With Berkshire Hathawayís annual meeting showcasing in a few weeks, I thought it would be instructive to hear what was on Berkshire Vice-Chairman Charlie Mungerís mind these days. Munger is also chairman of the Daily Journal Corporation (ticker: DJCO), a legal publisher based in Los Angeles, and their annual meeting was held on 3/25/2015. As a shareholder, I just dropped in to see what condition their edition was in.
These notes, while detailed, are far from a transcript. Errors are mine.
Thatís probably the best question anybodyís ever asked at this meeting. It involves the entire future of the company. You set a record for doing the right thing.
Whatís happened, of course, is that we have a business where the technology and the culture is changing. A lot of the revenues, historically, came from giving lawyers the only practical way they had of getting information. That gave us a monopoly for years and years where we raised subscription prices, and circulation kept going up and up. We had a traditional print newspaper, which was a wonderful business. Then that monopoly went away, as lawyers more and more rely on electronic means for that information.
The other branch of revenue from the traditional business was public notice advertising, where the laws require being published in the newspaper. Of course, those laws were all passed before there was any Internet. Eventually public notice advertising would go the way of the dodos. We had a business on the way to extinction.
A lot of newspapers have faced that problem. A lot have died. A lot more will die, and a lot are limping along. Here, we decided, in what may not have been a terribly good decision at the time, to try and replace our newspaper business by selling software to courts and other government agencies.
That was about like a guy who decided he wanted to climb Half Dome in Yosemite Park, despite of the fact he only had one arm and one leg.
We tried it anyway. Luckily, we had a great boom in foreclosure notices, which gave us a temporary flood of revenue. We used that position to develop this software business, partly by purchase, and partly by self-development. It was a very odds-against-us thing. Thereís a name for a certain kind of rock climbing Ė 5/11 Ė that means itís not really possible, but occasionally somebody does it Ė and thatís what we tried to do here. For some strange reason weíre about halfway up Half Dome with our one arm and one leg.
It looks better today than itís ever looked. I would say the difference in our prospects between this time last year and now is enormously improved.
Now, itís a game where weíre going to continue to spend a lot of money, and weíre going to be very conservative about the accounting, and weíre going to write off everything we possibly can as we go, etc. But Iíd say it has some prospect of working.
It was really, as Iíve said again and again, a venture capital-type activity, which I hate and isnít why I made my way in life. Itís a really difficult honest way to make a living. It wasnít like shooting fish in a barrel, which is what I prefer. My idea of shooting fish in a barrel, by the way, is to drain the barrel first.
Itís really easy, then you shoot, preferably with a big shotgun. This is not what this company has done. But it looks like we may actually do it.
If weíre successful itís a much bigger market than the legal newspaper market, which had no way of transferring from state to state except by buying some other local paper. This software business, if it works, will spread over the whole country, and we have a lot of business now spread over the whole country.
Itís cost us a lot of money. Itís cost us a lot of effort. It will cost us a lot of effort in the future, but I would say the momentum is gaining.
You people who came in as value investors, youíve got something else. Youíve got a damn venture capital type investment.
I donít want to apologize because Iím sharing the same outcome myself, and it looks like it may work. If it does work, itíll be a long, slow grind, but it could be a way bigger business than the print business ever was.
We have now crossed the line. We have more software revenues now than we have from our traditional business.
The fact that itís costing us a lot of money does not bother me at all. I think a lot like Jeff Bezos [AMZN] on that.
I said to the directors, ďThereís no point in being rich if you donít use it to compete effectively.Ē
I regard it as a total fluke. It isnít what Iíve done in life. You can argue that Berkshire Hathaway [BRK-A] has created a business from scratch once: the reinsurance department. Itís worth a fortune, and is something that weíve done personally.
If we succeed, itís not only good for the shareholders, itís good for the world. This whole system the government uses is very inefficient, and needs a lot of automation. The software is very complicated, and the service is complicated. One of the reasons the opportunity was available was it is very hard going. People like Microsoft hate this kind of business. Itís too hard. They have their own way of shooting fish in a barrel.
I kind of like it if itís so hard, because if you win itíll be pretty hard to take away.
I didnít know anything about relativity until Einstein taught me. I wasnít smart enough to figure it out for myself.
Of course, we look for disconfirming evidence. One of the directors said very simply, we should make a list of everything that irritates a customer, and then we should eliminate those defects one by one. Of course, thatís the way to compete in a service business. It involves continued fanaticism.
One of the reasons we bought the little company in Logan, Utah, [New Dawn Technologies] is that we liked the service and ethos of the place, and their recruitment methods. Of course, our past accountants, damn their souls Ė
Ė just went crazy when we did that. It looked to them like weíd gone stark raving mad. How could it be worth anything? It just bothered them, and they raised hell with us for months and months, and it made our reports late. I feel very good about that acquisition today.
Itís a miracle, because we should have failed, but Iím not at all sure we will. Of course, we learn from evolution. Youíre seeing a perfect example of Darwin: youíre watching one business die, while somebody tries to replace it with another. Almost everybody else in the newspaper business thatís tried to do that has failed. Some of them bought other businesses, like television stations, with the profits they had, but most of the people who just tried to take their newspaper and transform it into something else, most of them have failed.
Thatís the common result. Iíve heard Bill Gates say that in technology thatís often the case. Here was Kodak [KODK] that owned the world in silver-based photography. It was the dominant company in the world, the second most important trademark in the world. Armies of Ph.D. chemists, who knew more about silver-based photography than anybody in the world. Fabulous business right through the Great Depression. Total widow and orphan stock. It wiped out the shareholder with technological change. As Bill Gates said, it happens again, and again, and again, when technology changes enough.
General Motors [GM] was the most important automobile company in the world when I was young. It wiped out its shareholders. How do you start from being the most important automobile company in the whole world, and number two is not close, and wiping out your shareholders? Thatís very Darwinian. Itís tough out there. Some businesses are dying all the time and new ones come up.
Technological change is one of the hardest things to cope with, which is why so many people fail at it. IBM [IBM], on the other hand, went from butchersí scales and what not to totally dominate the early computer market. Of course when the other evolutions came along IBM has failed a lot. Itís normal to fail when thereís a big technological change. Itís hard to adapt to a world thatís different.
Whatís really weird about it, look at the age of these people up here [DJCO's Board of Directors]. We have the oldest board of directors in the history of the world. The youngest one is 60.
The Chairman [Munger] is 91. Should we be climbing Half Dome with one arm and one leg?
But Iím telling you we are. And I donít understand computing.
I never like the pomposity of the old system, where the board of directors was absolutely permanent and did as it pleased. But whatís happened is what usually happens to me. I like the new system even less.
I donít think itís a great thing for a civilization where the people who are getting richest are a bunch of people who buy a block of shares and howl for change that helps the shareholders no matter what.
I didnít think the old system was perfect, either, but it canít be a great way to run a civilization. Carl Icahnís a very able man, but he should not be running the world.
I have watched some of the smarted people in the world try to improve primary education, and itís proved amazingly resistant to improvement.
Iíve watched universities struggle. I would say in the liberal arts thereís a lot of craziness, and I donít know exactly why.
Thereís a lot of envy. You have a lot of very bright people who arenít paid very well. Their main power is to give some student an A or a C.
Something makes the liberal arts professors, on average, a little crazy by my standards. I like them, and I probably prefer they marry into the family than people from a lot of other professions, but thereís a lot of crazy alienation in the liberal arts professors in the modern world.
I think education is very hard to fix. I think the technical education keeps getting better and better. They keep driving people harder and harder. I think thatís one of the glories of the world. I think the other education is getting better, too, but itís got some very irritating defects.
I have the kind of mind that when I want to read something I can tune everything else out. The people arenít even present. In fact, I frequently sit in a room and converse with dead people while the living people around me are irritated, so I donít think you should try my methods. Itís a miracle they work for me.
I will say this: I know no wise person who doesnít read a lot. I suspect that you can read on the computer now and get a lot of benefit out of it, but I doubt that itíll work as well as reading print worked for me.
I think people who multitask pay a huge price. They think theyíre being extra productive, and I think when you multitask so much you donít have time to think about anything deeply, you are giving the world an advantage you shouldnít do, and practically everybody is drifting into that mistake.
Concentrating hard on something thatís important, I canít succeed at all without doing it. I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span.
Of course, Iím so old I remember coffee at five cents, and all-you-can-eat cafeterias at 25 cents, and brand new automobiles for $600. Over a span of many decades you can count on democracy to cause the money to deteriorate. That will continue because of human nature. It may even accelerate eventually.
Considering the experiences in places like Italy and Argentina and Brazil, I have been pleasantly surprised after the many bouts of inflation we went through. I anticipated more trouble than we actually had.
In my lifetime, over the past 50 years, the common stock averages (including their dividends) produced about 10 percent per annum pre-tax. I donít know what percent of that is real gain, and how much is inflation. Letís say itís seven percent real gain and three percent inflation. I work out those figures as unbelievably good.
Somebody my age has lived through the best and easiest period that ever happened in the history of the world, with the lowest death rates, the highest investment production, the biggest increases per annum that most peopleís standard of living ever got. The net death rate from war, from everything is better. is right. Itís the most fabulous period that ever happened.
If youíre unhappy with what youíve had over the last 50 years, you have an unfortunate misappraisal of life. Itís as good as it gets, and itís very likely to get worse. Itís always wise to be prepared for it getting worse. Favorable surprises are easy to handle. Itís the unfavorable surprises that cause the trouble.
In terms of monetary authorities, you can count on the purchasing power of money to go down over time. You can almost count on the fact that youíll have way more trouble in the next 50 years than we had in the last. The technology is changing, so that a few nutcases could make the World Trade Center look like a picnic. We should all be prepared to adjust to a world that is harder.
Thatís an example of what Iím talking about. If youíre going to have free trade and better communication, more efficient container ships and so forth, and thereís all this new competition from very talented people whoíve been held down by stupid governmental systems and Malthusian traps and theyíre suddenly unleashed, of course that competition hurts the people who formerly were in the privileged position. It isnít because the Federal Reserve didnít do something right, or the politicians are unfair, or the rich people are mistreating the poor. The world has changed. Unless youíre going to do away with free trade and modern technology and the liberation of these people who were working in penury on agriculture, of course thatís going to hurt the prospects of hard working people with limited education, and it has. Itís very hard to fix.
The people are still going, ďAll you have to do is tinker with the politics and you can fix it.Ē Thatís what they tried to do in Greece. The Greek solution is idiocy. If weíre going to prosper, we have to work. We have to have people subject to carrots and sticks. If you take away the stick the whole system wonít work.
You canít vote yourself rich. Itís an idiotic idea. Of course, the successful civilizations, they all have a social safety net. Look what happened in Japan. They were the export powerhouse of Asia. Up rose China and Korea, and Germany got way better. All of a sudden theyíre the export powerhouse.
When you have a wonderful monopolistic position, and then some more talented people work harder, of course youíre less rich. These damned economists keep looking for ways to handle the federal reserve system in Japan or something. Think how stupid that is. The solution is really obvious of why they lost. They got huge competition they didnít formerly have when they were the export powerhouse. Japanese were better at quality control and so forth. Then other people learned to play the same game.
Koreans came up from nothing in the auto business. They worked 84 hours a week with no overtime for more than a decade. At the same time every little Korean came home from grade school, and worked with a tutor for four full hours in the afternoon and the evening, driven by these Tiger Moms. Are you surprised when you lose to people like that? Only if youíre a total idiot.
Our aged board is capable of shooting fish in a barrel, but I donít think weíll get many opportunities. We got an opportunity like that when we bought Wells Fargo [WFC] stock at eight and change. I donít anticipate a lot of future opportunities like that one Ė I regard that as a one time fluke.
Now it was a the fluke we earned the right to have, by accumulating money from discipline and good service and so forth out of the foreclosure movement. If we happen to succeed in this, which is more likely than not, the experience has not seemed so easy to us that we want to try it again.
If you walk across a river from ice floe to ice floe ó where if you fell in the water youíre going to die Ė then you reach the other side where thereís prosperity and you look back at that river, I donít think youíd want to step back and try it again. So I donít think itís going to happen again.
We would like something that would help what weíre already doing, but weíre not looking to be new venture capitalists at our present age. Itís an activity we didnít do even when we were young. I donít know why we did it. It was mostly [DJCO Director] John Guerinís idea.
I eat whatever I want to eat. I have never paid any attention to my health. Iíve never done any exercise I didnít want to do. If any successes has come to me, it came because I insisted on thinking things through. Thatís all I was capable of doing in life, was thinking pretty hard about trying to get the right answer, and then acting on it. I never learned to do anything else.
All these people who think they are going to get ahead by jogging or something, more power to them.
: Oh, yes. Boy, I like people who serve me puffballs. As far as Lee Kuan Yewís going, I realized I made a mistake when he died. Iím going to commission a bust of Lee Kuan Yew and stick it somewhere important.
That is the most important governmental leader, the most important nation builder who ever existed in the history of the world. There is no other record equal to Lee Kuan Yewís unbelievable achievement.
A malarial swamp turned into a modern civilized powerhouse, and then using that example to utterly change and transform China. Not only China, but Vietnam. It was the example of Lee Kuan Yew that the North Vietnamese of all people turned to, to turn Vietnam into a powerhouse.
Thereís never been a career like Lee Kuan Yewís. There was one person in Lee Kuan Yewís high school who was smarter than he was. It was a female, one year older. So he married her.
This guy is very rational and other people went for the lady with the most curvaceous whatever. All his children are successful, and his son is the prime minister of Singapore.
He had this practical judgment. When he came to power, he was surrounded by Muslims who hated him. He has no assets, no army, no nothing. Heís in a dangerous position. He realizes that in his new nation he has to have an army. He asked the world to help him create an army and defense system.
Everybody in the world declines. After all, itís a malarial swamp. One country said, ďWeíll help you,Ē and it was Israel. He thought, how can I have Israel help me when the Muslims hate Israel, and Iím surrounded by Muslims who hate me. He saw his problem. He accepted help from the Israelis, and he told everybody they were Mexicans.
He totally eliminated bribery. When he went on his anti-corruption kick, one of the first persons that succumbed was one of his best friends. When the guy committed suicide, the wife came to him and said, committing suicide is a loss of face for the family, can we cover the suicide up? He said, ďI cannot help you in any way.Ē Lee Kuan Yew was very tough about getting done what had to be done. Singapore was a very corrupt place. His example has caused China to clean up, which looks to me like itís better than a 50% bet. It will be one more unbelievable example of the achievements of the most admirable man Ė judging by consequences Ė of any with whom Iíve shared the planet.
Not a transcript; just detailed notes. Errors are mine.
Relevant stocks: DJCO, BRK.A, PKX, DOW, TSLA, AMEX, COST, BYDDF, KRFT
Achieving success through investments has been pretty easy in my lifetime. If you were rational and disciplined, and you had a tailwind of a 10 percent per annum on average from carefully selected stocks going for you, pre tax, that was a big tailwind. If you saved your money, and you lived within your means, were shrewd and so forth, that was enough to take care of you. A little discipline in saving, and the passage of time will do it.
Now, if the world is going to get 10 percent out of indexes in the future, and I donít think it will, in real terms, getting more has proven to be quite difficult. Some of you who come along later are finding that if you stay in the big stocks, itís damn near impossible for most people. When things are damn near impossible, maybe you could stop trying.
That was not my system, but I do not recommend my system to everybody. I do, as a way of life, but I donít think all you have to do is read Charlie Munger and youíll get rich. If it were that easy, this place would be a football stadium.
Charlie says the way to get rich is to keep $10 million in your checking account in case a good deal comes along.
By the way, that was the advice of Howard Ahmanson to a young bunch of starving graduates.
Rich people sometimes get a little pompous.
: Itís a very interesting example, as a matter of fact, that shows how hard the world is. That is the most efficient steel company in the world, and it had pretty close to a local monopoly of a whole country for a long, long time. In spite of that, in spite of having some very important steel technology they have that nobody else in the world has, Posco is selling like an ordinary commoditized steel company.
Itís very hard to avoid being commoditized in high powered competition in the modern world. In places like Dow Chemical [DOW], have all our complex chemical products commoditized in spite of the fact theyíve got thousands of PhD chemists, and people as talented and brilliant as the people who created Posco just find the markets low and the prices bad and so forth.
It shows how hard and dangerous it is to make money in a commoditized business, and how many businesses that you formerly thought were hugely advantaged can be commoditized. So, youíve done a wonderful service to this meeting by raising the case of Posco. Poscoís an excellent example for everybody to think about. It really shows how hard it is.
You remember what private insurance did in the big financial crisis in the United States. Crazy and immoral, that is not a good combination. They added a third, they were deeply full of pride about the fact that they were crazy and immoral.
And so, they damn near caused a catastrophe. The people who did it have one thing in common, not one has any shame at all. Iíve never seen anybody who contributed to the creation of the great financial crisis with shoddy underwriting, lousy bonds ó Iíve never met anybody who contributed to it who was ashamed of himself. Itís always somebody elseís fault, or maybe the governmentís fault.
Thatís just the way it is. Weíve stumbled by accident, and reacted to a crisis. All the things we did were great expedients, given the terrible problems we had, and itís working after a fashion. The main risk is, given the political pressures, the government will start going crazy the way everyone did, in reducing the standards and so forth.
You keep trying to enable your citizens to vote themselves rich by various stratagems, like unlimited credit to people who donít deserve credit, which is really a dumb idea. Youíd think people would know that by now, but I donít think they do. Iím satisfied with the current system provided they keep the standards up.
But of course, they donít want to do that, they want to lessen them as fast as they can, and thatís what the politicians will keep urging them to do. I think itís a terrible idea. I donít think thereís anything wrong with having a conservative system, like the FHA was in the Great Depression, that happened to involve the government. Letting private agencies and private insurance do as they please? Weíve shown how well that works, our unregulated, wonderful people in finance. Iíd rather trust some pathogens.
I donít think it was desirable that it lost its contract with Costco [COST]. Again, thatís an example of what tough capitalism is. Obviously, other people are willing to do it cheaper. It just shows how tough a position that looks impregnable can be in modern capitalism. Itís what makes everything difficult.
To those who already have some money, I think thatís just the way it is, and American Express has had a long period of very extreme achievement and prosperity. I think theyíll have a lot of prosperity in the future, but it doesnít look quite as easy as it once did. Now, the head guy would say itís always been hard, heís been battling hard, but we paddled hard here too, and what good did it do us in Daily Journalís print business? We paddled like crazy, didnít we Gerry?
We tried. It was hard.
Yeah, what happened is you just keep receding and receding. Welcome to adult life.
I think the auto business is very difficult, very competitive, and everybody is going to make wonderful cars. Everybody already has enormous size and wealth. So, I regarded it as a tough business. Elon Musk is a genius, and so if anybody has a chance to do it, he probably is the man.
But we have a saying at Berkshire that when a man with a reputation for genius takes on a business with a reputation for tough operating conditions, itís the reputation of the business thatís likely to prevail. Without government help, getting electric cars off the ground is really hard. In China, it works a lot better than it does here, because their air is worse.
What Elon Musk really needs is for the whole country to have a disastrous smog attack that kills a lot of people. Short of something terrible like that, I think itís going to be difficult. Heís a genius, but is going to have to be.
No, Iíve never taken notes; I never kept notes when I was student. I would just read what I pleased when I felt like reading it, and I think what I think when I feel like thinking it. Thatís my system.
I donít think itís the right system for everybody, but it seems to have worked well enough for to get by.
The robo funds are the index funds, the big ones. You can hardly imagine more of a robo fund than an index fund. Of course, theyíre beating a large percentage of actively managed money over a long period of years, particularly the people who are managing billions. I just thank God that they didnít give me the assignment of managing $200 billion and beating the indexes. I would not have welcomed that challenge.
The people who still have value in investing are people who are willing to work very diligently and intelligently in less efficient markets. I think it is hard to be a great value investor with $200 billion under management. It takes a long time to buy in, a long time to sell out, other people copy your trades, itís very difficult.
Everybody with any sense at all knows that some companies are better than others. What makes it difficult is they sell at higher prices in relation to assets, and earnings and so forth, and that takes the fun out of the game. If all you had to do was figure out which companies were better than others, an idiot could make a lot of money. But they keep raising the prices to where the odds change.
I always knew that. They were teaching my colleagues that the stock market was so efficient that nobody could beat it. But I knew people who beat the pari mutuel system in Omaha by knowing more about horses than other people. I knew it was bull. When I was young I never went near a business school so I didnít get polluted by the craziness.
I never believed it. I never believed there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. I had a gift for recognizing twaddle, and thereís nothing remarkable about it. I donít have any wonderful insights that other people donít have. I just avoided idiocy slightly more consistently than others.
Other people are trying to be smart; all Iím trying to be is non-idiotic. Iíve found thatís all you have to do to get ahead in life, be non-idiotic and live a long time. Itís harder to be non-idiotic than most people think.
Thatís one of the most complex subjects on Earth. Of course, the system of medical care thatís evolved in the United States has much wrong with it. On the other hand, it has much thatís good about it, all new drugs, the new devices, the new operations.
Medicine has taken more territory in my lifetime than it took in the whole previous history of mankind. Itís just amazing whatís been done, and a lot of it has been obvious and simple, like inoculating children against infantile paralysis, scraping the tartar off your teeth so you donít wear plates when youíre 55 years old, so on.
People now take those benefits for granted, but I lived in the world where a lot of children died, and every city had a tuberculosis sanitarium, and half the people who got tuberculosis died. Itís just amazing how well medicine has worked. On the other hand, compared to the best it can possibly be, the American system is pretty peculiar.
Itís very hard to fix, because one kind of incentive is to pay so much a month for taking care of the people, and everything you save is yours. That is the system the government uses in dealing with convalescent homes. Thatís a great name, the Ďconvalescent homeí. You convalesce in Heaven; you donít convalesce in that home.
Itís tempting to have this euphemistic name. But that creates huge incentives to delay care and keep the money, and the government has strict rules and compliance systems and so forth. If we didnít have that system, the cost of taking care of old people in convalescent homes would be ten times what it is. It was the only feasible solution.
The rest of the world is going in that direction because the costs just keep rising. If the government is going to pay A anything he wants for selling services to B, who doesnít have to pay anything? Of course that system is going to create a lot of unnecessary tests, unnecessary costs, unnecessary procedures, unnecessary interventions. Psychiatrists that keep talking to the patient forever with no improvement.
Of course that system is going to cause problems, and the alternative system also causes problems. Now, add the fact that youíve got politicians, and add the fact that youíve got existing players who are enormously rich and powerful, who lobby like crazy. A state legislature now, with a huge percentage of GDP going through the medical system, just imagine what the lobbying is like.
So, we get these Rube Goldberg systems, and we get a lot of abuse of various kinds. Thereís hardly an ethical drug company that hasnít created multiple gross abuses, which in substance go into the bribery of doctors, which of course is illegal. Theyíve all committed big follies.
The device makers, if anything, have been worse. Thereís been a lot of abuse and craziness, and the costs, of course, just keep rising. Thatís in a system that averaged out as the greatest achiever in the history of the world. Itís very complicated.
I think it will get addressed and we probably will end up with systems that are more like we do with the convalescent homes. If you look at medicine, whatís happening is that more and more theyíre going to a system where they pay somebody X dollars for everything they say they need.
That system has some chance of controlling the cost. If you go into a great medical school hospital today, and youíre within one day of dying of some obvious thing like advanced cancer, the admitting physician is very likely to ask for a test of your cholesterol and every other damn thing, and all the bills go to the government.
As long as incentives allow that, people will do it, and theyíll rationalize their behavior. Something has to be done on that, more than is now being done. I think the drift will be more in the direction of block care. I donít see any other system that would have controlled cost in the convalescent homes.
By the way, your doctor canít just walk by every bed in the convalescent home and send the bill to the government. Thatís not allowed by the law. But if you transfer the patient into the hospital, you can walk by the bed five minutes every day, and send a $45 bill to the government.
If the incentives are wrong, the behavior will be wrong. I guarantee it. Not by everybody, but by enough of a percentage so that you wonít like the system. I think thatís enough on a subject thatís so difficult. We can see where itís going. In the Netherlands, they have a system where the same people are giving a free system to everybody and a concierge system to the others. Itís actually working pretty well, so thatís a possibility.
No, whatís working against you are the laws of arithmetic. Itís a strange thing, but exactly 99 percent of the people are at the bottom 99 percent. That will always be true no matter what. Of course very few people will get to the top 1 percent. In fact, only 1 percent gets there.
Through enormous discipline, enormous will, and enormous intelligence, 3G has adopted a zero-based budgeting system which is more extreme than anybody elseís. Yet theyíve been able to do it time after time in a way where the place ends up as strong or stronger after theyíve removed a lot of the cost. Of course, thatís a very interesting example.
The same thing went on in the nonprofit center. When the great financial crisis came, every university I know of laid off 6 percent, 8 percent, 10 percent of their people. I know of no case where the university didnít work better after they got rid of the 10 percent. None. Zero. Successful places tend to get bloated, fat, complacent. Itís the nature of human life.
Somebody who is tough enough, shrewd enough, who knows enough not to cut the wrong things and to do everything fair, has an opportunity to buy things and cut out expenses they donít really need. 3G is probably the most extreme large operation in the world doing that.
I actually think they will probably end up increasing the sales as well. Whatís interesting about 3G is theyíre teaching us something about reality: namely, that successful places contain a lot of unnecessary peopleÖI could have told them that by observing them. If you went into the Department of Agriculture, would you have the feeling the thing was understaffed?
I think youíd find many a corporate headquarters going, ďWhat in the hell are all these people doing?Ē
Now the Daily Journal I do not think is overstaffed. I donít think it ever has been. Gerry, whatís your comment on that? Heís watched it all these years. I donít think weíve had a lot of unnecessary costs ever.
We havenít had a lot of unnecessary costs. At one time, the Daily Journal by itself had approximately 300 employees. Now, we have about 150 employees. You can see that we have taken the direction of the company and reduced expenses accordingly. If you take the foreclosure business, which went from about 2006 to 2011 just like that, we added one and a half people to handle all of that additional work. When the boom went the other direction, we eliminated the one and half plus maybe a little bit more. So we tried to be ahead of the game in terms of anticipating and certainly using technology, because thatís the way we were able to handle that particular sequence of events.
But, normally, if youíre super successful, if the sky rains gold, everybodyís president gets an assistant. Pretty soon, the assistant has an assistant. Itís just the way human nature works. Itís like cancer. Somebody whoís really tough about that can remove a lot of costs, but only from certain kinds of companies. 3G would perish if it tried to reduce a lot of costs at the Daily Journal. They would starve to death.
Itís far enough away from happening so that I donít spend much time thinking about it. I think human nature is such that it will never happen. I donít spend much time thinking about what is almost certain never to happen.
In the world as it is, indexing has gained a lot. It probably should have gained a lot, because itís quite rational. Itís bad for a lot of people who would otherwise be earning money as stock pickers. It probably should have been bad for those people.
It doesnít make it pleasant to have it happen, any more than it helped Japan have a pleasant time when Korea came up so fast as a competitive powerhouse, and even more so when China rose. But I think indexing is here to stay.
If you stop to think about it, civilized man has always had soothsayers, shamans, faith healers, and God knows what all. The stock picking industry is four or five percent super rational, disciplined people, and the rest of them are like faith healers or shamans.
And thatís just the way it is, Iím afraid. Itís nice that they keep an image of being constructive, sensible people when theyíre really would-be faith healers. It keeps their self respect up.
Not a transcript; just detailed notes. Errors mine; corrections welcome.
Theyíre pretty good. Lee Kuan Yew left a base, eliminated the corruption, made it hard to get in, and paid the people a lot. Thereís no real incentive to steal in Singapore. Either in Parliament or as an advanced government administrator, you get paid very well, and youíre admired, and so forth.
I think what heís left in Singapore will continue to do very well. But of course, he rose when he was doing it and China wasnít. Now Singapore has to compete with China. China makes it harder.
I would have hated that. You make so much money running a casino, compared to any normal human business. There are no inventories, itís like having license to print money, and people just canít stand the temptation. So, he organized a casino business. Only foreigners can play; he didnít want to ruin the locals. I would not have slept with the devil that much. But Yew was no longer really in power when that happened. If heíd still been young, Iíd like to think he would not have done that.
I do not consider it desirable in the United States that weíve created casinos and lotteries everywhere. That was not a desirable development in an advanced civilization, and the damn politicians that solve their short‑term problems by bringing in this poison deserve to be in the lowest circle of hell. That means that Iím consigning practically all of them, since practically all of them have done it. I can hardly find a place where they arenít putting in new casinos. And the advertising on TV is happy people winning at the table.
Talk about false advertising! You should look at the desperate faces of people trying to get even at the table. Imagine making your living putting those kinds of images on television.
I have so many fewer.
Itís very simple. An isolated example thatís very rare is much easier to endure than a perfect sea of misery that never ceases.
Oh, itís just so useful dealing with people you can trust and getting all the others the hell out of your life. It ought to be taught as a catechism. The trouble with doing it is, in an ordinary school, youíd immediately cast 40 percent of the people into oblivion.
Nobody would even talk to them, and Iím not sure an egalitarian civilization is willing to be that tough. But wise people want to avoid other people who are just total rat poison, and there are a lot of them.
You do it partly by experience. The simplest way to get trust is to deserve it, and just keep deserving it.
Now, the casino has tried to deserve trust by having a happy winner up there on television, but do any of us trust casinos? Would any of us say, oh goody, when the daughter brings home a boyfriend who makes his living in the credit department of a casino?
And by the way, a lot of our major capitalistic institutions that parade as really respectable, theyíre just casinos in drag. What do you think a derivative trading desk is? Itís a casino in drag. People feeling theyíre contributing to the economy, and theyíre managing risk. They make the witch doctors look good.
I donít manage endowment funds, and I donít like the politicization that exists in places like big state pension funds and so forth. Itís very difficult to manage umpteen‑billion dollars. Since David Swensen was so extremely successful at Yale, of course the system has spread. Any successful system will spread by example.
The other thing thatís spread is the leveraged buyout system, and those people actually have an advantage in a world like the one we have. If common stocks are yielding 10 percent average over time pre‑tax? And you have a different way involving investment in which you use leverage, and you also eliminate some unnecessary costs, like 3G, and a few other tricks. Just with the financial engineering, you have a natural advantage. Of course theyíd have wonderful experience in selecting the top 25 percent of the LBO funds, and have served their endowment clients very well. That is part of what people like David Swensen did.
When it gets to hedge funds, Warren has been famously skeptical about trillions of dollars in hedge funds, and I think heís right. I think thereíll be a lot of very bad experience. There will also be some good experience. A few people have been able to select a few advisors for some of these private equity things where they really done well by being shrewder.
Some of the money they made at Yale or Harvard was actually made shrewdly. They used leverage. I wouldnít have done it myself, because I donít like balance sheets swelling with vast amounts of leverage. Iím afraid of human nature.
Nonetheless, a lot of what they did was quite shrewd, and of course they did have large returns. I donít think itís easy to do. I donít think anything any ordinary person can do easily is likely to work that well. What David Swensen did, with the aid of Yaleís reputation and his own, was select some of the smartest people around.
It was a like a guy who figured on how to make successful plays on Broadway. The fact it succeeded doesnít mean it was easy. He did something very remarkable and of course the example spreads. I donít think thereís any real easy solution for anybody. Anything thatís really likely to work, is likely to be hard.
I donít know anything about new Internet platforms.
I donít know anything about the new world of managing a big network based on computer science. It all came up and developed after I was convicted in my habits, to then go back and learn to play a different game. What I was doing worked well enough, so I didnít feel deprived. I let it pass.
I wish everybody well whoís good at it. I feel the same way about a guy that walks across the tight rope over Niagara Falls. Itís his way of making a living, but Iím not inclined to try it.
Iím not trying to outdo Page and Brin at Google, and I donít have any advice for young people who want to get rich. Basically, I think the desire to get rich fast is pretty dangerous. My own system was to get rich slow.
It protracts a rather pleasant process, so I recommend my system to everybody. After all, if you get rich fast all you can do is be robbed by your own employees and your yacht and so forth. Whereas if you get rich slow you amuse yourself over a lifetime.
My advice to you is to go to the ďget rich slowĒ system.
We tend to look for easy decisions, and we find it very hard to find easy decisions, but weíve just found enough barely to handle our own problems. I donít have a system. Since I barely have enough for myself, I do not have a vast surplus to give to the multitudes. Iím not holding back on you, I just donít have them.
Youíll be surprised to know that Iíve not changed my mind.
I think the hydrocarbon reserves in the United States are one of the most precious things we have, every bit as precious as the topsoil of Iowa. Just as I donít want to export all the topsoil in Iowa to Iran or someplace, just because they are willing to give us some money, I love the hydrocarbon reserves we have in the ground. The fashion is to be independent and to use them up as fast as we can. I think thatís insanity as a national policy. I must in a minority of one percent tops, but of course Iím right.
We have no substitute for those hydrocarbons. We use them to make our fertilizer. Itís chemical feedstock. We are not going to be able to run our airplanes without hydrocarbons. We do not want to use that all up. Itís finite. Itís not at all safe to assume thereís a substitute.
They have a long record over time of appreciating in value. Weíre just damn lucky we didnít learn fracking earlier to remove them all or we would have done it. But everybody else just has the idea that anything that happens in the free market is all right even if itís an ax‑murder.
They think exporting hydrocarbons makes sense. I think itís a ridiculously stupid policy, but if you have a little oil lease, of course you want to export, but I donít think itís good for the country at all. I love the fact we have a lot of hydrocarbons left that we havenít exploited.
Why wouldnít you be pleased to have it? How happy would we all be if we were importing 100 percent of our hydrocarbons right now, like Japan? Weíd feel exposed and in danger. Weíd be right to feel exposed and in danger.
Will we feel like some big power in the world that might prevent other people from misbehaving if we have no hydrocarbons at all, if we are dependent on others? No, I think the fact that that idea is so unconventional doesnít mean itís wrong. It just means other people donít think very well.
I think the one that affects the next 50 years for young people: itís very unlikely that we wonít have some major catastrophes. I think weíve had a very favorable period, but I donít think itís terribly constructive to spend your time worrying about things you canít fix. As long as when you are managing your money, you recognize that a terrible thing is going to happen, in the rest of your life you can be a foolish optimist.
Benjamin Franklin said a very wise thing. He said, ďYou keep your eyes wide open before a marriage and half shut thereafter.Ē
I think those are catastrophes that you canít fix. Franklin is right, keep your eyes half shut. I think thatís what most of us do anyway. Though I think thatís the change thatís most likely.
I donít see how we bring back that age where an uneducated man can march ahead rapidly. As long as we have free trade and worldwide competition, and I donít want to stop having free trade with a big nuclear power like China. China and the United States have to get along. Each country would be out of its mind not to get along with the other. I think trade helps us to get along.
If it hurts some people, life is always going hurt some people in some ways and help others. There should be more willingness to take the blows of life as they fall. Thatís what manhood is, taking life as it falls. Not whining all the time and trying to fix it by whining.
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
Not a transcript; just detailed notes. Errors are mine; corrections welcome.
I think Warrenís letter was very, very useful. I particularly liked it where he was criticizing banks. Take the growth of the conglomerate movement which is sort of a chain letter game that people played with financial accounting. The accountants all blessed it. The accountants never should have blessed the conglomerate craze, with constantly buying low quality earnings and making the earnings go up.
It was an evil system and an evil way to make money. It was an evil way to run an accounting profession to bless the outcomes. Nobody else was talking that way. I tend to admire Warren when he gets off on important subjects like that, where heís totally right. The chances that anybody will pay a lot of attention to him in a way that changes anything is, I think, quite small.
For a few of the cognoscenti, like you people, how many of you approve of the way, say, IT&T played the conglomerate game where their accountants blessed their earnings reports? Raise your hand if you thought it was wonderful.
[no hands go up]
The answer is it wasnít wonderful. I liked what Warren did. Nobody else is doing it. What other CEOs are saying that American financiers and their accountants grossly misbehaved for a long time? Nobody. I think itís useful when somebody does that. And heís totally right. It was awful, the fact that everybody went along with it, including the investment managers. Itís still happening.
However bad you think it is, somebody actually comes by and does it worse. It wasnít moral the first time and the second outcome is not better. People are enthusiastic about it. Iím holding my nose. Thatís the only correct response.
Everybody would really like to have a misunderstood moat. Youíre the greediest fellow thatís spoken.
All you want to know is if I have a moat that you can understand that other people donít. A modest wish.
Youíre going to ask a 91-year-old man how to do it? Reminds me of one of my favorite stories. A young man comes to Mozart and says, ďWith your help I want to compose symphonies.Ē
Mozart says, ďYouíre too young to be composing symphonies.Ē
He says, ďLook, you were doing symphonies when you were 10 years of age. Iím 21.Ē
Mozart says, ďYes, but I wasnít running around asking other people how to do it.Ē
Every government department needs all kind of automation it doesnít have. Itís complicated. The systems interact with other systems. Software is more and more important. Itís very difficult.
The governments have their own way of doing businesses that are created by history, local legislation, and so forth. Thereís nothing simple about it. A company like Microsoft got in a business somewhat similar to ours when they bought Great Plains Software, Inc. Theyíve succeeded with it moderately.
Even Microsoft finds it difficult to do anything but have moderate success when they buy some thoroughly proven software system ó more or less similar to what weíre trying to do. Thereís nothing easy about it. But itís very necessary. Itís a huge market. The right idea, of course, is to really serve the customer correctly. Somebodyís going to win.
The newspaper industry, of course, is easy. It had a revolutionary change in technology. The worst single thing was to take the classified ads out of the paper, because that was the total goldmine. I donít think thatís fixable.
Our newspapers were impregnable local powerhouses, and very constructive parts of the political system of the country. Of course, theyíve gradually been enormously weakened. That was not good for the country. It happened by accident. We lost all these local powerhouses that could have total integrity, because they had impregnable financial positions.
Television is different. Iíve been a little surprised how well the old broadcast networks have survived the new world of the Internet and cable television. Iím not sure I understand the situation well enough to predict whatís going to happen over the next 25 years.
Something happened recently, which I watched in China. When the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report came out, it created a great buzz in China. China is interested. We look Confucian to the Chinese. They like elderly rich men.
Weíre trying to be wise. Thatís the Chinese system. There was a great buzz of the Berkshire report all through China. All of a sudden, the buzz stopped.
What happened? One woman in China took $150,000 of her own money and a year of her life and created a . She ran the thing over the Internet.
It was a film. She got 200 million views. What she did was a long thing about smog, how the people were dying in China, and how Los Angeles fixed its smog problem by taking sulfur out of the air when people burn coal and oil and so on. Terribly well done.
This one woman is changing the policy of China. She isnít on the newspapers. She isnít on the television stations. Nobody had ever heard of her.
One damn documentary. That is a new world. Thatís a new source of power. I donít know where a world like that is going to end up. I just know itís different. Itís important. In this case, it was very constructive.
China has been dead wrong to allow people to die 10 years early in Beijing because the air is so lousy. Immoral and stupid: not a good combination. Chinaís going to fix it. This woman is actually helping, with one film.
The world changes like that so rapidly. Itís hard to know whoís going to have the power and whatís going to happen. Thatís the way I feel about a lot of the media. I understood it better when the people who had the printing press controlled the newspaper, and the people who had the network allocation controlled the broadcasting.
Frank Murphy [of Murphy Radio, founded 1929] liked it better when broadcasting was all black and white, and there were only three networks. He had a big, strong position. He did not welcome all the new competition.
I do not understand how they get so much information through space at the same time.
You and I grow up in a world where these radio stations interfered with one another. Thatís why you couldnít have very many channels. Now, one woman can put 200 million hits on a whole damn movie through God knows what. How do the bits not conflict with one another?
Itís very complicated. I donít understand it. I understand peanut better.
The one thing that has surprised me all my life is how many people with high IQs do massively stupid things. It happens everywhere. But it is surprising how extreme the stupidity is and how talented the people are who do them. I think the human mind was almost made to malfunction in a lot of different ways. It makes the world a very dangerous place.
The man whom you trust, heís your physician, your doctor, you investment manager, what have you, can go plum crazy. To give you an example:
Iím used to doctors who think a procedure thatís good for them is good for you. But in Redding, California, a couple of doctors rose who gave everybody who consulted them open heart surgery. They really convinced themselves that everybody needed open heart surgery. A normal heart was a widow maker. If they replaced it with carbon, nylon, or something, they were way better off.
They did massive amounts of open heart surgery. By the way, their surgical results were wonderful. Nobody survives open heart surgery better than the guy who doesnít need it at all.
I expect the worst in human nature. But they thought they were doing the right thing and really helping the patients. That surprised me.
It seems impossible. How could anybody behave that way? How could it go on for year after year? Hospitals were sending their executives up there to learn how to run their hospitals this way.
They were making money and achieving status and demonstrating skill. But itís so extreme, you think that couldnít happen. If it did happen, you think it would be identified by other people early. It ran on for years. And their bosses were trying to get their other hospitals to have the same results. Amazing.
They did take away the doctorsí licenses, but nobody went to jail. Youíd think theyíd go the lowest circle of hell, but they didnít. They lost their licenses.
I wouldnít hold your breath.
I do think there is some trend to limit the idea of hiring a lot of young people and have them all go 13 hours and so on, trying to increase the billable hours. That is not just the law profession. The consultants do it. The accountants do it. Lots of people do it.
Itís human nature operating. But I do think in law youíre seeing the elements of rebellion. Some clients are insisting on different systems. Itís gone too far.
What China adopted from Singapore was not its total management system. It adopted its system of an economic management business. It had private ownership of business. Before that, the Chinese government had owned practically everything.
They took part of what Lee Kuan Yew had done in Singapore. Chinaís weird combination of authoritarianism and free enterprise has worked wonders for its economic output. Lee Kuan Yewís example had a lot to do with it. But he didnít think necessarily that was right for a small City State, was right for a whole backward country of a different nation.
Nobody thinks that itís his exact solution, but I do think the anti corruption part of China was right out of Lee Kuan Yewís book. China had a lot of corruption.
China increased its GDP at 8, 9, or 10 percent per annum for decades. They werenít perfect, but it was a lot of achievement from where they started.
Whatís really interesting is how much influence on this outcome one human being had. He started as a leftist labor leader. Itís perfectly amazing. I wish it could happen more often.
The appropriate amount of debt varies with the circumstances. I donít have any general rule. Generally speaking, if youíre investment is uncertain, say, as running a big complicated enterprise, thereís a lot to be said for having a lot of extra wealth and liquidity.
Youíre a huge social safety net if youíre a controller of capitalist power. Do we want them all to be leveraged to the gills so we can buy back the maximum amount of stock? They are big social enterprises that should have reserves of safety.
The idea that they should all leverage themselves to the gills to please a bunch of activists would be like taking all the safety margin out of bridges on the theory weíd save steel. Thatís a dumb idea.
Itís likely to have a significant effect over time, because now you get a bunch of permanent owners. The people who run the index funds are now, in effect, permanent owners. They canít sell. Yes, of course, they will drift into using more of that power. Will it be used intelligently, the new power? I doubt it.
Youíre asking me for a position I donít occupy in life.
If you said, ďCharlie, how would you practice dentistry if youíve been a dentist?Ē I may not be able to give you as good an answer as I could about something I thought about a lot. Iím content owning virtually 100 percent stocks, but I really think that I own stocks that are better than other peopleís on average.
Therefore, my decision is easier. What I would have to do if I had to own average stocks like everybody else, Iím not so sure. Iíve carefully avoided that fate.
Iíve been able to do it for a lot of decades. Now, the margins are not what they used to be, but an old man is lucky to have any advantage at all.
I am not an expert on the moats of technology companies. The reason, by and large, I donít own them is because I do not understand whether or not there are moats that will last or not. I do think Google is a very remarkable company. If you put a gun to my head, said, ďCharlie, youíve got to buy a big technology company,Ē I might choose Google.
They certainly hire brains. Theyíre getting the best brains, I think, of anybody. Theyíre certainly fanatic. They certainly have an entrenched position. Do I understand the value of their moat compared to the value of everybody elseís? The answer is no. Youíre asking the wrong person.
By the way, anybody who does give you the answer is probably full of you know what.
It may be true!
Youíve got a Nordic nation without a lot of tropical diseases. Youíve got a big social safety net. Itís monoethnic, so they donít have the tensions of different groups making the place hard to govern. Theyíre situated and surrounded by advanced civilizations, so they can live pretty well, whether they invent anything new themselves or not.
Itís very favorably located. If you are in a small group with which you closely identify, you donít mind supporting one another more. Itís just the way the human mind works. It may well be that if you measure happiness physiologically by time spent smiling, and so forth, then Denmark may well be happier than almost any place else. I suspect itís true. That does not make me want to live in Denmark.
Iíll take the world the way it is, where I live. I prefer it.
The answer to that is, ďI donít know.Ē I donít think itís good having all the brains go into finance. Just like itís not good to have so many gambling casinos in disguise in the financial markets. I donít think that the current development is good. If I were running the world as an omnipotent emperor, I would change the laws, so the outcome changed.
I would change the incentives. The chances of anybody paying attention to my ideas about the laws are zero.
Itís hard not to say the Internet. We had the good transportation, the airplanes, the trains, the air conditioning, the good pharmaceuticals and so on. Having the Internet, the instant cellphone, the little portable computers, the iPads and so on, thatís what made this one woman in China who didnít have any power before change a whole governmental outcome. Itís having other dramatic changes, including destructive changes on investments. I would say the Internet is very important. Donít you think everybody feels that way?
I think it will work out very well. Again, weíre trying to do the right thing by the regulators, the customers, the engineering, the safety, you name it. I think itíll work very well for Berkshire. I think it will work very well for the customers of MidAmerican Energy.
I wish I was that optimistic about everything, as I am about that one. I regard that as almost a no-brainer.
We respect Henry Singleton for a very simple reason: He was a genius. Henry Singleton never took an aptitude test where he didnít score an 800 and leave early.
He was a major mathematical genius, a . Even when he was an old man, he could play chess blindfolded, at just below the Grand Master level. He had an awesome intellect, well into the top 1/1,000 of one percent.
This was an extreme analytic. Of course, he did create a conglomerate because it was legally allowed at the time. He did it the way everybody else was doing it, he did it better, and he made a lot of money. When they ran out of favor, the stock went way down, he bought it all back for less than it was worth.
Of course, he died a very wealthy man. He was a totally rational human being in things like finance. What I found interesting about Henry Singleton, which has interesting educational implications, is that in watching both Henry and Warren invest and operate at the same time, we had two great windows of opportunity to examine human nature.
Henry was very rational. He was quite similar to Berkshire in some ways. Henry never issued a stock option. He had certain commonalities with Warren that were just logical outcomes.
What was interesting to me was how much smarter Warren was at investing money than Henry. Henry was born a lot smarter, but Warren had thought about investments a lot longer. Warren just ran rings around Henry as an investor even though Henry was a genius, and Warren was a mere almost-genius.
That is my last question because we reached the time when the directors meet, and besides, even for a group of addicts, youíve probably had all you can take.