Charlie Munger: Full Transcript of Daily Journal Annual Meeting 2018

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;

  1. Time stamps, each linked to its corresponding recording location.
  2. 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)

4:33 “Pontification” Begins

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?

9:00

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.

12:26

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)

16:55

(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.

21:00

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.

23:58

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.

27:23

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.

34:56 Q&A Begins

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.

36:49

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.

37:53

Questions 3: When I reflect on where I am here in my 30’s I often think about the multiple tuck-ins you were done with when you were my age, in Pasadena, shouldering your multiple griefs alone.  In contrast to that, could 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)

40:56

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.

45:15

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.

46:33

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.

48:26

Question 8: Your thoughts on the valuation of software companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba.  Are they over-valued, potentially under-valued, too early to tell?

Charlie: Well my answer is I don’t know. (laughter)  Next question. (laughter)

49:04

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)

52:50

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)

53:46

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)

1:00:13

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.

1:02:37

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.

1:07:15

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.

1:09:13

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)

1:11:47

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.

1:13:13

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)

1:17:24

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.

1:19:02

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.

1:19:49

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.

1:21:05

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.

1:23:40

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.

1:25:32

Question 23: Good morning Mr. Buffett…Mr. Munger.

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.

1:28:07

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.

1:31:50

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.

1:34:04

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.

1:35:30

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.

1:36:54

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.

1:39:16

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.

1:43:08

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)

1:46:02

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).

1:47:46

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.

1:51:11

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.

 1:52:51

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.

1:55:19

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.

1:58:38

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.

2:01:05

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.

2:04:30

Question 38: What are the qualities you look for in a life partner?

Charlie: In a life partner?  Well I’ve been quoted on that.  I think what you really need in a life-partner, if you’re constructed the way I am, is somebody with low expectations.

2:05:23

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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Investment Lessons from a Master Sushi Chef

The best investment book I read this year didn’t come from a Wall Street whiz or hot shot finance professor, rather it came from Jiro Ono, a Master Sushi Chef. Yes, “the Jiro”, the one from the acclaimed documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”

While in Japan this past September I picked up his book titled “Jiro Philophosy” and was quite surprised. Unlike most investment books, Jiro doesn’t talk about investing at all. In fact, it isn’t even an investment book. Rather Jiro Philosophy simply describes Jiro’s personal work-ethic.

2016-12-17-19-25-01As I read this book, I quickly came to realize just how closely Jiro’s philosophy mirrors that of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and Ben Graham. It was quite surprising to see that the same principles which lead to mastery in Sushi can also lead to mastery in investing.

As a result, I have distilled the book “Jiro Philosophy” down to its 12 core principles and relate each one to the investment philosophy of Buffett, Munger, and Graham.

1. Stick to the fundamentals. Stay grounded.

Jiro

If you stray from the fundamentals – say, trying to set yourself apart from other chefs – you will completely stray off track.  I believe that by adhering to the fundamentals and continuously striving to create delicious flavors, you will be able to be innovative.”

“If you continue to do things the right way, it’s a given that your sushi will turn out delicious.” 

Investing

stick-to-the-fundamentalsMarket manias and bubbles all have two things in common;  an abandonment of fundamental investment principles and an endless series of rationalizations.

Ben Graham understood the immense rationalization power of markets very well.  He experienced it first hand during the lead up to the great depression.  It was his understanding that as markets move higher, investors don’t become more reserved, but rather they invent knew valuation metrics to justify paying any price whatsoever.  As been Graham observed, “We can find no evidence that…investors as a class have sold their holdings because PE ratios were too high.”

Consequently, Ben Graham developed an immutable investment philosophy based on strict fundamental analysis to keep investors from “completely straying off track”.  And much like Jiro Ono, investors who have stuck to Ben Graham’s fundamentals of investing have delivered “delicious” results.

With this, I’m reminded of Lou Manheim ‘s advice to Bud Fox in the movie Wall Street, “Stick to the fundamentals…good things, sometimes take time.”

2. Gain Mastery.

Jiro

“You’ve got to master some skills to reach the next stage.”

“You won’t advance to the next level all on your own.  You need to train properly up to a certain point.  In the case of Jiro, after a decade of training, a craftsman will have mastered everything from preparation to making sushi.  He will be ready to strike out on his own.”

Investing

Warren Buffett pursued and achieved mastery over Ben Graham’s investment philosophy before advancing to the next level.  Warren’s path to mastery took on the following steps:

  • Discovered Ben Graham’s book “The Intelligent Investor” at the age of 19.
  • Read Graham’s 700+ page book, Securities Analysis, at least 12 times.  
  • Attended Columbia so that he could study under Ben Graham.
  • Worked for Ben Graham at his investment fund.
  • Invested using Ben Graham’s investment principles at the Buffett Partnership.

3. Put Knowledge into Practice.

Jiro

“People will teach you new things and ideas, but if you don’t try them out you will not change.”

“No matter how good the teaching, unless you actually put it into practice, you won’t be able to progress.  You will only have the knowledge.  People passionate about their work are always trying to improve upon what they’ve made.  It’s enjoyable and rewarding.”

“Because of this, we can keep trying new things every day.”

Investing

Throughout his life, Warren Buffett has shown an amazing willingness and ability to put knowledge into practice.   This includes applying the teachings of Ben Graham as well as the four hour educational interview he had with GEICO executive Lorimar Davidson in 1950.

Much of Warren’s success simply boils down to seeking out the best knowledge and putting it into practice.  Warren recommends you do the same thing:

“You need to fill your mind with various competing thoughts and decide which make sense. Then you have to jump in the water – take a small amount of money and do it yourself. Investing on paper is like reading a romance novel vs. doing something else. You’ll soon find out whether you like it. The earlier you start, the better.”

4. Improve upon what you’re taught.  Otherwise you will always be an apprentice.

Jiro

“Just doing as you’re taught is the same as being an apprentice.  I tell my young apprentices that they should think about how to achieve good flavor on their own, improve it and then experiment.  I always tell them if they don’t, they will be apprentices for life.”

Investing

Although Warren Buffett began his career as Ben Graham’s apprentice, he did not simply stick to his teaching.  Rather he modified and improved upon Graham’s teachings over time.  As Charlie Munger describes it:

“If we’d stayed with the classic Graham, the way Ben Graham did it, we would never have had the record we have. And that’s because Graham wasn’t trying to do what we did.”

5. Practice Beginner’s Mind. (Shoshin)

Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind“. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. (Wikipedia)

Jiro

screen-shot-12-17-16-at-07-37-pm“That said, once they’ve become independent they should still pursue improvement just like an apprentice.

“Feeling you can still evolve is important.”

Investing

Both Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are enthusiastic learners who enjoy the process.  In fact, Charlie has said that he and Buffett are “dissatisfied with what they know.”  As a result, they are always seeking to learn, adapt, and evolve.

Charlie further explains the importance of this mindset,

“Warren Buffett has become one hell of a lot better investor since the day I met him, and so have I. If we had been frozen at any given stage, with the knowledge we had, the record would have been much worse than it is. So the game is to keep learning, and I don’t think people are going to keep learning who don’t like the learning process.”

6. The way you do the small things reflects how you do the big things.

Jiro

Through Jiro’s Philosophy, he stresses the importance of the small things.  From cleanliness, to hot towels, to the preparation process, rice, etc.  All the smallest details are given the greatest care.  The way you do the small things reflects how you do the big things.

Investing

Likewise, Buffett has a keen eye for detail as displayed by the following two stories:

Story 1:

Buffett also liked Cathy’s attention to detail.  “When I asked her on the phone how many employees she had, she replied ‘504.’  I love this,” said Buffett.  “Not ‘about 500.’ I think she has 505 now and is doing considerably more business.  She won’t be happy until she has 100 percent market share.”  (From the book “The Women of Berkshire Hathaway: Lessons from Warren Buffett’s Female CEOs”)

Story 2:

The following is an excerpt from the Q&A session at the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting:

Warren Buffett: Yes, sloppy thinking in one area probably indicates there may well be sloppy thinking elsewhere. I have been a director of 19 public corporations. I’ve seen some very sloppy operations and I’ve seen a few really outstanding business operators, and there’s a huge difference. If you have a wonderful business, you can get away with being sloppy. We could be wasting a billion Dollars a year, at Berkshire, you know $640m after tax, that would be four percent of earnings, and maybe you wouldn’t notice it….

Charlie Munger: I would.

Warren Buffett: Charlie would notice it… It’s the really prosperous companies that well….the classic case were the tobacco companies many years ago. They went off into this thing and that thing, and it was practically play money because it was so easy to make. It didn’t require good management, and they took advantage of that fact. You can read about some of that in ‘Barbarians of the Gate’.

7. Listen to good advice.

Jiro

“I take customers’ advice when it makes sense.”

“Even when you think you are right often that’s not the case.  No matter what kind of business you are in, if you only work in an inflexible way, you won’t find success.”

“If (a customer’s advice) makes sense, I will adopt it, otherwise I will never evolve.”

Investing

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have exhibited an open mind and willingness to listen to good advice throughout their careers.  In fact, if it weren’t for some timely advice they might not have bought See’s Candies.  As Charlie Munger recounts,

“[Munger’s friend] Ira Marshall said you guys are crazy — there are some things you should pay up for, like quality businesses and people. You are underestimating quality. We listened to the criticism and changed our mind. This is a good lesson for anyone: the ability to take criticism constructively and learn from it. If you take the indirect lessons we learned from See’s, you could say Berkshire was built on constructive criticism.

8. Preserve your main asset…You.

Jiro

screen-shot-12-17-16-at-07-50-pmIn his 40’s, Jiro recognized that his most critical asset as a Sushi Chef was the sensitivity in his finger tips.  As a result, he began wearing gloves in order to preserve the long-term integrity of his hands.  

This might seem like a mildly trivial matter, but for anybody looking to achieve and maintain success in their profession, follow Jiro’s example: Identify the physical or mental attribute that is necessary for success in your field and take measures to preserve it.

Investing

Warren Buffett identifies the most important trait of an investor as “emotional stability”.  As Warren explains,

“To be a successful investor, you don’t need to understand higher math or law. It’s simple, but not easy. You do have to have an emotional stability that will take you through almost anything. If you have 150 IQ, sell 30 points to someone else. You need to be smart, but not a genius. What’s most important is inner peace; you have to be able to think for yourself. It’s not a complicated game.”

Similar to Jiro’s practice of wearing gloves to protect his hands, here are some routines and strategies which Buffett uses to maintain emotional stability, inner peace, and independent thought.

  • An alert and fresh mind: 
    • Warren gets good sleep and takes naps when necessary
    • He plays bridge many hours every week.
  • A temperament uncorrupted by outside influences:
    • He Lives in Omaha
    • Maintains a Clear Schedule
    • Keeps a quiet office where he can think.
  • Health:
    • “My diet, though far from standard, is somewhat better than usually portrayed. I have a wonderful doctor who nudges me in your direction every time I see him. All in all, I’ve enjoyed remarkably good health — largely because of genes, of course — but also, I think, because I enjoy life so much every day.”

Furthermore, Warren explains the importance of preserving and enhancing yourself through life:

“Imagine that you had a car and that was the only car you’d have for your entire lifetime. Of course, you’d care for it well, changing the oil more frequently than necessary, driving carefully, etc. Now, consider that you only have one mind and one body. Prepare them for life, care for them. You can enhance your mind over time. A person’s main asset is themselves, so preserve and enhance yourself.”

9. Be a craftsman. Pursue work to satisfaction.

Jiro

“Pursuing work to satisfaction is the pride of a craftsman.  No matter how time consuming, I will leave no task to others.  I will do them all myself until satisfied.  Even as I get older, I still do all the work, even if it’s bothersome.  I feel very pleased when I develop and create something from a new idea of my own.”

Investing

Likewise, Buffett takes pleasure in doing all the investment analysis himself.  He does not have a team of analysts working for him.

10. Be passionate about what you do.

Jiro

“People who love their work passionately want to continue working.  I’m no exception.  Although I’m 90 years old, I’d like to keep on going.  That’s why I don’t find investing time in my work troublesome.”

Investing

At 86 years old, Buffett still tap-dances to work.  He derives great enjoyment from researching different companies.  He compares it to researching different species of animals.

11. Adapt to changing circumstances.

Jiro

screen-shot-12-17-16-at-07-41-pm“Since all sushi toppings are changing, sushi craftsman must now factor this in when working out flavors.”

“The oceans are quickly changing.  For example, the season for katsuo (skipjack tuna) now starts six months later.  But we have to serve the best of what’s in season.  Fish and shellfish were tastier in the past and it is difficult to find their intense flavors.  The next generation of sushi chefs will face challenges in trying to find ways to bring out and enhance fish flavors.”

Investing

Likewise, in investing you cannot wish for something which doesn’t exist.  You must play the hand that you’re dealt.

When Warren Buffett started investing, he could find net-net investments everywhere.  But the investment ocean quickly changed and he had to adapt to the circumstances.  Over the years, Buffett has invested in a broad range of investment classes including, bonds, common equity, preferred stock, warrants, options, commodities, and special situations.  He doesn’t wish for something that doesn’t exist, rather he adapts himself to whatever asset is on sale below his intrinsic value.

At the same time, Warren will never abandon his core principles and rationalize new investments.  During the “Nifty 50” stock market, he declared that he couldn’t find any cheap stocks and refused to invest.  Later Buffett refused to invest in tech stocks during the tech boom of the 90’s.  In each case Warren has been rewarded for his patience and sticking to the fundamentals.

This leads to a crucial point.  Although you must adapt to changing environments, you must also remember to stay true to the fundamentals.  As it says in rule number 1, “If you stray from the fundamentals…you will completely stray off track.”

So remember: Adapt, but do not abandon.

12. It’s never too early to prepare

Jiro

“It’s never too early to prepare.  You can start preparation way in advance.”

Jiro began working at a local restaurant from the age of seven.

Investing

Likewise, Warren Buffett recalls his youthful experience: “By the age of 10, I’d read every book in the Omaha public library about investing, some twice.”

Furthermore, Buffett said he read the 10Ks of IBM for fifty years before ultimately making an investment in the company.  That’s fifty years of “preparation.”

Jiro Philosophy: Distilled

jiro-philosophy

Haiku Review: Deep Value by Tobias Carlisle

Inspired by a recent trip to Japan, here are my 7 main insights distilled from Deep Value by Tobias Carlisle, in Haiku form.  Arigatou gozaimasu.

Japanese Painting

1. Risk: “A Bundle of Twigs Cannot Easily Be Broken”

Stocks perceived risky,

Find resilience when bundled.

Have fewer down years.

2. Return: Buy the “Ugliest of the Ugly”

Deep Value defies

Investment Intuition.

Ugly is Better.

3. Trust in Mean Reversion & Avoid Naive Extrapolation

Trust Mean Reversion.

Naive Extrapolation

Ignores the Base Rate.

4. Expand Your Time Horizon

Seeking to avoid

Short-term underperformance,

They’re captured by it.

5. Behavioral Biases: Your Intuition is Killing You

Three Crude Heuristics,

Lead us to poor decisions.

What feels right is wrong.

6. Use a Statistical Approach: Focus on Simple & Effective Techniques

Ben Graham’s approach:

Stick to a few Techniques and

Simple Principles.

7. Stay out of the Way: Overconfidence Leads to Reduced Performance

Our judgment misleads,

We find broken legs abound.

Stay out of the way.

number 7 japanese

Deep Value’s 7 Main Takeaways

Deep Value by Tobias Carlisle reads somewhat like an investment version of “Mom’s” classic question, “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?”  Wall Street is filled with people jumping off cliffs and the people who follow.  The question is, why would so many people consistently invest in a way that’s bad for their well-being?  The answer lies largely within the errors of our intuition.  Carlisle warns that, often times, “the incorrect decision feels right, while the correct decision feels wrong.”

If our investment intuition is so often wrong, then the first step to becoming a better investor should be to recognize that we are naturally wired to jump off investing cliffs.  The next step involves giving counter-intuitive ideas a chance.   After all, as Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is to keep trying the same thing while expecting a different result.”  Insanity in this case, is relying on our intuition to help us make wise investment decisions.deep-value-tobias-carlisle-6

Consequently, we can view Deep Value as a sort of counter-intuitive survival guide to overcoming our self-destructive investment tendencies.  (aka “How to stop jumping off of cliffs”)

Next to here you will find the summary of my seven main takeaways from Deep Value.  Please feel free to print it out and re-read these points whenever your intuition tries to lead you off a cliff.

Risk:” A Bundle of Twigs Cannot Easily Be Broken”

Within traditional finance, risk is commonly defined as “the currency by which we pay for returns”.  Meaning that if we want higher returns, we must bear greater risk.  This intuitively makes sense if the markets are efficient.  But Deep Value discredits this intuitive assumption.

Throughout the book, Carlisle focuses on two groups of stocks that exist at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  Value Stocks and Glamour Stocks.  Value stocks are considered risky investments.  They are typified as companies that you wouldn’t want to own.  They are often down and out companies that exist in unfavorable industries and have poor prospects.  Meanwhile, glamour stocks are considered safe investments.  These are companies that generally have high returns on capital, seemingly endless growth prospects, exist in favorable industries, and are widely admired. (i.e. companies you’d love to own)

On an individual basis, value stocks are indeed the riskier prospect.  Value Stocks, as defined here as net-nets, lose 90% or more in a single year 5% of the time, versus only 2% of the time for all stocks.

But the nature of value stocks changes dramatically when they are bundled together.  In fact, they have fewer down years than the market.  In a study, net-net stocks only had 3 down years in 26 versus 6 down years for the market.

This investment phenomena mirrors a quote by Tecumseh, Native American leader of the Shawnee.  He said, “A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong.”  A value stock by itself is like a twig that easily breaks, but finds strength when bundled together.

twig-analogy

Return: Buy the “Ugliest of the Ugly”

If value stocks have less risk than glamour stocks, then traditional finance states that they should have lower returns.  But yet again, Carlisle proves this notion to be wrong.  In fact, he shows that value stocks generate superior returns to their riskier glamour stock counterparts.

Deep Value presents many studies which show that returns for value stocks are significantly greater than glamour stocks.  But perhaps most surprising is Carlisle’s case that the ugliest stocks provide the best returns.  The nature of this counter-intuitive element is steeped in Behavioral Finance.  Everyone in their pursuit of safety, shun companies that look risky, which creates bargains.

The ugliest of the ugly phenomena extends to countries as well.  The countries with the poorest recent performance outperform countries with the best recent performance.

solitude-poemThis investment bias towards glamour and value stocks is perfectly capture by a poem I encountered by Ella Wheeler Wilcox titled Solitude.  In it she wrote, “Be glad, and your friends are many; Be sad, and you lose them all”.

Furthermore, this poem explains why value investing is a successful strategy.  The very nature of investing in value stocks is contrarian because you’re willing to do what very few will.  Value Investors immerse themselves in grief, woe, gall, fasting, and pain.  As a result of these counter-intuitive actions, value investors  get counter-intuitive returns.

Put another way, value investors get pleasurable returns for hanging around companies in sorrow.  While typical investors get sorrowful returns for hanging around companies in pleasure.

Trust in Mean Reversion & Avoid Naive Extrapolation

Deep Value contrasts two starkly different predictive assumptions about the future.  The most commonly used assumption is naive extrapolation, whereby the past performance of a company is extrapolated out into the future.  The less commonly used assumption is mean reversion, whereby a company’s financial performance will  eventually revert towards the mean.

Carlisle demonstrates that, of the two methods, investors should rely on mean reversion.  The importance of mean reversion should not be understated.  Ben Graham identified mean reversion as the phenomenon that leads value strategies to beat the market.   Furthermore, Carlisle writes, “An appreciation of mean reversion is critical to value investment.”

Mean Reversion is built upon a fundamental economic truth that;

  1. Competition naturally eats away at high returns over time. “In most cases competition and other corrective forces work on the highly profitable business to push its return back to the mean.”
  2. Low returns will more often than not, revert towards the mean. “Stocks with big market price losses and historically declining earnings tend to see their earnings grow faster, and outperform the market.”

On the other hand, naive extrapolation makes the assumption that past results will generally continue undeterred into the future.  While this appears to be mathematically sounds, it ignores the “Base Rate”.  The Base Rate  shows that this simplifying assumption is not true for most companies.

As a results, predictions using naive extrapolation often disappoint, while predictions using mean reversion are the more likely outcome.  The chart below provides a good visualization of these two methods at work.

mean-reversion2

Mean reversion appears to have an element of Biblical faith to it.  It reminds me of a Bible Verse, Hebrews 11:1, which says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  Likewise, value investors have confidence in what they hope for (anticipating mean reversion in both fundamentals and valuation) and assurances (base rate, invisible hand) about what they do not see.  Whereas most investors mistakenly invest based on what they see (historical figures), but shouldn’t expect (naive extrapolation).

Expand Your Time Horizon

To be a value investor, you must expand your time horizon.  Mean reversion often takes time.  In fact it can take 3-5 years, during which time, you may experience years of poor performance.  Most investors don’t have this kind of patience.  Wall Street generally isn’t kind to short-term underperformance.

Consequently, many fund managers will chase short-term performance at the expense of long-term success.  Quarter on Quarter and Year on Year is their focus.  But as Carlisle writes, “by attempting to avoid short-term underperformance, they are captured by it.”

Behavioral Biases: Your Intuition is Killing You

Behavioral Bias is really a dual sided topic.  First, you must understand the various Behavioral Biases which contribute to your poor investment decisions.  Secondly, you must recognize that even after understanding these biases, it remains difficult to overcome them.

Carlisle writes,

“Kahneman and Tversky found that we make decision about uncertain future events based on three heuristics…Each leads us to make poor decisions about uncertain events because it leads us to consider irrelevant evidence, and in so doing diverts us from considering the underlying probabilities about the events.”

The three biases as identified by Tversky & Kahneman are:

  1. Anchoring & Adjusting: Causes us to stick with our first impression, even when evidence arrives that conflicts with our view.
  2. Representativeness: We use stereotypes to make simplifying assumptions.
  3. Availability: Only consider things that are quickly brought to mind.

It has been shown that people still fall victim to these three biases despite working to prevent them.

“No matter how well trained we are, humans tend to have difficulty with probabilistic, uncertain, and random process.  Confronted with problems requiring an intuitive grasp of the odds in an unfamiliar context, even the best investors and behavioral finance experts flounder.  If mere awareness that our judgment is clouded by our nature does little to correct the errors we make, how then can we protect against them?

So then, what can we do about it?

Use a Statistical Approach: Focus on Simple & Effective Techniques

Carlisle offers a solution to this behavioral bias dilemma: Remove yourself from the equation.

You can accomplish this by using a statistical based approach.  Ben Graham found that the best investment approach is one that follows simple and effective techniques.

Tobias covers three value investing formulas in Deep Value which follow simple and effective techniques.  They are:

  1. Net-Nets by Ben Graham (http://www.libertyinvesting.com/benjamin-grahams-checklist/)
  2. The Magic Formula by Joel Greenblatt (www.magicformulainvesting.com)
  3. The Acquirer’s Multiple by Tobias Carlisle (http://acquirersmultiple.com/)

Net-Nets are excellent when you find them, but they are heavily exploited, illiquid, and there’s a limited opportunity set.  Meaning that you can’t grow the strategy beyond a certain size.

The Magic Formula attempted to derive Buffett’s investment strategy down into two elements, and has had great results.

  1. Quality of Business: ROIC = EBIT/(net working capital + net fixed assets).
  2. Attractive Price: Earnings Yield/Enterprise Value

The Acquirer’s Multiple, developed by Carlisle, is an evolution of the Magic Formula.  Carlisle finds that the Quality of Business element in the formula only serves to detract from overall returns.  He finds that the formula can simply be boiled down to “Attractive Price”, as defined as (Enterprise Value/Operating Earnings).

Stay Out of the Way

After Choosing your statistical approach, you may be tempted to alter the results using your subjective judgment, but this should be avoided.

self-reflexivity-2Carlisle demonstrates that the returns of the model are a ceiling from which we detract.  Not a base from which we add.  The reason being twofold:

  1. We are largely over-confident in our abilities.
  2. We find more broken legs than there really are.

In a sense, we want to de-correlate our thinking from that of the markets.  But when we introduce our subjective judgment, we begin using more intuition and thereby increase our correlation with the market.  Thus reducing returns.

Summary

The Deep Value strategy can be summarized in four steps:

  1. Create a simple & effective statistical model using counter-intuitive value investing insights, including mean-reversion.
  2. Remember, you are investing based on an expected group outcome, so don’t over-concentrate your portfolio in any one stock.
  3. Expand your time horizon to 3-5+ years.
  4. Recognize your limitations, and, for the most part, stay out of the way.

Despite many findings that demonstrate the soundness and relatively safe nature of a value portfolio, investment professionals largely shun value stocks.  The reason for their reluctance is largely centered around self-preservation.

Managers must defend their investments to clients who are usually emotional, impatient, and unsophisticated.  So if a manager invests in a group of poor companies which are undervalued, he’ll likely have to answer to his clients who see those investments as risky and imprudent.  Especially if there’s any prolonged period of underperformance.

On the other hand, it is much easier for a manager to appear prudent by simply investing in a portfolio of slightly overvalued glamour stocks that look safe.  Since the portfolio looks safe, clients will sleep well at night under the belief that the manager is acting prudently.  The manager too will sleep well because he has less stress and greater job security.  So be aware, appearances of prudence can be deceiving.

I recently came across an interview with Walter Schloss, the late great value investor, who gave an example of such a dilemma that he faced;

People have certain emotions, and they wanted to not lose money.  So we didn’t tell people what we owned, and one guy said, ‘You know Walter, I can’t stand it not knowing what we own.’  He was an old man, so I said, ‘Well we own some bankrupt bonds of the Pennsylvania Railroad.’  Which  actually turned out very well later, and he said, ‘I can’t be in your partnership knowing that, it makes me too upset.’  So he withdrew.  So people act emotionally, and if they know what you own, then they look at it and say, ‘Oh I don’t like that stock.’  Then they call you on the phone and say, ‘Well why do you own it?’  I don’t want to hear people complaining.  They trusted me with their money, and that’s what a lot of hedge funds do, they don’t disclose what they own.”

Distilled: The Education of a Value Investor by Guy Spier

Distilled Series Introduction:

Welcome to the Distilled series where I’ll take some of the most influential and powerful books and concentrate their core ideas down to their most essential points.

The first book in this series proved to be quite influential on my life in 2015.  For that reason, I’m excited to present The Education of a Value Investor by Guy Spier, Distilled.

Distilled: The Education of a Value Investor

The Education of a Value Investor Distilled Virtuous Cycle & Tilt the Playing Field:

The following section expands on the ten core elements.  When reading, keep in mind that although these core elements are listed as discrete and definable concepts, they are not entirely independent of each other.

Each element interacts with the others in the form of a virtuous cycle.  Meaning that when you make a positive change in one point, it will positively influence another point, which may then positively influence another point, and so on through the whole system.

Additionally, Guy emphasizes the importance of doing things that tilting the playing field in your advantage.  Like a casino, you only need to have an imperceptibly small advantage.  But given that enough ‘bets’ are places over time, you will come out far ahead.  These ten points capture the general process Guy used to tilt the playing field in his advantage.

Expanded: The Education of a Value Investor

  1. Commit Yourself Completely

Guy doesn’t embrace ideas with half measures.  He has shown that whether it came to both his academic and financial pursuits early in his life, or a Value Investing career later in life, he takes things to the nth degree.

“Life can change in a heartbeat.” A goal that seems impossible can become entirely possible if we’re willing to commit every ounce of energy to it.

This is certainly one of his main strengths.  Few possess the capacity to commit themselves so completely to an idea or a pursuit.  We should strive to do the same.  For as W.H. Murray wonderfully stated;

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one defiantly commits oneself, the providence moves too.”

  1. Imagine Your Future

This point was only briefly referenced, but it’s certainly a critical element to both his re-education process and pursuit of an investing career.

I’ve often found that we have to imagine our future before it can happen

  1. Brainwash Successful Habits

Guy talks favorably about brainwashing  successful habits.  Specifically he talks about needing to re-wire himself after his brief career at D.H. Blair.

This re-wiring process, by way of brainwashing successful habits, can aid the switch from a life dictated by an external scorecard to one defined by an internal scorecard.  Guy calls these positive habit changing techniques a powerful tool in reconfiguring our consciousness.

“When your consciousness or mental attitude shifts, remarkable things begin to happen.”

  1. Create the Right Environment & Network

Guy talks extensively about the importance of the Right Environment & Network.  Your environment has a massive influence on you, and the importance to set up a positive environment cannot be stressed enough. This includes arranging your work space, choosing the city where you live and work, and the people you associate with.

In fact, he left New York to go to Switzerland where his environment would be more insync with his personality, personal limitations, and career.

Our environment is much stronger than our intellect. Remarkably few investors-either amateur or professional-truly understand this critical point.

Guy says “Nothing, nothing at all, matters as much as bringing the right people into your life.”  Specifically, he espouses the benefits of being involved in a Mastermind group.  Seemingly all influential people participate in one.  Benjamin Franklin had “the Junto”, Warren Buffett has “the Graham Group”, and Guy Spier has “the Latticework Club”.

More generally, he writes how critical it is to get into the orbit influential people and other like-minded, motivated, and giving people.

It’s really a question of choosing to have certain people in your life (however tangentially) who embody the values you admire… creating the right environment or network helps to tilt the playing field subtly in the right direction so that you can become far more likely to succeed.  Advantages are often created imperceptible step by imperceptible step, so it makes a difference to enter the universe of a firm like Ruane Cunniff.

Furthermore, he stresses the value being a giver, as well as the need to surround yourself with people who are givers and matchers, while weeding out the “takers”.

  1. What Would Buffett Do?

Tony Robbins calls this process “modeling”.  A related process is known as “Matching and Mirroring”.  Guy said that sitting down at his desk and actively imagining what Warren Buffett would do if he were him was one of the biggest elements which helped him get unstuck early in his Value Investing journey.

“Desperate to figure out how to lead a life more like his, I began constantly to ask myself one simple question: “What would Warren Buffett do if he were in my shoes?…The minute I started mirroring Buffett, my life changed.  It was as if I had turned in to a different frequency.  My behavior shifted, and I was no longer stuck.

He suggests using matching and mirroring to bring mentors into your life which you may not have immediate access to.  You can do this by imagining them in as much detail as possible, even down to how they’d breath, walk, and act.  This involves gaining a detailed understanding of them.

Choose teachers that have come to learn the truths that you still need to learn. “If you apply this lesson, I’m certain that you will have a much better life, even if you ignore everything else I write.”

  1. Play the Value “Lottery”

Guy really prescribes a lot of value to this concept.   He has described how most people misattribute his success, preferring to believe that it came from the elements like the fact that he went to Harvard & Oxford.  Instead, Guy prescribes a large portion of his success to playing the Value “Lottery”.  Guy describes this process as;

Doing something with an uncertain but potentially high upside. The payoff may be infrequent, but sometimes they’re huge.  And the more often I pick up these lottery tickets, the more likely I am to hit the jackpot.  Doing this will subtly tilt the playing field in your advantage.

The payoff follows an exponential path.  At the beginning, it looks like you are accruing no value, but in the long run, you experience large benefits.  He says that you often have to do these things for 5 to 10 years before you start to see the true benefits from them.

“Over a lifetime, a myriad of simple actions like these can accumulate to create big reputational and relationship advantages. It’s not about luck.  It’s about working harder to get these things right so that it becomes more likely that something good will happen.”

The value lottery generally involves taking small actions which will benefit you on the margins.  By far his favorite way to play the value lottery is through writing thank you notes.   Guy started this program over a decade ago where he forced himself to write three thank you notes a day, five days per week.   He now estimates that he’s written over 30,000 thank you notes in his life.

Every letter I wrote was an invitation for serendipity to strike. To many people, it might seem like a waste of time.  But I couldn’t win the lottery without a ticket, and these tickets were almost free.  In a sense, this is a value investing approach to life: pick up something cheap that may one day prove to be precious.”

For more on this topic, you can also listen an interview with The Investor’s Podcast and a talk at Google where he elaborates further.

  1. Take the Inner Journey: Be Authentic & Use an Inner Scorecard

It’s like that Guy focuses on this concept the most.  It’s a critical concept if you hope to be a successful investor.  He attributes temperament to being the main reason for his investing success.  Likewise, Warren Buffett says that investing is 90% temperament, and that if you had an IQ of 160, you can sell 30 of your IQ points because you don’t need them.

One of my favorite quotes of the book falls under this section of the book.  It explains the need for investors to undertake this inner-transformation quite elegantly:

The goal is to become more self-aware, strip away your facades, and listen to the interior.  For an investor, the benefits are immeasurable because this self-knowledge helps us to become stronger internally and to be better equipped to deal with adversity when it inevitably comes.  The stock market has an uncanny way of finding us out, of exposing weaknesses as diverse as arrogance, jealousy, fear, anger, self-doubt, greed, dishonesty, and the need for social approval.  To achieve sustainable success, we need to confront our vulnerabilities, whatever they may be.  Otherwise, we are building our success on a fragile structure that is ultimately liable to fall down.

Guy states that it’s not only important to becoming a good investor, it’s reward is something greater.

But the real reward of this inner transformation is not just enduring investment success.  It’s the gift of becoming the best person we can be.  That, surely, is the ultimate prize.

  1. Know your limitations & work around them

The element of knowing your limitations comes from both an understanding of ones self, as well as a general acceptance of the short-comings of the human mind.  Only then can an investor structure a process to work around these flaws.

“The real challenge, in my view, is that the brain itself-which got us to where we are-is the weakest link. It’s like a little boat, adrift in a sea of irrationality and subject to unexpected storms.

Specifically, this involves creating the right environment where you can think rationally and developing an investment process using checklists that can help you avoid making classic (subconscious) mental mistakes.

The goal isn’t to be smarter. It’s to construct an environment in which my brain isn’t subjected to quite such an extreme barrage of distractions and disturbing forces that can exacerbate my irrationality.  For me, this has been a life-changing idea.

  1. Pursue Practical Knowledge

Guy learned about many sophisticated economic and financial models during his time at Harvard and Oxford, but he found them to be totally inadequate at explaining how the real world works.  Beyond entertaining people at dinner parties, they were essentially useless.

“The trouble is, economic theories like these tend to be based on intellectually elegant assumptions about how the world operates, not on the messy reality in which we actually live.”

Instead, his “Second MBA” focused on pursuing practical knowledge that explained how the world actually works.  This concept was likely formed out of Charlie Munger’s concept of a Latticework of Mental models.  Charlie states that this kind of education isn’t rewarded in the academic world, but is invaluable when it comes to investing.

“For a while, these books (Think and Grow Rich, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Tony Robbins) became my life instruction manuals.  I wasn’t reading them to sound intelligent at dinner parties; I was mining them for useful ideas to implement in my life.  They provided me with critical first steps in my education as a value investor and businessman, exposing me to a more practical way of thinking about human nature and how the world really works.”

  1. Just Do It.

Guy only briefly talks about this topic, but it was a key element to his success.  Continually throughout the book, Guy opted to take action rather than “pontificate in the library”.  This is an important lesson for for anyone else who struggles with perfectionistic tendencies and/or procrastination habits.

“Robbins hammered into my head the idea that, if you want to get somewhere, anywhere, and you’re stuck, “Just Do It! Just make a move. Any move!” This might be obvious to many.  Hell, it was obvious to me.  But my bias toward analysis-paralysis meant that it was easier for me to pontificate in a library than to act.  Robbins convinced me that I had to break the patterns of negative thought, push through my fears, and get moving.”

Reviewed: The Education of a Value Investor

The Omaha Effect:

On May 2nd, 2015, I attended my first Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder’s Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.  I happily flew 1,300 miles and committed 4 days of my time and money for this moment.  Why would I do this?  Simple.  I read The Education of a Value Investor by Guy Spier.

The Education of a Value Investor by Guy Spier

My admiration for Warren Buffett stretches back to the mid-nineties, where Berkshire Hathaway’s lofty share price first caught my attention and imagination.  And yet, even after two decades of admiration for Buffett, I never foresaw attending the Berkshire Annual Meeting.  That changed after I read The Education of a Value Investor.

This book caught my imagination, much like BRKA’s share price in the mid 90’s.  As a result, I  began to change the way I thought and acted.  This included my attitude towards attending the Annual Meeting.  It was no longer an intriguing idea, but rather a necessity.

In this matter, I was not alone.  While in Omaha, I attended the Yellow BRKers meeting at the DoubleTree hotel.  In his book, Guy affectionately writes about Yellow BRKers and the influence of this endorsement was immediate felt.  Alex Bossert, the host of the event, stated that 2015 was Yellow BRKers largest crowd to date.  He went on to directly link Guy Spier’s book as the likely cause.

Upon talking with Yellow BRKer attendees, I found that there was a general air of reverence surrounding The Education of a Value Investor.  He had obviously struck a cord.  I even encountered several people who, like myself, after reading Guy’s book, were inspired to attend the Annual Meeting for the first time.

It’s not often that you find a book that influences people in this way.  Here in Omaha I’d found a group of people that were inspired enough to act on the the advice and insights they’d read.  This group of value investing enthusiasts and professionals were the best endorsement a book could receive.

This year, I will be returning to Omaha to attend the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting for the second time, and it all started with reading the Education of a Value Investor.

Honesty, Influence, and “the Value Investing Life”:

How then does a book make such a big influence on so many people?  Likely in the same way that both Tony Robbins and Warren Buffett managed to influence Guy Spier so effectively.  Honesty.  Guy embraced the teachings and values of both of these men because they were honest and authentic.  Now, Guy has managed to resonated with his readers by following the same path.

Accordingly, the book addresses the importance of taking the “inner journey”.  About playing by an inner scorecard and being authentic.  But these elements aren’t simply about how to live a better life.  Instead, they are essential for anyone wishing to become a successful investor.  That’s because you cannot hope to outperform the market if you live your life defined and dictated by external forces.  You must first make an internal change, and only then are you prepared to be a successful investor.

Warren Buffett Insights:

Guy provides unique insights into the investing genius and life of Warren Buffett.  He was able to accomplish this because he approached Warren with great reverence.  He paid close attention to even the smallest details and mined Warren’s life for the elements of success which he could then mirror in his own.

As a results, reading this book will introduce the reader to insights which most people tend to overlook.

The Second MBA:

Guy’s journey to becoming a value investor was not a linear path.  Instead, he spent his youth and early career pursuing prestigious academic degrees, a prestigious wall street job, and the success that goes along with them.  His life only started to change after he experienced something of a career existential crisis.

Upon finishing his Harvard MBA  he began working for D.H. Blair, an investment bank which he later discovered was a morally compromising environment (akin to the infamous Stratton Oakmont).  Up until that point, he had been living his life dictated by an “external scorecard”.  For that reason, he lamented that he wasn’t able bring himself to leave his compromising employer as soon as he should have.  After 18 months, he quite his job and began what he referred to as his “Second MBA” (aka “The Education of a Value Investor”).