s really hard going and you’re stepping on a lot of…(inaudible).
The second question was Li Lu. What was unusual about Li Lu. Li Lu is one of the most successful investors. (link) Imagine him, he just popped out of somebody’s womb and he just assaulted life the best he could and he ended up pretty good at it. But he was very good at a lot. He’s ferociously smart. It really helps to be intelligent. He’s very energetic. That also helps. And he has a good temperament. (link) And he’s very aggressive, and he’s willing to patiently wait and then aggressively pounce. (link) A very desirable temperament to have. And if the reverse comes, he takes it well. (link) Also a good quality to have. So it’s not very hard to figure out what works. But there aren’t that many Li Lu’s. In my life, I’ve given money to one outside manager, and that’s Li Lu. No others in my whole life. And I have no feelings that it would be easy to find a second. It’s not that there aren’t others out there, but they’re hard to find. It doesn’t help you if a stock is a wonderful thing to buy if you can’t figure it out. (link)
Question 12: My question is really about brands. In the past, you’ve talked about buying a business with a durable competitive advantage. You’ve talked at length about great brands with pricing power. Currently big consumer brands are losing their cache with younger consumers, new emerging brands started online, private label brands like Kirkland Signature are getting better by the day, and in turn big consumer brands are losing sales and pricing power. In a world where the durable advantage seems to be acquired through scale, like Amazon and Costco, has your view on big consumer brand moats changed?
Charlie: Well the big consumer brands are still very valuable. But they had an easier time in a former era than they’re going to have in the future era. So you’re right about that. And of course Amazon I don’t know that much about except that it’s unbelievably aggressive. And the man who heads it is ferociously smart. On the other hand he’s trying to do things that are difficult. Costco I know a lot about because I’ve been a director for about 20 years and I think Costco will continue to flourish and it’s a damn miracle the way the Kirkland brand keeps getting more and more accepted. You’re right about that. So you’re right that it’s going to be harder for the big brands, but they’re still quite valuable. If you could own say, the Snicker’s Bar trademarks and so forth, it will still be a good asset 60 years from now. Now it may not be quite as good for the owner as it was in the last 60 years. But it doesn’t have to be. But in fact it makes it harder for you investors. It use to be the groupie could buy Nestle and they’d think, ‘Well, I’ll just sit on…(inaudible)’. I don’t think it’s quite that simple anymore. It’s harder. You’re right. But you know that. It was a great question. (laughter) I just wanted you to breathe it in. That’s what everybody likes. You want the answering voice to agree with us.
Question 13: You once said in an interview that you’d prefer that the U.S. would import oil instead of getting it from the ground. From where I come from, which is the Middle East, Kuwait, oil represents around 85 to 90% of the government’s revenues. What do you think is the future for oil?
Charlie: Well, I said last year that oil was very interesting in that the great companies like Exxon were producing about a third as much as they use to at the peak, and yet they’re still very prosperous because the price of oil has gone up faster than production has gone down. But it’s a weird subject, what’s going to happen with oil. Eventually it’s going to get very hard to have more oil and eventually the price will go very high. As a chemical feed-stock it’s totally essential, the hydrocarbons. So it’s never going to go out of vogue, and of course we’re going to need it for energy for a long, long time ahead. But as an investment I think it’s a difficult subject, and I think you’ll notice that Berkshire in its whole history has had few investments in oil. Some, but it’s not that many. The Daily Journal doesn’t have any. It’s a tough subject and of course as I said here last year, I think the correct policy for the United States would be not to produce our oil so fast. I think oil is so precious and so desirable over the long pull that I’d be very happy to have more of our oil just stay in the ground and just pay up front to the Arabs to use up theirs. I think that would be the correct policy for the United States. Only 99.9% of the rest of the people in world are against me. (laughter) But why would we want to use up all our oil as fast as we can? Why would that be smart? Would we want to use up the topsoil of Iowa as fast as we can? I don’t think so. So I think our current policies are totally nutty. And if you go on, when I was young, there were about 2 billion bushels of corn in the whole production of the country. There are about 6 times as many bushels of corn (today), and a big chunk of that corn is being turned into motor fuel. That is an utterly insane policy that happens because of the political power of the farm states in our weird system. But nothing could be dumber than using of our topsoil to create corn to turn into motor fuel. It’s really dumb. Yet it’s there and nobody has any power of changing it. It’s weird, the whole oil subject is weird. It’s weird that companies prosper by producing less and less of their main product in physical terms, and it’s weird that a whole nation could do something as dumb as turn a big percentage of the corn crop into motor fuel by edict of the government. So it’s a weird subject. But the oil’s totally essential, the hydrocarbons. Without the hydrocarbons, our great top soil doesn’t work very well. The miracle grains are miracles if you use a lot of hydrocarbons, plus our good soil. The miracle grains don’t work very well without the hydrocarbons. It’s weird. The current population of the earth is being fed by miracle grains and their miracle is they turn oil into food. So you raised a weird subject, you must like weird subjects.
Question 14: Some of the greatest advancements to humanity seem to be the result of public-private partnerships. The railroads, electrification, the technology revolution. Now all those require some measure of rationality and foresight among politicians and business leaders. Do you see any opportunities today in terms of the possibility for partnering for infrastructure or basic research or that sort of thing?
Charlie: Well the answer is yes. I think one of the obvious needs is a really big national grid. Which takes new government legislation and a lot of other things. I think it’ll come, we should have it all ready. It’s the failure of the government that we don’t have a wonderful electric grid. But it will come and I think Berkshire Hathaway will be a big part of it when it happens. But it’s easy to over-estimate the potential…why don’t we have a big electric grid that works already? There are a lot of things that should happen but don’t happen, or happen very slowly. I don’t think…calling it a public-private partnership sounds wonderful. Everybody wants what my friend Peter Kaufman calls a “robust narrative”, that’s what people specialize in in America, robust narratives. Public-private partnerships sounds like a robust narrative. It sounds to me like a bunch of thieving bankers who get together with a bunch of thieving consultants. (laughter) But it’s a robust narrative.
Question 15: You once said, when you acquire a company, your time horizon is typically forever, that being said, what did you recognize about General Electric before you got out?
Charlie: Well, we made an investment in General Electric in the middle of a panic because it was a decent buy as a security to be passively held. It worked out for us fine. General Electric of course is a very complicated and interesting subject. It is interesting that a company so well regarded for acumen, education, technology, etc. etc. etc. Could end up so ill-regarded as a result of a long period of sub-par performance. People didn’t expect it. Of course people are saying what caused the failure of performance at General Electric? My answer would be partly, life is hard and there’s some accident in the world. That’s part of it. And part of it I would say that the system at General Electric where you rotate executives through different assignments as though there are so many army officers building up a resume to see if they can be promoted to be generals. I don’t think that works as well as keeping people in one business for a long time and having them identify with the business the way Berkshire does. So I would say to some extent, what’s happened in the case that…maybe there should be a little less of this corporate management in the style of the U.S. Army. And maybe people should do actually a little more of Berkshire style where by and large people spend their whole careers in one business. (link 1, 2)
Question 16: You served for many decades on a variety of boards, including for-profit sector and also the non-profit sector. Could you give us any lessons you learned from serving on a board and touch on the criteria you consider for hiring and when necessary removing executives.
Charlie: Well, I don’t think I could do that in one short burst of pomposity. Each situation is different, but I would say this, that If you asked people with long experience in management what their mistakes were looking backward, the standard response is, somebody who should have been removed wasn’t for way too long. So I think that general lesson is true practically everywhere. And in all contexts. But beyond that, I don’t think I can…it’s too broad a question for me.
Question 17: Are you concerned at all about the rising level of government debt to GDP at the same time that we’re running large deficits late in the economic cycle.
Charlie: Of course I’m concerned about the rising level of government debt. This is new territory for us, and new territories probably has some danger in it. On the other hand, it is possible that the world will function more or less pretty well, even with a very different pattern of government behavior than you and I would have considered responsible based on history to date. Of course if you look at the inflation we got out of the last hundred years when the announced objective of government was to keep prices stable. Now the announced objective is 2% inflation. Well what the hell’s going to happen? Well the answer is, we don’t know. But isn’t the way to bet that it’s going to be…inflation over the long-term is way higher than 2%? I think the answer is yes. But I think that we have learned from what has happened in the past that macro-economics is a very peculiar subject and it doesn’t work like physics. The system is different in one decade, than the system that was present in the last decade. Different systems have different formulas, but they don’t tell you when systems have changed, and when the formulas have to change. (link 1, 2)
So I don’t expect the world to go totally to hell because…well, look at what happened in Germany after World War I. They had a hyper-inflation when the currency basically went to zero in value. They really screwed up big time. And what happened?…Well what happened was they recovered from it pretty quick. And they did it by creating a new Reichsmark backed by the mortgages which they put back on the houses and properties of the people who had unfairly gotten rid of their mortgages at no cost. And that new Reichsmark was working pretty well and Germany had pretty well recovered from that catastrophe and then along came the Great Depression. And the combination of the Great Depression and the Weimar inflation really brought in Hitler. Without the Great Depression I don’t think he would have come into power. What happened…now you’ve got…by the late 30’s, what was the leading economic power in Europe? It was Germany. Cause Hitler in his crazy desire for vengeance and so on, bought a lot of munitions and trained a lot of soldiers and so forth. And the accidental Keyensianism of Germany under Hitler caused this vast prosperity. So Germany was the most prosperous place in Europe in 1939. So all that catastrophe, they recovered from. So I don’t think you should be too discouraged by the idea that the world might have some convulsions. Because there’s a way of recovering. Now I’m not advocating the German system (laughter), but I do think knowing these historical examples creates what I call “mental ploys.” (link) And you’d think that a country that destroyed (itself) in a silly war, destruction of your own currency, great depression, and by 1939 it’s the most prosperous country in Europe. It’s encouraging. I hope you feel better. (laughter)
Question 18: Since the mid-1990’s, the number of DOJ cases filed annually under the Sherman Act has collapsed from 20 to almost zero. Over the same period, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the ‘winner-take-all’ effect. Where market share of the top five companies across almost all industries have surged, not just technology and media. And the number of publicly traded companies has dropped close to 50%. So for example, from 8,100 to 4,300. Why do you think the DOJ has less active in enforcing anti-trust legislation over the past 20+ year and do you think the DOJ is likely to become more active and how do you think that will affect the financial markets?
Charlie: Well I don’t know whether the DOJ is going to become more active or not. I am not terribly disturbed by the present state of the economy or the present state of concentration of economic power. Wherever I see companies by and large are having plenty of competition. And so I’m not…(inaudible)…on the theory that the whole world is wrong as it’s presently constituted. There are companies now, that people were worried about them being too powerful like Kodak and they’re not even here anymore. I think we have enough competition by and large. I do not think the world is going to hell from lack of activity in the Justice Department.
Question 19: How did Ajit Jain build Berkshire reinsurance from scratch?
Charlie: Well it’s very simple. He worked about 90 hours a week. He was very smart. He’s very honorable. He’s very pleasant to deal with. And he talked every night to Warren Buffett. Just find somebody else like that. But he won’t do as well because the game is harder now than it was then. And that’s my answer to your question.
Question 20: Question regarding Warren Buffett. In 2008 he wrote an op-ed article regarding the depths of the bear market, talking about how he (Buffett) had previously put his own money into treasuries, and in my mind he’s normally thought of as a buy and hold investor, but in this case, a lot of his money, almost all of it was in treasuries. And I wanted you to speak to the value of holding money in a portfolio at the proper time.
Charlie: Well, it’s possible that there could be when a wise investor would be all in treasuries. That is not an impossible event. It’s virtually impossible for me. I can imagine such a world, but I don’t think…I haven’t been in that kind of a world yet. Generally speaking long-term treasuries are a losing (investment) over the long-pull. And that’s my view.
Question 21: In 1999, Warren Buffett said that he could return 50% if he ran $1 million. Give what you said about the investment landscape today being more difficult, what do you think that number would be today?
Charlie:Well I do think that a very smart man who’s patient and aggressive in combination, is willing to work hard, to root around in untraveled places like thinly traded stocks and other odd places. I do think a person with a lot of shrewdness, working with a small amount of capital, can probably earn high returns on capital even today. However that is not my personal problem at the moment. And for me it’s hard. And for Berkshire it’s hard. And for the Daily Journal we don’t have any cinch either. It’s disadvantageous to have securities in a corporate vehicle like the Daily Journal Corporation. It’s an accident that we have them there. We have them there because that’s where the money was. The way it’s worked out, it’s not desirable if you’re a shareholder and you have a layer of corporate taxes between you and your securities that are indirectly owned. And once you get public securities held in a public corporation taxable under sub-Chapter C of the internal revenue code, all kinds of factors, including income taxes affect your investment decisions. And it’s much easier to invest in charitable endowment or your personal pension plan. Generally speaking, I would say, if you’re shrewd enough with small sums of money, I think you can compound pretty well. The minute you get bigger sums, I think it starts getting difficult. It’s way more difficult for all you people sitting here than it was for me when I was in your position. But I’m about to die and you have a lot of years ahead. (laughter) You would not want to trade your position for mine.
Question 22: What would you advise me as a teacher to help my students become better thinkers and decision makers and also become happy in life?
Charlie: I did not pick that up. You were trying to help me by hurrying up, that’s not the best system…(laughter)
Well, that’s a wonderful question. I would say the minute you have the attitude you’ve already expressed, you’re already probably going to win at everything you want to win at. You just keep trying to live a good life, and a constructive life, and to be rational, and to be honorable, and to meet the reasonable expectations of people who depend on you. Of course you’re going to get ahead over time. And of course the best way to teach is by example. And of course the example works better when you win and if you behave right you’re more likely to win. So I would say, you’re on the right track already. All you have to do is keep at it. With your attitude, you can’t fail.
Charlie: I’m flattered to be called Mr. Buffett. (laughter)
Question 23 Continued: The most recent annual report for Berkshire, as in the past reports, the growth in book value was shown and over the past 52 years it has grown from $19 to $172,000. Which represents a return of 19% a year. Is a large part of that outsized percentage attributable to the leverage inherent in the insurance company, such that you can own an investment in the insurance company which returns say 14% and it becomes 20% to book value?
Charlie: Well obviously there was a little leverage buried in the Berkshire numbers. Obviously the insurance business provided some of that. It’s not over-whelming in its consequences. There were years when it was helping. There were years when Ajit made so much money that it was almost embarrassing. And then he’d give the money to Warren and Warren would make 20% on the money. So there were some years when some remarkable synergies between the insurance business and Berkshire Hathaway. But basically the insurance business is not some cinch easy way to make money. There’s a lot of danger and trouble in the insurance business and its more and more competitive all the time now as we’re sitting here. Berkshire succeeded because there were very few big errors…there were like no big errors, really big. (link)And there were a considerable number of successes. All of which would have been much harder to get under present conditions than they were at the time we got the results. And there are very few companies that have compounded at 19% per annum for fifty years. It’s (a weird) in net worth. That is very peculiar. I wouldn’t count on that happening again soon. It certainly won’t happen at the Daily Journal.
Question 24: Question regarding margin trading for Charlie and Rick Gueren. With the recent decline in the stock market, there were a lot of margin calls to customers. I know back in your partnership days, there was a big bear market and a lot of big declines in your portfolio. Would you care to comment on the productivity of margin trading?
Charlie: Well of course it’s dangerous when you have a margin account because the person whose giving you credit can wipe you out at the bottom tick just because he feels nervous. And therefore of course, people like Berkshire just totally avoid any position where anybody else would start selling our securities because he felt nervous. And of course there are a lot of people now that are pushing margin trading very, very hard. And…the minute you got weird new instruments like these VIX contracts that triggered new selling because existing selling happens. So you get a feedback effect that were a little decline becomes a big one and then a big one becomes and bigger one, and so on. And it rapidly goes down a lot in a short time. I’m afraid that under modern conditions the risk of what happened recently with the VIX is just part of the modern conditions. And of course we’ll always have margin traders who want to push life hard and we’ll always have catastrophes. Neiderhoffer (link 1, 2) was just wiped out by the VIX, and that’s the second time he’s been wiped out. And he’s a very talented man. Neiderhoffer was famous at Harvard. His name became a verb. He learned to what was called “to Neiderhoffer the curriculum”. He was a great card player and a great squash player, and a good national champion, and he was a scholarship student. He didn’t have much money. So he had to get very high grades, and he didn’t want to do any work. So he figured out how to “Neiderhoffer” the curriculum of Harvard. He signed up for nothing but the toughest graduate courses in economics. And the economics students in those advanced courses were doing a lot of the scut work for the professors, and so nobody ever gave them anything less than an A. And for a while Neiderhoffer didn’t even go to class. They thought they had a new John Maynard Keynes at Harvard. And he was just signing up for courses where you couldn’t get a low grade. Interesting story. Interesting man. Wiped out a second time. He’s very brilliant. He was a very talented man. Pushing life that hard is a mistake. It’s maybe a less of a mistake when you’re trying to get out of the mire of mediocrity and get your head a little above the crowd. But when you’re already rich, it’s insane. Why would you risk what you have and need in order to get what you don’t have and don’t need? It really is stupid.
Question 25: Question about the U.S. high-speed rail system. As you know the high-speed rail act was introduced back in 1965 when Berkshire had their first annual meeting. What is your thinking, or outlook, or comments about the U.S. high speed rail system. Including the one that’s being built here in California, as well as the possibility for a national high speed rail system.
Charlie: Well that’s a very interest question. The high speed rail system which was aggressively create in China is a huge success and very desirable. So it’s not like it’s intrinsically a dumb idea. However in the…(inaudible)…we actually have in America, getting a big high speed rail system is really difficult, including having one even in California. And I’m not at all sure that trying to have a high speed rail system in California was wise all factors considered. But I’m not sure that it isn’t on the other hand. Just put me down as skeptical, but not determinedly opposed. And I know it will cost a fortune, that I’m sure of. The trouble with it is that it’s competing with something that works pretty well called the airplane. So, I can’t answer your question except as I have. I know we need a big grid. I’m not sure the United States needs a high speed rail system for passengers. I would say that may have passed us by.
Question 26: Could you comment on whether you ever considered investments in Hershey’s or Tiffany’s over the long term and have offered attractive entry points?
Charlie: Well I’d be delighted to own either Hershey’s or Tiffany’s at the right price, wouldn’t you? It’s just a question of price. Of course they’re great companies. But that’s not enough, you have to have great companies available at a price you’re willing to pay. Hershey’s is a private company. Nobody’s offering me Hershey’s. I can buy the candy, but I can’t buy the company.
Question 27: I’m here with my 92 year old Grandma whose spent the past 50 years investing for our family. As a college senior with a passion for value investing, it keeps me up at night knowing that I will eventually be entrusted with a portfolio she built for a lifetime. Based on the successful decisions that you’ve made for your large family here today, what advice do you have in regards to seizing the few opportunities when I will have to act decisively for my family without jeopardizing her life’s work?
Charlie: Well of course I like any 92 year old person. (laughter) Particularly if it’s a good looking woman whose also rich. (laughter) And whose descendants admire her. Instead of being eager to have her gone. (laughter) I’d say you have a big winner there in your family. Try to live your life so that you can be a big winner too.
Question 28: It looks like the A.I. will have a much bigger impact on society than the internet revolution, so would you mind maybe sharing some of your thoughts on how artificial intelligence will impact different industries in general and who it will impact the future of the human race?
Charlie: Well, that’s a nice question. (laughter) The people who studied artificial intelligence don’t really know the answer to that question. I’m not studying artificial intelligence because I wouldn’t be able to learn much about it. I can see that artificial intelligence is working in the marketing arrangements of Facebook and Google, so I think it is working in some places very well. But it’s a very complicated subject. And what its exact consequences are going to be, I don’t know. I’ve done so well in life by just using organized common sense, that I never wanted to get into these fields like artificial intelligence. If you can walk around the shores and pick up boulders of gold, as long as the boulders keep being found and picked up, I don’t want to go to the placer mining sifting vast amounts of data for some little edge. So you’re just talking to the wrong person. And I’m not at all sure how great…I don’t think artificial intelligence is at all sure to create an economic revolution. I’m sure we’ll use more of it, but what are the consequence of using artificial intelligence to become the world’s best (golden boy)? There may be places where it works, but we’ve thought about it at Geico for years and years and years, but we’re still using the old fashion intelligence. So I don’t know enough about it to say more than that.
Question 29: Questions about culture. How can an outsider really know a company’s culture? And for that matter, how can an insider, at the top of an organization, really be certain about the culture of the company beneath him? And how would you go about assessing the culture of giants like Wells Fargo or General Electric? What is it that you look at that helps you understand culture?
Charlie: Well, you understand culture best where it’s really down (low) in a place like Costco. And there the culture is a vast and constructive force. Which will probably continue for a very, very long time. The minute you get into General Electric, partly decentralized, partly not. Multi-business instead of one business. It gets very complicated. What is the culture of General Electric when the businesses can be so radically different? Maybe headquarters can have a certain kind of culture. And maybe the culture will be a little wrong. And maybe it’s wrong to shift people around from business to business as much as they do. Which I strongly suspect. I do think…there are very few businesses like Costco that have a very extreme culture where everybody’s bought into. And where they stay in one basic business all the way. I love a business like Costco because of the strong culture and how much can be achieved if the culture is right. But the minute you get into the bigger and more complicated places…I mean you can talk about the culture of General Motors or the culture of AT&T, it’s a very difficult subject. What big businesses have in common by and large is that they get very bureaucratic. That’s the one norm in culture is that they get very bureaucratic. And of course it happens to the government too. A big governmental body. And basically I don’t like bureaucracy, it creates a lot of error. I don’t have a substitute for it. I don’t have a better way of running the U.S. government than the way they’ve been doing it. But I basically don’t personally like big bureaucratic cultures and so I don’t think very much about big bureaucratic cultures. I don’t know how to fix bureaucracy in a big place. I would regard it as a sentence to hell if they gave me some company with a million employees to change the culture. I think it’s hard to change the culture in a restaurant. A place that’s already bureaucratic, how do you make it un-bureaucratic? It’s a very hard problem. Berkshire has solved the problem as best it can…of bureaucracy. You can’t have too much bureaucracy at headquarters if there’s no bodies at headquarters. (laughter) That’s our system. I don’t think it arose because we were geniuses or anything. I think partly it was an accident. But once we saw what was working, we kept it. But I don’t have a solution for corporate culture at monstrous places.
Question 30: What’s your current view of climate change today?
Munger: Well, I’m deeply skeptical of the conventional wisdom of the people who call themselves climate scientists. I strongly suspect that they’re more alarmed than the facts call for. And that they kind of like the fact that they can prattle about something they find alarming. I am not nearly as afraid as the typical so called climate scientist is, and I think the difficulties of what they urge as a remedy are under-estimated by these people. And besides, just because you’re smart enough…suppose you, by knowing a lot of physics and so forth, could actively figure out that climate change was a huge problem, you were right. That would not automatically mean that you know how to fix it. Fixing it would be a vast complicated problem involving geo-politics, political science, all kinds of things, that just because you understood the chemistry of climate say, you wouldn’t have any expertise as…So I think there’s a hell of a lot of non-sense being prattled on the climate change things. But no, there’s no doubt that the CO2 does cause some global warming. But just because you accept that doesn’t mean that the world is absolutely going to hell in a hand-basket. Or that the seas are going to rise by 200 feet any time soon and so on. So I’m deeply skeptical of a lot of these people, and yet I don’t want to be identified with the no-nothings who really are vastly ignorant and wouldn’t even recognize that CO2 does have some influence on temperature. Now I’ve tried to offend everybody…(laughter)
Question 31: In an age that’s very different than the one you grew up in, if you’re a young guy like me with a lot of runway like Peter talked about, where would you focus your attention?
Munger: Well, I’d approach life a lot like Carlyle. I would just get up every morning and do the best I could in every way and I’d expect over time to do pretty well. And it’s not very hard. I’d try to marry the right person instead of the wrong person. Everything would be quite (trite). I would guess that practically everybody your age in this room is going to do pretty well. You’re not that mad at the world here. You’re trying to figure out how to cope with it a little better. You’re going to do alright. People like that succeed. But if you all came in here with placards, sure you were right on every subject and wanted to shout back? You wouldn’t have such a bright future. Those people are pounding their idiocy in instead of (shutting it out).
Question 32: Which cognitive biases are particularly at scale on a national scale these days?
Charlie: Well its hard, with so many cockroaches in the kitchen it’s hard to identify each…(laughter) I would say every bias that man is prone to is always working. That’s the nature of the system. It’s amazing what people have come to believe. And it’s amazing how polarized our parties are becoming. And now you turn on TV, and you can even turn to channel A and you’ve got your kind of idiot, or you click channel B and you got the other fellow’s kind of idiot. What they have in common is that they’re both idiots. They’re playing to an audience that is mentally defective. (laughter) Of course it’s a little disquieting. I was use to a different world. I liked Walter Cronkite. This choose your idiot form of news gathering, I don’t much like. What do you do? I flip back and forth between idiot types. I will not stay with just one type of idiot. (laughter) So that’s my system. But you’re right. It’s weird. Now the world has always had weird idiots. Hitler was an idiot…a smart idiot, but an idiot. We’re always going to have crazy people and crazy people who follow crazy people. Part of what I like about that situation is…it gives you more incentive to think correctly yourself. I find life works best when you are trying to stay rational all the time. And I must say, these idiots are giving me more incentive. I don’t want to be like any of them. Don’t you feel that way when you turn on the TV and here’s one idiot mouthing this way, and the other one mouthing this way, and misrepresenting the facts? I don’t want to be like either of them! I don’t know whether we’re going to have more of what’s developed or whether we’re going to go back to something that’s more pleasant. But it’s kind of interesting to watch, I will say that.
Question 33: What do you think of the critical challenges that business models relying heavily on advertising as a source of revenue in a digital age?
Charlie: Well if I’m following that correctly, you do live in an age where people using computer science to sift out correlations that might be predictive and then to try trading on those algorithms on an instant basis, in and out. Where large amounts of money have been made, by say, Renaissance Technologies. And there’s way more of that and its worked for those people. And I don’t consider it a good development. I don’t see any big contributions to civilization, having a lot of people using computer algorithms to out-trade each other on a short-term basis. Some people think it creates more liquidity in the markets and therefore it’s constructive. But I could just as soon do without it. I would rather make my money in some other way than short-term trading based off of computer algorithms, but there is more of it, you’re right about that. And by and large, the one thing they have in common is that they can’t take infinite amounts of money. You try and file too much money into an algorithm and it’s self-defeating. And thank God it’s self-defeating.
Question 34: I was hoping to gain some insight regarding your and Warren’s discussions into airlines. Whether or not it was a light-bulb that went off in a certain year. Or whether it morphed over time. Just trying to get an idea about when you got open minded about maybe investing into airlines and how you changed your mind.
Charlie: Well, we did change our mind. For a long time, Warren and I (painted over) the railroad because there were too many of them, and it was too competitive, and union rules were too crazy. They were lousy investments for about 75 years. And then they finally…the world changed and they double decked all the trains and they got down to four big rail systems in all the United States in terms of freight and all of a sudden we liked railroads. It took about 75 years. Warren and I never looked at railroads for about 50 years, and then we bought one. (link)
Now airlines, Warren use to joke about them. He’d say that the investing class would have done better if the Wright Brothers would never have invented flight. But given the conditions that were present when the stock was purchased and given the conditions of Berkshire Hathaway where it was drowning in money, we thought it was ok to buy a bunch of airline stocks. What more can I say? Certainly it’s ok to change your mind when the facts change. And to some extent the facts had changed, and to some extent they haven’t. It is harder to create the little competing airlines than it was. And the industry has maybe learned something. I hope it works better, but I don’t think its…I think the chances of us buying airlines and holding them for 100 years is going to work that well. I think that’s pretty low.
Question 35: Question about DJCO. The auditor’s report discussed material weakness in segregated duties. I was curious if that was something you could speak on. If it’s something you’re fixing. Or not if not, whether or not it’s rational.
Charlie: Well, all auditors are now paid to find some kind of weakness and then fix it. So there’s very few companies that don’t have some little material weakness that needs fixing. I am not that worried about the accounting at the Daily Journal. Basically it’s more conservative than other people in our industry. And basically we’re not trying to mislead anybody. And basically we’ve got a couple hundred million dollars in marketable securities and we’re not mismanaging those, they just sit there. So I don’t think we have big accounting problems at the Daily Journal. I think it’s typical of the modern developments in accounting that the accountants have gotten…(inaudible)…and they’ve gotten new responsibilities and they’re amorphous. Like “weakness”. Well everybody has weakness, you, me. And I don’t think there’s some wonderful accounting standard where all the accountants know what’s weak and what isn’t and exactly how much and how dangerous it is. And so I am not much worried about the accounting at the Daily Journal. But I think this business of…everybody in America is worried about somebody hacking in and getting a lot of data, and everybody has some weakness, meaning they’re all afraid of, and they’re right to be afraid of it. You’ve got these amorphous terms. I’m just doing the best we can, and taking the blows as they come. Or the benefits too. But I’m not worried about material weaknesses in accounting.
There was a guy name B.B. Robinson when I came to Los Angeles, and he had gotten out of the pools, the stock pools of the 20’s, as a young man with 10 or so million dollars, which was a lot of money to come out here in the 30’s. When he got here with all this money, he spent his time drinking heavily and chasing movie starlets. And in those days the bankers were more pompous and old fashioned. And one of them called him in and said, ‘Mr. Robinson, I’m terribly worried about your drinking all this whisky and chasing all these movie starlets. This is not the kind of thing our sound banks likes.’ What B.B. Robinson said to the banker, he said, ‘Listen. My Municipal Bonds don’t drink.’ (laughter) That’s basically the answer to the material weakness problem with the Daily Journal. Our lovely marketable securities aren’t drinking.
Question 36: I believe you said that, If you’re not willing to put the work into investigating specific stock investments, that you should perhaps put your money into a passive index fund. One of my advisers is very concerned about the move of capital into index funds for three reasons. First he says, there’s an inadvertent concentration into (few) stocks because similar investments in different indexes. Second, he thinks long term, the concentration of capital into preferred companies that are in the index fund…that they’re able to raise money easily despite poor performance. And third, he’s also concerned long-term that the concentration of the management of these index funds into three institutions which is detrimental to the market place. I’d appreciate your comments.
Charlie: I think that a lot of people who are in the business of selling investment advice, hate the fact that the indexes have been outperforming them. And of course, they can’t say, “I hate it, because it’s ruining my life.” But they say, “I hate it because it’s too concentrated.” Well the index contains 75% of the market capitalization. It’s hardly so small. Index investing will work for quite a while when it’s so broad. I don’t think it’s ruining the world or anything like that. It is peculiar that we lived a long time without this. I think it’ll keep running a long time forward, and I think it’ll work pretty well for a long time. And I suspect most money-managers just hate it. It’s making their life hard. But you see I don’t mind if people are having a hard life.
Question 37: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. And we’re seeing this mania in Bitcoin, that is often akin to the Tulip mania, and I’d like to see your views on how you and Warren navigated through these waters in your several decades of investing. And what it says about the human condition that we tend to keep constantly falling for these things despite what history teaches us otherwise.
Charlie: Well you’re of course right to suspect that I regard the Bitcoin craze as totally asinine. To create some manufactured currency…A different payment system could happen like WeChat in China. It’s a better payment system than the one we have in America. So something like that could happen. But Bitcoin where they’re creating an alternative to gold…and then make a big speculative vehicle?…I never considered for one second having anything to do with it. I detested it the moment it was raised, and the more popular it got, the more I hated it. On the other hand, I expect the world to do insane things from time to time. Everybody wants easy money. And of course the people who are peddling things and taking money off the top for promoting the investment, they like it too. And so these crazies just keep coming and coming and coming. But who would want their children buying things like Bitcoin? I just hope to God that doesn’t happen to my family. It’s just disgusting that people would be taken in by something like this. It’s crazy. I’m not saying that some different payment system might not be a good thing like WeChat. That could come and be constructive. But Bitcoin is noxious poison. Partly they love it because the computer science is quite intriguing to people with mathematical brains. It’s quite a feat what they’ve done as a matter of pure computer science. But, you know, I’m sure you can get terribly good at torture if you spend a lot of time at it. (laughter) It’s not a good development. And the government of China which is stepping on it pretty hard is right and our government’s more lax approach to it is wrong. The right answer to stuff like that is to step on it hard, and it’s the government’s job.
Well I think it’s 12 o’clock and that should probably do for this group. I know you…I’m use to the groupies, but standing up for two hours? I wouldn’t stand up for two hours to listen to Isaac Newton if he came back. (laughter) So I guess our meeting is adjourned. I certainly wish you all well, you’re my kind of people.
End of Transcript
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Following the 2017 Daily Journal meeting, Charlie Munger treated everyone who stayed to an informal fireside chat. For over two hours, he graciously answered any questions. I transcribed this fireside chat verbatim and as accurately as possible.
The Full Transcript is 15,508 words. It was transcribed from this fantastic 1 hour and 48 minute recording of the talk. Below is a sample of this transcript.
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Location: 949 E 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Event: Informal Fireside Chat following the DJCO Annual Meeting
Charlie: …Why do you want to strain and (feel like you) have more danger when you’re already filthy rich? As Warren says, ‘What difference does it make to him if he has an extra zero on his tombstone?’.
Question: For return on invested capital, isn’t that already taking into account leverage?
Charlie: Well of course everybody would rather have billions with a high return on capital.
Charlie: I read 3 or 4 newspapers when I get up in the morning, and I always have two or three books that I’m reading. I kind of go back and forth between them. And that’s what I do. That’s what I’ve done all my life.
Question: What are your four newspapers?
Charlie: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times, L.A. Times. (Questioner: No Washington Post?) No, no Washington Post.
Charlie: What about medical school, that’s a lot of work. You’re not living very high or this or that. Later you’re a doctor and you have a better life. That’s deferred gratification.
Question: So Charlie, you’re the chairman of the Good Samaritan Hospital, do you have any recommendations or any suggestions about lowering the prices…
Charlie: Well I took that because basically it was basically a losing hand and I play so many winning hands, so I thought, I should force myself to play a losing hand, and I must say it’s been very difficult.
Question: Do you believe in a single-payer health system?
Charlie: I think a single-payer health system would work a lot better, yes. I think it will eventually come. I think the existing system is a ridiculous (inaudible) system. Ridiculous system.
Question: How should we help our children to avoid envy and jealousy.
Charlie: We don’t have one way of doing it. We have certain things we avoid because we don’t think we have the competency to deal with it. And we have certain things we kind of like because we’re use to them. And so, we don’t have just one set of rules. We don’t have any formulas that are exact or anything like that. And some of the stuff we do, we just know it’s a little better than our alternatives. We’re doing all kinds of stuff now that we would not have done. We would have never bought Apple stock in the old days.
Question: (Regarding Todd Combs. How he got introduced to Charlie and Warren)
Charlie: He seemed like very straight forward. But you see I get a million letters from people who want to come work for Berkshire. Or want to come work…I sometimes get a check from somebody who says, “Here’s $50,000, I’ll pay this to work for you.” I sent the $50,000 back. I will say that it’s kind of a brash thing to do, and I kind of admire it because it was kind of a smart-ass stunt, and I was something of a smart-ass when I was young myself. But I’m not looking for another starting helper or something. I’m playing out the end game. Anybody who’s playing anything else but an endgame when they’re 93 is crazy. It’s an endgame.
Question: So you bet against the jockey, not against the horse necessarily?
Charlie: Well, no…McKinsey. Skilling came out of McKinsey. There are a lot of manipulative types that (inaudible) McKinsey.
Question: So is it simply an observation of the people more so than the quantitative factors? You don’t need to look at the balance sheet when you’re looking at the person.
Charlie: Well I can see the chain-letter aspects of the game. And the huge leverage and the huge…he was just sort of building a chain-letter. It’s intrinsically sort of a dishonorable thing to do. Because the nature of the thing you’re…doing something that you can’t continue on its own motion. You know, making it look like oil. So it’s intrinsically sort of dishonorable. So I don’t like chain-letter operators and I don’t like drunks. I don’t like people who puff and lie and I don’t like people who raise prices on drugs that people have to have by 500% overnight just because it would work. There’s a lot of flags we’re flying.
Question: Charlie, we’ve seen a lot of folks boycotting retailers because they sell Trump brand merchandise and vice-versa because…
Charlie: I don’t like all that. Basically, I’m not in favor of young people agitating them and trying to change the whole world because they think they know so much. I think young people should learn more and shout less. So I’m not sympathetic to anybody…young people are out in the streets agitating and I say, ‘to hell with them’. That’s not my system. I think if you got Hitler or something you can go out and agitate, but short of that, I think the young people ought to learn more and shout less. They ought to act more like Chinese.
Question: Did you personally know Richard Feynman and what do you think of him?
Charlie: Yes. I knew him slightly. Very slightly. Well he was a genius. On the other hand he was a screwball. He absolutely was nuts about screwing around with a lot of different woman, and going after the wives of his own graduate students (I think). That’s disgusting. So he had this blind-spot. Now in physics, in teaching, he was one of the nobelist people we ever had. But in his personal life he was a little nuts.
Question: Charlie, I have a question about real estate. When I look at real estate and stocks, real estate is just easier to evaluate. You know, comps, cash flow, and replacement cost. It just seems like an easier game than the equities market.
Charlie: The trouble with real estate is that everybody else understands it. And the people who you are dealing with and competing with, they’ve specialized in a little twelve blocks or a little industry. They know more about the industry than you do. So you’ve got a lot of bull-shitters and liars and brokers. So it’s not a bit easy. It’s not a bit easy. The trouble with it is, if it’s easy…all these people…a whole bunch of ethnics that love real estate…you know Asians, Hasidic Jews, Indians from India, they all love real estate. They’re smart people. And they know everybody and they know the tricks. You don’t even see the good offerings in real estate. It’s not an easy game to play from a beginner’s point of view. Real estate. Whereas with stocks, you’re equal with everybody. If you’re smart. In real estate, you don’t even see the opportunities when you’re a young person starting out. They go to others. The stock market’s always open. It’s (like) venture capital. Sequoia sees the good stuff. You can open an office, “Joe Schmoe Venture Capitalists: Start-ups come to me!” You’d starve to death. You got to figure out what your competitive position is in what you’re choosing. Real estate has a lot of difficulties.
Those Patels from India that buy all those motels? They know more about motels than you do. They live in the g.d. motel. They pay no income taxes, they don’t pay much in worker’s compensation, and every dime they get, they fix up the thing and buy another motel. You want to compete with the Patels? Not I….Not I.
Question: You and Warren throughout your business history were incredible at judging people. Whether it’s Mrs. B. (Charlie interjects: We were pretty good, yes.) What was it that you and he looked for. And what were mistakes that you made that you learned from along the way in judging who would be good business partners to work with.
Charlie: Well, first there’s some very good people in Warren’s family. One of them I worked under was Fred Buffett. So we had people we knew well that were really noble people. So we had basis to compare people against. And we had basis to compare people in terms of capacity and talent and so forth. So we had a lot of data in our heads that helped us. And I think we had some genetic advantages. Not IQ points, just absolute quirks of nature that made us better.
Question: Like Harry Bottle? Tell me about Harry Bottle and what you saw in him.
Charlie: Well I worked with him in an electronics business that got into terrible difficulties and he’d help us work out of that business trouble by downsizing. He knew how to do it. And Warren had a business that needed downsizing and Warren did not know how to do it. So I put those two together and of course it worked well. (link)
Question: Charlie, could you talk about the episode at Solomon Brothers and what you really learned about people…
Charlie: What I learned is that all that easy money and easy leverage and so forth in investment banking creates a culture that’s full of envy, jealousy, craziness, over-reaching, over-leveraging. It’s a very hard business to manage…investment banking. It was out of control. The envy was…these people went berserk. If one jerk got $4 million some year, the other guy was furious that he only got $3 million. And they just seethed and caused trouble. It was a very difficult business to manage. I think a lot of easy money that comes into finance just ruins practically everybody.
Question: Charlie, anything thoughts on Apple Corporation?
End of Sample Transcript
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This week I had the great pleasure of hearing Charlie Munger speak at the Daily Journal Annual Meeting for the second time. For two hours Charlie captivated the audience with an abundance of whit, wisdom, and stamina. It was a fantastic performance. He truly is 93 years young.
I transcribed the full event from my audio recording which you may find below. At each question throughout the transcript, I provided a clickable link to the precise spot where the question begins in an excellent video recording of the event posted on YouTube. If you’d like an audio recording of the event I recommend my recording on SoundCloud. Furthermore, Charlie provided a handout to the attendees. I scanned them into a PDF document which you can access here.
I would like to thank Mr. Munger for energetically entertaining our questions and graciously sharing his wisdom, insights, and time with all of us.
I hope you all enjoy!
(Note: You will find that I frequently summarized the questions to Charlie, but as for Charlie’s and Gerry’s answers to the questions, I translated them verbatim and as accurately as possible.)
Charlie Discussing the Daily Journal Corporation:
Charlie: I usually talk a little bit before we take the questions. And the essence of what’s going on here of course is that we have a corporation that was in a branch of the newspaper business. And our branch of the newspaper business like most newspaper businesses has gone to hell compared to what it was in its peak years, and almost every other newspaper business is going to hell with no pardon, they’re just disappearing. What we have is this computer software business where we’re serving the same customers to some extent except now they’re all over the country, even some of them outside the country, with this…we were selling software to all these courts and public agencies whereas before we were giving information to lawyers and other people, and publishing public notices and our software business is of a type where it’s a long tough slog. But we’re slogging very well and we really love the people who are doing it for us, we’ve got a lot of wonderful people in our software business; the implementers, and the computer programmers, and people who deal with the public agencies, and the ethos of the place is very admirable. Everybody is trying to get ahead here by doing the work right and serving the customers right, and having a lot of financial wherewithal where money is never a problem, and doing what we’re suppose to do. It’s a pleasure to, people like Rick Guerin and myself, to watch all these young people doing this and of course we were very glad to be able to do it when we should be dead. (laughter)
A lot of you people came into this because Berkshire was successful and Guerin was successful and for various odd reasons of history, and most of you are accidentally in the software business, and I am too because Guerin did it when I wasn’t paying much attention. I don’t do this kind of venture capital stuff. And he doesn’t either, but he did it here. So if there’s anything wrong with what happens in our software business, you’re looking at a man who caused it all over here. (laughter) I’ll take credit for any successes. But if there’s failure you’re looking at the man here who got us into this.
It is amazing to me, some of the things that are happening in our software business. We just are getting a contract from South Australia. Now if anybody told me when I was young, that the Daily Journal Company would be automating the courts of South Australia, I mean, I hardly know where it is. Anyway, it’s amazing what’s happening and it’s a fair amount of fun to watch. Probably because we’re doing more winning than losing. I’ve never been able to enjoy losses the way some people do. I would much rather win. And I really like to work with good people instead of the opposite. And we’ve got a lot of good employees in our software business. We’ve got a bunch of implementer in Utah who are really good at it and we really trust. And who our customers like, and we’ve got all these computer programmers and so forth around here, and a game of service like that when it’s complicated, what you have to do is minimize your glitches and (crawl out of them very rapidly in a way that your customers trust you.) Our people were good at that and they get better and they’re trying to get ahead by being good at the service, not by hiring some politician as a consultant. Some of our competitors do that kind of stuff. But we’re trying to slog our way out by doing the work right.
When I was a lawyer, there was a saying that I’ve always used, “The best business-getter any lawyer ever has is the work that’s already on his desk.” And that’s the basic ethos of our software business. If we just keep doing it right, I don’t think we have to worry about the future. Not that we won’t have down drafts and our failures, but we are actually grinding ahead slowly in that software business. And it’s very interesting because Guerin and I know practically nothing about it. And Gerry didn’t come up as a software engineer, so we’re basically doing something that’s quite difficult, we’re judging people because we don’t understand what the people do. That’s what Andrew Carnegie did. He didn’t know anything about making steel. But he knew a lot about judging whether the people he was trusting were good at making steel. And of course that’s what Berkshire’s done if you stop and think about it. We have a lot of businesses at Berkshire that neither Warren our I could contribute much to, but we’ve been pretty good at judging which people are capable of running those businesses.
But this is pretty extreme here. The little Daily Journal building going into the computer software business. It’s a long slow kind of business. RFPs. The first time we contact a customer until we start making money may be 5 years. So it’s like deciding to start prospecting for oil in Borneo or something. And they just keep doing that over and over again, and the money goes out and the effort goes out, and it starts coming in five years from now. I love that kind of stuff, not when I think we’re taking territory, it doesn’t look good when we write it off and we don’t report wonderful numbers or anything. But if it makes sense in the long-term, we just don’t give a damn what it looks like over the short term. And we know we’ve collected a bunch of shareholders that share our ideas. After all we’re running a cult not a normal company. And I think most of you feel that you’re willing to wait.
I lived all my life with people who were into deferred gratification. In fact most of them will never have any fun. They just defer gratification all the way to end, that’s what we do. And it does cause you to get rich. So we’re going to have a lot of rich dead people. (laughter) We can excite a lot of envy. A lot of you when the people walk by your grave and there will be this nice grave with this nice monument and they’ll say, “God what a great grave, I wish I were under.” But at any rate, deferred gratification really does work if what you’re doing is growing a business that gets better and better and getting yourself so that your grave can look nice to outsiders. Guerin and I have never taken any money out of this company in all these years. We don’t take salaries, we don’t take directors fees. We’re a peculiar example. I wish our example spread more, because I think if you’re wealthy and own a big share of a company, and you get to decide what it does and whether it liquidates or whether it keeps going, that’s a nice position to be in, and maybe you shouldn’t try and grab all the money in addition. That’s my theory of executive compensation. And some of the old-fashioned guys like Carnegie never took any salary to speak of. Cornelius Vanderbilt didn’t take any, of course he owned the whole place, practically, and he would have considered it beneath him, he lived on the dividends like the shareholders did. So there’s a lot of that old fashioned ideas here in the Daily Journal Company.
Charlie Begins Q&A:
Charlie: I’ll first take a bunch of questions about the Daily Journal, and after that we’ll take question on anything you want to talk about.
Question 1: At last year’s meeting you talked about the milestone of getting the L.A. court system here at Journal Technologies and I was wondering, in the last year, as it has gone by, what good milestones have happened and what bad things have happened.
Charlie: Gerry you take that one. I’ll answer it (shortly), it’s going fine.
Gerry: We have three case types for Los Angeles. One case type went live last April, another case type will go live this coming July, and the third case type about 10 to 12 months later after that. We have to work with the Los Angeles schedule, after all they have a lot of people to train. And that becomes and very important factor. Training is critical because if the end users aren’t trained properly, virtually everything falls apart. And so that’s the schedule. We discussed it this morning. We meet with the court about 3 miles from here virtually every day. We have a good team from the court and I think they’re very excited about what they’re doing, and that’s critical to us that the court feels good about the system.
Charlie: One good thing about what we’re doing is it’s slow and it’s agony in the delays between the first customer contact and finally getting into a decent revenue stream. But once you succeed, it’s very sticky business. Very sticky business. And the fact that it’s difficult to do means it’s difficult for people to change much. So if you go slog through all this tough territory where it’s (slogging through), there’s a reward out there somewhere, and we’re not in a small business. It has way more potential than the original print business we had giving information about the (cases). It’s a big market. And the people have no option but to charge ahead. These courts and district attorneys, public defenders, all these people were serving…they’re over-whelmed with options…better systems and more software. So it’s a huge market. And the fact that it’s so often to grind through. It means that the people who want easy gratification don’t come in. If it seems slow and painful to you, we kind of like it that way.
Questions 2:Your thoughts on Tyler Technologies. How do you think your competitive position versus Tyler is doing.
Charlie: Well Tyler is an extremely aggressive company. They were bigger faster and so on. I like our ethos of operation better than I like theirs. If I were buying software, I’d rather buy ours than theirs. Our system is to keep fighting the game. I wish all the customers I had in life were like Tyler.
Question 3:The rate of revenue growth is going down a little bit, while expenses are going up. Any major milestones in the next 3 to 5 years that you think you’d like to get that you think would really help things along.
Charlie: I’ll take your first question. It looks like we’re proceeding slowly, but we bought a bunch of contracts, in effect, for money, and we knew they were going to end, so we’re amortizing the cost of those contracts. But really it was an anticipated decline that we got big revenues up front for taking. So we’re getting ahead, there’s a little blip in the figures.
(Response to second question) Every contract that’s significant is a major jump. The business is so big they’re whole states. I mean this is a huge business and everybody is just scrambling at the first parts of something that’s going to grow bigger and bigger and last and last. As long as we’re doing the work right, why it’s likely to work out right.
Charlie: Well of course Wells Fargo had a glitch. The truth of the matter is that they made a business judgment that was wrong. They got so caught up in cross-selling and so forth and having tough incentive systems that they got the incentive systems so aggressive that some people reacted badly and did things they shouldn’t. And then they used some misjudgment in reacting to the trouble they got in. I don’t think anything’s fundamentally wrong for the long-pull. Wells Fargo, they made a mistake. It was an easy mistake to make.
The smartest man I ever knew made a similar mistake. Henry Singleton, who was the smartest single human being I knew in my whole life. And Henry Singleton of Teledyne also had very aggressive incentive systems, like Wells Fargo. And his customer in many of his subsidiaries was the government. And of course it’s not that hard to cheat the government. But his very aggressive incentive systems, 2 or 3 out of 20 subsidiaries cheated the government. So all of a sudden he’s got three scandals at once. It wasn’t that Henry was trying to cheat the government. He just got a little aggressive in applying the incentives and he got blindsided.
That can happen to anybody. I don’t regard getting the incentives a little aggressive at Wells Fargo as a mistake. I think the mistake there was, when the bad news came, they didn’t recognize it rightly. They made a mistake. But what happens in a tough system like capital, you make a mistake like that and pretty soon you’re gone.
Question 5:For Gerry or Charlie. Congratulations for inverting and not doing things wrong in regards to Daily Journal. What’s your insight into the Alemeda court system and the problems that Tyler’s having over them.
Charlie: No, but I’m not dissatisfied with it. I don’t think I want to criticize Tyler any more than I have. One of our customers, you’ll be sad to know is having some problems with pleasing a customer…You can see the salt tears running down my cheeks. (laughter)
Question 6:Question on software fees in terms of your revenue lines. What portion of that business is recurring?
Charlie: That is so complicated that I’m not even going to try to answer it. I’m just going to answer it in substance. There’s a lot that’s reoccurring if we stay in there.
You can’t look at our financial statements and make very good judgments about what’s going to happen. It’s the nature of our game that’s confusing. It confuses us a little bit. So we’re not holding back on purpose, it’s a very complex, confusing, system. You’ve got all these RFPs. It’s very complicated.
Question 7:You purchased the building in Logan, which I believe is used exclusively in Journal Technologies, but in accounting, it’s under the traditional business, I’m wondering why?
Charlie: Gerry I give you that one. He says, why is Logan, somehow in the traditional business? It shouldn’t be.
Gerry: The Daily Journal purchased the building and they own the building. And Journal Technologies pays rent to the parent company for that and the amount of rent is not, what we would consider, material from that perspective. And because it’s owned by the Daily Journal that’s how we originally classify it. No real significant reasons. All the expenses on the Journal Technologies books.
Charlie: That’s some quirk of accounting. It doesn’t really matter.
Question 8: Follow up on the question of incentives. You were explaining at Wells Fargo you don’t have a problem with aggressive incentives. Can you expand on that a little more?
Charlie: Well how do you know they’re aggressive until you try? They didn’t react enough to the bad news fast enough. And of course that a very dangerous thing to do. I don’t think it impairs the future of Wells Fargo. As a matter of fact, they’ll be better for it. The one nice thing about doing something dumb is that you probably won’t do it again.
Question 9: Question in regards to someone early in their career trying to figure out which of several paths to pursue. Two thoughts that seem helpful for this purpose are 1) figuring out which work you have the possibility to become the best at and 2) ascertaining which line of work would most help society. Do you think these ideas are the right ones to focus on, and if so, how would you go about answering them.
Charlie: Well, in terms of picking what to do, I want to report to all of you, that in my whole life I’ve never succeeded much in something that I wasn’t interested in. So I don’t think you’re going to succeed if what you’re doing all day doesn’t interest you. You’ve got to find something you’re interested in because it’s just too much to expect of human nature that you’re going to be good at something that you really dislike doing. And so that’s one big issue. And of course you have to play in a game where you’ve got some unusual talents. If you’re 5 foot 1, you don’t want to play basketball against some guy whose 8 feet 3. It’s just too hard. So you gotta’ figure out a game where you have an advantage and it has to be something that you’re deeply interested in. Now you get into the ethical side of life, well of course you want to be ethical. On the other hand, you can’t be just dreaming how you think the world should be run and that it’s too dirty for you to get near it. You can get so consumed by some ideological notion particularly in a left-wing university. It’s like you think you’re handling ethics and what you’re doing is not working. And maybe smoking a little pot to boot. This is not the Munger system.
My hero is Maimonides. And all that philosophy and all that writing, he did after working 10 or 12 hours a day as a practicing physician all his life. He believed in the engaged life. And so I recommend the engaged life. You spend all your life thinking about some politician who wants it this way or that way you’re sure you know what’s right, you’re on the wrong track. You want to do something every day where you’re coping with the reality. You want to be more like Maimonides and less like Bernie Sanders.
Question 10: Is American Express value proposition more in terms of payment or service and rewards?
Charlie: Well I’m going to give you an answer that will be very helpful to you because you’re somewhat confused about what the exact future of American Express will be…and I want to tell you, I’m confused too. I think that if you understand exactly what’s going to happen to payment systems ten years out, you’re probably under some state of delusion, it’s very hard to know. So if you’re confused, all I can say is “welcome to the club”. They’re doing the best they can, they’ve got some huge advantages that they’re…it’s a reasonable bet. But nobody knows. I don’t know if IBM is going to sell that much of Watson. I always say I’m agnostic on the subject. You’re talking about payment system 10 years out, I’m agnostic on that too. I think if you keep trying to do the right thing and you play the game hard, your chances are better. But I don’t think those thing are knowable. Think about how fast they changed.
Question 11:Do you think that domestic natural gas, exploration and production, is a good business despite the capital intensity?
Charlie: Well that’s a different subject, I have a different feeling about the energy business than practically anyone else in America. I wish we weren’t producing all this naturally gas. I would be delighted to have the condensate that’s coming out of our shale deposits just lie there untapped for decades in the future and pay a bunch of Arabs to use up their oil. But nobody else in America seems to feel my way. But I’m into deferred gratification. Oil and gas is not going away and I think it’s just as important as the top soil in Iowa. If any of you said, “oh goodie, I found a way to make money, we’ll ship all our top soil from Iowa to Greenland!” I wouldn’t think that was a very good idea. And so I don’t think that hastening to use up all of our oil and gas is a good idea. But I’m practically the only one in the country that feels that way. There’s not enough deferred gratification in it to please me. But I don’t see any advantage…I regard our oil and gas reserves just as chemical feed stocks that are essential in civilization. (Leave aside) their energy content. I’d be delighted to use them up more slowly. By the way, I’m sure I’m right and the other 99% of the people are wrong.
But no, I don’t know…The oil and gas business is very peculiar. The people who success in most other businesses are doing way more physical volume than they did in the past. But a place like Exxon, the physical volume goes down by two thirds, it’s just that the price of oil goes up faster than the physical volume goes down. That is a very peculiar way to make money. And it may well continue, but it’s confusing, we’re not use to it.
Question 12:As an 18 year old interested in many disciplines, I was wondering how you can thrive as a polymath in a world that celebrates specialization.
Charlie: Well that’s a good question. I don’t think operating over many disciplines as I do is a good idea for most people. I think it’s fun, that’s why I’ve done it. I’m better at it than most people would be. And I don’t think I’m good at being the very best for handling differential equations. So it’s in a wonderful path for me, but I think the correct path for everybody else is to specialize and get very good at something that society rewards and get very efficient at doing it. But even if you do that, I think you should spend 10 or 20% of your time into trying to know all the big ideas in all the other disciplines. Otherwise…I use the same phrase over and over again…otherwise you’re like a one legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It’s just not going to work very well. You have to know the big ideas in all the disciplines to be safe if you have a life lived outside a cave.
But no, I think you don’t want to neglect your business as a dentist to think great thoughts about Proust.
Question 13:Question about Lollapalooza effects. What current event is causing you concern and how can you use that inter-disciplinary approach to spot them?
Charlie: Well, I coined that term the “Lollapalooza effect” because when I realized I didn’t know any psychology and that was a mistake on my part, I bought the three main text books for introductory psychology and I read through them. And of course being Charlie Munger, I decided that the psychologists were doing it all wrong and I could do it better. And one of the ideas that I came up with which wasn’t in any of the books was that the Lollapalooza effects came when 3 or 4 of the tendencies were operating at once in the same situation. I could see that it wasn’t linear, you’ve got Lollapalooza effects. But the psychology people couldn’t do experiments that were 4 or 5 things happening at once because it got too complicated for them and they couldn’t publish. So they were ignoring the most important thing in their own profession. And of course the other thing that was important was to synthesize psychology with all else. And the trouble with the psychology profession is that they don’t know anything about ‘all else’. And you can’t synthesize one thing you know with something you don’t if you don’t know the other thing. So that’s why I came up with that Lollapalooza stuff. And by the way, I’ve been lonely ever since. (laughter) I’m not making any ground there. And by the way, I’m totally right.
Question 14: My question relates to a comment you made some years ago about Warren Buffett. I think you said that he has become a significantly better investor since he turned 65, which I found a remarkable comment. I was wondering if you could share information about that, that maybe we haven’t heard before. I know you’ve commented he’s a learning machine and we all know the aversion to retail that came out of the Diversified episode, and so on. I’d just be interested if there’s something that’s changed about his risk assessment or his horizons or any color there would be fantastic to hear. Thank you.
Charlie: Well, if you’re in a game and you’re passionate about learning more all the time and getting better and honing your own skills all the time, etc. etc. Of course you do better over time. And some people are better at that than others. It’s amazing what Warren has done. Berkshire would be a very modest company now if Warren never learned anything. He never wouldn’t have never given anything back. I mean any territory he took he was going to hold it. But what really happened was, we went out into the new fields of buying whole businesses and we bought into things like Iscar that Warren never would have bought when he was younger. Ben Graham would have never bought Iscar. He paid 5 times book or something for Iscar. It wasn’t in the Graham play. And Warren who learned under Graham, just, he learned better over time. And I’ve learned better. The nice thing about the game we’re in, is that you can keep learning. And we’re still doing it. Imagine we’re in the press…for all of a sudden (buying) airline stocks? What have we said about the airline business? We thought it was a joke it was such a terrible business. And now if you put all of those stocks together we own one minor airline. We did the same thing in railroads, we said “railroads are no damn good, you know there’s too many of them, truck competition…” And we were right it was a terrible business for about 80 years. But finally they got down to four big railroads and it was a better business. And something similar is happening in the airline business.
On the other hand, this very morning I sat down in my library with my daughter-in-law and she booked a round trip ticket to Europe including taxes, it was like 4 or 5 hundred dollars. I was like, “we’re buying into the airline business?” (laughter) It may work out to be a good idea for the same reason that our railroad business turned out to be a good idea, but there’s some chances it might not. In the old days, I frequently talked to Warren about the old days, and for years and years and years, what we did was shoot fish in a barrel. But it was so easy that we didn’t want to shoot at the fish while they were moving. So we waited until they slowed down and then we shot at them with shotgun. It was just that easy. And it has gotten harder and harder and harder. And now we get little edges…before, we had totally cinches. It isn’t any less interesting. We do not make the same returns we made when we could run around and pick this low hanging fruit off trees that offered a lot of it.
So now we go into things…We bought the Exxon position…You know why Warren bought Exxon? As a cash substitute! You would never have done that in the old days. We had a lot of cash and we thought Exxon was better than cash over the short term. That’s a different kind of thinking from the way Warren came up. He’s changed. And I think he’s changed when he buys airlines. And he’s changed when he buys Apple. Think of the hooting we’ve done over the years about high tech, ‘we just don’t understand it’, ‘it’s not in our central competency’, ‘the worst business in the world is airlines’. And what do we appear in the press with? Apple and a bunch of airlines. I don’t think we’ve went crazy. I think the answer is, we’re adapting reasonably to a business that’s gotten very much more difficult. And I don’t think we have a cinch in either of those positions. I think we have the odds a little bit in our favor. And if that’s the best advantage we can get, we’ll just have to live on the advantage we can get. I use to say you have marry the best person that will have you, and I’m afraid that’s a rule of life. You have to get by in life with the best advantage you can get. And things have gotten so difficult in the investment world that we have to be satisfied with the type of advantage that we didn’t use to get. On the other hand the thing that caused it to be so enormously difficult was when we got so enormously rich. And that’s not a bad trade off.
Question 15:At last year’s meeting you said Donald Trump was not morally qualified to be President, and now that he is President, do you still agree with that, do you think he’s qualified in any capacity?
Charlie: Well I’ve gotten more mellow. (laughter) I always try and think about the good as along with what’s not good. And I think some of this stuff where they’re re-examining options about the whole tax system of the country, I think that’s a very constructive thing. When Donald Trump says he wouldn’t touch Social Security when a lot of highfalutin Republicans have all kinds of schemes for (rising) Social Security, I’m with Donald Trump. If I were running the world I would have his exact attitude about Social Security. I wouldn’t touch it. So he’s not wrong on everything and just because he isn’t like us…roll with it. Accept a little danger. What the hell, you’re not going to live forever at any how.
Question 16:What was the most meaningful thing you did with your life?
Charlie: Well, I think the family and children is the most meaningful thing most people do with their life. And I’ve been reasonably fortunate…I don’t think I’ve been a perfect husband. I’m lucky to have had as much felicity as I got. And I always needed a certain amount of toleration from the fair sex. I started wrong and I never completely fixed myself. I can tell this group…you come here as a cult to talk to a cult-leader? I want to take you back in history, you’ll see what an inferior person you’re now trusting.
When I was a freshman in Omaha Central High, there was a friend of the family, a girl my age. She had gone off to summer camp the year before and she met a blonde goddess. A voluptuous 13 year old. And I was a skinny under-developed whatever and so forth. ‘You gotta take my blonde goddess to this dance’. And so I wanted to impress this ‘blonde goddess’ and so I pretended to smoke which I didn’t. And she was wearing a net dress and I set her on fire! (big laughter) But I was quick whittled and I through Coca-Cola all over her and in due time the fire was out. And that’s the last I saw of the blonde goddess.
And then I said, ‘well I’ve gotta make more time with the girls’. And I wanted to get a letter at Omaha Central High. Of course I was no good at any sport. So I went down to the rifle range and learned they gave letters in rifle shooting. And I was so skinny that I could shoot a 100 in the sitting position by sitting cross-legged and putting one elbow on each foot. Try it, you’ll break your neck. But I could shoot a hundred every time. So I was a good rifle shooter and they gave me a letter. But I was so skinny and short and underdeveloped that it went from one arm pit to the other. And I walked down the hallway trying to impress the girls and they wouldn’t turn their head. What they said was, ‘how did a skinny little unattractive runt like that get a letter?’
And then I had another experience. There was a girl I still remember, Zibby Bruington. She was a senior and a very popular senior. And I was a nerd sophomore. And somehow she agreed with me to go to a party in one of the out-buildings at the Omaha Country Club. Perhaps because she liked one of my friends who was a big strapping fellow. So I took Zibby to this party in my 1934 Ford, and it sleeted and got rainy, and so forth. And I managed to stick the Ford in the mud and I couldn’t get out of it. And Zibby and I had to walk for several miles through sleet. That was the last I ever saw of Zibby Bruington. And then my car stayed in the mud and I neglected to put in anti-freeze and the temperature went way down suddenly and the block broke! Because it was too expensive to fix. I lost my car and my father wouldn’t by a new one because my father said, ‘why should I buy a new car for someone whose dumb enough not to put anti-freeze in it?’ This is the person you’re coming all this way to see!
My life is just one long litany of mistakes and failure. And it went on and on and on. And politics! I ran to be the president of the DSIC in grade school, The Dundee School Improvement Association. I had the most popular boy in school as my campaign manager. I came in second by miles. I was a total failure in politics. There’s hardly anything I succeeded at. Now, I tell you all this because I know a nerd when I see one. And there are a lot of nerds here who can tell stories like mine. (big laughter) And I want to feel it’s not hopeless. Just keep trying.
Oh yeah, Guerin wants me to repeat the story of Max Plank. According to the story, Max Plank when he won the Nobel Prize was invited to run around Germany giving lectures. And a chauffeur drove him. And after giving the lecture about 20 times, the chauffeur memorized it. And he said, ‘you know Mr. Plank, it’s so boring, why don’t you sit in the audience and I the chauffeur will give your talk.’ And so the chauffeur got up and gave Max Plank’s talk on physics and some professor got up and asked some terrible question. And the chauffeur said, ‘Well I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich, people are asking me elementary questions like that. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to answer that!’ (laughter)
While I’m telling jokes I might tell one of my favorite stories about the plane that’s flying over the Mediterranean. The pilots voice comes on and says, ‘A terrible thing just happened. We’re losing both engines, we’re going to have to land in the Mediterranean.’ And he says, ‘The plane with stay afloat for a very short time, and we’ll be able to open the door just long enough so that everybody can get out. We have to do this in an orderly fashion. Everybody who can swim go to the right wing and stand there. And everybody who can’t swim go to the left wing and just stand there. Those of you on the right wing, you’ll find a little island in the direction of the sun. It’s two miles off. And as the plane goes under, just swim over to the island, you’ll be fine. For those of you on the left wing, thank you for flying Air Italia.” (big laughter)
Question 17:With regard to the proliferation of index funds, do you think there will be an issue with liquidity any time we go through another large crisis? Do you think that will create large discrepancies between the price of the index fund and the value of the securities underneath?
Charlie: Well, the index funds of the S&P is like 75% of the market. So I don’t think the exact problem you’re talking about is going to be a big problem because you’re talking about the S&P index. But. Is there a point where index funds theoretically can’t work a course? If everybody bought nothing but index funds, the whole world wouldn’t work as people expect. There’s also the problem…one of the reasons you buy a big index like the S&P. Is because if you buy a small index, and it gets popular, you have a self-defeating situation. When the nifty-fifty were the rage, JP Morgan talked everybody into buying just 50 stocks. And they didn’t care what the price was, they just bought those 50 stocks. Of course in due time, their own buying forced those 50 stocks up to 60 times earnings. Where upon it broke and everything went down by about two-thirds quite fast. In other words, if you get too much faddishness in one sector or one narrow index, of course you can get catastrophic changes like they had with the nifty-fifty in that former era. I don’t see that happening when the index is three-quarters of the whole market.
The problem is that the whole thing can’t work perfectly forever. But it will work for a long time. The indexes have caused just absolute agony among the intelligent investment professionals. Because basically 95% of the people have almost no chance of beating it over time. And yet all the people expect if they have some money, they can hire somebody who will let them beat the indexes. And of course the honest sensible people know they’re selling something they can’t quite deliver. And that has to be agony. Most people handle that with denial. They think if we’re better next year…they just don’t want to think about that. I understand that, I mean I don’t want to think of my own death either. But it’s a terrible problem beating those indexes. And it’s a problem that investment professional get didn’t have in the past. What’s happening of course is the prices for managing really big sums of money are going down, down, down, 20 basis points and so on. The people who rose in investment management didn’t do it by getting paid 20 basis points. But that’s where we’re going I think in terms of people who manage big portfolios of the American Equities in the equivalent of the S&P. It’s a huge, huge, problem. It makes your generation of money managers to have way more difficulties and causes a lot of worry and fretfulness. And I think the people who are worried and fretful are absolutely right.
I would hate to manage a trillion dollars in the big stocks and try and beat the indexes. I don’t think I could do it. In fact if you look at Berkshire, take out a hundred decisions, which is like two a year. The success of Berkshire came from two decisions a year over 50 years. We may have beaten the indexes, but we didn’t do it by having big portfolios of securities and having subdivisions managing the drugs, and subdivisions…and so, the indexes are a hell of a problem for you people. But you know, why shouldn’t life be hard? It’s what had to happen, what’s happened now. If you take these people doing some of those early trading by computer algorithms that worked. Then somebody else would come in and do the same thing with the same algorithm and play the same game. And of course the returns went down. Well that’s what’s happening in the whole field. The returns you’re going to get are being pushed down by the progress of the sons.
Question 18:First question: What books or experiences were most formative to you in your early career? Second question: Where and how do you tell your most ambitious grandchildren to look for business opportunities.
Charlie: Well I don’t spend any time telling my grandchildren what business opportunities to look for. I don’t have that much hope. (laughter) I’m going to have trouble getting my grandchildren to work at all! Anyway, I don’t think there’s an easy way to handle a problem of doing better and better with finances. Obviously if you’re glued together and honorable and get up every morning and keep learning every day and you’re willing to go in for a lot of deferred gratification all your life, you’re going to succeed. It may not be as much as you want. But you’re going to success. And so the main thing is to just keep in there, and be glued together, and get rid of your stupidities as fast as you can. And avoid the bad people as much as you can. And you’ll do reasonably well. But try teaching that to your grandchildren. I think the only way you’ve got a chance is sort of by example. If you want to improve your grandchildren the best way is to fix yourself.
Oh books. You cultist send me so many books that I can scarcely walk into my own library. So I’m reading so many now because I never throw one away, I at least scan it.
I’ve just read this new book by Thorp, the guy who beat the dealer in Las Vegas. And then he did computer algorithm trading. And I really liked the book. For one thing, the guy had a really good marriage and he seemed grateful for it. And it was touching. For another he was a very smart man. He was a mathematician using a high IQ, to A) beat the dealer in Las Vegas and so forth and the B) use these computer algorithms to do this massive trading. I found it very interest and since some of you people are nerds, and maybe you might like a love story. I recommend Thorp’s new book.
It’s an interesting thing to do to beat the dealer in Las Vegas…wearing disguises and so on. And Peter Kaufman told me a story about somebody he knows that did the same thing as Thorp did, but he did it more extreme. He wore disguises and so forth. He won four million dollars I think, in the casinos. And that was hard to do because casinos don’t like playing against people who might win. And then he went into the stock market where he made four billion dollars! Again, clever algorithms. You know, these people are mathematically gifted. It’s still going on. And I don’t think many of you are going to do it. There can’t be many people who are mathematically gifted enough, manipulate statistics and everything else so well that they find little algorithms that will make them four billion dollars.
But there are a few. And so some of them started just like Thorp. And so Thorp’s book is interesting. So I recommend it for you.
Question 19: Question on Filial piety. In this generation, how can we fulfill our filial duties?
Charlie: I like filial piety. They worship old men. Rich old men. That is my kind of a system. (laughter) But I think the idea of caring about your ancestors and caring about your traditions, I think all that stuff is a big part of what’s desirable. I really admire the Confucians for that notion that it’s not a game that’s played just in one life. It’s a game where you’re handing the baton off and you’re accepting the baton from your predecessor. So if filial piety is your game, why I think it’s a very good thing. Think about how rootless we’d be if we had no families at all, no predecessors, no decedents, it would be a very different life. Think what we owe to people who figure out things in the past that make our civilization work. So I’m all for filial piety and its close cousins.
Question 20: You’ve said, “any year in which you don’t destroy one of your best loved ideas is a wasted year.” It’s well known that you helped coached Warren towards quality which was a difficult transition for him. I was wondering if you could speak to the hardest idea that you’ve ever destroyed.
Charlie: Well I’ve done so many dumb things. That I’m very busy destroying bad ideas because I keep having them. So it’s hard for me to just single out from such a multitude. But I actually like it when I destroy a bad idea because I think I’m on the…I think it’s my duty to destroy old ideas. I know so many people whose main problem of life, is that the old ideas displace the entry of new ideas that are better. That is the absolute standard outcome in life. There’s an old German folk saying, “We’re too soon old and too late smart.” That’s everybody’s problem. And the reason we’re too late smart is that the stupid ideas we already have, we can’t get rid of! Now it’s a good thing that we have that problem, in marriage that may be good for the stability of marriage that we stick with our old ideas. But in most fields you want to get rid of your old ideas. It’s a good habit and it gives you a big advantage in the competitive game of life…other people are so very bad at it. What happens is, as you spout ideas out, what you’re doing is you’re pounding them in. So you get these ideas and then you start agitating them and saying them and so forth. And of course, the person you’re really convincing is you who already had the ideas. You’re just pounding them in harder and harder. One of the reasons I don’t spend much time telling the world what I think about how the federal reserve system should behave and so forth. Because I know that I’m just pounding the ideas into my own head when I think I’m telling the other people how to run things. So I think you have to have mental habits…I don’t like it when young people get violently convinced on every damn cause or something. They think they know everything. Some 17 year old who wants to tell the whole world what ought to be done about abortion or foreign policy in the middle east or something. All he’s doing when he or she spouts about what he deeply believes is pounding the ideas he already has in, which is a very dumb idea when you’re just starting and have a lot to learn.
So it’s very important that habit of getting rid of the dumb ideas. One of things I do is pat myself on the back every time I get rid of the dumb idea. You could say, ‘could you really reinforce your own good behavior?’ Yeah, you can. When other people won’t praise you, you can praise yourself. I have a big system of patting myself on the back. Every time I get rid of a much beloved idea I pat myself on the back. Sometime several times. And I recommend the same mental habit to all of you. The price we pay for being able to accept a new idea is just awesomely large. Indeed a lot of people die because they can’t get new ideas through their head.
Question 21A:My perception is that the (oil and gas) industry itself has continuously gotten more complex and technical, and as the economy expands and you have more division of labor and specialization, it seems to me that it can be very hard for investors unless there’s more specialization. (Charlie interjects)
Charlie: Of course.
Question 21B:Do you think that capital allocators are going to need to become more specialized going forward?
Charlie: Well you petroleum people of course have to get more specialized because the oil is harder to get and you have to learn new tricks to get it. And so you’re totally right. Generally, specialization is just the way to go for those people. It’s just I have an example of something different. It’s awkward for me because…but I don’t want to encourage people to do it the way I did because I don’t think it will work for most people. I think the basic ideas of being rational and disciplined and deferring gratification, those will work. But if you want to get rich the way I did, by learning a little bit about a hell of a lot, I don’t recommend it to others.
Now I’ve get a story there that I tell. A young man comes to see Mozart, and says, “I want to compose symphonies.” And Mozart says, “You’re too young to compose symphonies.” He’s 20 years old and the man says, “But you were composing symphonies when you were 10 years old.” And Mozart says, “Yeah but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it.”
I don’t think I’m a good example to the young. I don’t want to encourage people to follow my particular path. I like all the general precepts, but I would not…if you’re a proctologist, I do not want a proctologist who knows Schopenhauer, or astrophysics. I want a man whose specialized. That’s the way the market is. And you should never forget that. On the other hand, I don’t think you’d have much of a life if all you did was proctology. (laughter)
Question 22:Warren and you are known for saying that if you worked with a small sum of capital, $10 million, Warren publicly said that he could guarantee that he could compound that at 50% a year. So my question is, can you provide some examples? And I would kindly ask that you provide as many examples as possible, and be specific as possible.
Charlie: Well, the minute I hear somebody that really wants to get rich, at a rapid rate, with specifics. That is not what we try and do here. We want to leave some mystery so that you yourself can amuse yourself finding your own way. You know the good ideas that I’ve had in my life are quite few. But the lesson I can give you is a few is all you need and don’t be disappointed. When you find the few of course, you’ve got to act aggressively. That’s the Munger system. And I learned that indirectly from a man I never met. Which was my Mother’s maternal grandfather. He was a pioneer when he came out to Iowa and fought in the Blackhawk Wars and so on. And eventually after enormous hardship, well he was the richest man in town and he owned the bank and so on. As he sat there in his old age, my mother knew him because she’d go to Algona, Iowa where he lived and had the big house in the middle of town. Iron fence, capacious lawns, big barns. What Grandpa Ingham use to tell her is, ‘there’s just a few opportunities you get in a whole life’. This guy took over Iowa when the black topsoil in Iowa was cheap. But he didn’t get that many opportunities. It was just a few that enabled him to become prosperous. He bought a few farms every time there was a panic you know. And leased them to thrifty Germans, you couldn’t lose money with leasing a farm to a German in Iowa. But he only did a few things. And I’m afraid that’s the case…you’re not going to find a million wonderful ideas. These people with the computer algorithms do it, but they have a computer sifting the who world. It’s like placer mining. And of course every niche they’re in, if somebody else comes in, the niche starts leaching away. And I don’t think it’s that honorable to make a living that way. I’d rather make my money in some other way than outsmarting the trading system so I have a little computer algorithm that just leaches a little out of everybody’s trade. I always say that those people have all the social utility of a bunch of rats in a granary. It’s not that great a way to make money. I would say if you make your money that way that you should be very charitable with it because you’ve got a lot to atone for. (laughter) I don’t think it’s an ambition we should encourage.
The rest of us who aren’t just leaching a little off the top because we’re great at computer science, and that’s what this room is full of. And if you’re not finding it harder now, you don’t understand it. That’s my lesson.
Question 23:What’s your favorite industry and why is it your favorite?
Charlie: Well, my favorite industry is taking care of my own affairs. (laughter) And it’s fun it’s creative, it’s the job that life has given me, and I think that you should do the job well that life gives you. A lot of the places where the industries are doing a great job for the world, it’s very hard to make money out of it. Because these wild enthusiasms come into it. I don’t have a favorite industry.
Question 24:Is there any current monkey-business in corporate America that worries you?
Charlie: Well the answer is yes, but not as extreme as Valeant. That was really something. That was really something. I probably should have done that. (laughter) But you people come so far, and since you’re cult members you like being here. And I feel an obligation to tell you something sort of interesting and I just went straight into Valeant that year. It was really pretty disgusting. What’s interesting is how many high-grade people that took in. It was too good to be true. There was a lot wrong with Valeant. It was so aggressive. It was drugs people needed. It was just…take the difference between Valeant and the Daily Journal Company. When the foreclosure boom came, we had 80% of the foreclosure business in our area. It’s a big area, Southern California and Northern California too. It would have been very easy for us to raise the prices and make, I don’t know, $50 million more or something like that, when all these people are losing their houses. A lot of them are very decent people. It didn’t ever…the idea that just right in the middle of that we’d make all the money we could? Which some of our competitors did by the way. We just didn’t do it. I don’t think capitalism requires that you make all the money that you can. I think there are times when you should be satisfied based on...just ideas of decency. And at Valeant they just look at it like a game like chess. They didn’t think about any human consequences, they didn’t think about anything but getting what they wanted which was money and glory. And they just stepped way over the line. And of course in the end they were cheating.
But I don’t have a new one. I got a lot of publicity over that Valeant thing. I’m not looking for…I don’t want this room to have twice as many people next year. And I don’t want me not to be here either. (laughter)
Question 25:My question relates to a talk you gave to the foundation of financial officers in 1998 here in California. And in that talk, you were critical of the complexity and the expense of many foundation portfolios and you said specifically, “An institution with almost all wealth invested long-term in just three fine domestic corporations, is securely rich.” And you gave as your example the Wicker Foundation and Coca-Cola. So if you had a foundation today with let’s say a billion dollars, would you be comfortable with it being invested in just three stocks?
Charlie: Well, let’s take the foundation…I’ll change your question around (in the way that I want to answer it). (laughter) Am I comfortable with a non-diversified portfolio? Of course…if you take the Munger’s, I care about the Munger’s. The Munger’s have three stocks. We have a block of Berkshire, we have a block of Costco, we have a block of Li Lu’s fund, and the rest is dribs and drabs. So am I comfortable? Am I securely rich? You’re damn right I am. Could other people be just as comfortable as I who didn’t have a vast portfolio with a lot of names in it? Many of whom neither they or their advisors understand? Of course they’d be better off if they did what I did. And is three stocks enough? What are the chances that Costco’s going to fail? What are the chances that Berkshire Hathaway’s going to fail? What are the chances that Li Lu’s portfolio in China’s going to fail? The chances that any one of those things happening is almost zero. And the chances that all three of them are going to fail?
That’s one of the good ideas I had when I was young. When I started investing my little piddly savings as a lawyer, I tried to figure out how much diversification I would need if I had a 10% advantage every year over stocks generally. I just worked it out. I didn’t have any formula, I just worked it out with my high school algebra. And I realized that if I was going to be there for thirty or forty years, I’d be about 99% sure to do just fine if I never owned more than three stocks and my average holding period is 3 or 4 years. Once I’d done that with my little pencil, I just…I never for a moment believed this balderdash they keep…why diversification…diversification is a rule for those who don’t know anything. Warren calls them ‘know-nothing investors’. If you’re a ‘know-nothing investor’ of course you’re going to own the average. But if you’re not a know-nothing investor, if you’re actually capable of figuring out something that will work better, you’re just hurting yourselves looking for fifty when three will suffice. Hell one will suffice if you do it right. One. If you have one cinch, what else do you need in life.
And so the whole idea that the ‘know-something’ investor needs a lot of diversification. To think that we’re paying these investors to teach this crap to our young. And people think they should be paid for telling us to diversify. Where it’s right, it’s an idiot decision. And where it’s wrong, you shouldn’t be teaching what’s wrong. What’s gone on in corporate finance teaching is that people are getting paid for dispensing balderdash. And since I never believed that it was a great help to me, it helps if you’re out in the market and the other people are believing balderdash and you know what the hell’s going on. It’s a big help. So of course you don’t want a lot…if you’re Uncle Horace who has no children has an immense business which is immensely secured and powerful. And he’s going to leave it all to you if you come to work in the business. You don’t need any diversification. You don’t need any corporate finance professors, you should go to work for Uncle Horace. It’s a cinch. You only need one cinch! And sometimes the market gives you the equivalent of an Uncle Horace. And when it does, step up to the pie-cart with a big pan. Pie carts like that don’t come very often. When they do you have to have the gumption and the determination to seize the opportunity shrewdly. I was lucky. Imagine learning that from your dead great-grandfather, at a very young age. But you know I spent my whole life with dead people. They’re so much better than many of the people I’m with here on earth. All the dead people in the world, you can learn a lot from them. And they’re very convenient to reach. You reach out and grab a book. None of those problems with transportation. So I really recommend making friends among the immanent dead. Which of course I did very early. And it’s been enormously helpful. Some of you wouldn’t have helped me. But Adam Smith really did.
Question 26:Question on Irish economy and Irish banking. Berkshire Hathaway was a shareholder in Irish banks pre-2008. Could you comment on how the Irish economy and Irish banking system proceeds with the U.K. not being part of the European Union going forward.
Charlie: Well, that of course was a mistake, and it was a mistake we shouldn’t have made because both Warren and I know that you can’t really trust the figures put out by the banking industry. And the people who run banks are subject to enormous temptations that lead them astray because it’s easy to make a bank report more earnings. By a thing that any idiot could do which is make it a little more gamey. And of course that’s dangerous. And the temptation are very great. So we shouldn’t have made that mistake, but we did. And that’s a good lesson too, that even if you’re really good at something you will occasionally drift into a dumb mistake. And now that’s the question about the bank. They went crazy in Ireland…the bankers. And we went crazy when we trusted the damn statements. And it was a mistake.
Now what Ireland has done was very smart…in reducing all of these taxes. Now they have English speaking people with practically no taxes. And there’s a fair amount of charm and so forth in Ireland. It’s not like it’s a terrible place to be. They just sucked in half the world into Ireland where they got these…Gates went there very early with Microsoft, and so on. And they took a place that was really a backward place that had a sort of internal civil war for 60 or 70 years, and bad opportunities, and they really brought in a lot of prosperity. And they did that by this competitive lowering of taxes and so on. So it worked for Ireland. I think Ireland deserves a lot of credit for the way they advanced their country. And of course they were going to have a thing where all the countries keep trying to reduce their taxes to suck in the foreign…but it won’t work for everybody. But it did work for Ireland. I think Ireland deserves a lot of credit, and of course they recovered very well from a very major collapse. Irish are like the Scottish. I always think that those Gallic’s are pretty unusual people. And I’m very glad that I had a Scottish-Irish great-grandmother.
Question 27: My question is in regards to Lee Kuan Yew. You’ve on several occasions spoken about the economic miracle that is Singapore and how it’s been transferred on by Deng Xiaoping to China. What are your thoughts about India that’s going through a similar change with the prime minister who also idolizes his people and wants to create a similar sort of situation. I’d like you’re thoughts on that. Thank you.
Charlie: Well that’s a very intelligent question, and I’m not saying all the other questions weren’t. (laughter) I regard Lee Kuan Yew…may have been the best nation builder that ever lived. He took over a malarial swamp with no assets. No natural resources. Surrounded by a bunch of Muslims who hated him. In fact he was spat out by a Muslims country. They didn’t want a bunch of damn Chinese in their country. That’s how Singapore was formed as a country, the Muslims spat it out. And so hay, here he is, no assets, no money, no nothing. People were dying of malaria. Lots of corruption. And he creates in a very short time, by historical standards, modern Singapore. It was a huge, huge, huge success. It’s such a success that there’s no other precedent in the history of the world that is any stronger. Now China’s more important because there are more Chinese, but you can give Lee Kuan Yew a lot of the credit for creating modern China. Because a lot of those pragmatic communist leaders, they saw a bunch of Chinese that were rich when they were poor, and they said, ‘to hell with this!’ Remember the old communist said, ‘I don’t care whether the cat is black or white, I care whether he catches mice.’ And he wanted some of the success that Singapore got and he copied the playbook. So I think the communist leadership that copied Lee Kuan Yew was right, I think Lee Kuan Yew was right. And of course I have two busts of somebody else in my house. One is Benjamin Franklin, and the other is Lee Kuan Yew. So, that’s what I think of him.
Now you turn to India. And I would say, I’d rather work with a bunch of Chinese than I would the Indian civilization mired down, case system, over-population, assimilated the worst stupidities of the democratic system, which by the way Lee Kuan Yew avoided, it’s hard to get anything done in India. And the bribes are just awful. So all I can say is, it’s not going to be easy for India to follow the example of Lee Kuan Yew. I think that India will move ahead. But it is so defective as a get-ahead…the Indians I know are fabulous people. They’re just as talented as the Chinese, I’m speaking about the Indian populace. But the system and the poverty and the corruption and the crazy democratic thing where you let anybody who screams stop all progress? It mires India with problems that Lee Kuan Yew didn’t have. And I don’t think those Indian problems are always easy to fix. Let me give you an example. The Korean steel company, POSCO, invented a new way of creating steel out of lousy iron ore and lousy coal. And there’s some province in India that has lots of lousy iron ore and lot of lousy coal. Which is there’s not much use for. And this one process would take their lousy iron ore and the coal and make a lot of steel. And they got a lot of cheap labor. So POSCO and India were made for each other. And they made a deal with the province to get together and use the POSCO know how and the India lousy iron ore and lousy coal. And 8 or 9 or 10 years later with everybody screaming and objecting and farmers lying down in the road, or whatever’s going on, they canceled the whole thing. In China they would have just done it. Lee Kuan Yew would have done it in (Singapore). India is grossly defective because they’ve taken the worst aspects of our culture, allowing a whole bunch of idiots to scream and stop everything. And they copied it! And so they have taken the worst aspects of democracy and they forged their own chains and put them on themselves. And so no I do not like the prospects of India compared to the prospects of…and I don’t think India’s going to do as well as Lee Kuan Yew.
Question 28:What happened 1973 and 1974 when your investment firm lost over half?
Charlie: Oh, that’s very simple. That’s very easy. That’s a good lesson. That’s a good question. What happened is the value of my partnership where I was running, went down by 50% in one year. Now the market went down by 40% or something. It was a once in 30 year recession. I mean monopoly newspapers are selling at 3 or 4 times earnings. At the bottom tick, I was down from the peak, 50%. You’re right about that. That has happened to me 3 times in my Berkshire stock. so I regard it as part of manhood. If you’re going to be in this game for the long pull, which is the way to do it, you better be able to handle a 50% decline without fussing too much about it. And so my lesson to all of you is conduct your life so that you can handle the 50% decline with aplomb and grace. Don’t try to avoid it. (applause) It will come. In fact I would say if it doesn’t come, you’re not being aggressive enough.
Question 29: Regarding biases of human misjudgment. How do you evaluate, handle, and manage people, knowing they might exhibit and suffer from biases that you are not? And how have you and Mr. Buffett become such good judges of character and not just skills and abilities?
Charlie: Well I think partly we look smart because we pick such wonderful people to be our partners and our associates, even our employees. And that’s going on right here. Gerry Salzman is not normal. He looks normal, but he’s a damn freak. Gerry does things across 2 or 3 disciplines that are almost beyond human. And he’s always been that way. By the way he’s just another mid-westerner. He’s come out of the soil back there. So we’ve been very lucky to have his wonderful people. I wish…I’m not quite sure…I think one thing we’ve done that’s helped us to get wonderful people, I always say the best way to get a good spouse is to deserve one. And the best way to get a good partner is to be a good partner yourself. And I think Warren and I have both done good with that. But whatever the reason we’ve had these marvelous partners, and they make us look a lot better than we are. You wouldn’t even be here if Gerry Salzman weren’t here. We did not have a number two choice to run the Daily Journal. And by the way that happens to me all the time. We have an executive search or something. The difference between the number one and number two is like going off a cliff. And we really…we need one, but there aren’t three good ones to pick, where they’re all good and one’s a little better. Every executive search I’ve have, it seems there’s one guy whose fine and everybody else is a pigmy. I think good people are hard to find. And people like Warren and I have had wonderful people who we’ve worked with all our lives time after time. That’s one of the reasons Warren says he tap dances to work…you’d tap-dance too if you interfaced with people Warren interfaced with all day. They’re wonderful people and they win all the time instead of losing. Who doesn’t like winning in good company? If you can duplicate that, why you’ve got a great future. I think we were a little lucky. And I can’t give you any luck.
Question 30:We have a Chinese platform that focuses content on people trying to invest capital outside of China. They haven’t been able to invest (outside China) because of capital controls. But that day will come. Since they’re at least a half-century behind in terms of investing. What would be the first thing that you would tell the Chinese person who wants to invest in the U.S.? What should they do with their money when they’re making their initial investment outside.
Charlie: Well, you’ve made an assumption I don’t follow. If I were a Chinese person of vast intellect, talent, discipline, all the good qualities…I would invest in China, not the United States. I think the fruit is hanging lower there. And some of the companies are more entrenched. So I don’t agree with your proposition. I think they have a tendency to think, ‘we were backwards therefore when we get rich, we should go over and invest in America.’ I think it’s always a mistake to look for a pie in the sky when you’ve got a big piece of pie right in your lap. And so if I were…at current prices, I think an intelligent person would do better investing in China.
Question 31:You’ve said, everyone should spend 10-20% on some big ideas. What are one or two big ideas that you are talking about. Meaning, specialize, but spend time working on some big ideas.
Charlie: Well the big ideas, I think you should be intelligent in improving yourself. You’re way better to take on a really big important idea that comes up all the time than some little tiny idea that you might not face. I always tried to grab the really big ideas in every discipline. Because, why piddle around with the little ones and ignore the big ones. Just all the big ideas in every discipline are just very, very, very useful. Frequently, the problem in front of you is solvable if you reach outside the discipline you’re in and the idea is just over the fence. But if you’re trained to stay within the fence you just won’t find it. I’ve done that so much in my life it’s almost embarrassing. And it makes me seem arrogant because I will frequently reach into the other fellows discipline and come up with an idea he misses. And when I was young it caused me terrible problems. People hated me. And I probably shouldn’t have been as brash as I was. And I probably wouldn’t be as brash as I am now. I haven’t completed my self-improvement process. But, it’s so much fun to get the right idea a little outside your own profession. So if you’re capable of doing it, by all means learn to do it. Even if you just want to learn it defensively. I do not observe professional boundaries. My doctor constantly writes, PSA test, prostate specific antigen, and I just cross it out. And he says, ‘What the hell are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ And I say, ‘Well I don’t want to give you an opportunity to do something dumb. If I’ve got an unfixable cancer that’s growing fast in my prostate I’d like to find out 3 months in the future, not right now. And if I got one that’s growing slowly, I don’t want to encourage a doctor to do something dumb and intervene with it. So I just cross it out.’ Most people are not crossing out their doctor’s prescriptions, but I think I know better. I don’t know better about the complex treatments and so forth. But I know it’s unwise for me to have a PSA test. So I just cross it out. I’m always doing that kind of thing. And I recommend it to you when you get my age. Just go cross out that PSA test. Now the women I can’t help.
Question 32A:How would you invest in a money manager you like? Through a limited partnership, that would flow through the taxes, and the other way is through a corporation that would pay taxes on the gains and the dividends. So basically, the corporation would serve no other function though than paying taxes. So I think you’d be crazy to say that those two ways are equally desirable. (Charlie interjects)
Charlie: You’re certainly right about that. It’s plumb crazy, and it’s exactly the way people who buy Berkshire are investing. It’s plumb crazy to have a big common stock portfolio in a corporation and pay taxes compared to a partnership that doesn’t. And that’s just the way the Berkshire shareholders have invested and they have made, whatever it is, 25% a years since we were there. But you’re right, it’s not the logical way to do it.
Question 32B:So my question is, if you have to decide, to invest in pool A or pool B, how would you decide on what method you would use to figure out what discount would make you indifferent to whether you would invest in the corporate tax-paying structure when it flows to the… (Charlie interjects)
Charlie: I think it is totally asinine to invest in a portfolio of common stocks through a corporate taxed under the internal revenue code under sub chapter c or something. It’s totally asinine. At Berkshire, the public securities keep going down and down as a percentage of the total value, so it doesn’t matter, we’re getting to be sort of a normal corporation. But I don’t think anybody’s right mind should invest through a corporation in a puddle of securities. In fact the disadvantage is so horrible. And so, I wouldn’t even consider it. In other words…and I regard it as a minor miracle that we were able to get where we did. So of course you’d invest in a partnership.
Question 33C:So when anyone who invests in Berkshire has to decide the discount to put on a pool of securities that has a future tax lien on the gains…do you have any mental model for…
Charlie: Yeah, my model is to avoid it. We don’t want to invest in a portfolio of securities in somebody else’s corporation. You’re totally right. Which you already knew by the way.
Question 34: What’s your new findings of China? Also, what’s your take on Ray Dalio’s statement that the U.S. election could unleash a new animal spirit which could lead to a better U.S. economy? Do you buy this theory?
Charlie: Well, I’m not sure I understood that completely, but I’ll do my best. What I like about China is that they have some companies that are very strong and still selling at low prices. And the Chinese are formidable workers and they make wonderful employees. There’s a lot of strength in that system. And the Chinese government really tries to help its businesses, it is not behave like the government of India which I don’t think runs it’s country right at all. And so, that’s what I like about China. Or course I have to admire taking a billion and half people in a state of poverty up that fast. That was never done in the history of the world. And I admire the…you go to China and all the bullet trains go right to the heart of the city…what they’ve done is just an incredible achievement. And they’ve done it not by borrowing money from Europe the way we did when we came up. They have taken a poor nation with a lot of poverty and what they did is save half their income when they were poor and drive their nation way up with a lot of deferred gratification. So it was unbelievably admirable and unbelievably effective. So I admire that part of the Chinese picture. China has one problem. The problem with the Chinese people is they like to gamble and they actually believe in luck. Now that is stupid. What you don’t want to believe in is luck, you want to believe in odds. And China there’s some reason in the culture, too many people believe in luck and gamble. And that’s a national defect.
Question 35:If the world changes a lot in my lifetime, by the time I’m closer to your age, what do you think will not change about what makes a good successful business?
Charlie: What will not change is that it won’t be that damned easy. There will be lots of…people will die that you love. You’ll have close breaks where it goes against you. There’s a lot of trouble that’s sure to come. And at the end you’ll know that it’s all over, and that’s the game. It’s a very funny game when you know when you start you have to lose. See a dog doesn’t have to do that. We know from the start we can’t win. (Somebody) said the law of thermodynamics ought to be restated. You can’t win, you must lose and you can’t get out of the game. So we all face this ultimate difficultly. But once you’ve accepted the limitations, you’ve got the problem, how to get through your allot and expand reasonably well. And I don’t think that’s that hard to figure out. Because if you do pretty well, considering what you started with an so forth. And you stand at the end and you’ve done credibly, you’ve helped other people who needed help because you had the capacity and intelligence to do it, and so on, and so on. Set a reasonable example. It’s a pretty good thing to do and it’s quite interesting. And the difficulties make it interesting.
And something else happens that is really weird. We were talking about, in our director’s meeting that proceeded this meeting, you always get glitches in something as complicated as a new software program going into a big new area. And you suddenly have reverses and troubles and you’re scrambling. And what I said is, that I’ve noticed in a long lifetime that the people who really love you, are the people where you scramble together with difficulty and you’ve jointly gotten through. And in the end, those people will love you more than somebody whose just shared in an even prosperity through the whole thing. So this adversity that seems so awful when you’re scrambling through, actually is the sinew of your success, your affection, every other damn thing. And if you didn’t have the adversity you wouldn’t have the bonds which are so useful in life that are going to come from handling adversity well. The idea that life is a series of adversities and each one is an opportunity to behave well instead of badly is a very, very, good idea. And I certainly recommend it to everybody in the room. And it works so well in old age because you get so many adversities you can’t fix. So you better have some technique for welcoming those adversities.
Question 36:Do you believe that the 0,6, 25 high watermark fees structure that the Buffett Partnership popularized is the fairest structure for both limited partners and the manager themselves? And what fee structure did you employ during your partnership.
Charlie: Well, I did copy the Buffett formula more or less, and I do think it’s fair and I think it’s still fair. And I’m looking at Mohnish who still uses it. I think it is fair and I wish it was more common. I basically don’t like it where they’re just scraping it off the top. If you’re advising other people, you ought to be pretty rich pretty soon. Why would I take a lot of advice from somebody who couldn’t himself get pretty rich pretty soon? And if you’re pretty rich why shouldn’t you put your money alongside your investors? And go up and down with them. And if there’s a bad stretch, why should you scrape money off the top when they’re going down enough? So I like the Buffett system. But it’s like so many things I like, it’s not spreading very much. My net influence in the world, even Warren’s, has been pretty small. Imagine how much copying we have in our executive compensation methods. It’s about three examples. Yes, I think it’s a fine system.
Question 37A: You spoke earlier about natural gas and the shipping of natural gas, and that activity… (Charlie interjects)
Charlie: If I were running the world as a benign despot, I wouldn’t be shipping any natural gas outside of the United States.
Question 37B: So to tap into that view, you’ve been active in two states big in agriculture, Nebraska and California produce. What are your thoughts on the agriculture industry and subsidies?
Charlie: Well the interesting thing about agriculture is what’s happened in my lifetime. Which is the productivity of land has gone up about 300%. And if it weren’t for that there would be a lot of starvation on earth. The ag. system is one of the most interesting things that has happened in the last 60 or 70 years. And we literally tripled the (productivity) of the land. And we did it all over the world. And there was just a few people who did it, the Rockefellers, Borlaug, and so forth. It was one of the most remarkable things in the whole history of the earth and we need another doubling, and we’re probably going to get it. And it’s absolutely incredible how well we’ve done. And it’s amazing how efficient our farmers are. We don’t have much socialization in farming. We’ve got a bunch of people who own the farms and manage them themselves. There’s not much waste and stupidity in farming. Now people complain that we’re using up the top-soil, which I think we are, and I think that’s more of a mistake. I would fix that if I were a benign despot. Leaving aside using up the topsoil too fast, I think farming is one of the glories of civilization. So I think it’s been wonderful what’s happened in farming.
Now in terms of subsidies. It matters to the farmers where they get their subsidies. And there’s no question about the fact that we’ve protected our farmers with subsidies and the farmers we’re protecting are getting richer and richer because the farms are owned by fewer and fewer people. Own more and more acres per person. So it’s very peculiar that we’re subsidizing people who are already filthy rich, to use up our topsoil a little faster. And create stuff which we turn into ethanol. Which is one of the stupidest ideas the world ever…you know I’m a specialist in stupid ideas (links: 1,2), but I would say turning corn into gasoline is about stupid an idea. I would almost rather jump out of a 20 story building and think I could fly than turn corn into motor fuel. It’s really stupid. And yet that’s what our politics does. I’ve got no cure for the stupidity of politics. If I (did) the world it would be quite different. I think that’s pretty minor whether we have subsidies or not. The main thing that’s happening that has enabled the present population of the world to stay alive is this agricultural revolution and this very good managing of our farmlands. And the improving agricultural standards in the rest of the world. It’s gone on quietly that we’ve hardly noticed it. How many of you are just deeply aware of the fact that grain per acre has gone up by 3 or 4 hundred percent. That’s a huge stunt. And by the way, if you take those miracle seeds and don’t use hydrocarbons, the yields are lousy. We’re feeding ourselves because we know how to turn oil into food. That’s one of the reasons I want to hold onto the oil. Something that can be turned into food is quite basic. And so I don’t mind conserving the oil instead of producing every last drop as fast as one can. It’s odd that my idea hasn’t spread to more of people. I may have three or four other people who agree with me in this room. But you’re a bunch of admirers, and in the rest of the world, I’m all alone. (laughter)
Question 38:You’ve talked on emotions, discipline, and facing adversity. Can you flesh out more about the spiritual side of this. How you deal with the struggles and life.
Charlie: Well, just because you don’t have a specific theology, and I don’t…you know when I was a little kid and my grandfather sent me to Bible school and they told me there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? I was very young but I didn’t believe them. And I haven’t changed. It doesn’t mean I am not spiritual, it’s just, I don’t need a talking snake to make me behave well. And I would say that the idea that came down to me, partly through my family, was that rationality is a moral duty. If you’re capable of being reasonable, it’s a moral failure to be unreasonable when you have the capacity to be reasonable. I think that’s a hair-shirt that we should all take on, even if we’re pretty stupid. Because it’s good to be less stupid. So I think rationality is a moral duty. And we all have a duty to get better. And of course we also have to adjust to the other people who are going through our journey with. I think it would be crazy not to have a social safety net when you’re as rich and successful as we are. Now I don’t think it has to be as dumb as the one we have, but of course we need a solid social safety-net. And it’s a moral idea. So I’m all for morality…without the talking snakes.
Question 39:What are your thoughts on the MLP structure? And do you have any preliminary thoughts on the border adjustment tax?
Charlie: Let me take the last question first. We do not know what the boarder adjustment tax is. I don’t think the people proposing it know what it is. And I don’t think Trump and the Republicans in Congress have agreed on anything. So I think we’re just talking about…But do I think some deep revision of the tax system might be a really good idea? The answer is ‘yes’. Do I think we should rely on consumption tax more? The answer is ‘yes’. Do I really care if somebody piles up a lot of money and leaves it to some foundation. That’s not my idea of a big evil. If they do want to live high on their private airplanes and their three hundred dollar dinner checks, I’m all for taxing the people who are living high. So I like the idea of bigger consumption taxes. And I think there’s a lot to be said for a different kind of a tax structure.
Question 40:You highlighted this idea of ‘deferred gratification’ a lot today. In what areas of life is it most valuable? And where should you enjoy things now vs. grind away and invest in the future?
Charlie: Well, I don’t think you should use up your body by being stupid in handling it. And I don’t think you should be stupid in handling your money either. And I think there are a lot of things where the only way to win is to work a long time towards a goal that doesn’t come easily. Imagine becoming a doctor. That is a long grind. All those night shifts in the hospital and so and so on. It’s deferred gratification. But it’s a very honorable activity being a doctor. By and large our doctors are very nice people and they’ve been through a lot. I tend to admire the life of a doctor more than I admire the life of a derivatives trader. And I hope all of you do. And I think deferred gratification in the way our doctors behave is a very good thing for all the rest of us.
Question 41: Question about the circle of competence. How do you know its limits. And does it get redrawn from time to time. Does it always expand, or does it contract?
Charlie: Well of course you know some things that aren’t so, and of course if you’re dealing with a complex system, the rules of thumb that worked in the complex system in year 1 may not work in year 40. So in both cases it’s hard. The laws of physics you can count on, but the rules of thumb in a complex civilization changes as the civilization changes. And so you have to live with both kinds of uncertainty and you have to work longer. It’s not a bad thing. It’s interesting. We’re all the same here…who would want to live in a state of sameness, you might as well be dead.
End of Transcript
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