Sunday, May 06, 2007

2007 Woodstock for capitalism

May 5, 2007, a crowd of 28,000 packed the Qwest Center, of which roughly 24,000 were repeated audience from last May. All were there on that Saturday morning, as early as 6am, waiting for the long-awaited annual festivity and meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, chaired by Warren E. Buffett and Charle T. Munger. For serious investors who flocked to Omaha, this is the Woodstock for capitalism – an opportunity to pick up a few invaluable investment and life lessons.

Buffett on young investors
Given the number of youthful shareholders running around the exhibit hall, Matt Koppenheffer, a writer from Motley Fool, asked Buffett for his thoughts on what young investors should do with their money. Warren started by cautioning that even though youngsters need to learn good financial habits early on, not all of them should be getting involved in investing, even if they do have a keen interest in stocks – just as he did at an early age. He suggested it’s just as important that young people understand, for example, that “credit cards can cost you a lot of money,” and he said he’s currently working on a cartoon series with DiC Entertainment Chief Executive Andy Heyward that will be aimed at educating the young on good financial habits.

On private equity
An audience, noting that private-equity managers are chasing all kinds of deals – some of questionable quality – and using a lot of leverage, asked Buffett what he thought could burst this bubble and what will happen when it does pop.

Buffett quipped that the scenario presented in the question nearly brought him to tears and pointed out that Berkshire has to compete with many of these firms to secure the large acquisitions that it wants to get done, making it harder to close large purchases that can move the company’s needle. But he added that the private-equity phenomenon really doesn’t lend itself to the bubble-bursting analogy. Because the money is tied up for long periods of time and there’s no easy scorecard with which to check in on the value of the acquisitions, he said, it could take quite a while before investors become disillusioned with the private-equity industry.

Buffett, though, does seem to think that disillusionment will eventually come and that the money spigot will get twisted at least a couple of turns downward. He also pointed out that spreads on junk bonds versus high-grade bonds are very low (low junk-bond yield), and if that spread widens, it will likely slow down the rate of private-equity activity we see now.

Although private-equity increases the competition for marketable securities, Berkshire doesn’t participate in auctions of businesses, thus, it is able to avoid some of the competition from private-equity firms. To Berkshire, he added, this is consistent with Berkshire’s stated efforts to find long-term business partners, which is in stark contrast to the current “flipping” of businesses by some private-equity funds these days.

On investing overseas
Another shareholder wanted to address Berkshire’s overseas investing record. This speaker argued there are plenty of great stocks and businesses outside the U.S. and that they can be had for a discount versus what a similar business would cost here.

To illustrate that he doesn’t have anything against investing internationally, Buffett began his reply by saying he bought his first overseas stock 50 years ago. He then said that while the company hasn’t marketed itself as an acquirer in other nations as much as it has here in the U.S., that approach is evolving.

Berkshire, of course, recently acquitted Israel’s Iscar. And in terms of publicly-traded stocks, Buffett pointed out that his company does own shares of overseas companies. He specifically pointed out POSCO (NYSE:PKX), a South Korean steelmaker, though PetroChina (NYSE:PTR), the stock that’s has been causing Berkshire some concent in regard to the Sudan situation lately, is another example. Buffett also added Berkshire owns a good deal of overseas stocks that it isn’t required to disclose. As always with his holdings, Buffett prefers not to show his cards unless required to do so.

On manager’s compensation
Private equity is one of the key hot-button issues relating to the market lately, and CEO pay is certainly another. Not too long ago, there was a furor surrounding how much compensation was being given to the now-departed chief executive of Home Depot (NYSE:HD) – interestingly enough, a Berkshire holding.

It’s easy enough to guess that Buffett, who pays himself all of $100,000 per year – with no stock options to boost that figure – is opposed to the egregious packages that many CEOs take home. He began his answer, though, by saying that whether you’re talking about Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), Coca Cola (NYSE:KO), or American Express (NYSE:AXP) – again, all Berkshire holdings – the most important thing is making sure you have the right person running the business.

Of all the boards Buffett sits on, he was elected to the compensation committee of just one, and he says that company subsequently regretted its decision, Regarding how companies pick their compensation committees, he quipped, “they’re looking for Cocker Spaniels with their tails wagging, not Dobermans. I try to pretend that I’m a Cocker Spaniel just to get on the board,” but they uncovered him.

Riffing further on executive compensation and benefits, Buffett reiterated Berkshire’s policy of compensating people based on what they actually do and what they have control over. Here he specifically cited oil companies and the rising price of their products. Although a high oil price may give a profit boost to the likes of Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) or BP, Buffett contends that shouldn’t necessarily translate into a bigger bonus for the executives at those companies, since it was not their actions that led to the higher oil price.

On corporate jets
One shareholder cited a study that said that companies with corporate jets under-perform by 4%. Munger, in his usual wit, replied: “I want to report that we are solidly in favor of private jets.” Berkshire owns NetJets, a company that allows customers to own time-share lots in private jets. Buffett, joking that Munger used to take the bus to travel, and then only when there was a senior-citizen discount available, said he has since persuaded Munger to buy a NetJets share.

On the credit markets
A question came up over how well Berkshire would deal with a serious tightening of credit – a timely topic, given how loose credit has been in recent years. Buffett pointed out that the Federal Reserve itself was created as a result of huge credit contractions and is designed to control major swings in the credit market. He seems to believe that the only way a major credit tightening would happen is if it were by design – and most authorities, he said, are not too keen to step on the brakes. Munger added that if a huge adverse credit event unfolded, there would probably be legislation introduced to mitigate the effects.

In terms of Berkshire, both Buffett and Munger pointed out that they have been able to make serious money when the credit markets have gone bonkers. Buffett went as far as to say that “we benefit when others suffer to some extent.”

Buffett also brought up the example of Long-Term Capital Management, the hedge fund that lost billions in 1998. He said there were lots of people with seriously high IQs on Wall Street who were doing some very silly things that helped that situation unfold. He then cited the famous Mark Twain quote that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” and said he believes we’ll eventually encounter another situation that “rhymes” with 1998.

On shorting
Working through a question regarding issues with Wall Street firms and stock deliveries, Buffett strongly emphasized that he has nothing against shorting stocks. He said he’d be happy if someone shorted Berkshire’s stock, since, as he put it, the one sure buyer of a stock is a guy who shorted it. He added that he’d also be fine if someone decided to naked short Berkshire stock.

Continuing, Buffett specifically called out the example of Wallboard manufacturer, USG (NYSE:USG). When the company hit really hard times, a major Wall Street firm came to Berkshire and asked to borrow millions of shares. Berkshire was paid interest while the shares were borrowed. “I wish they had borrowed more,” Warren quipped and added, “Those guys didn’t do too well shorting USG at $4, either.”

On gambling
Gambling stocks have seen some nice returns over the past year, whether you’re talking about MGM (NYSE:MGM), Wynn (Nasdaq:WYNN), or Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS). One shareholder asked if the dynamic duo whether gambling would continue to be a good business.

Buffett figured the industry will have a great future as long as gambling continues to be legal. He said the human desire to gamble is huge and cited how much more exciting a football game, even a boring one, can become just by betting a few dollars on it. Therefore, he believes, the easier it is for people to gamble, the better the gambling industry will do.

As for his personal feelings on the industry, Buffett calls gambling a “tax of ignorance,” with the “ignorant” defined as people who continue to put their money on the line when the odds are against them.

Munger followed up: “It’s a dirty business, and you won’t soon find a casino in Berkshire Hathaway.”

On being a better investor
A 17-year-old shareholder who has been to 10 straight Berkshire annual meetings asked what he should do to become a better investor.

Not surprisingly, Buffett went straight to the books. That is, he told the teen to read everything related to investing that he could get his hands on. Buffett said he was still young when he had already read every book – some of them multiple times – in the Nebraska public library having to do with investing. He didn’t quote names, but it’s hard to go wrong with classics such as “The Intelligent Investor”, Peter Lynch’s “One Up on Wall Street”, or John Bogle’s “Common Sense on Mutual Funds.” This will help fill your mind with competing ideas and viewpoints. He went on to say to “think about what makes sense over time.”

Buffett cautioned, though, that the difference between investing on paper and investing with real money is like the difference between reading a romance novel and, as he put it delicately, “doing something else.” “There’s nothing like having a little experience in investing,” he said. Once you’ve done that, you can decide whether, Buffett said, “it turns you on.”

He gave a not-so-surprising suggestion to always look a stock in terms of the whole company. So for example, if you’re thinking about buying General Motors (NYSE:GM) at $30 per share, he said, you should consider whether you think the entire company is really worth $18 billion. To paint a clearer picture, GM is valued at $18 billion for the whole business and it lost $2 billion in 2006 and make only $62 in 1Q07. Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) is valued at $187 billion and earned $11 billion in 2006. Thinking in this way will give a better understanding of the opportunities and the risk of a particular investment.

There was an unspoken lesson in this answer. Like the famous Michael Jordan “Be like Mike” advertisement campaign, though Buffett wouldn’t say it himself, but the advice the Oracle gave the teen Berkshire investor could easily be summed up in three words: “Be like Warren.”

Current investment advice
Munger said: “It’s not a time to swing for the fences.”

In a brief interview earlier with CNN, Buffett remained bullish about the stock market, even amid DOW 13,000 and its best win streak in 80 years.

“To get 5.4% of gains per year, the Dow will have to end this century at 2 million. So you better get used to announcing the little milestones,” he said.

He was also upbeat about the resilience of consumer spending despite gas prices that are approaching record highs. “Gasoline, here, of course is still very cheap compared to costs around the world,” he noted. “We can overcome an awful lot of things that seem like temporary problems in this country.”

But Buffett had a decidedly different view about the housing market. He said too many homes were bought by people carrying mortgages with little or no money down who then hoped to flip them quickly for a profit. “The housing market is sick and it’s going to stay sick for a couple of years” he opined.

Avoid the big mistakes
A shareholder asked about some of the keys to his success. Buffett said that part of his success was due to avoiding some of the big mistakes. This is consistent with the margin of safety concept developed by Ben Graham. He said the principles he learned from Ben early in his life were vital, as he has been constantly applying them over the last 50 years.

How to understand risk
Another shareholder asked about how to measure the risk of an investment. Buffett said that risk is best mitigated by understanding the economics of the business you are considering investing in, as this helps an investor avoid a permanent loss of capital. He added that using volatility through a calculation of beta has been accepted by many investors because it’s a somewhat simple mathematical formula, but in his view, it’s an incorrect way to measure the risk of a potential investment.

How to handle inflation
A shareholder asked how to protect oneself and Berkshire against the risks of inflation. Buffett said: “The best protection against inflation is your own earning power.” This means that if you are in a profession that is in demand with decent pricing power, you’ll be better able to weather the risks of inflation than some of your counterparts in lower-earning professions. As for Berkshire, he said, “the second best way is owning a wonderful business.” He went on to say that by “a wonderful business,” he means one with low capital requirements and flexible pricing, as this would allow the business to raise prices in an inflationary environment.

Munger’s advice
On life advice, he said, “it would be very hard for you to fail if you stay faithful to what you set out to do.”

On opportunity cost, he quipped, “in the real world, your opportunity costs are what you want to make your decisions on.”

On margin of safety, he said, “margin of safety is getting more in value that you are paying.”

Views on the Dollar
A shareholder asked Buffett about his views on the potential for further weakening of the U.S. dollar. Buffett said that given the current economic course of the country, he still thinks the dollar could weaken further. He also added that he prefers to take positions in companies with foreign earnings rather than taking direct currency positions against the dollar. That said, he also noted that his view on the dollar is not the driving factor behind his investment decisions, but rather one of many.

Buffett on railroads
“What was a terrible business 30 years ago is a better business now,” Buffett said. But “it will never be a sensational business.”

He called railroads a “very capital-intensive” business, but said there “isn’t a whole lot of new capacity” and “it could be a lot better business than in the past.”

Buffett on sub-prime mortgage
Buffett told shareholders that he thinks the sub-prime mortgage meltdown is a problem for the companies involved, but it is unlikely to spill into the overall economy.

He quipped, “I think that’s dumb lending and it’s dumb borrowing.”

But he said as long as unemployment and interest rates don’t rise considerably, it should not cause widespread problems.

He noted securitization of the loans has made the problem worst. Sub-prime loans are often packaged up and sold on again to investors as mortgage-backed securities. He said, “Once you package those things and sell them through major investment banks, discipline leaves the system.” Sub-prime borrowers have been missing their first and second monthly payments recently and he said, “that shouldn’t happen.”

1 comment:

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