Thursday, September 13, 2007

Charlie Munger's Opening Note at Wesco 2007 Annual Meeting

The following is the opening remark from Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Chairman of Wesco, during the 2007 shareholder’s annual meeting of Wesco Financial. The notes are done by Whitney Tilson. Maybe our local media should feature more of such informative investing guidance and news rather than some other market participants who may seems successful because of the post they are holding or because they seems rich but then, personally, the principles fall extremely way short of the decent manner to sustainable and reasonable method of investing. Especially some of those participating market members who acts like salesman, peddling any issues or ideas as long as it could be sold, some corners of the media may feature and publish such members market forecast and they earn big bucks and thus qualify as so-called investors that maybe others should look upon for advice. Well, it's like a quote I shall borrow that I came across in the media: "It's like dropping an object and then claiming credit for gravity."

Note: Words in brackets are Whitney’s comments, edits or, when Whitney missed something, his best guess of what was said.


I note that this year we’re in a tent. It’s amazing that a tent can be made to work so well. It’s a tribute to our civilization. If our ancestors had been in a tent, it would not be like this one, with air conditioning and so forth.

It’s amazing that all you people come. You know, I didn’t set out in life to become the assistant leader of a cult. [Laughter] As they say, experience is what happens when you’re looking for something else.

It’s amazing that many of you come to this meeting after the Berkshire meeting for so many years. It’s like the person at the Catholic church who doesn’t want the catechism changed.

People are obviously here to some extent to leave a little wiser than when they came. It’s very hard to do this by merely hearing someone else talk. That’s why most teaching is vivid. For example, when they trained soldiers for World War II, they shot real bullets above them, which really taught them to hug the ground.

That’s why so many learn lessons the hard way, through terrible experience. Mark Twain once said that picking a cat by its tail yielded better learning that was available in any other fashion. But that’s a terrible way to learn things. Another comic thought man ought to learn vicariously: you shouldn’t have to try it to learn not to pee on an electrified fence. [Laughter]

It’s really hard to get ideas from one mind into another. That’s why learning institutions are so selective.

I want to do something I haven’t done before. I feel obligated because many of you came from such great distances, so I’ll talk about a question I’ve chosen, one that ought to interest you: Why were Warren Buffett and his creation, Berkshire Hathaway, so unusually successful? If that success in investment isn’t the best in the history of the investment world, it’s certainly in the top five. It’s a lollapalooza.

Why did one man, starting with nothing, no credit rating, end up with this ridiculous collection of assets: $120 billion of cash and marketable securities, all from $10 million when Warren took over, with about the same number of shares outstanding. It’s a very extreme result.

You’ll get some hints if you read Poor Charlie’s Almanack, which was created by my friend, Peter Kaufman, almost against my will – I let him crawl around my office when I wasn’t there. He said it would make a lot of money, so he put up $750,000 and promised that all profits above this would go to the Huntington Library [one of Munger'’ favorite charities]. Lo and behold, that’s happened. He got his money back, and the donee’s receiving a large profit. Some people are very peculiar, and we tend to collect them.

A confluence of factors in the same direction caused Warren’s success. It’s very unlikely that a lollapalooza effect can come from anything else. So let’s look at the factors that contributed to this result:

The first factor is the mental aptitude. Warren is seriously smart. On the other hand, he can’t beat all corners in chess blindfolded. He’s out-achieved his mental aptitude.

Then there’s the good effect caused by his doing this since he was 10 years old. It’s very hard to succeed until you take the first step in what you’re strongly interested in. There’s no substitute for strong interest and he got a very early start.

This is really crucial: Warren is one of the best learning machines on this earth. The turtles who outrun the hares are learning machines. If you stop learning in this world, the world rushes by you. Warren was lucky that he could still learn effectively and build his skills, even after he reached retirement age. Warren’s investing skills have markedly increased since he turned 65. Having watched the whole process with Warren, I can report that if he had stopped with what he knew at earlier points, the record would be a pale shadow of what it is.

The work has been heavily concentrated in one mind. Sure, others have had input, but Berkshire enormously reflects the contributions of one great single mind. It’s hard to think of great success by committees in the investment world – or in physics. Many people miss this. Look at John Wooden, the greatest basketball coach ever: his record improved later in life when he got a great idea: be less egalitarian. Of 12 players on his team, the bottom five didn’t play – they were just sparring partners. Instead, he concentrated experience in his top players. That happened at Berkshire – there was concentrated experience and playing time.

This is not how we normally live: in a democracy, everyone takes turns. But if you really want a lot of wisdom, it’s better to concentrate decisions and process in one person.

It’s no accident that Singapore has a much better record, given where it started, than the United States. There, power was concentrated in one enormously talented person, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the Warren Buffett of Singapore.

Lots of people are very, very smart in terms of passing tests and making rapid calculations, but they just make one asinine decision after another because they have terrible streaks of nuttiness. Like Nietzsche once said: “The man had a lame leg and he’s proud of it.” If you have a defect you try to increase, you’re on your way to the shallows. Envy, huge self-pity, extreme ideology, intense loyalty to a particular identity – you’ve just taken your brain and started to pound on it with a hammer. You’ll find that Warren is very objective.

All human beings work better when they get what psychologists call reinforcement. If you get constant rewards, even if you’re Warren Buffett, you’ll respond – and few things give more rewards than being a great investor. The money comes in, people look up to you and maybe some even envy you. And if you buy a while lot of operating businesses and they win a lot of admiration, there’s a lot of reinforcement. Learn from this and find out how to prosper by reinforcing the people who are close to you. If you want to be happy in marriage, try to improve yourself as a spouse, not change your spouse. Warren has known this from an early age and it’s helped him a lot.

Alfred North Whitehead pointed out that civilization itself progressed rapidly in terms of GDP per capita when mankind invented the method of invention. This is very insightful. When mankind got good at learning, it progressed in the same way individuals do. The main thing at institutions of learning is to teach students the method of learning, but they don’t do a good job. Instead, they spoon feed students and teach them to do well on tests. In contrast, those who are genuine learners can go into a new field and outperform incumbents, at least on some occasions. I don’t recommend this, however. The ordinary result is failure. Yet, at least three times in my life, I’ve gone into some new field and succeeded.

Mozart is a good example of a life ruined by nuttiness. His achievement wasn’t diminished – he may well have had the best innate musical talent ever – but from that start, he was pretty miserable. He overspent his income his entire life – that will make your miserable. (This room is filled with the opposite [i.e., frugal people].) He was consumed with envy and jealousy of other people who were treated better than he felt they deserved, and he was filled with self-pity. Nothing could be stupider. Even if your child is dying of cancer, it’s not OK to feel self-pity. In general, it’s totally nonproductive to get the idea that the world is unfair. [Roman emperor] Marcus Aurelius had the notion that every tough stretch is an opportunity – to learn, to display manhood, you name it. To him, it was as natural as breathing to have tough stretches. Warren doesn’t spend any time on self-pity, envy, etc.

As for revenge, it’s totally insane. It’s ok to clobber someone to prevent them from hurting you or to set an example, but otherwise – well, look at the Middle East. It reminds me of the joke about Irish Alzheimer’s: when you’ve forgotten everything but the grudges.

So this is the lesson for you to draw on – and I think almost anybody can draw those lessons from Warren’s achievement at Berkshire. The interesting thing is you could go to the top business schools and none are studying and teaching what Warren has done. There’s nothing nutty in the hard sciences, but if you get into the soft sciences and the liberal arts, there’s a lot of nuttiness, even in things like economics. Nutty people pick people like themselves to be fellow professors. It gets back to what Alfred North Whitehead talked about: the fatal unconnectedness of academic disciplines. When people are trying to recruit people to be PhDs in their subjects – the results are often poor.

On the other hand, if you have enough sense to become a mental adult yourself, you can run rings around people smarter than you. Just pick up key ideas from all the disciplines, not just a few, and you’re immensely wiser than they are. This is not a great social advantage, however, as I can tell you from experience of the early Charlie Munger. To meet a great expert in a field and regard him as a malformed child is not a winning social grace. I got a lot of hard knocks when I was young. You could say I was forced into investing. The world will not ordinarily reward you for correcting other people in their area of expertise.

Accounting is a noble profession. It came out of Northern Italy, Venice, spread, and became part of standard accounting textbooks. The people who carry the torch in accounting are in a noble profession, yet these people also gave us Enron. You could have walked into an insane asylum, which was better than Enron, and yet accountants blessed it. So there are defects. I talked to a leading person in the accounting field and said it didn’t make sense to let companies mark weird stuff to their own models – that it would lead to disaster. She looked at me like I was out of my mind and asked, “Aren’t you for the most current data in accounting? My system is more current and therefore should be better.” This mind would score highly on an IQ test, but is scarcely able to throw out the garbage.

There are two factors in interplay a) you need currency and b) you need to set up a system in which it’s not easy for human beings to cheat or delude themselves, despite the presence of incentives to do so. If you can’t perfectly weigh the relative importance of these two things in contrast, you’re a horse’s patoot and not qualified to set accounting standards.

If you go into the liberal arts, you’ll find that education isn’t as good as it should be. I wish I had two or three more lives to live, one of which I could devote to fixing colleges. There is much that is good, but much that is utterly awful and only slightly improved in the 65 years since I left it.

You could say that the dysfunction of others has been an advantage to me. That’s the way it is. That’s really why you’re all here. You all want to get more than you deserve out of life by being rational – who doesn’t?

Also, an enormous pleasure in life is to be rightly trusted. One of my kids was a computer nerd and his school gave him access to the entire school computer system. He was exultant by the extreme trust. If your friends are asking you to raise their children if they die, you’re doing something right. It’s wonderful to be trusted. Some think if we just had more compliance checks and process, virtue would be maximized. At Berkshire, we have subnormal process. We try to operate in a web of seamless trust, deserved trust, and try to be careful whom we let in. They act like this at the Mayo Clinic. Imagine if they didn’t. Most patients would die.

Well, I’ve fulfilled as much as I have a stomach for in making some unscripted comments.

1 comment:


Interesting notes on annual meeting.