Charlie Munger The Best of Charlie Munger 1994 to 2011

 

http://www.bengrahaminvesting.ca/Resources/Books/The-Best-of-Charlie-Munger-1994-2011.pdf

 

         A collection of speeches, essays, and Wesco annual meeting notes

                 

         October 2, 2012

        

Dear fellow BRK shareholders,

         I am a faithful BRK shareholder living within reasonable driving distance to Omaha. I usually drive up early morning of the BRK annual meeting, attend the meeting until 5pm, and drive back home the same day, just to save a few pennies. But I’ve been too cheap to pay for airfare and hotel rooms to attended Charlie Munger’s Wesco annual meetings in Pasadena.

 

         When I heard that July 2011 would be the last meeting with Mr. Munger, I felt real regret for never attending one in the past and was desperately searching for Wesco meeting notes. When I contacted Mr. Whitney Tilson, he kindly emailed me not only his articles and notes from the many Wesco annual meetings he’d attended, but also many other relevant materials from his archives, dating back to 1994. At his suggestion, I have compiled them, along with some of the materials I’ve collected over time, into one file that he can circulate to the BRK faithful and put on his website. I’m happy to do this as a way to give back to the value investing community.

 

         I have set up a bookmarks system in the pdf file to ease your navigation, which you can access by clicking View, Navigation Panels, Bookmarks.

 

         If you have Wesco meeting notes prior to 1999 or any other materials that you think I should include, please email me and I will revise my compilation.

 

         Sincerely

         Yanan Ma Bledsoe

         Ballwin, MO

         yananma@yahoo.com

 

                 

         Table of Contents

        

         2002 Tilson’s column: “Munger on Human Misjudgments”               Page 5

 

         1994 Munger on “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment”             Page 9

 

         1995 Munger’s speech at USC: “A Lesson on Elementary,               Page 36

                    Worldly Wisdom as it Relates to Investment

                    Management and Business”

        

         1998 Munger on “Investment Practices of Leading Charitable          Page 72

                  Foundations”

 

         1999 Munger’s “Master’s Class” on Foundation Investing                Page 77

 

         2000 Munger’s speech to the Philanthropy Round Table                 Page 83

 

         2001 Munger on “The Great Financial Scandal of 2003”                 Page 88

 

         2004 Tilson’s column, “Munger Goes Mental”, on Munger’s             Page 96

                    Speech at UC Santa Barbara

        

         2003 Munger’s speech at UC Santa Barbara: “Academic                 Page 100

                    Economics: Strengths and Faults After Considering

                    Interdisciplinary Needs”

        

         2009 Munger on “Sacrificing To Restore Market Confidence”           Page 125

 

         2011 Munger’s “A Parody about the Great Recession”                            Page 127

 

         1999 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 133

 

         2000 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 138

 

         2001 Tilson’s column: “Charlie Munger Holds Court”                      Page 146

 

         2001 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 149     

        

         2002 Tilson’s column: “The Best of Charlie Munger”                      Page 159

 

         2002 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 163

 

         2003 Tilson’s column: “Charlie Munger’s Worldly Wisdom”              Page 173

 

         2003 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 177

 

         2004 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 193

 

         2005 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 216

 

         2006 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 246     

 

         2007 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 274              

 

         2008 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 296

 

         2009 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 311

 

         2010 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 322

 

         2011 Wesco meeting notes                                                       Page 334

        

                 

         Munger on Human Misjudgments

 

         Charlie Munger gave an insightful speech on “24 Standard Causes of Human

         Misjudgment,” which has powerful implications for investors. Whitney Tilson summarizes some key points and provides a link to the speech, so you can read for yourself.  

 

         By Whitney Tilson

         Published on the Motley Fool web site, 8/21/02

         (http://www.fool.com/news/foth/2002/foth020821.htm)

 

         Behavioral finance -- which examines how people’s emotions, biases, and misjudgments affect their investment decisions -- is one of the least discussed and understood areas of investing. Yet I believe it’s critically important -- so important, in fact, that I covered it in my very first column (in September 1999, which seems like an investing lifetime ago, doesn’t it?).

 

         Behavioral finance recently reappeared on my radar screen when I came across an 80-minute recording of a speech given by Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A) Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s right-hand man and a genius in his own right. It’s a brilliant, powerful, and compelling tour de force.

 

         In it, Munger highlights what he calls “24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgment,” and then gives numerous examples of how these mental weaknesses can combine to create “lollapalooza” effects, which can be very positive -- as in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous -- or frighteningly negative, such as experiments in which average people end up brutalizing others.

 

         I’d like to highlight some of Munger’s most important lessons, especially as they relate to investing.

 

 Psychological denial

 

         Munger notes that sometimes “reality is too painful to bear, so you just distort it until it’s bearable.” I see this all the time among investors -- both professionals and average folks. Think of all the people who simply have no business picking stocks, such as the “bull market geniuses” of the late 1990s, whose portfolios have undoubtedly been obliterated in the bear market of the past two and a half years.

 

         You’d think these people would’ve recognized by now that whatever investment success they had in the late ‘90s was due solely to one of the most massive bubbles in the history of stock markets, and that they should get out while they still have even a little bit of money left. I’m sure some are doing so, but many aren’t because they’d have to acknowledge some extremely painful truths (e.g., they should not, and should never have been, picking stocks; they speculated with their retirement money and frittered most of it away, and so on).

 

         Instead, I’m still getting emails like this one, from people who, I suspect, are in serious psychological denial:

        

  Why isn’t anyone suggesting WorldCom as an investment possibility? Assuming WorldCom survives, and assuming they reach a third of their highest stock value prior to the decline, why not buy shares at $0.19 (as listed now) [they’re now down to $0.124] and hold them for a few years? If WorldCom manages to make it back to $10.00 a share, the profit for a small investor would be more than satisfactory. What am I missing here? It seems like another chance to ‘get in on the ground floor.’

        

         The answer is that WorldCom equity is almost certain to be worthless, and the only sane people buying the stock right now are short-sellers covering their very profitable shorts.

        

Bias from consistency and commitment tendency

 

         Munger explains this bias with the following analogy: “The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in.” In other words, once people make a decision (to buy a stock, for example), then it becomes extremely unlikely that they will reverse this decision, especially if they have publicly committed to it.

 

         This is true even if overwhelming evidence emerges indicating the initial decision was disastrously wrong. Have you ever bought a stock such as Lucent, Enron, or WorldCom, seen your original investment thesis torn to shreds by subsequent developments -- such that you would never consider buying more of the stock (despite the lower price), yet you didn’t sell?  I’ve written two columns on this common, painful mistake.

        

Over-influence by social proof

 

         Human beings have a natural herding tendency -- to look at what everybody else is doing and do the same, however insane that behavior might be. Munger gives a classic example from corporate America:

        

 Big-shot businessmen get into these waves of social proof. Do you remember some years ago when one oil company bought a fertilizer company, and every other major oil company practically ran out and bought a fertilizer company? And there was no more damned reason for all these oil companies to buy fertilizer companies, but they didn’t know exactly what to do, and if Exxon was doing it, it was good enough for Mobil, and vice versa. I think they’re all gone now, but it was a total disaster.

        

         Similar behavior led to the tech stock bubble of the late 1990s. For more on this topic, see my column The Cocktail-Party Test, in which I argue, “Following the crowd and investing in what is fashionable is a recipe for disaster. Instead, look for solid companies with strong balance sheets that are either out of favor with Wall Street or, better yet, not even on Wall Street’s radar screen.”

        

Other questions Munger answers

 

         I’ve cited only a few examples of Munger’s powerful observations and the answers he gives to a range of perplexing questions, such as:

        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         There is no space here to even begin to summarize Munger’s answers to these questions, so I transcribed his speech and posted it here. I urge you to read it.

        

         If you find his thinking and the field of behavioral economics as fascinating as I do, I suggest reading Influence, by Robert Cialdini, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes, by Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich and, for the definitive work on Munger himself, Damn Right!  Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger, by Janet Lowe.

 

          Guest columnist Whitney Tilson is managing partner of Tilson Capital Partners, LLC, a New York City-based money management firm. He owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway at the time of publication. Mr. Tilson appreciates your feedback at Tilson@Tilsonfunds.com. T o read his previous columns for The Motley Fool and other writings, visit http://www.tilsonfunds.com. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.  

        

          

CHARLIE MUNGER ON THE PSYCHOLOGY OF HUMAN MISJUDGMENT

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqzcCfUglws

 

Speech at Harvard University Estimated date: June, 1995

Transcription, comments [in brackets] and minor editing by Whitney Tilson (feedback@tilsonfunds.com)

         [Simple Skyhooks---Misjudgment due to biases]

 

Moderator: …and they discovered extreme, obvious irrationality in many areas of the economy that they looked at. And they were a little bit troubled because nothing that they had learned in graduate school explained these patterns. Now I would hope that Mr. Munger spends a little bit more time around graduate schools today, because we’ve gotten now where he was 30 years ago, and we are trying to explain those patterns, and some of the people who are doing that will be speaking with you today.

 

So I think he thinks of his specialty as the Psychology of Human Misjudgment, and part of this human misjudgment, of course, comes from worrying about the types of fads and social pressures that Henry Kaufman talked to us about. I think it’s significant that Berkshire Hathaway is not headquartered in New York, or even in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but rather in the heart of the country in Nebraska.

 

When he referred to this problem of human misjudgment, he identified two significant problems, and I’m sure that there are many more, but when he said, “By not relying on this, and not understanding this, it was costing me a lot of money,” and I presume that some of you are here in the theory that maybe it’s costing you even a somewhat lesser amount of money. And the second point that Mr. Munger made was it was reducing…not understanding human misjudgment was reducing my ability to help everything I loved. Well I hope he loves you, and I’m sure he’ll help you. Thank you. [Applause]

 

Munger: Although I am very interested in the subject of human misjudgment -- and lord knows I’ve created a good bit of it -- I don’t think I’ve created my full statistical share, and I think that one of the reasons was I tried to do something about this terrible ignorance I left the Harvard Law School with.

 

When I saw this patterned irrationality, which was so extreme, and I had no theory or anything to deal with it, but I could see that it was extreme, and I could see that it was patterned, I just started to create my own system of psychology, partly by casual reading, but largely from personal experience, and I used that pattern to help me get through life. Fairly late in life I stumbled into this book, Influence, by a psychologist named Bob Cialdini, who became a super-tenured hotshot on a 2,000-person faculty at a very young age. And he wrote this book, which has now sold 300-odd thousand copies, which is remarkable for somebody. Well, it’s an academic book aimed at a popular audience that filled in a lot of holes in my crude system. In those holes it filled in, I thought I had a system that was a good-working tool, and I’d like to share that one with you.

 

And I came here because behavioral economics. How could economics not be behavioral? If it isn’t behavioral, what the hell is it? And I think it’s fairly clear that all reality has to respect all other reality. If you come to inconsistencies, they have to be resolved, and so if there’s anything valid in psychology, economics has to recognize it, and vice versa. So I think the people that are working on this fringe between economics and psychology are absolutely right to be there, and I think there’s been plenty wrong over the years.

 

Well let me romp through as much of this list as I have time to get through:

 

24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgment.

 

1. First: Under-recognition of the power of what psychologists call ‘reinforcement’ and economists call ‘incentives.’

         [man-with-a-hammer syndrome: to the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail.]

 

Well you can say, “Everybody knows that.” Well I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.

 

One of my favorite cases about the power of incentives is the Federal Express case. The heart and soul of the integrity of the system is that all the packages have to be shifted rapidly in one central location each night. And the system has no integrity if the whole shift can’t be done fast. And Federal Express had one hell of a time getting the thing to work. And they tried moral suasion, they tried everything in the world, and finally somebody got the happy thought that they were paying the night shift by the hour, and that maybe if they paid them by the shift, the system would work better. And lo and behold, that solution worked.

 

Early in the history of Xerox, Joe Wilson, who was then in the government, had to go back to Xerox because he couldn’t understand how their better, new machine was selling so poorly in relation to their older and inferior machine. Of course when he got there he found out that the commission arrangement with the salesmen gave a tremendous incentive to the inferior machine.

 

And here at Harvard, in the shadow of B.F. Skinner -- there was a man who really was into reinforcement as a powerful thought, and, you know, Skinner’s lost his reputation in a lot of places, but if you were to analyze the entire history of experimental science at Harvard, he’d be in the top handful. His experiments were very ingenious, the results were counterintuitive, and they were important. It is not given to experimental science to do better.

 

What gummed up Skinner’s reputation is that he developed a case of what I always call man-with-a-hammer syndrome: to the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail. And Skinner had one of the more extreme cases in the history of Academia, and this syndrome doesn’t exempt bright people. It’s just a man with a hammer…and Skinner is an extreme example of that. And later, as I go down my list, let’s go back and try and figure out why people, like Skinner, get man-with-a-hammer syndrome.

 

Incidentally, when I was at the Harvard Law School there was a professor, naturally at Yale, who was derisively discussed at Harvard, and they used to say, “Poor old Blanchard. He thinks declaratory judgments will cure cancer.” And that’s the way Skinner got. And not only that, he was literary, and he scorned opponents who had any different way of thinking or thought anything else was important. This is not a way to make a lasting reputation if the other people turn out to also be doing something important.

 

2. My second factor is simple psychological denial.

         [The reality is too painful to bear, so you just distort it until it’s bearable.]

 

This first really hit me between the eyes when a friend of our family had a super-athlete, super-student son who flew off a carrier in the north Atlantic and never came back, and his mother, who was a very sane woman, just never believed that he was dead. And, of course, if you turn on the television, you’ll find the mothers of the most obvious criminals that man could ever diagnose, and they all think their sons are innocent. That’s simple psychological denial. The reality is too painful to bear, so you just distort it until it’s bearable. We all do that to some extent, and it’s a common psychological misjudgment that causes terrible problems.

 

3. Third: incentive-cause bias, both in one’s own mind and that of ones trusted advisor, where it creates what economists call ‘agency costs.’

         [incentive-caused biases due to cost plus percentage of cost system.]

 

Here, my early experience was a doctor who sent bushel baskets full of normal gall bladders down to the pathology lab in the leading hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska. And with that quality control for which community hospitals are famous, about five years after he should’ve been removed from the staff, he was. And one of the old doctors who participated in the removal was also a family friend, and I asked him: I said, “Tell me, did he think, ‘Here’s a way for me to exercise my talents’” -- this guy was very skilled technically-- “’and make a high living by doing a few maimings and murders every year, along with some frauds?’” And he said, “Hell no, Charlie. He thought that the gall bladder was the source of all medical evil, and if you really love your patients, you couldn’t get that organ out rapidly enough.”

 

Now that’s an extreme case, but in lesser strength, it’s present in every profession and in every human being. And it causes perfectly terrible behavior. If you take sales presentations and brokers of commercial real estate and businesses… I’m 70 years old, I’ve never seen one I thought was even within hailing distance of objective truth. If you want to talk about the power of incentives and the power of rationalized, terrible behavior: after the Defense Department had had enough experience with cost-plus percentage of cost contracts, the reaction of our republic was to make it a crime for the federal government to write one, and not only a crime, but a felony.

 

And by the way, the government’s right, but a lot of the way the world is run, including most law firms and a lot of other places, they’ve still got a cost-plus percentage of cost system. And human nature, with its version of what I call ‘incentive-caused bias,’ causes this terrible abuse. And many of the people who are doing it you would be glad to have married into your family compared to what you’re otherwise going to get. [Laughter]

 

Now there are huge implications from the fact that the human mind is put together this way, and that is that people who create things like cash registers, which make most [dishonest] behavior hard, are some of the effective saints of our civilization. And the cash register was a great moral instrument when it was created. And Patterson knew that, by the way. He had a little store, and the people were stealing him blind and never made any money, and people sold him a couple of cash registers and it went to profit immediately. And, of course, he closed the store and went into the cash register business…

 

And so this is a huge, important thing. If you read the psychology texts, you will find that if they’re 1,000 pages long, there’s one sentence. Somehow incentive-caused bias has escaped the standard survey course in psychology.

 

4. Fourth, and this is a superpower in error-causing psychological tendency: bias from consistency and commitment tendency, including the tendency to avoid or promptly resolve cognitive dissonance. Includes the self-confirmation tendency of all conclusions, particularly expressed conclusions, and with a special persistence for conclusions that are hard-won.

         [The human mind, like the human egg, shuts down so the next one can’t get in.]

 

Well what I’m saying here is that the human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in. The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort. And here again, it doesn’t just catch ordinary mortals; it catches the deans of physics. According to Max Planck, the really innovative, important new physics was never really accepted by the old guard. Instead a new guard came along that was less brain-blocked by its previous conclusions. And if Max Planck’s crowd had this consistency and commitment tendency that kept their old inclusions intact in spite of disconfirming evidence, you can imagine what the crowd that you and I are part of behaves like.

 

And of course, if you make a public disclosure of your conclusion, you’re pounding it into your own head. Many of these students that are screaming at us, you know, they aren’t convincing us, but they’re forming mental change for themselves, because what they’re shouting out [is] what they’re pounding in. And I think educational institutions that create a climate where too much of that goes on are…in a fundamental sense, they’re irresponsible institutions. It’s very important to not put your brain in chains too young by what you shout out.

 

And all these things like painful qualifying and initiation rituals pound in your commitments and your ideas. The Chinese brainwashing system, which was for war prisoners, was way better than anybody else’s. They maneuvered people into making tiny little commitments and declarations, and then they’d slowly build. That worked way better than torture.

 

5. Fifth: bias from Pavlovian association, misconstruing past correlation as a reliable basis for decision-making.

         [Persian messenger syndrome, where the messenger who brought the bad news is killed]

 

I never took a course in psychology, or economics either for that matter, but I did learn about Pavlov in high school biology. And the way they taught it, you know, so the dog salivated when the bell rang. So what? Nobody made the least effort to tie that to the wide world. Well the truth of the matter is that Pavlovian association is an enormously powerful psychological force in the daily life of all of us. And, indeed, in economics we wouldn’t have money without the role of so-called secondary reinforcement, which is a pure psychological phenomenon demonstrated in the laboratory.

 

Practically…I’d say 3/4 of advertising works on pure Pavlov. Think how association, pure association, works. Take Coca-Cola company (we’re the biggest share-holder). They want to be associated with every wonderful image: heroics in the Olympics, wonderful music, you name it. They don’t want to be associated with presidents’ funerals and so forth. When have you seen a Coca-Cola ad…and the association really works.

 

And all these psychological tendencies work largely or entirely on a subconscious level, which makes them very insidious. Now you’ve got Persian messenger syndrome. The Persians really did kill the messenger who brought the bad news. You think that is dead? I mean you should’ve seen Bill Paley in his last 20 years. [Paley was the former owner, chairman and CEO of CBS; his bio is at

http://www.kcmetro.cc.mo.us/pennvalley/biology/lewis/crosby/paley.htm] He didn’t hear one damn thing he didn’t want to hear. People knew that it was bad for the messenger to bring Bill Paley things he didn’t want to hear. Well that means that the leader gets in a cocoon of unreality, and this is a great big enterprise, and boy, did he make some dumb decisions in the last 20 years.

 

And now the Persian messenger syndrome is alive and well. I saw, some years ago, Arco and Exxon arguing over a few hundred millions of ambiguity in their North Slope treaties before a superior court judge in Texas, with armies of lawyers and experts on each side. Now this is a Mad Hatter’s tea party: two engineering-style companies can’t resolve some ambiguity without spending tens of millions of dollars in some Texas superior court? In my opinion what happens is that nobody wants to bring the bad news to the executives up the line. But here’s a few hundred million dollars you thought you had that you don’t. And it’s much safer to act like the Persian messenger who goes away to hide rather than

bring home the news of the battle lost.

 

Talking about economics, you get a very interesting phenomenon that I’ve seen over and over again in a long life. You’ve got two products; suppose they’re complex, technical products. Now you’d think, under the laws of economics, that if product A costs X, if product Y costs X minus something, it will sell better than if it sells at X plus something, but that’s not so. In many cases when you raise the price of the alternative products, it’ll get a larger market share than it would when you make it lower than your competitor’s product. That’s because the bell, a Pavlovian bell -- I mean ordinarily there’s a correlation between price and value -- then you have an information inefficiency. And so when you raise the price, the sales go up relative to your competitor. That happens again and again and again. It’s a pure Pavlovian phenomenon. You can say, “Well, the economists have figured this sort of thing out when they started talking about information inefficiencies,” but that was fairly late in economics that they found such an obvious thing. And, of course, most of them don’t ask what causes the information inefficiencies.

 

Well one of the things that causes it is pure old Pavlov and his dog. Now you’ve got bios from Skinnerian association: operant conditioning, you know, where you give the dog a reward and pound in the behavior that preceded the dog’s getting the award. And, of course, Skinner was able to create superstitious pigeons by having the rewards come by accident with certain occurrences, and, of course, we all know people who are the human equivalents of superstitious pigeons. That’s a very powerful phenomenon. And, of course, operant conditioning really works. I mean the people in the center who think that operant conditioning is important are very much right, it’s just that Skinner overdid it a little.

 

Where you see in business just perfectly horrible results from psychologically-rooted tendencies is in accounting. If you take Westinghouse, which blew, what, two or three billion dollars pre-tax at least loaning developers to build hotels, and virtually 100% loans? Now you say any idiot knows that if there’s one thing you don’t like it’s a developer, and another you don’t like it’s a hotel. And to make a 100% loan to a developer who’s going to build a hotel… [Laughter] But this guy, he probably was an engineer or something, and he didn’t take psychology any more than I did, and he got out there in the hands of these salesmen operating under their version of incentive-caused bias, where any damned way of getting

Westinghouse to do it was considered normal business, and they just blew it.

 

That would never have been possible if the accounting system hadn’t been such but for the initial phase of every transaction it showed wonderful financial results. So people who have loose accounting standards are just inviting perfectly horrible behavior in other people. And it’s a sin, it’s an absolute sin. If you carry bushel baskets full of money through the ghetto, and made it easy to steal, that would be a considerable human sin, because you’d be causing a lot of bad behavior, and the bad behavior would spread. Similarly an institution that gets sloppy accounting commits a real human sin, and it’s also a dumb way to do business, as Westinghouse has so wonderfully proved.

 

Oddly enough nobody mentions, at least nobody I’ve seen, what happened with Joe Jett and Kidder Peabody. The truth of the matter is the accounting system was such that by punching a few buttons, the Joe Jetts of the world could show profits, and profits that showed up in things that resulted in rewards and esteem and every other thing... Well the Joe Jetts are always with us, and they’re not really to blame, in my judgment at least. But that bastard who created that foolish accounting system who, so far as I know, has not been flayed alive, ought to be.

 

6. Sixth: bias from reciprocation tendency, including the tendency of one on a roll to act as other persons expect.

         [What you think may change what you do and what you do will change what you think]

 

Well here, again, Cialdini does a magnificent job at this, and you’re all going to be given a copy of Cialdini’s book. And if you have half as much sense as I think you do, you will immediately order copies for all of your children and several of your friends. You will never make a better investment.

 

It is so easy to be a patsy for what he calls the compliance practitioners of this life. At any rate, reciprocation tendency is a very, very powerful phenomenon, and Cialdini demonstrated this by running around a campus, and he asked people to take juvenile delinquents to the zoo. And it was a campus, and so one in six actually agreed to do it. And after he’d accumulated a statistical output he went around on the same campus and he asked other people, he said, “Gee, would you devote two afternoons a week to taking juvenile delinquents somewhere and suffering greatly yourself to help them,” and there he got 100% of the people to say no. But after he’d made the first request, he backed up a little, and he said, “Would you at least take them to the zoo one afternoon?” He raised the compliance rate from a third to a half. He got three times the success by just going through the little ask-for-a-lot-and-back-off.

 

Now if the human mind, on a subconscious level, can be manipulated that way and you don’t know it, I always use the phrase, “You’re like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.” I mean you are really giving a lot of quarter to the external world that you can’t afford to give. And on this so-called role theory, where you tend to act in the way that other people expect, and that’s reciprocation if you think about the way society is organized.

 

A guy named Zimbardo had people at Stanford divide into two pieces: one were the guards and the other were the prisoners, and they started acting out roles as people expected. He had to stop the experiment after about five days. He was getting into human misery and breakdown and pathological behavior. I mean it was…it was awesome. However, Zimbardo is greatly misinterpreted. It’s not just reciprocation tendency and role theory that caused that, it’s consistency and commitment tendency. Each person, as he acted as a guard or a prisoner, the action itself was pounding in the idea. [For more on this famous experiment, see http://www.prisonexp.org.]

[Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil TED talk given by Philip  Zimbardo “On the psychology of evil”]

 

Wherever you turn, this consistency and commitment tendency is affecting you. In other words, what you think may change what you do, but perhaps even more important, what you do will change what you think. And you can say, “Everybody knows that.” I want to tell you I didn’t know it well enough early enough.

 

7. Seventh, now this is a lollapalooza, and Henry Kaufman wisely talked about this: bias from over-influence by social proof -- that is, the conclusions of others, pparticularly under conditions of natural uncertainty and stress.

         [If Exxon was doing it, it was good enough for Mobil, and vice versa.]

 

And here, one of the cases the psychologists use is Kitty Genovese, where all these people -- I don’t know, 50, 60, 70 of them -- just sort of sat and did nothing while she was slowly murdered. Now one of the explanations is that everybody looked at everybody else and nobody else was doing anything, and so there’s automatic social proof that the right thing to do is nothing. That’s not a good enough explanation for Kitty Genovese, in my judgment. That’s only part of it. There are microeconomic ideas and gain/loss ratios and so forth that also come into play. I think time and time again, in reality, psychological notions and economic notions interplay, and the man who doesn’t understand both is a damned fool. Big-shot businessmen get into these waves of social proof. Do you remember some years ago when one oil company bought a fertilizer company, and every other major oil company practically ran out and bought a fertilizer company? And there was no more damned reason for all these oil companies to buy fertilizer companies, but they didn’t know exactly what to do, and if Exxon was doing it, it was good enough for Mobil, and vice versa. I think they’re all gone now, but it was a total disaster.

 

Now let’s talk about efficient market theory, a wonderful economic doctrine that had a long vogue in spite of the experience of Berkshire Hathaway. In fact one of the economists who won -- he shared a Nobel Prize -- and as he looked at Berkshire Hathaway year after year, which people would throw in his face as saying maybe the market isn’t quite as efficient as you think, he said, “Well, it’s a two-sigma event.” And then he said we were a three-sigma event. And then he said we were a four-sigma event. And he finally got up to six sigmas -- better to add a sigma than change a theory, just because the evidence comes in differently. [Laughter] And, of course, when this share of a Nobel Prize went into money management himself, he sank like a stone.

 

If you think about the doctrines I’ve talked about, namely, one, the power of reinforcement -- after all you do something and the market goes up and you get paid and rewarded and applauded and what have you, meaning a lot of reinforcement, if you make a bet on a market and the market goes with you. Also, there’s social proof. I mean the prices on the market are the ultimate form of social proof, reflecting what other people think, and so the combination is very powerful. Why would you expect general market levels to always be totally efficient, say even in 1973-74 at the pit, or in 1972 or whatever it was when the Nifty 50 were in their heyday? If these psychological notions are correct, you would expect some waves of irrationality, which carry general levels, so they’re inconsistent with reason.

 

8. Nine [he means eight]: what made these economists love the efficient market theory is the math was so elegant.

 

And after all, math was what they’d learned to do. To the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail. The alternative truth was a little messy, and they’d forgotten the great economists Keynes, whom I think said, “Better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”

 

9. Nine: bias from contrast-caused distortions of sensation, perception and cognition.

         [If it comes to you in small pieces, you’re likely to miss the big picture. It is like putting the frog in room temperature water and just slowly heat the water up, the frog will die there.]

 

Here, the great experiment that Cialdini does in his class is he takes three buckets of water: one’s hot, one’s cold and one’s room temperature, and he has the student stick his left hand in the hot water and his right hand in the cold water. Then he has them remove the hands and put them both in the room temperature bucket, and of course with both hands in the same bucket of water, one seems hot, the other seems cold because the sensation apparatus of man is over-influenced by contrast. It has no absolute scale; it’s got a contrast scale in

it. And it’s a scale with quantum effects in it too. It takes a certain percentage change before it’s noticed.

 

Maybe you’ve had a magician remove your watch -- I certainly have -- without your noticing it. It’s the same thing. He’s taking advantage of contrast-type troubles in your sensory apparatus. But here the great truth is that cognition mimics sensation, and the cognition manipulators mimic the watch-removing magician. In other words, people are manipulating you all day long on this contrast phenomenon.

 

Cialdini cites the case of the real estate broker. And you’ve got the rube that’s been transferred into your town, and the first thing you do is you take the rube out to two of the most awful, overpriced houses you’ve ever seen, and then you take the rube to some moderately overpriced house, and then you stick him. And it works pretty well, which is why the real estate salesmen do it. And it’s always going to work.

 

And the accidents of life can do this to you, and it can ruin your life. In my generation, when women lived at home until they got married, I saw some perfectly terrible marriages made by highly desirable women because they lived in terrible homes. And I’ve seen some terrible second marriages which were made because they were slight improvements over an even worse first marriage. You think you’re immune from these things, and you laugh, and I want to tell you, you aren’t.

 

My favorite analogy I can’t vouch for the accuracy of. I have this worthless friend I like to play bridge with, and he’s a total intellectual amateur that lives on inherited money, but he told me once something I really enjoyed hearing. He said, “Charlie,” he say, “If you throw a frog into very hot water, the frog will jump out, but if you put the frog in room temperature water and just slowly heat the water up, the frog will die there.” Now I don’t know whether that’s true about a frog, but it’s sure as hell true about many of the businessmen I know [laughter], and there, again, it is the contrast phenomenon. But these are hot-shot, high-powered people. I mean these are not fools. If it comes to you in small pieces,

you’re likely to miss, so if you’re going to be a person of good judgment, you have to do something about this warp in your head where it’s so misled by mere contrast.

 

10. Bias from over-influence by authority.

 

Well here, the Milgrim experiment, as it's called -- I think there have been 1,600 psychological papers written about Milgrim. And he had a person posing as an authority figure trick ordinary people into giving what they had every reason to expect was heavy torture by electric shock to perfectly innocent fellow citizens. And he was trying to show why Hitler succeeded and a few other things, and so this really caught the fancy of the world. Partly it’s so politically correct, and over-influence by authority…

 

You’ll like this one: You get a pilot and a co-pilot. The pilot is the authority figure. They don’t do this in airplanes, but they’ve done it in simulators. They have the pilot do something where the co-pilot, who's been trained in simulators a long time -- he knows he’s not to allow the plane to crash -- they have the pilot to do something where an idiot co-pilot would know the plane was going to crash, but the pilot’s doing it, and the co-pilot is sitting there, and the pilot is the authority figure. 25% of the time the plane crashes. I mean this is a very powerful psychological tendency. It’s not quite as powerful as some people think, and I’ll get to that later.

 

11. Eleven: bias from deprival super-reaction syndrome, including bias caused by present or threatened scarcity, including threatened removal of something almost possessed, but never possessed.

         [A dog will bite you if you try to take something out of its mouth after it was already there.]

 

Here I took the Munger dog, a lovely, harmless dog. The only way to get that dog to bite you is to try and take something out of its mouth after it was already there. And you know, if you’ve tried to do takeaways in labor negotiations, you’ll know that the human version of that dog is there in all of us. And I have a neighbor, a predecessor who had a little island around the house, and his next door neighbor put a little pine tree on it that was about three feet high, and it turned his 180 degree view of the harbor into 179 3/4. Well they had a blood feud like the Hatfields and McCoys, and it went on and on and on…

 

I mean people are really crazy about minor decrements down. And then, if you act on them, then you get into reciprocation tendency, because you don’t just reciprocate affection, you reciprocate animosity, and the whole thing can escalate. And so huge insanities can come from just subconsciously over-weighing the importance of what you’re losing or almost getting and not getting.

 

And the extreme business case here was New Coke. Coca-Cola has the most valuable trademark in the world. We’re the major shareholder -- I think we understand that trademark. Coke has armies of brilliant engineers, lawyers, psychologists, advertising executives and so forth, and they had a trademark on a flavor, and they’d spent the better part of 100 years getting people to believe that trademark had all these intangible values too. And people associate it with a flavor. And so they were going to tell people not that it was improved, because you can’t improve a flavor. A flavor is a matter of taste. I mean you may improve a detergent or something, but don’t think you’re going to make a major change in a flavor. So they got this huge deprival super-reaction syndrome.

 

Pepsi was within weeks of coming out with old Coke in a Pepsi bottle, which would’ve been the biggest fiasco in modern times. Perfect insanity. And by the way, both Goizuetta [Coke's CEO at the time] and Keough [an influential former president and director of the company] are just wonderful about it. I mean they just joke. Keough always says, “I must’ve been away on vacation.” He participated in every single decision -- he’s a wonderful guy. And by the

way, Goizuetta is a wonderful, smart guy -- an engineer. Smart people make these terrible boners. How can you not understand deprival super-reaction syndrome? But people do not react symmetrically to loss and gain. Well maybe a great bridge player like Zeckhauser does, but that’s a trained response. Ordinary people, subconsciously affected by their inborn tendencies…

 

12. Bias from envy/jealousy.

         [“It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy.”]

 

Well envy/jealousy made, what, two out of the ten commandments? Those of you who have raised siblings you know about envy, or tried to run a law firm or investment bank or even a faculty? I’ve heard Warren say a half a dozen times, “It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy.”

 

Here again, you go through the psychology survey courses, and you go to the index: envy/jealousy, 1,000-page book, it’s blank. There’s some blind spots in academia, but it’s an enormously powerful thing, and it operates, to a considerable extent, on the subconscious level. Anybody who doesn’t understand it is taking on defects he shouldn’t have.

 

13. Bias from chemical dependency.

 

Well, we don’t have to talk about that. We’ve all seen so much of it, but it’s interesting how it’ll always cause this moral breakdown if there’s any need, and it always involves massive denial. See it just aggravates what we talked about earlier in the aviator case, the tendency to distort reality so that it’s endurable.

 

14. Bias from mis-gambling compulsion.

 

Well here, Skinner made the only explanation you’ll find in the standard psychology survey course. He, of course, created a variable reinforcement rate for his pigeons and his mice, and he found that that would pound in the behavior better than any other enforcement pattern. And he says, “Ah ha! I’ve explained why gambling is such a powerful, addictive force in this civilization.” I think that is, to a very considerable extent, true, but being Skinner, he seemed to think that was the only explanation, but the truth of the matter is that the devisors of these modern machines and techniques know a lot of things that Skinner didn’t know.

 

For instance, a lottery. You have a lottery where you get your number by lot, and then somebody draws a number by lot, it gets lousy play. You have a lottery where people get to pick their number, you get big play. Again, it’s this consistency and commitment thing. People think if they have committed to it, it has to be good. The minute they’ve picked it themselves it gets an extra validity. After all, they thought it and they acted on it.

 

Then if you take the slot machines, you get bar, bar, walnut. And it happens again and again and again. You get all these near misses. Well that’s deprival super-reaction syndrome, and boy do the people who create the machines understand human psychology. And for the high IQ-crowd they’ve got poker machines where you make choices. So you can play blackjack, so to speak, with the machine. It’s wonderful what we’ve done with our computers to ruin the civilization.

 

But at any rate, mis-gambling compulsion is a very, very powerful and important thing. Look at what’s happening to our country: every Indian has a reservation, every river town, and look at the people who are ruined by it with the aid of their stock brokers and others. And again, if you look in the standard textbook of psychology you’ll find practically nothing on it except maybe one sentence talking about Skinner’s rats. That is not an adequate coverage of the subject.

 

15. Bias from liking distortion, including the tendency to especially like oneself, one’s own kind and one’s own idea structures, and the tendency to be especially susceptible to being misled by someone liked. Disliking distortion, bias from that, the reciprocal of liking distortion and the tendency not to learn appropriately from someone disliked.

         [“In the last analysis, every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.”]

 

Well here, again, we’ve got hugely powerful tendencies, and if you look at the wars in part of the Harvard Law School, as we sit here, you can see that very brilliant people get into this almost pathological behavior. And these are very, very powerful, basic, subconscious psychological tendencies, or at least party subconscious.

 

Now let’s get back to B.F. Skinner, man-with-a-hammer syndrome revisited. Why is man-with-a-hammer syndrome always present? Well if you stop to think about it, it’s incentive-caused bias. His professional reputation is all tied up with what he knows. He likes himself and he likes his own ideas, and he’s expressed them to other people – consistency and commitment tendency. I mean you’ve got four or five of these elementary psychological tendencies combining to create this man-with-a-hammer syndrome.

 

Once you realize that you can’t really buy your thinking -- partly you can, but largely you can’t in this world -- you have learned a lesson that’s very useful in life. George Bernard Shaw had a character say in The Doctor’s Dilemma, “In the last analysis, every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.” But he didn’t have it quite right, because it isn’t so much a conspiracy as it is a subconscious, psychological tendency.

 

The guy tells you what is good for him. He doesn’t recognize that he’s doing anything wrong any more than that doctor did when he was pulling out all those normal gall bladders. And he believes his own idea structures will cure cancer, and he believes that the demons that he’s the guardian against are the biggest demons and the most important ones, and in fact they may be very small demons compared to the demons that you face. So you’re getting your advice in this world from your paid advisor with this huge load of ghastly bias. And woe to you.

 

There are only two ways to handle it: you can hire your advisor and then just apply a windage factor, like I used to do when I was a rifle shooter. I’d just adjust for so many miles an hour wind. Or you can learn the basic elements of your advisor's trade. You don’t have to learn very much, by the way, because if you learn just a little then you can make him explain why he’s right. And those two tendencies will take part of the warp out of the thinking you’ve tried to hire done. By and large it works terribly. I have never seen a management consultant’s report in my long life that didn’t end with the following paragraph:

"What this situation really needs is more management consulting." Never once. I always turn to the last page. Of course Berkshire doesn’t hire them, so I only do this on sort of a voyeuristic basis. Sometimes I’m at a non-profit where some idiot hires one. [Laughter]

 

16. Seventeen [he means 16]: bias from the non-mathematical nature of the human brain in its natural state as it deal with probabilities employing crude heuristics, and is often misled by mere contrast, a tendency to overweigh conveniently available information and other psychologically misrouted thinking tendencies on this list.

                  [Availability does change behavior and cognition.]

 

When the brain should be using the simple probability mathematics of Fermat and Pascal applied to all reasonably obtainable and correctly weighted items of information that are of value in predicting outcomes, the right way to think is the way Zeckhauser plays bridge. It’s just that simple. And your brain doesn’t naturally know how to think the way Zeckhauser knows how to play bridge. Now, you notice I put in that availability thing, and there I’m mimicking some very eminent psychologists [Daniel] Kahneman, Eikhout[?] (I hope I pronounced that right) and [Amos] Tversky, who raised the idea of availability to a whole heuristic of misjudgment. And they are very substantially right.

 

I mean ask the Coca-Cola Company, which has raised availability to a secular religion. If availability changes behavior, you will drink a helluva lot more Coke if it’s always available. I mean availability does change behavior and cognition. Nonetheless, even though I recognize that and applaud Tversky and Kahneman, I don’t like it for my personal system except as part of a greater sub-system, which is you’ve got to think the way Zeckhauser plays bridge. And it isn’t just the lack of availability that distorts your judgment. All the things on this list distort judgment. And I want to train myself to kind of mentally run down the list instead of just jumping on availability. So that’s why I state it the way I do.

 

In a sense these psychological tendencies make things unavailable, because if you quickly jump to one thing, and then because you jumped to it the consistency and commitment tendency makes you lock in, boom, that’s error number one. Or if something is very vivid, which I’m going to come to next, that will really pound in. And the reason that the thing that really matters is now unavailable and what’s extra-vivid wins is, I mean, the extra-vividness creates the unavailability. So I think it’s much better to have a whole list of things that would cause you to be less like Zeckhauser than it is just to jump on one factor.

 

Here I think we should discuss John Gutfreund. This is a very interesting human example, which will be taught in every decent professional school for at least a full generation. Gutfreund has a trusted employee and it comes to light not through confession but by accident that the trusted employee has lied like hell to the government and manipulated the accounting system, and it was really equivalent to forgery. And the man immediately says, “I’ve never done it before, I’ll never do it again. It was an isolated example.” And of course it was obvious that he was trying to help the government as well as himself, because he thought the government had been dumb enough to pass a rule that he’d spoken against, and after all if the government’s not going to pay attention to a bond trader at Salomon, what kind of a government can it be?

 

At any rate, this guy has been part of a little clique that has made, well, way over a billion dollars for Salomon in the very recent past, and it’s a little handful of people. And so there are a lot of psychological forces at work, and then you know the guy’s wife, and he’s right in front of you, and there’s human sympathy, and he’s sort of asking for your help, which encourages reciprocation, and there’s all these psychological tendencies are working, plus the fact he’s part of a group that had made a lot of money for you. At any rate, Gutfreund does not cashier the man, and of course he had done it before and he did do it again. Well now you look as though you almost wanted him to do it again. Or God knows what you look like, but it isn’t good. And that simple decision destroyed Jim Gutfreund, and it’s so easy to do.

 

Now let’s think it through like the bridge player, like Zeckhauser. You find an isolated example of a little old lady in the See’s Candy Company, one of our subsidiaries, getting into the till. And what does she say? “I never did it before, I’ll never do it again. This is going to ruin my life. Please help me.” And you know her children and her friends, and she’d been around 30 years and standing behind the candy counter with swollen ankles. When you’re an old lady it isn’t that glorious a life. And you’re rich and powerful and there she is: “I never did it  before, I’ll never do it again.” Well how likely is it that she never did it before? If you’re going to catch 10 embezzlements a year, what are the chances that any one of them -- applying what Tversky and Kahneman called baseline information -- will be somebody who only did it this once? And the people who have done it before and are going to do it again, what are they all going to say? Well in the history of the See’s Candy Company they always say, “I never did it before, and I’m never going to do it again.” And we cashier them. It would be evil not to, because terrible behavior spreads.

 

Remember…what was it? Serpico? I mean you let that stuff…you’ve got social proof, you’ve got incentive-caused bias, you’ve got a whole lot of psychological factors that will cause the evil behavior to spread, and pretty soon the whole damn…your place is rotten, the civilization is rotten. It’s not the right way to behave. And I will admit that I have…when I knew the wife and children, I have paid severance pay when I fire somebody for taking a mistress on an extended foreign trip. It’s not the adultery I mind, it’s the embezzlement. But there, I wouldn’t do it like Gutfreund did it, where they’d been cheating somebody else on my behalf. There I think you have to cashier. But if they’re just stealing from you and you get rid of them, I don’t think you need the last ounce of vengeance. In fact I don’t think you need any vengeance. I don’t think vengeance is much good.

 

17. Now we come to bias from over-influence by extra-vivid evidence.

 

Here’s one that…I’m at least $30 million poorer as I sit here giving this little talk because I once bought 300 shares of a stock and the guy called me back and said, “I’ve got 1,500 more,” and I said, “Will you hold it for 15 minutes while I think about it?” And the CEO of this company -- I have seen a lot of vivid peculiarities in a long life, but this guy set a world record; I’m talking about the CEO -- and I just mis-weighed it. The truth of the matter was the situation was foolproof. He was soon going to be dead, and I turned down the extra 1,500 shares, and it’s now cost me $30 million. And that’s life in the big city. And it wasn’t something where stock was generally available. So it’s very easy to misweigh the vivid evidence, and Gutfreund did that when he looked into the man’s eyes and forgave a colleague.

 

18. Twenty-two [he means 18]: Mental confusion caused by information not arrayed in the mind and theory structures, creating sound generalizations developed in response to the question “Why?” Also, mis-influence from information that apparently but not really answers the question “Why?” Also, failure to obtain deserved influence caused by not properly explaining why.

         [You want to persuade somebody, you really need to tell them why.]

 

Well we all know people who’ve flunked, and they try and memorize and they try and spout back and they just…it doesn’t work. The brain doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to array facts on the theory structures answering the question “Why?” If you don’t do that, you just cannot handle the world.

 

And now we get to Feuerstein, who was the general counsel with Salomon when

Gutfreund made his big error, and Feuerstein knew better. He told Gutfreund, “You have to report this as a matter of morality and prudent business judgment.” He said, “It’s probably not illegal, there’s probably no legal duty to do it, but you have to do it as a matter of prudent conduct and proper dealing with your main customer.” He said that to Gutfreund on at least two or three occasions. And he stopped. And, of course, the persuasion failed, and when Gutfreund went down, Feuerstein went with him. It ruined a considerable part of Feuerstein’s life.

 

Well Feuerstein, [who] was a member of the Harvard Law Review, made an elementary psychological mistake. You want to persuade somebody, you really tell them why. And what did we learn in lesson one? Incentives really matter? Vivid evidence really works? He should’ve told Gutfreund, “You’re likely to ruin your life and disgrace your family and lose your money.” And is Mozer worth this? I know both men. That would’ve worked. So Feuerstein flunked elementary psychology, this very sophisticated, brilliant lawyer. But don’t you do that. It’s not very hard to do, you know, just to remember that “Why?” is very important.

 

19. Other normal limitations of sensation, memory, cognition and knowledge.

 

Well, I don’t have time for that.

 

20. Stress-induced mental changes, small and large, temporary and permanent.

                  [Pavlov noted that great stress can have a total reversal of the dog’s conditioned personality.]

 

Here, my favorite example is the great Pavlov. He had all these dogs in cages, which had all been conditioned into changed behaviors, and the great Leningrad flood came and it just went right up and the dog’s in a cage. And the dog had as much stress as you can imagine a dog ever having. And the water receded in time to save some of the dogs, and Pavlov noted that they’d had a total reversal of their conditioned personality. And being the great scientist he was, he spent the rest of his life giving nervous breakdowns to dogs, and he learned a helluva lot that I regard as very interesting.

 

I have never known any Freudian analyst who knew anything about the last work of Pavlov, and I’ve never met a lawyer who understood that what Pavlov found out with those dogs had anything to do with programming and de-programming and cults and so forth. I mean the amount of elementary psychological ignorance that is out there in high levels is very significant[?].

 

21. Then we’ve got other common mental illnesses and declines, temporary and permanent, including the tendency to lose ability through disuse.

 

22. And then I’ve got development and organizational confusion from say-something syndrome.

                  [Don’t be taken in and beware of must say something syndrome]

 

And here my favorite thing is the bee, a honeybee. And a honeybee goes out and finds the nectar and he comes back, he does a dance that communicates to the other bees where the nectar is, and they go out and get it. Well some scientist who is clever, like B.F. Skinner, decided to do an experiment. He put the nectar straight up. Way up. Well, in a natural setting, there is no nectar where they’re all straight up, and the poor honeybee doesn’t have a genetic program that is adequate to handle what he now has to communicate. And you’d think the honeybee would come back to the hive and slink into a corner, but he doesn’t. He comes into the hive and does this incoherent dance, and all my life I’ve been dealing with the human equivalent of that honeybee. [Laughter] And it’s a very important part of human organization so the noise and the reciprocation and so forth of all these people who have what I call say-something syndrome don’t really affect the decisions.

 

Now the time has come to ask two or three questions. This is the most important question in this whole talk:

 

1. What happens when these standard psychological tendencies combine? What happens when the situation, or the artful manipulation of man, causes several of these tendencies to operate on a person toward the same end at the same time?

 

The clear answer is the combination greatly increases power to change behavior, compared to the power of merely one tendency acting alone. Examples are:

 

 

 

 

 

When you get these lollapalooza effects you will almost always find four or five of these things working together.

 

When I was young there was a whodunit hero who always said, “Cherche la femme.” [In French, "Look for the woman."] What you should search for in life is the combination, because the combination is likely to do you in. Or, if you’re the inventor of Tupperware parties, it’s likely to make you enormously rich if you can stand shaving when you do it.

 

One of my favorite cases is the McDonald-Douglas airliner evacuation disaster. The government requires that airliners pass a bunch of tests, one of them is evacuation: get everybody out, I think it’s 90 seconds or something like that. It’s some short period of time. The government has rules, make it very realistic, so on and so on. You can’t select nothing but 20-year-old athletes to evacuate your airline. So McDonald-Douglas schedules one of these things in a hangar, and they make the hangar dark and the concrete floor is 25 feet down, and they’ve got these little rubber chutes, and they’ve got all these old people, and they ring the bell and they all rush out, and in the morning, when the first test is done, they create, I don’t know, 20 terrible injuries when people go off to hospitals, and of course they scheduled another one for the afternoon.

 

By the way they didn’t read[?] the time schedule either, in addition to causing all the injuries. Well…so what do they do? They do it again in the afternoon. Now they create 20 more injuries and one case of a severed spinal column with permanent, unfixable paralysis. These are engineers, these are brilliant people, this is thought over through in a big bureaucracy. Again, it’s a combination of [psychological tendencies]: authorities told you to do it. He told you to make it realistic. You’ve decided to do it. You’d decided to do it twice. Incentive-caused bias. If you pass you save a lot of money. You’ve got to jump this hurdle before you can sell your new airliner. Again, three, four, five of these things work together and it turns human brains into mush. And maybe you think this doesn’t happen in picking investments? If so, you’re living in a different world than I am.

 

Finally, the open-outcry auction. Well the open-outcry auction is just made to turn the brain into mush: you’ve got social proof, the other guy is bidding, you get reciprocation tendency, you get deprival super-reaction syndrome, the thing is going away… I mean it just absolutely is designed to manipulate people into idiotic behavior.

 

Finally the institution of the board of directors of the major American company. Well, the top guy is sitting there, he’s an authority figure. He’s doing asinine things, you look around the board, nobody else is objecting, social proof, it’s okay? Reciprocation tendency, he’s raising the directors fees every year, he’s flying you around in the corporate airplane to look at interesting plants, or whatever in hell they do, and you go and you really get extreme dysfunction as a corrective decision-making body in the typical American board of directors. They only act, again the power of incentives, they only act when it gets so bad it starts making them look foolish, or threatening legal liability to them. That’s Munger’s rule. I mean there are occasional things that don’t follow Munger’s rule, but by and large the board of directors is a very ineffective corrector if the top guy is a little nuts, which, of course, frequently happens.

 

2. The second question: Isn’t this list of standard psychological tendencies improperly tautological compared with the system of Euclid? That is, aren’t there overlaps? And can’t some items on the list be derived from combinations of other items?

 

The answer to that is, plainly, yes.

 

3. Three: What good, in the practical world, is the thought system indicated by the list? Isn’t practical benefit prevented because these psychological tendencies are programmed into the human mind by broad evolution so we can’t get rid of them? [By] broad evolution, I mean the combination of genetic and cultural evolution, but mostly genetic.

 

Well the answer is the tendencies are partly good and, indeed, probably much more good than bad, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. By and large these rules of thumb, they work pretty well for man given his limited mental capacity. And that’s why they were programmed in by broad evolution. At any rate, they can’t be simply washed out automatically and they shouldn’t be. Nonetheless, the psychological thought system described is very useful in spreading wisdom and good conduct when one understands it and uses it constructively.

 

Here are some examples:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Four: What special knowledge problems lie buried in the thought system indicated by the list?

 

Well one is paradox. Now we’re talking about a type of human wisdom that the more people learn about it, the more attenuated the wisdom gets. That’s an intrinsically paradoxical kind of wisdom. But we have paradox in mathematics and we don’t give up mathematics. I say damn the paradox. This stuff is wonderfully useful. And by the way, the granny’s rule, when you apply it to yourself, is sort of a paradox in a paradox. The manipulation still works even though you know you’re doing it. And I’ve seen that done by one person to another.

 

I drew this beautiful woman as my dinner partner a few years ago, and I’d never seen her before. Well, she’s married to prominent Angelino, and she sat down next to me and she turned her beautiful face up and she said, “Charlie,” she said, “What one word accounts for your remarkable success in life?” And I knew I was being manipulated and that she’d done this before, and I just loved it. I mean I never see this woman without a little lift in my spirits. And by the way I told her I was rational. You’ll have to judge yourself whether that’s true. I may be demonstrating some psychological tendency I hadn’t planned on demonstrating.

 

How should the best parts of psychology and economics interrelate in an enlightened economist's mind? Two views: that’s the thermodynamics model. You know, you can’t derive thermodynamics from plutonium, gravity and laws of mechanics, even though it’s a lot of little particles interacting. And here is this wonderful truth that you can sort of develop on your own, which is thermodynamics. And some economists -- and I think Milton Friedman is in this group, but I may be wrong on that -- sort of like the thermodynamics model. I think Milton Friedman, who has a Nobel prize, is probably a little wrong on that. I think the thermodynamics analogy is over-strained. I think knowledge from these different soft sciences have to be reconciled to eliminate conflict. After all, there’s nothing in thermodynamics that’s inconsistent with Newtonian mechanics and gravity, and I think that some of these economic theories are not totally consistent with other knowledge, and they have to be bent. And I think that these behavioral economics…or economists are probably the ones that are bending them in the correct direction.

 

Now my prediction is when the economists take a little psychology into account that the reconciliation will be quite endurable. And here my model is the procession of the equinoxes. The world would be simpler for a long-term climatologist if the angle of the axis of the Earth’s rotation, compared to the plane of the Euclyptic, were absolutely fixed. But it isn’t fixed. Over every 40,000 years or so there’s this little wobble, and that has pronounced long-term effects. Well in many cases what psychology is going to add is just a little wobble, and it will be endurable. Here I quote another hero of mine, which of course is Einstein, where he said, “The Lord is subtle, but not malicious.” And I don’t think it’s going to be that hard to bend economics a little to accommodate what’s right in psychology.

 

5. Fifth: The final question is: If the thought system indicated by this list of psychological tendencies has great value not recognized and employed, what should the educational system do about it?

 

I am not going to answer that one now. I like leaving a little mystery.

 

Have I used up all the time so there’s no time for questions?

 

Moderator: I think that what we’re going to do is we’re going to borrow a little bit of time from the end of the day questions, and we’re going to move it and allocate it to Charles Munger, if that's acceptable to everybody.

 

Munger: By the way, the dean of the Stanford Law School is here today, Paul Brest, and he is trying to create a course at the Stanford Law School that tries to work stuff similar to this into worldly wisdom for lawyers, which I regard as a profoundly good idea, and he wrote an article about it, and you’ll be given a copy along with Cialdini’s book. [The article Mr. Munger is referring to is called "On Teaching Professional Judgment" by Paul Brest and Linda Krieger. It was published in the July 1994 edition of the Washington Law Review.] Questions?

 

Audience

Member #1: Will we be able to get a copy of that list of 24 [standard causes of human misjudgment]?

 

Munger: Yes. I presumed there would be one curious man [laughter], and I have it and I’ll put it over there on the table, but don’t take more than one, because I didn’t anticipate such a big crowd. And if we run short, I’m sure the Center is up to making other copies.

 

Audience

Member #2: If I had listened to this talk I might have thought that Charles Munger was a psychology professor operating in a business school. Every once in a while a micro-issue -- you told us how you would’ve deal with one of these issues, for example with the unfortunate lady See’s -- but you didn’t tell us how these tendencies affected you and what’s probably the most important, or one of the most important elements of your success, which was deciding where to invest your money. And I’m wondering if you might relate some of these principles to some of your past decisions that way.

 

Munger: Well of course an investment decision in the common stock of a company frequently involves a whole lot of factors interacting. Usually, of course, there’s one big, simple model, and a lot of those models are microeconomic. And I have a little list of – it wouldn’t be nearly 24, of those -- but I don’t have time for that one. And I don’t have too much interest in teaching other people how to get rich. And that isn’t because I fear the competition or anything like that -- Warren has always been very open about what he’s learned, and I share that ethos. My personal behavior model is Lord Keynes: I wanted to get rich so I could be independent, and so I could do other things like give talks on the intersection of psychology and economics. I didn’t want to turn it into a total obsession.

 

Audience

Member #3: Out of those 24, could you tell us the one rule that’s most important?

 

Munger: I would say the one thing that causes the most trouble is when you combine a bunch of these together, you get this lollapalooza effect. And again, if you read the psychology textbooks, they don’t discuss how these things combine, at least not very much. Do they multiply? Do they add? How does it work? You’d think it’d be just an automatic subject for research, but it doesn’t seem to turn the psychology establishment on. I think this is a man from Mars approach to psychology.

 

I just reached in and took what I thought I had to have. That is a different set of incentives from rising in an economic establishment where the rewards system, again, the reinforcement, comes from being a truffle hound. That’s what Jacob Viner, the great economist called it: the truffle hound -- an animal so bred and trained for one narrow purpose that he wasn’t much good at anything else, and that is the reward system in a lot of academic departments. It is not necessarily for the good. It may be fine if you want new drugs or something. You want people stunted in a lot of different directions so they can grow in one narrow direction, but I don’t think it’s good teaching psychology to the masses. In fact, I think it’s terrible.

 

                           --------------------------

FULL TEXT OF SPEECH “THE PSYCHOLOGY OF HUMAN MISJUDGEMENT” BY CHARLIE MUNGER

thank you for watching the YouTube video on The Psychology of Human Misjudgement, you will find the full text of the transcript for that video here.

 

                  -------------------------------------------

 

                            

         WESCO FINANCIAL'S CHARLIE MUNGER

 

         "A LESSON ON ELEMENTARY, WORLDLY WISDOM AS IT RELATES TO

          INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT & BUSINESS."

 

         from a lecture to the students of Professor Guilford Babcock at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business from Outstanding Investor Digest's May 5, 1995 Edition

 

         TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

         "A LESSON ON ELEMENTARY, WORLDLY WISDOM

         AS IT RELATES TO INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT & BUSINESS." .................. 1

        

         ALL TOO LITTLE WORLDLY WISDOM

         IS DELIVERED BY MODERN EDUCATION. .................. 2

        

         WITHOUT MODELS FROM MULTIPLE DISCIPLINES,

         YOU'LL FAIL IN BUSINESS AND IN LIFE. .................. 3

        

         YOU'RE GIVING A HUGE ADVANTAGE TO OTHERS

         IF YOU DON'T LEARN THIS SIMPLE TECHNIQUE. .................. 4

        

         NEXT, YOU HAVE TO KNOW ACCOUNTING

         - ALONG WITH ITS LIMITATIONS. .................. 5

        

         AN IRON RULE OF WORLDLY WISDOM:

         ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS TELL PEOPLE WHY. .................. 6

        

         ENGINEERING HAS MORE THAN ITS SHARE OF MODELS.

         AND THEY'RE THE MOST RELIABLE ONES, AS WELL. .................. 7

        

         THE HUMAN MIND HAS ENORMOUS POWER,

         BUT IT ALSO HAS STANDARD MISFUNCTIONS. .................. 8

        

         ORGANISMS, PEOPLE & COMPANIES WHO SPECIALIZE

         CAN GET TERRIBLY GOOD IN THEIR LITTLE NICHE. .................. 9

        

         AND THERE ARE OTHER ECONOMIES: GEOMETRIC,

         ADVERTISING, INFORMATION, EVEN PSYCHOLOGICAL. .................. 10

        

         THINGS TEND TOWARD WINNER TAKE ALL.

         THEREFORE, IT PAYS TO BE #1, #2 OR OUT. .................. 11

        

         HOWEVER, BIGGER ISN'T ALWAYS BETTER -

        

         THERE ARE ALSO DISADVANTAGES OF SCALE. .................. 12

        

         A CASE STUDY IN ECONOMIES VS. DISECONOMIES

         - WAL-MART VERSUS SEARS, ROEBUCK. .................. 13

        

         A MODEL WE'VE HAD TROUBLE WITH -

         ANTICIPATING COMPETITION AND ITS SIDE EFFECTS. .................. 14

        

         A FEW WORDS ON PATENTS,

         TRADEMARKS AND FRANCHISES. .................. 15

        

         A BASIC LESSON OFTEN FORGOTTEN:

         NEW TECHNOLOGY CAN KILL YOU. .................. 16

        

         THE NATIONAL CASH REGISTER MODEL

         IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR. .................. 17

        

         FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU HAVE AN EDGE

         THEN, PLAY THERE AND ONLY THERE. .................. 18

        

         TO A MAN WITH PROFICIENCY IN MATH,

         EFFICIENT MARKET THEORY LOOKS LIKE A NAIL. .................. 19

        

         BETTING ON HORSES AND PICKING STOCKS

         HAVE MORE THAN A LITTLE IN COMMON. .................. 20

        

         AS USUAL, IN HUMAN AFFAIRS

         WHAT WINS ARE INCENTIVES. .................. 21

        

         IF SECTOR ROTATION IS VERY LUCRATIVE,

         WE'VE NEVER SEEN THE EVIDENCE. .................. 22

        

         RICH OR POOR, IT'S GOOD TO HAVE

         A HUGE MARGIN OF SAFETY. .................. 23

        

         GRAHAM WASN'T TRYING TO PLAY OUR GAME

         - I.E., PAYING UP FOR BETTER BUSINESSES. .................. 24

        

         FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF A RATIONAL CLIENT,

         INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT TODAY IS BONKERS. .................. 25

        

         IF YOU DON'T LOAD UP ON GREAT OPPORTUNITIES,

         THEN YOU'RE MAKING A BIG MISTAKE. .................. 26

        

         MAKE A FEW GREAT INVESTMENTS

         AND SIT ON YOUR ASSETS.... .................. 27

                 

         AND THERE'S THE ULTIMATE NO-BRAINER

         - LIKE FINDING MONEY IN THE STREET. .................. 28

        

         MODELS FROM BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INVESTMENTS:

         COKE, GILLETTE, GEICO & THE WASHINGTON POST .................. 29

        

         THE INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT BUSINESS:

         DON'T PRACTICE PSYCHOLOGICAL DENIAL .................. 30

                  --------------------

 

         A particularly astute student of human nature - particularly insofar as it relates to business and investing - Charlie Munger's counsel is highly prized and relied upon by friend and partner Warren Buffett. His insights are equally valued and sought after by more than a few OID subscribers and contributors (and editors).

 

         Therefore, we were very pleased to be allowed to sit in on Munger's lecture at the University of     Southern California last year on "investment expertise as a subdivision of elementary, worldly wisdom" and very gratefully acknowledge his generous permission to share it with you.

 

         As always, we highly recommend a very careful reading (and re-reading) of his comments and insights and hope that you find them as valuable as we do:

 

         ALL TOO LITTLE WORLDLY WISDOM

          IS DELIVERED BY MODERN EDUCATION.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

         To be a great stock picker, you need some general education.

 

 Charlie Munger: I'm going to play a minor trick on you today - because the subject of my talk is the art of stock picking as a subdivision of the art of worldly wisdom. That enables me to start talking about worldly wisdom - a much broader topic that interests me because I think all too little of it is delivered by modern educational systems, at least in an effective way.

 

         And therefore, the talk is sort of along the lines that some behaviorist psychologists call Grandma's rule - after the wisdom of Grandma when she said that you have to eat the carrots before you get the dessert. The carrot part of this talk is about the general subject of worldly wisdom which is a pretty good way to start. After all, the theory of modern education is that you need a general education before you specialize. And I think to some extent, before you're going to be a great stock picker, you need some general education.

 

         So, emphasizing what I sometimes waggishly call remedial worldly wisdom, I'm going to start by waltzing you through a few basic notions.

 

         WITHOUT MODELS FROM MULTIPLE DISCIPLINES,

                     YOU'LL FAIL IN BUSINESS AND IN LIFE.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

         Without a latticework of models, you'll fail in school and life.

 

 Munger: What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can't really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang 'em back. If the facts don't hang together on a latticework of theory, you don't have them in a usable form.

 

         You've got to have models in your head. And you've got to array your experience - both vicarious and direct - on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and fail in life. You've got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

 

         Absent enough models, your brain will torture reality.

 

 Munger: What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you've got to have multiple models - because if you just have one or two that you're using, the nature of human psychology is such that you'll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you'll think it does. You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine.

 

         It's like the old saying, "To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." And of course, that's the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that's a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you've got to have multiple models.

 

         And the models have to come from multiple disciplines - because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That's why poetry professors, by and large. are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don't have enough models in their heads. So you've got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

 

         Fortunately, it isn't all that tough....

 

 Munger: You may say, "My God, this is already getting way too tough." But, fortunately, it isn't that tough - because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

 

So let's briefly review what kind of models and techniques constitute this basic knowledge that everybody has to have before they proceed to being really good at a narrow art like stock          picking.

 

         YOU'RE GIVING A HUGE ADVANTAGE TO OTHERS

          IF YOU DON'T LEARN THIS SIMPLE TECHNIQUE.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

         The great useful model is permutations & combinations.

        

 Munger: First there's mathematics. Obviously, you've got to he able to handle numbers and quantities - basic arithmetic.

 

         And the great useful model, after compound interest, is the elementary math of permutations and combinations. And that was taught in my day in the sophomore year in high school. I suppose by now in great private schools, it's probably down to the eighth grade or so.

 

         It's very simple algebra. And it was all worked out in the course of about one year in correspondence between Pascal and Fermat. They worked it out casually in a series of letters.

 

         Your brain isn't designed to figure it out spontaneously.

 

 Munger: It's not that hard to learn. What is hard is to get so you use it routinely almost everyday of your life. The Fermat/Pascal system is dramatically consonant with the way that the world works. And it's fundamental truth. So you simply have to have the technique.

 

         Many educational institutions - although not nearly enough - have realized this. At Harvard Business School, the great quantitative thing that bonds the first-year class together is what they call decision tree theory. All they do is take high school algebra and apply it to real life problems. And the students love it. They're amazed to find that high school algebra works in life....

 

         By and large. as it works out, people can't naturally and automatically do this. If you understand elementary psychology, the reason they can't is really quite simple: The basic neural network of the brain is there through broad genetic and cultural evolution. And it's not Fermat/Pascal. It uses a very crude, shortcut-type of approximation. It's got elements of Fermat/Pascal in it. However, it's not good.

 

         Without it, you're giving a huge advantage to others....

 

 Munger: So you have to learn in a very usable way this very elementary math and use it routinely in life - just the way if you want to become a golfer, you can't use the natural swing that broad evolution gave you. You have to learn to have a certain grip and swing in a different way to realize your full potential as a golfer.

 

         If you don't get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.        You're giving a huge advantage to everybody else.

 

         One of the advantages of a fellow like Buffett, whom I've worked with all these years, is that he automatically thinks in terms of decision trees and the elementary math of permutations and combinations....

 

         NEXT, YOU HAVE TO KNOW ACCOUNTING

          - ALONG WITH ITS LIMITATIONS.

        

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

         Double-entry bookkeeping was a hell of an invention.

 

 Munger: Obviously, you have to know accounting. It's the language of practical business life. It was a very useful thing to deliver to civilization. I've heard it came to civilization through Venice which of course was once the great commercial power in the Mediterranean. However, double-   entry bookkeeping was a hell of an invention.

         And it's not that hard to understand. But you have to know accounting's limitations....

        

Munger: But you have to know enough about it to understand its limitations - because although accounting is the starting place, it's only a crude approximation. And it's not very hard to understand its limitations. For example, everyone can see that you have to more or less just guess at the useful life of a jet airplane or anything like that. Just because you express the depreciation rate in neat numbers doesn't make it anything you really know.

         In terms of the limitations of accounting, one of my favorite stories involves a very great businessman named Carl Braun who created the CF Braun Engineering Company. It designed and built oil refineries - which is very hard to do. And Braun would get them to come in on time and not blow up and have efficiencies and so forth. This is a major art.

         And Braun, being the thorough Teutonic type that he was, had a number of quirks. And one of them was that he took a look at standard accounting and the way it was applied to building oil refineries and he said, "This is asinine."

         So he threw all of his accountants out and he took his engineers and said "Now, we'll devise our own system of accounting to handle this process." And in due time, accounting adopted a lot of Carl Braun's notions. So he was a formidably willful and talented man who demonstrated both the importance of accounting and the importance of knowing its limitations.

        

AN IRON RULE OF WORLDLY WISDOM:

          ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS TELL PEOPLE WHY.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Braun's Five W's: Who, what, where, when and why.

 

Munger: He had another rule, from psychology, which, if you're interested in wisdom, ought to be part of your repertoire - like the elementary mathematics of permutations and combinations.

         His rule for all the Braun Company's communications was called the five W's - you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn't tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice.

         If you tell people why, they'll be much more likely to comply.

        

Munger: You might ask why that is so important? Well, again that's a rule of psychology. Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they'll understand it better, they'll consider it more important, and they'll be more likely to comply. Even if they don't understand your reason, they'll be more likely to comply.

         So there's an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why.

        

Even if it's obvious, it's wise to stick in the why.

        

ENGINEERING HAS MORE THAN ITS SHARE OF MODELS.

          AND THEY'RE THE MOST RELIABLE ONES, AS WELL.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         The most reliable models? Engineering models, of course.

        

Munger: Which models are the most reliable? Well, obviously, the models that come from hard science and engineering are the most reliable models on this Earth. And engineering quality control - at least the guts of it that matters to you and me and people who are not professional engineers - is very much based on the elementary mathematics of Fermat and Pascal: It costs so much and you get so much less likelihood of it breaking if you spend this much. It's all elementary high school mathematics. And an elaboration of that is what Deming brought to Japan for all of that quality control stuff.

        

You have to understand normal occurrence distributions.

        

Munger: I don't think it's necessary for most people to be terribly facile in statistics. For example, I'm not sure that I can even pronounce the Poisson distribution, although I know what it looks          like and I know that events and huge aspects of reality end up distributed that way. So I can do a rough calculation.

         But if you ask me to work out something involving a Poisson distribution to ten decimal points, I can't sit down and do the math. I'm like a poker player who's learned to play pretty well without mastering Pascal.

         And by the way, that works well enough. But you have to understand that bell-shaped curve at least roughly as well as I do.

        

Engineering has more than its share of powerful models....

        

 Munger: And, of course, the engineering idea of a backup system is a very powerful idea. The engineering idea of breakpoints - that's a very powerful model, too. The notion of a critical mass - that comes out of physics - is a very powerful model.

         All of these things have great utility in looking at ordinary reality. And all of this cost-benefit analysis - hell, that's all elementary high school algebra. too. It's just been dolled up a little bit with fancy lingo.

        

THE HUMAN MIND HAS ENORMOUS POWER,

          BUT IT ALSO HAS STANDARD MISFUNCTIONS.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Our brains take shortcuts. So we're subject to manipulation.

        

Munger: I suppose the next most reliable models are from biology/physiology because, after all, all of us are programmed by our genetic makeup to be much the same.

         And then when you get into psychology, of course, it gets very much more complicated. But it's an ungodly important subject if you're going to have any worldly wisdom.

         And you can demonstrate that point quite simply: There's not a person in this room viewing the work of a very ordinary professional magician who doesn't see a lot of things happening that aren't happening and not see a lot of things happening that are happening.

         And the reason why is that the perceptual apparatus of man has shortcuts in it. The brain cannot      have unlimited circuitry. So someone who knows how to take advantage of those shortcuts and cause the brain to miscalculate in certain ways can cause you to see things that aren't there.

        

Therefore, you must know your brain's limitations.

        

Munger: Now you get into the cognitive function as distinguished from the perceptual function. And there, you are equally - more than equally in fact - likely to be misled. Again, your brain has a shortage of circuitry and so forth - and it's taking all kinds of little automatic shortcuts.

         So when circumstances combine in certain ways - or more commonly, your fellow man starts         acting like the magician and manipulates you on purpose by causing your cognitive dysfunction - you're a patsy.

         And so just as a man working with a tool has to know its limitations, a man working with his cognitive apparatus has to know its limitations. And this knowledge, by the way, can be used to control and motivate other people....

        

Very eminent places miseducate people like you and me.

        

Munger: So the most useful and practical part of psychology - which I personally think can be taught to any intelligent person in a week - is ungodly important. And nobody taught it to me by the way. I had to learn it later in life, one piece at a time. And it was fairly laborious. It's so elementary though that, when it was all over, I just felt like a total horse's ass.

         And yeah, I'd been educated at Cal Tech and the Harvard Law School and so forth. So very eminent places miseducated people like you and me.

        

Psychology of misjudgment is terribly important to learn.

        

Munger: The elementary part of psychology - the psychology of misjudgment, as I call it - is a terribly important thing to learnn. There are about 20 little principles. And they interact, so it gets slightly complicated. But the guts of it is unbelievably important.

         Terribly smart people make totally bonkers mistakes by failing to pay heed to it. In fact, I've done it several times during the last two or three years in a very important way. You never get totally over making silly mistakes.

        

Man's mind can be manipulated in amazing ways.

        

Munger: There's another saying that comes from Pascal which I've always considered one of the really accurate observations in the history of thought. Pascal said, "The mind of man at one and the same time is both the glory and the shame of the universe."

         And that's exactly right. It has this enormous power. However, it also has these standard misfunctions that often cause it to reach wrong conclusions. It also makes man extraordinarily subject to manipulation by others. For example, roughly half of the army of Adolf Hitler was composed of believing Catholics. Given enough clever psychological manipulation, what human beings will do is quite interesting.

        

Consider the real interests and the psychological factors....

        

Munger: Personally, I've gotten so that I now use a kind of two-track analysis. First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered? And second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things - which by and large are useful, but which often misfunction.

         One approach is rationality - the way you'd work out a bridge problem: by evaluating the real interests, the real probabilities and so forth. And the other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions - many of which are wrong.

        

ORGANISMS, PEOPLE & COMPANIES WHO SPECIALIZE

          CAN GET TERRIBLY GOOD IN THEIR LITTLE NICHE.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Like it or not, the economy is a lot like an ecosystem.

        

 Munger: Now we come to another somewhat less reliable form of human wisdom - microeconomics. And here, I find it quite useful to think of a free market economy - or partly free market economy - as sort of the equivalent of an ecosystem....

         This is a very unfashionable way of thinking because early in the days after Darwin came along, people like the robber barons assumed that the doctrine of the survival of the fittest authenticated them as deserving power - you know, "I'm the richest. Therefore, I'm the best. God's in his heaven, etc."

         And that reaction of the robber barons was so irritating to people that it made it unfashionable to think of an economy as an ecosystem. But the truth is that it is a lot like an ecosystem. And you get many of the same results.

        

In nature and in business, specialization is key.

        

Munger: Just as in an ecosystem, people who narrowly specialize can get terribly good at occupying some little niche. Just as animals flourish in niches, similarly, people who specialize in the business world - and get very good because they specialize - frequently find good economics that they wouldn't get any other way.

        

Advantages of scale are ungodly important.

        

Munger: And once we get into microeconomics, we get into the concept of advantages of scale. Now we're getting closer to investment analysis - because in terms of which businesses succeed and which businesses fail, advantages of scale are ungodly important.

         For example, one great advantage of scale taught in all of the business schools of the world is cost reductions along the so-called experience curve. Just doing something complicated in more and more volume enables human beings, who are trying to improve and are motivated by the incentives of capitalism, to do it more and more efficiently.

         The very nature of things is that if you get a whole lot of volume through your joint, you get better at processing that volume. That's an enormous advantage. And it has a lot to do with which businesses succeed and fail....

        

AND THERE ARE OTHER ECONOMIES: GEOMETRIC,

          ADVERTISING, INFORMATION, EVEN PSYCHOLOGICAL.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         There are even geometric economies of scale.

        

Munger: Let's go through a list - albeit an incomplete one of possible advantages of scale. Some come from simple geometry. If you're building a great circular tank, obviously as you build it bigger, the amount of steel you use in the surface goes up with the square and the cubic volume goes up with the cube. So as you increase the dimensions, you can hold a lot more volume per unit area of steel.

         And there are all kinds of things like that where the simple geometry - the simple reality - gives you an advantage of scale.

        

For example, network TV advertising made the rich richer.

        

Munger: For example, you can get advantages of scale from TV advertising. When TV advertising first arrived - when talking color pictures first came into our living rooms - it was an unbelievably powerful thing. And in the early days, we had three networks that had whatever it was - say 90% of the audience.

         Well, if you were Proctor & Gamble, you could afford to use this new method of advertising.

         You could afford the very expensive cost of network television because you were selling so damn many cans and bottles. Some little guy couldn't. And there was no way of buying it in part. Therefore, he couldn't use it. In effect, if you didn't have a big volume, you couldn't use network

         TV advertising - which was the most effective technique.

         So when TV came in, the branded companies that were already big got a huge tail wind. Indeed, they prospered and prospered and prospered until some of them got fat and foolish. which happens with prosperity - at least to some people....

        

The informational advantage of brands is hard to beat.

        

Munger: And your advantage of scale can be an informational advantage. If I go to some remote place, I may see Wrigley chewing gum alongside Glotz's chewing gum. Well, I know that Wrigley is a satisfactory product, whereas I don't know anything about Glotz's. So if one is $.40 and the other is $.30, am I going to take something I don't know and put it in my mouth - which is a pretty personal place, after all - for a lousy dime?

         So, in effect, Wrigley, simply by being so well known, has advantages of scale - what you might call an informational advantage.

        

Everyone is influenced by what others do and approve.

        

Munger: Another advantage of scale comes from psychology. The psychologists use the term "social proof". We are all influenced - subconsciously and to some extent consciously - by what we see others do and approve. Therefore, if everybody's buying something, we think it's better.

         We don't like to be the one guy who's out of step.

         Again, some of this is at a subconscious level and some of it isn't. Sometimes, we consciously and rationally think, "Gee, I don't know much about this. They know more than I do. Therefore, why shouldn't I follow them?"

        

All told, your advantages can add up to one tough moat.

        

Munger: The social proof phenomenon which comes right out of psychology gives huge advantages to scale - for example, with very wide distribution, which of course is hard to get.

         One advantage of Coca-Cola is that it's available almost everywhere in the world.

         Well, suppose you have a little soft drink. Exactly how do you make it available all over the Earth? The worldwide distribution setup - which is slowly won by a big enterprise - gets to be a huge advantage.... And if you think about it, once you get enough advantages of that type, it can become very hard for anybody to dislodge you.

        

THINGS TEND TOWARD WINNER TAKE ALL.

          THEREFORE, IT PAYS TO BE #1, #2 OR OUT.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Things tend to cascade toward winner-take-all.

        

Munger: There's another kind of advantage to scale. In some businesses, the very nature of things     is to sort of cascade toward the overwhelming dominance of one firm. The most obvious one is daily newspapers. There's practically no city left in the U.S., aside from a few very big ones, where there's more than one daily newspaper.

         And again, that's a scale thing. Once I get most of the circulation, I get most of the advertising.

         And once I get most of the advertising and circulation, why would anyone want the thinner paper with less information in it? So it tends to cascade to a winner-take-all situation. And that's a separate form of the advantages of scale phenomenon.

         Similarly, all these huge advantages of scale allow greater specialization within the firm.

         Therefore, each person can be better at what he does.

        

It's not irrational to insist on being #1 or #2 or out.

        

Munger: And these advantages of scale are so great, for example, that when Jack Welch came into General Electric, he just said, "To hell with it. We're either going to be #1 or #2 in every field we're in or we're going to be out. I don't care how many people I have to fire and what I have to sell. We're going to be #1 or #2 or out."

         That was a very tough-minded thing to do, but I think it was a very correct decision if you're thinking about maximizing shareholder wealth. And I don't think it's a bad thing to do for a civilization either, because I think that General Electric is stronger for having Jack Welch there.

        

HOWEVER, BIGGER ISN'T ALWAYS BETTER -

          THERE ARE ALSO DISADVANTAGES OF SCALE.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Bigger isn't always better. Sometimes, it's just the reverse....

  

 Munger: And there are also disadvantages of scale. For example, we - by which I mean Berkshire Hathaway - are the largest shareholder in Capital Cities/ABC. And we had trade publications there that got murdered - where our competitors beat us. And the way they beat us was by going to a narrower specialization.

         We'd have a travel magazine for business travel. So somebody would create one which was addressed solely at corporate travel departments. Like an ecosystem, you're getting a narrower and narrower specialization.

         Well, they got much more efficient. They could tell more to the guys who ran corporate travel departments. Plus, they didn't have to waste the ink and paper mailing out stuff that corporate travel departments weren't interested in reading. It was a more efficient system. And they beat our brains out as we relied on our broader magazine.

         That's what happened to The Saturday Evening Post and all those things. They're gone. What we have now is Motorcross - which is read by a bunch of nuts who like to participate in tournaments where they turn somersaults on their motorcycles. But they care about it. For them, it's the principal purpose of life. A magazine called Motorcross is a total necessity to those people. And its profit margins would make you salivate.

         Just think of how narrowcast that kind of publishing is. So occasionally, scaling down and intensifying gives you the big advantage. Bigger is not always better.

        

Another defect of scale - flush, fat, stupid bureaucracy.

        

Munger: The great defect of scale, of course, which makes the game interesting - so that the big people don't always win - is that as you get big, you get the bureaucracy. And with the bureaucracy comes the territoriality - which is again grounded in human nature.

         And the incentives are perverse. For example, if you worked for AT&T in my day, it was a great bureaucracy. Who in the hell was really thinking about the shareholder or anything else? And in a bureaucracy, you think the work is done when it goes out of your in-basket into somebody's else's in-basket. But, of course, it isn't. It's not done until AT&T delivers what it's supposed to deliver. So you get big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.

        

Bureaucracy's a terrible problem - especially in government.

        

Munger: They also tend to become somewhat corrupt. In other words, if I've got a department and you've got a department and we kind of share power running this thing, there's sort of an unwritten rule: "If you won't bother me, I won't bother you and we're both happy." So you get layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers. it takes forever to get anything done. They're too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.

        

         The constant curse of scale is that it leads to big, dumb bureaucracy - which, of course, reaches its highest and worst form in government where the incentives are really awful. That doesn't mean we don't need governments - because we do. But it's a terrible problem to get big bureaucracies to behave.

        

Some companies deal with bureaucracies well: e.g., GE.

        

Munger: So people go to stratagems. They create little decentralized units and fancy motivation and training programs. For example, for a big company, General Electric has fought bureaucracy with amazing skill. But that's because they have a combination of a genius and a fanatic running it. And they put him in young enough so he gets a long run. Of course, that's Jack Welch.

        

Others don't deal with it very well at all....

        

Munger: But bureaucracy is terrible.... And as things get very powerful and very big, you can get some really dysfunctional behavior. Look at Westinghouse. They blew billions of dollars on a bunch of dumb loans to real estate developers. They put some guy who'd come up by some career path - I don't know exactly what it was, but it could have been refrigerators or something - and all of a sudden, he's loaning money to real estate developers building hotels. It's a very unequal contest. And in due time, they lost all those billions of dollars.

        

You get a lot of dysfunction in a big, fat, happy place.

        

Munger: CBS provides an interesting example of another rule of psychology - namely, Pavlovian association. If people tell you what you really don't want to hear - what's unpleasant - there's an almost automatic reaction of antipathy. You have to train yourself out of it. It isn't foredestined that you have to be this way. But you will tend to be this way if you don't think about it.

         Television was dominated by one network - CBS - in its early days. And Paley was a god. But he didn't like to hear what be didn't like to hear, And people soon learned that. So they told Paley only what he liked to hear, Therefore, he was soon living in a little cocoon of unreality and everything else was corrupt - although it was a great business,

         So the idiocy that crept into the system was carried along by this huge tide. It was a Mad Hatter's     tea party the last ten years under Bill Paley.

         And that is not the only example by any means. You can get severe misfunction in the high ranks of business, And of course, if you're investing, it can make a hell of a lot of difference. If you take all the acquisitions that CBS made under Paley, after the acquisition of the network itself, with all his dumb advisors - his investment bankers, management consultants and so forth who were getting paid very handsomely - it was absolutely terrible.

         For example, he gave something like 20% of CBS to the Dumont Company for a television set manufacturer which was destined to go broke. I think it lasted all of two or three years or something like that. So very soon after he'd issued all of that stock, Dumont was history. You get a lot of dysfunction in a big fat, powerful place where no one will bring unwelcome reality to the boss.

        

An everlasting battle between the pros and cons of size.

        

Munger: So life is an everlasting battle between those two forces - to get these advantages of scale on one side and a tendency to get a lot like the U.S. Agriculture Department on the other side - where they just sit around and so forth. I don't know exactly what they do. However, I do know that they do very little useful work,

        

A CASE STUDY IN ECONOMIES VS. DISECONOMICS

          - WAL-MART VERSUS SEARS, ROEBUCK.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         A chain store can be a fantastic enterprise.

        

Munger: On the subject of advantages of economies of scale, I find chain stores quite interesting.

         Just think about it. The concept of a chain store was a fascinating invention. You get this huge purchasing power - which means that you have lower merchandise costs. You get a whole bunch          of little laboratories out there in which you can conduct experiments. And you get specialization.

         If one little guy is trying to buy across 27 different merchandise categories influenced by traveling salesmen, he's going to make a lot of dumb decisions. But if your buying is done in headquarters for a huge bunch of stores, you can get very bright people that know a lot about refrigerators and so forth to do the buying.

         The reverse is demonstrated by the little store where one guy is doing all the buying. It's like the old story about the little store with salt all over its walls. And a stranger comes in and says to the store owner, "You must sell a lot of salt." And he replies, "No, I don't. But you should see the guy who sells me salt."

         So there are huge purchasing advantages. And then there are the slick systems of forcing everyone to do what works. So a chain store can be a fantastic enterprise.

        

Sam Walton played the game harder and better than anyone.

        

Munger: It's quite interesting to think about Wal-Mart starting from a single store in Bentonville, Arkansas - against Sears Roebuck with its name, reputation and all of its billions. How does a guy in Bentonville, Arkansas with no money blow right by Sears, Roebuck? And he does it in his         own lifetime - in fact, during his own late lifetime because he was already pretty old by the time he started out with one little store....

         He played the chain store game harder and better than anyone else. Walton invented practically nothing. But he copied everything anybody else ever did that was smart - and he did it with more fanaticism and better employee manipulation. So he just blew right by them all.

        

         And he had a very shrewd strategy....

        

Munger: He also had a very interesting competitive strategy in the early days. He was like a prize fighter who wanted a great record so he could be in the finals and make a big TV hit. So what did he do? He went out and fought 42 palookas. Right? And the result was knockout, knockout, knockout - 42 times.

         Walton, being as shrewd as he was, basically broke other small town merchants in the early days. With his more efficient system, he might not have been able to tackle some titan head-on at the time. But with his better system, he could sure as hell destroy those small town merchants. And he went around doing it time after time after time. Then, as he got bigger, he started destroying the big boys.

         Well, that was a very, very shrewd strategy.

        

I believe that the world is better for having Wal-Mart.

        

Munger: You can say, "Is this a nice way to behave?" Well, capitalism is a pretty brutal place.

         But I personally think that the world is better for having Wal-Mart. I mean you can idealize small town life. But I've spent a fair amount of time in small towns. And let me tell you - you shouldn't get too idealistic about all those businesses he destroyed.

         Plus, a lot of people who work at Wal-Mart are very high grade, bouncy people who are raising nice children. I have no feeling that an inferior culture destroyed a superior culture. I think that is nothing more than nostalgia and delusion. But, at any rate. it's an interesting model of how the scale of things and fanaticism combine to be very powerful.

        

Sears was a classic case study in diseconomics.

 

Munger: And it's also an interesting model on the other side - how with all its great advantages, the disadvantages of bureaucracy did such terrible damage to Sears, Roebuck. Sears had layers and layers of people it didn't need. It was very bureaucratic. It was slow to think. And there was an established way of thinking. If you poked your head up with a new thought, the system kind of turned against you. It was everything in the way of a dysfunctional big bureaucracy that you would expect.

         In all fairness, there was also much that was good about it. But it just wasn't as lean and mean and shrewd and effective as Sam Walton. And, in due time, all their advantages of scale were not enough to prevent Sears from losing heavily to Wal-Mart and other similar retailers.

        

A MODEL WE'VE HAD TROUBLE WITH -

          ANTICIPATING COMPETITION AND ITS EFFECTS.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         In some markets, no one makes out. In others, everyone does.

        

Munger: Here's a model that we've had trouble with. Maybe you'll be able to figure it out better.

         Many markets get down to two or three big competitors - or five or six. And in some of those markets, nobody makes any money to speak of. But in others, everybody does very well.

         Over the years, we've tried to figure out why the competition in some markets gets sort of rational from the investor's point of view so that the shareholders do well, and in other markets, there's destructive competition that destroys shareholder wealth.

        

It's easy to understand why air travel is so unprofitable....

        

Munger: If it's a pure commodity like airline seats, you can understand why no one makes any money. As we sit here, just think of what airlines have given to the world - safe travel. greater experience, time with your loved ones, you name it. Yet, the net amount of money that's been made by the shareholders of airlines since Kitty Hawk, is now a negative figure - a substantial negative figure. Competition was so intense that, once it was unleashed by deregulation, it ravaged shareholder wealth in the airline business.

        

But why is the cereal business so profitable?

        

Munger: Yet, in other fields - like cereals, for example - almost all the big boys make out. If you're some kind of a medium grade cereal maker, you might make 15% on your capital. And if you're really good. you might make 40%. But why are cereals so profitable - despite the fact that it looks to me like they're competing like crazy with promotions, coupons and everything else? I don't fully understand it.

         Obviously, there's a brand identity factor in cereals that doesn't exist in airlines. That must be the main factor that accounts for it.

        

Maybe it boils down to individual psychology....

        

Munger: And maybe the cereal makers by and large have learned to be less crazy about fighting for market share - because if you get even one person who's hell-bent on gaining market share....

         For example, if I were Kellogg and I decided that I had to have 60% of the market, I think I could take most of the profit out of cereals. I'd ruin Kellogg in the process. But I think I could do it.

         In some businesses, the participants behave like a demented Kellogg. In other businesses, they don't. Unfortunately, I do not have a perfect model for predicting how that's going to happen.

         For example, if you look around at bottler markets, you'll find many markets where bottlers of Pepsi and Coke both make a lot of money and many others where they destroy most of the profitability of the two franchises. That must get down to the peculiarities of individual adjustment to market capitalism. I think you'd have to know the people involved to fully understand what was happening.

        

A FEW WORDS ON PATENTS,

          TRADEMARKS AND FRANCHISES.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Patents haven't made people much money - until recently.

        

Munger: In microeconomics, of course, you've got the concept of patents. trademarks, exclusive franchises and so forth. Patents are quite interesting. When I was young, I think more money went into patents than came out. Judges tended to throw them out - based on arguments about what was really invented and what relied on prior art. That isn't altogether clear.

         But they changed that. They didn't change the laws. They just changed the administration - so that it all goes to one patent court. And that court is now very much more pro-patent. So I think people are now starting to make a lot of money out of owning patents.

        

But trademarks and franchises have always been great.

        

Munger: Trademarks, of course, have always made people a lot of money. A trademark system is a wonderful thing for a big operation if it's well known.

         The exclusive franchise can also be wonderful. If there were only three television channels awarded in a big city and you owned one of them, there were only so many hours a day that you could be on. So you had a natural position in an oligopoly in the pre-cable days.

         And if you get the franchise for the only food stand in an airport, you have a captive clientele and you have a small monopoly of a sort.

        

A BASIC LESSON OFTEN FORGOTTEN:

          NEW TECHNOLOGY CAN KILL YOU.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         You have to discern when technology will help and hurt.

        

Munger: The great lesson in microeconomics is to discriminate between when technology is going to help you and when it's going to kill you. And most people do not get this straight in their heads. But a fellow like Buffett does.

         For example, when we were in the textile business, which is a terrible commodity business, we were making low-end textiles - which are a real commodity product. And one day, the people came to Warren and said, "They've invented a new loom that we think will do twice as much work as our old ones."

         And Warren said, "Gee, I hope this doesn't work - because if it does, I'm going to close the mill." And he meant it.

        

Advances in commodity businesses go to buyers alone.

 

Munger: What was he thinking? He was thinking, "It's a lousy business. We're earning substandard returns and keeping it open just to be nice to the elderly workers. But we're not going to put huge amounts of new capital into a lousy business."

         And he knew that the huge productivity increases that would come from a better machine introduced into the production of a commodity product would all go to the benefit of the buyers of the textiles. Nothing was going to stick to our ribs as owners.

         That's such an obvious concept - that there are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that's still going to be lousy. The money still won't come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.

        

The newspaper business is another matter altogether....

        

Munger: Conversely, if you own the only newspaper in Oshkosh and they were to invent more efficient ways of composing the whole newspaper, then when you got rid of the old technology and got new fancy computers and so forth, all of the savings would come right through to the bottom line.

        

A three-year payback often means a 4% per year return.

        

Munger: In all cases, the people who sell the machinery - and, by and large, even the internal bureaucrats urging you to buy the equipment - show you projections with the amount you'll save at current prices with the new technology. However, they don't do the second step of the analysis - which is to determine how much is going to stay home and how much is just going to flow through to the customer. I've never seen a single projection incorporating that second step in my life. And I see them all the time. Rather, they always read: "This capital outlay will save you so much money that it will pay for itself in three years."

         So you keep buying things that will pay for themselves in three years. And after 20 years of doing it, somehow you've earned a return of only about 4% per annum. That's the textile         business.

         And it isn't that the machines weren't better. It's just that the savings didn't go to you. The cost reductions came through all right. But the benefit of the cost reductions didn't go to the guy who bought the equipment. It's such a simple idea. It's so basic. And yet it's so often forgotten.

        

THE NATIONAL CASH REGISTER MODEL

          IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Early birds have huge advantages....

        

Munger: Then there's another model from microeconomics which I find very interesting. When technology moves as fast as it does in a civilization like ours, you get a phenomenon which I call competitive destruction. You know, you have the finest buggy whip factory and all of a sudden in comes this little horseless carriage. And before too many years go by, your buggy whip business is dead. You either get into a different business or you're dead - you're destroyed. It happens again and again and again.

         And when these new businesses come in, there are huge advantages for the early birds. And when you're an early bird, there's a model that I call "surfing" - when a surfer gets up and catches the wave and just stays there, he can go a long, long time. But if he gets off the wave, he becomes mired in shallows....

         But people get long runs when they're right on the edge of the wave whether it's Microsoft or Intel or all kinds of people, including National Cash Register in the early days.

        

National Cash Register was a lead pipe cinch....

        

Munger: The cash register was one of the great contributions to civilization. It's a wonderful story. Patterson was a small retail merchant who didn't make any money. One day, somebody sold him a crude cash register which he put into his retail operation. And it instantly changed from losing money to earning a profit because it made it so much harder for the employees to steal....

         But Patterson, having the kind of mind that he did, didn't think, "Oh, good for my retail business." He thought, "I'm going into the cash register business." And, of course, he created National Cash Register.

         And he "surfed". He got the best distribution system, the biggest collection of patents and the best of everything. He was a fanatic about everything important as the technology developed. I have in my files an early National Cash Register Company report in which Patterson described his methods and objectives. And a well-educated orangutan could see that buying into partnership with Patterson in those early days, given his notions about the cash register business, was a total 100% cinch.

         And, of course, that's exactly what an investor should be looking for. In a long life, you can expect to profit heavily from at least a few of those opportunities if you develop the wisdom and will to seize them. At any rate, "surfing" is a very powerful model.

        

FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU HAVE AN EDGE

          THEN, PLAY THERE AND ONLY THERE.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         If we don't believe we have an advantage, we don't play.

        

Munger: However, Berkshire Hathaway, by and large, does not invest in these people that are "surfing" on complicated technology. After all, we're cranky and idiosyncratic - as you may have noticed.

        

         And Warren and I don't feel like we have any great advantage in the high-tech sector. In fact, we feel like we're at a big disadvantage in trying to understand the nature of technical developments in software, computer chips or what have you. So we tend to avoid that stuff, based on our personal inadequacies.

        

Figure out where you have an edge - and stay there.

        

Munger: Again, that is a very, very powerful idea. Every person is going to have a circle of competence. And it's going to be very hard to advance that circle. If I had to make my living as a musician.... I can't even think of a level low enough to describe where I would be sorted out to if music were the measuring standard of the civilization.

         So you have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don't, you're going to lose. And that's as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you've got an edge. And you've got to play within your own circle of competence.

        

Life is much like trying to be a good plumbing contractor.

        

Munger: If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, you may start out trying and soon find out that it's hopeless - that other people blow right by you. However, if you want to become the best plumbing contractor in Bemidji, that is probably doable by two-thirds of you. It takes a will. It takes the intelligence. But after a while, you'd gradually know all about the plumbing business in Bemidji and master the art. That is an attainable objective, given enough discipline.

         And people who could never win a chess tournament or stand in center court in a respectable tennis tournament can rise quite high in life by slowly developing a circle of competence – which results partly from what they were born with and partly from what they slowly develop through work.

         So some edges can be acquired. And the game of life to some extent for most of us is trying to be something like a good plumbing contractor in Bemidji. Very few of us are chosen to win the world's chess tournaments.

         [Editor's note: Munger's comments remind your editor of Buffett's comments in John Train's The Money Masters. Buffett asks Train, "How do you beat Bobby Fisher?" Answer: "Play him in anything but chess."]

        

One person's garbage is another's treasure.

        

Munger: Some of you may find opportunities "surfing" along in the new high-tech fields - the

         Intels, the Microsofts and so on. The fact that we don't think we're very good at it and have pretty well stayed out of it doesn't mean that it's irrational for you to do it.

        

TO A MAN WITH PROFICIENCY IN MATH,

          EFFICIENT MARKET THEORY LOOKS LIKE A NAIL.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         On to dessert - the selection of common stocks....

        

Munger: Well, so much for the basic microeconomic models, a little bit of psychology, a little bit of mathematics, helping create what I call the general substructure of worldly wisdom. Now, if you want to go on from carrots to dessert, I'll turn to stock picking - trying to draw on this general worldly wisdom as we go.

         I don't want to get into emerging markets, bond arbitrage and so forth. I'm talking about nothing but plain vanilla stock picking. That, believe me, is complicated enough. And I'm talking about common stock picking.

        

Do as I do, not as I say....

        

Munger: The first question is, "What is the nature of the stock market?" And that gets you directly to this efficient market theory that got to be the rage - a total rage - long after I graduated from law school.

         And it's rather interesting because one of the greatest economists of the world is a substantial shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway and has been from the very early days after Buffett was in control. His textbook always taught that the stock market was perfectly efficient and that nobody could beat it. But his own money went into Berkshire and made him wealthy. So. like Pascal in his famous wager, he hedged his bet.

        

The iron rule of life: Only 20% of us can be in the top 5th.

        

Munger: Is the stock market so efficient that people can't beat it? Well, the efficient market theory is obviously roughly right - meaning that markets are quite efficient and it's quite hard for anybody to beat the market by significant margins as a stock picker by just being intelligent and working in a disciplined way.

         Indeed, the average result has to be the average result. By definition, everybody can't beat the market. As I always say, the iron rule of life is that only 20% of the people can be in the top fifth.

         That's just the way it is. So the answer is that it's partly efficient and partly inefficient.

        

Efficient market theory is seductive. Only it's not true....

        

Munger: And, by the way, I have a name for people who went to the extreme efficient market theory - which is "bonkers". It was an intellectually consistent theory that enabled them to do pretty mathematics. So I understand its seductiveness to people with large mathematical gifts. It just had a difficulty in that the fundamental assumption did not tie properly to reality.

         Again, to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If you're good at manipulating higher mathematics in a consistent way, why not make an assumption which enables you to use your tool?

        

         BETTING ON HORSES AND PICKING STOCKS

          HAVE MORE THAN A LITTLE IN COMMON.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Odds on horses and stocks are set by the market.

        

Munger: The model I like - to sort of simplify the notion of what goes on in a market for common stocks - is the pari-mutuel system at the race track. If you stop to think about it, a pari-mutuel system is a market. Everybody goes there and bets and the odds change based on what's bet. That's what happens in the stock market.

         Any damn fool can see that a horse carrying a light weight with a wonderful win rate and a good post position etc., etc. is way more likely to win than a horse with a terrible record and extra weight and so on and so on. But if you look at the damn odds. the bad horse pays 100 to 1, whereas the good horse pays 3 to 2. Then it's not clear which is statistically the best bet using the mathematics of Fermat and Pascal. The prices have changed in such a way that it's very hard to beat the system.

         And then the track is taking 17% off the top. So not only do you have to outwit all the other betters, but you've got to outwit them by such a big margin that on average, you can afford to take 17% of your gross bets off the top and give it to the house before the rest of your money can be put to work.

        

Believe it or not, some people make money betting horses.

        

Munger: Given those mathematics, is it possible to beat the horses only using one's intelligence? Intelligence should give some edge, because lots of people who don't know anything go out and bet lucky numbers and so forth. Therefore, somebody who really thinks about nothing but horse performance and is shrewd and mathematical could have a very considerable edge, in the absence of the frictional cost caused by the house take.

         Unfortunately, what a shrewd horseplayer's edge does in most cases is to reduce his average loss over a season of betting from the 17% that he would lose if he got the average result to maybe 10%. However, there are actually a few people who can beat the game after paying the full 17%.

I used to play poker when I was young with a guy who made a substantial living doing nothing but bet harness races.... Now. harness racing is a relatively inefficient market. You don't have the depth of intelligence betting on harness races that you do on regular races. What my poker pal would do was to think about harness races as his main profession. And he would bet only occasionally when he saw some mispriced bet available. And by doing that, after paying the full         handle to the house - which I presume was around 17% - he made a substantial living.

         You have to say that's rare. However, the market was not perfectly efficient. And if it weren't for that big 17% handle, lots of people would regularly be beating lots of other people at the horse races. It's efficient, yes. But it's not perfectly efficient. And with enough shrewdness and fanaticism, some people will get better results than others.

        

It ain't easy, but it's possible, to outperform in stocks, too.

        

Munger: The stock market is the same way - except that the house handle is so much lower. If you take transaction costs - the spread between the bid and the ask plus the commissions - and if you don't trade too actively, you're talking about fairly low transaction costs. So that with enough fanaticism and enough discipline, some of the shrewd people are going to get way better results than average in the nature of things.

         It is not a bit easy. And, of course, 50% will end up in the bottom half and 70% will end up in the bottom 70%. But some people will have an advantage. And in a fairly low transaction cost operation, they will get better than average results in stock picking.

        

What works betting horses also works for stock picking.

        

Munger: How do you get to be one of those who is a winner - in a relative sense - instead of a loser?

         Here again, look at the pari-mutuel system. I had dinner last night by absolute accident with the president of Santa Anita. He says that there are two or three betters who have a credit arrangement with them, now that they have off-track betting, who are actually beating the house.

         They're sending money out net after the full handle - a lot of it to Las Vegas, by the way - to people who are actually winning slightly, net, after paying the full handle. They're that shrewd about something with as much unpredictability as horse racing.

         And the one thing that all those winning betters in the whole history of people who've beaten the pari-mutuel system have is quite simple. They bet very seldom.

        

Winners bet big when they have the odds - otherwise, never.

        

Munger: It's not given to human beings to have such talent that they can just know everything about everything all the time. But it is given to human beings who work hard at it - who look and sift the world for a mispriced bet - that they can occasionally find one.

         And the wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time, they don't. It's just that simple.

        

AS USUAL, IN HUMAN AFFAIRS

          WHAT WINS ARE INCENTIVES.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         It's obvious to us. And yet nobody operates that way.

        

Munger: That is a very simple concept. And to me it's obviously right - based on experience not only from the pari-mutuel system, but everywhere else.

         And yet, in investment management, practically nobody operates that way. We operate that way - I'm talking about Buffett and Munger. And we're not alone in the world. But a huge majority of people have some other crazy construct in their heads. And instead of waiting for a near cinch and loading up, they apparently ascribe to the theory that if they work a little harder or hire more       business school students, they'll come to know everything about everything all the time.

         To me, that's totally insane. The way to win is to work, work, work, work and hope to have a few insights.

        

Most of Berkshire's billions came from a handful of ideas.

        

Munger: How many insights do you need? Well, I'd argue that you don't need many in a lifetime.

         If you look at Berkshire Hathaway and all of its accumulated billions, the top ten insights account for most of it. And that's with a very brilliant man - Warren's a lot more able than I am and very disciplined - devoting his lifetime to it. I don't mean to say that he's only had ten insights. I'm just saying that most of the money came from ten insights.

         So you can get very remarkable investment results if you think more like a winning pari-mutuel player. Just think of it as a heavy odds against game full of bullshit and craziness with an occasional mispriced something or other. And you're probably not going to be smart enough to find thousands in a lifetime. And when you get a few, you really load up. It's just that simple.

        

A simple but powerful way to improve your results....

        

Munger: When Warren lectures at business schools, he says, "I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches - representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you'd punched through the card, you couldn't make any more investments at all."

         He says, "Under those rules, you'd really think carefully about what you did and you'd be forced to load up on what you'd really thought about. So you'd do so much better."

        

As long as clients buy salt, investment managers will sell it.

        

Munger: Again, this is a concept that seems perfectly obvious to me. And to Warren, it seems perfectly obvious. But this is one of the very few business classes in the U.S. where anybody will be saying so. It just isn't the conventional wisdom.

         To me, it's obvious that the winner has to bet very selectively. It's been obvious to me since very early in life. I don't know why its not obvious to very many other people.

         I think the reason why we got into such idiocy in investment management is best illustrated by a story that I tell about the guy who sold fishing tackle. I asked him, "My God, they're purple and green. Do fish really take these lures?" And he said, "Mister, I don't sell to fish."

         Investment managers are in the position of that fishing tackle salesman. They're like the guy who was selling salt to the guy who already had too much salt. And as long as the guy will buy salt, why they'll sell salt. But that isn't what ordinarily works for the buyer of investment advice.

        

As usual, in human affairs, what wins are incentives.

        

Munger: If you invested Berkshire Hathaway-style, it would be hard to get paid as an investment manager as well as they're currently paid - because you'd be holding a block of Wal-Mart and a block of Coca-Cola and a block of something else. You'd be sitting on your ass. And the client would be getting rich. And, after a while, the client would think, "Why am I paying this guy half     a percent a year on my wonderful passive holdings?"

         So what makes sense for the investor is different from what makes sense for the manager. And, as usual in human affairs, what determines the behavior are incentives for the decision maker,

 

Getting the incentives right is a very, very important lesson.

        

Munger: From all business, my favorite case on incentives is Federal Express. The heart and soul of their system - which creates the integrity of the product - is having all their airplanes come to one place in the middle of the night and shift all the packages from plane to plane. If there are delays, the whole operation can't deliver a product full of integrity to Federal Express customers.

         And it was always screwed up. They could never get it done on time. They tried everything - moral suasion, threats, you name it. And nothing worked.

         Finally, somebody got the idea to pay all these people not so much an hour, but so much a shift - and when it's all done, they can all go home. Well, their problems cleared up overnight.

         So getting the incentives right is a very, very important lesson. It was not obvious to Federal Express what the solution was. But maybe now, it will hereafter more often be obvious to you.

        

IF SECTOR ROTATION IS VERY LUCRATIVE,

          WE'VE NEVER SEEN THE EVIDENCE.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Once you factor in the odds, the market isn't easy to beat.

        

Munger: All right, we've now recognized that the market is efficient as a pari-mutuel system is efficient - with the favorite more likely than the long shot to do well in racing, but not necessarily give any betting advantage to those that bet on the favorite.

         In the stock market, some railroad that's beset by better competitors and tough unions may be available at one-third of its book value. In contrast, IBM in its heyday might be selling at 6 times book value. So it's just like the pari-mutuel system. Any damn fool could plainly see that IBM had better business prospects than the railroad. But once you put the price into the formula, it wasn't so clear anymore what was going to work best for a buyer choosing between the stocks.

         So it's a lot like a pari-mutuel system. And, therefore, it gets very hard to beat.

        

I know of no really rich "sector rotators"....

        

Munger: What style should the investor use as a picker of common stocks in order to try to beat the market - in other words, to get an above average long-term result? A standard technique that appeals to a lot of people is called "sector rotation". You simply figure out when oils are going to outperform retailers, etc.. etc., etc. You just kind of flit around being in the hot sector of the market making better choices than other people. And presumably, over a long period of time,        you get ahead.

         However, I know of no really rich sector rotator. Maybe some people can do it. I'm not saying they can't. All I know is that all the people I know who got rich - and I know a lot of them - did not do it that way.

        

RICH OR POOR, IT'S GOOD TO HAVE

          A HUGE MARGIN OF SAFETY.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         A significant discount = more upside + a margin of safety.

        

Munger: The second basic approach is the one that Ben Graham used - much admired by Warren and me. As one factor, Graham had this concept of value to a private owner - what the whole enterprise would sell for if it were available. And that was calculable in many cases.

         Then, if you could take the stock price and multiply it by the number of shares and get something that was one third or less of sellout value, he would say that you've got a lot of edge going for you. Even with an elderly alcoholic running a stodgy business, this significant excess of real value per share working for you means that all kinds of good things can happen to you. You had a huge margin of safety - as he put it - by having this big exceess value going for you.

        

The aftermath of the 1930s was a bargain hunter's dream.

        

Munger: But he was, by and large, operating when the world was in shell-shock from the 1930s - which was the worst contraction in the English-speaking world in about 600 years. Wheat in Liverpool, I believe, got down to something like a 600-year low, adjusted for inflation. People were so shell-shocked for a long time thereafter that Ben Graham could run his Geiger counter over this detritus from the collapse of the 1930s and find things selling below their working capital per share and so on.

        

Today, stated assets evaporate at the first sign of trouble.

        

Munger: And in those days, working capital actually belonged to the shareholders, If the employees were no longer useful, you just sacked them all, took the working capital and stuck it in the owners' pockets. That was the way capitalism then worked.

         Nowadays, of course, the accounting is not realistic - because the minute the business starts contracting, significant assets are not there. Under social norms and the new legal rules of the          civilization, so much is owed to the employees, that the minute the enterprise goes into reverse, some of the assets on the balance sheet aren't there anymore.

        

Strange things can happen in the technology area.

        

Munger: Now, that might not be true if you run a little auto dealership yourself. You may be able to run it in a way that there's no health plan and this and that so that if the business gets lousy, you can take your working capital and go home. But IBM can't, or at least didn't. Just look at what disappeared from its balance sheet when it decided that it had to change size both because the world had changed technologically and because its market position had deteriorated.

         And in terms of blowing it, IBM is some example. Those were brilliant, disciplined people. But there was enough turmoil in technological change that IBM got bounced off the wave after "surfing" successfully for 60 years. And that was some collapse - an object lesson in the difficulties of technology and one of the reasons why Buffett and Munger don't like technology very much. We don't think we're any good at it, and strange things can happen.

        

One way to keep finding "bargains" is to redefine the term.

        

Munger: At any rate, the trouble with what I call the classic Ben Graham concept is that gradually the world wised up and those real obvious bargains disappeared. You could run your Geiger counter over the rubble and it wouldn't click.

         But such is the nature of people who have a hammer - to whom, as I mentioned, every problem looks like a nail - that the Ben Graham followers responded by changing the calibration on their Geiger counters. In effect, they started defining a bargain in a different way. And they kept changing the definition so that they could keep doing what they'd always done. And it still worked pretty well. So the Ben Graham intellectual system was a very good one.

        

Having an unstable business partner has its rewards.

        

Munger: Of course, the best part of it all was his concept of "Mr. Market". Instead of thinking the market was efficient, he treated it as a manic-depressive who comes by every day. And some days he says, "I'll sell you some of my interest for way less than you think it's worth." And other days, "Mr. Market" comes by and says, "I'll buy your interest at a price that's way higher than you think it's worth." And you get the option of deciding whether you want to buy more, sell part of what you already have or do nothing at all.

         To Graham, it was a blessing to be in business with a manic-depressive who gave you this series of options all the time. That was a very significant mental construct. And it's been very useful to Buffett, for instance, over his whole adult lifetime.

        

GRAHAM WASN'T TRYING TO PLAY OUR GAME

          - I.E., PAYING UP FOR BETTER BUSINESSES.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Ben Graham wasn't trying to do what we did.

        

Munger: However, if we'd stayed with 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.

         For example, Graham didn't want to ever talk to management. And his reason was that, like the best sort of professor aiming his teaching at a mass audience, he was trying to invent a system that anybody could use. And he didn't feel that the man in the street could run around and talk to managements and learn things. He also had a concept that the management would often couch the information very shrewdly to mislead. Therefore, it was very difficult. And that is still true, of course - human nature being what it is.

        

Our leap - paying up for quality....

        

Munger: And so having started out as Grahamites - which, by the way, worked fine - we gradually got what I would call better insights. And we realized that some company that was selling at 2 or 3 times book value could still be a hell of a bargain because of momentums implicit in its position, sometimes combined with an unusual managerial skill plainly present in some individual or other, or some system or other.

         And once we'd gotten over the hurdle of recognizing that a thing could be a bargain based on quantitative measures that would have horrified Graham, we started thinking about better          businesses.

        

Bulk of Berkshire's billions brought by better businesses.

        

Munger: And, by the way, the bulk of the billions in Berkshire Hathaway have come from the better businesses. Much of the first $200 or $300 million came from scrambling around with our Geiger counter. But the great bulk of the money has come from the great businesses.

         And even some of the early money was made by being temporarily present in great businesses, Buffett Partnership, for example, owned American Express and Disney when they got pounded down.

        

FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF A RATIONAL CLIENT,

          INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT TODAY IS BONKERS.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         A tremendous advantage at Berkshire - no clients.

        

Munger: [Most investment managers are] in a game where the clients expect them to know a lot about a lot of things. We didn't have any clients who could fire us at Berkshire Hathaway. So we          didn't have to be governed by any such construct. And we came to this notion of finding a mispriced bet and loading up when we were very confident that we were right. So we're way less diversified. And I think our system is miles better.

         However, in all fairness, I don't think [a lot of money managers] could successfully sell their services if they used our system. But if you're investing for 40 years in some pension fund, what difference does it make if the path from start to finish is a little more bumpy or a little different than everybody else's so long as it's all going to work out well in the end? So what if there's a little extra volatility.

        

Investment management today is really hobbling itself....

        

Munger: In investment management today, everybody wants not only to win, but to have the path never diverge very much from a standard path except on the upside. Well, that is a very artificial, crazy construct. That's the equivalent in investment management to the custom of binding the feet of the Chinese women. It's the equivalent of what Nietzsche meant when he criticized the man who had a lame leg and was proud of it.

         That is really hobbling yourself. Now, investment managers would say. "We have to be that way. That's how we're measured". And they may be right in terms of the way the business is now constructed. But from the viewpoint of a rational consumer, the whole system's "bonkers" and draws a lot of talented people into socially useless activity.

        

IF YOU DON'T LOAD UP ON GREAT OPPORTUNITIES,

          THEN YOU'RE MAKING A BIG MISTAKE.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         It's much better to attempt something attainable.

        

Munger: And the Berkshire system is not "bonkers". It's so damned elementary that even bright people are going to have limited, really valuable insights in a very competitive world when they're fighting against other very bright, hardworking people.

         And it makes sense to load up on the very few good insights you have instead of pretending to know everything about everything at all times. You're much more likely to do well if you start out to do something, feasible instead of something that isn't feasible. Isn't that perfectly obvious?

         How many of you have 56 brilliant insights in which you have equal confidence? Raise your hands, please. How many of you have two or three insights that you have some confidence in? I rest my case.

         I'd say that Berkshire Hathaway's system is adapting to the nature of the investment problem as it really is.

        

The trick is getting into better businesses.

        

Munger: We've really made the money out of high quality businesses. In some cases, we bought the whole business. And in some cases, we just bought a big block of stock. But when you analyze what happened, the big money's been made in the high quality businesses. And most of the other people who've made a lot of money have done so in high quality businesses.

         Over the long term, it's hard for a stock to earn a much better return than the business which underlies it earns. If the business earns 6% on capital over 40 years and you hold it for that 40 years, you're not going to make much different than a 6% return - even if you originally buy it at a huge discount. Conversely, if a business earns 18% on capital over 20 or 30 years, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you'll end up with one hell of a result.

        

Finding 'em small is a very beguiling idea....

        

Munger: So the trick is getting into better businesses. And that involves all of these advantages of scale that you could consider momentum effects.

         How do you get into these great companies? One method is what I'd call the method of finding them small - get 'em when they're little. For example, buy Wal-Mart when Sam Walton first goes public and so forth. And a lot of people try to do just that. And it's a very beguiling idea. If I were a young man, I might actually go into it.

        

We have to buy 'em big. And it gets harder all the time.

        

Munger: But it doesn't work for Berkshire Hathaway anymore because we've got too much money. We can't find anything that fits our size parameter that way. Besides, we're set in our ways. But I regard finding them small as a perfectly intelligent approach for somebody to try with discipline. It's just not something that I've done.

         Finding 'em big obviously is very hard because of the competition. So far, Berkshire's managed to do it. But can we continue to do it? What' the next Coca-Cola investment for us? Well, the answer to that is I don't know. I think it gets harder for us all the time....

        

Not loading up on great opportunities is a big mistake.

        

Munger: And ideally - and we've done a lot of this - you get into a great business which also has a great manager because management matters. For example, it's made a hell of a difference to General Electric that Jack Welch came in instead of the guy who took over Westinghouse - one hell of a difference. So management matters, too.

         And some of it is predictable. I do not think it takes a genius to understand that Jack Welch was a more insightful person and a better manager than his peers in other companies. Nor do I think it took tremendous genius to understand that Disney had basic momentums in place which are very powerful and that Eisner and Wells were very unusual managers.

         So you do get an occasional opportunity to get into a wonderful business that's being run by a wonderful manager. And, of course, that's hog heaven day. If you don't load up when you get those opportunities, it's a big mistake.

        

It's usually better to bet on the business than the manager....

        

Munger: Occasionally, you'll find a human being who's so talented that he can do things that ordinary skilled mortals can't. I would argue that Simon Marks - who was second generation in Marks & Spencer of England - was such a man. Patterson was such a man at National Cash Register. And Sam Walton was such a man,

         These people do come along - and in many cases, they're not all that hard to identity. If they've got a reasonable hand - with the fanaticism and intelligence and so on that these people generally bring to the party - then management can matter much.

         However, averaged out, betting on the quality of a business is better than betting on the quality of management. In other words, if you have to choose one, bet on the business momentum, not the brilliance of the manager.

         But, very rarely, you find a manager who's so good that you're wise to follow him into what looks like a mediocre business.

        

MAKE A FEW GREAT INVESTMENTS

          AND SIT ON YOUR ASSETS....

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         There are huge mathematical advantages to doing nothing.

        

Munger: Another very simple effect I very seldom see discussed either by investment managers or anybody else is the effect of taxes. If you're going to buy something which compounds for 30 years at 15% per annum and you pay one 35% tax at the very end, the way that works out is that after taxes, you keep 13.3% per annum,

         In contrast, if you bought the same investment, but had to pay taxes every year of 35% out of the 15% that you earned, then your return would be 15% minus 35% of 15% - or only 9.75% per year compounded. So the difference there is over 3.5%. And what 3.5% does to the numbers over long holding periods like 30 years is truly eye-opening. If you sit on your ass for long, long stretches in great companies, you can get a huge edge from nothing but the way income taxes work.

         Even with a 10% per annum investment, paying a 35% tax at the end gives you 8.3% after taxes as an annual compounded result after 30 years. In contrast, if you pay the 35% each year instead of at the end, your annual result goes down to 6.5%. So you add nearly 2% of after-tax return per annum if you only achieve an average return by historical standards from common stock investments in companies with low dividend payout ratios.

        

         Tax-related motivations have led to many big boners.

        

Munger: But in terms of business mistakes that I've seen over a long lifetime, I would say that trying to minimize taxes too much is one of the great standard causes of really dumb mistakes. I see terrible mistakes from people being overly motivated by tax considerations.

         Warren and I personally don't drill oil wells. We pay our taxes. And we've done pretty well, so far. Anytime somebody offers you a tax shelter from here on in life, my advice would be don't buy it.

         In fact, any time anybody offers you anything with a big commission and a 200-page prospectus. Don't buy it. Occasionally, you'll be wrong if you adopt "Munger's Rule". However, over a lifetime, you'll be a long way ahead - and you will miss a lot of unhappy experiences that might otherwise reduce your love for your fellow man.

        

Make a few great investments and sit on your assets....

        

Munger: There are huge advantages for an individual to get into a position where you make a few great investments and just sit on your ass: You're paying less to brokers. You're listening to less nonsense. And if it works, the governmental tax system gives you an extra 1, 2 or 3 percentage points per annum compounded.

         And you think that most of you are going to get that much advantage by hiring investment counselors and paying them 1% to run around, incurring a lot of taxes on your behalf? Lots of luck.

        

Great companies' stock prices often reflect their quality.

        

Munger: Are there any dangers in this philosophy? Yes. Everything in life has dangers. Since it's so obvious that investing in great companies works, it gets horribly overdone from time to time.

         In the Nifty-Fifty days, everybody could tell which companies were the great ones. So they got up to 50, 60 and 70 times earnings. And just as IBM fell off the wave, other companies did, too.

         Thus, a large investment disaster resulted from too high prices. And you've got to be aware of that danger....

         So there are risks. Nothing is automatic and easy. But if you can find some fairly-priced great company and buy it and sit, that tends to work out very, very well indeed - especially for an individual. <

        

AND THERE'S THE ULTIMATE NO-BRAINER

          - LIKE FINDING MONEY IN THE STREET.

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         The ultimate no-brainer....

        

Munger: Within the growth stock model, there's a sub-position: There are actually businesses. that you will find a few times in a lifetime, where any manager could raise the return enormously just by raising prices - and yet they haven't done it. So they have huge untapped pricing power that they're not using. That is the ultimate no-brainer.

         That existed in Disney. It's such a unique experience to take your grandchild to Disneyland. You're not doing it that often. And there are lots of people in the country. And Disney found that it could raise those prices a lot and the attendance stayed right up.

         So a lot of the great record of Eisner and Wells was utter brilliance but the rest came from just raising prices at Disneyland and Disneyworld and through video cassette sales of classic animated movies.

        

Coca-Cola had it all. It was perfect....

        

Munger: At Berkshire Hathaway, Warren and I raised the prices of See's Candy a little faster than others might have. And, of course, we invested in Coca-Cola - which had some untapped pricing power. And it also had brilliant management. So a Goizueta and Keough could do much more than raise prices. It was perfect.

        

You will occasionally find money in the street.

        

Munger: You will get a few opportunities to profit from finding underpricing. There are actually people out there who don't price everything as high as the market will easily stand. And once you figure that out, it's like finding money in the street - if you have the courage of your convictions.

        

MODELS FROM BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INVESTMENTS:

          COKE, GILLETTE, GEICO & THE WASHINGTON POST

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Model #1: Betting on newspapers in two newspaper towns.

        

Munger: If you look at Berkshire's investments where a lot of the money's been made and you look for the models, you can see that we twice bought into two-newspaper towns which have since become one-newspaper towns. So we made a bet to some extent....

        

The Washington Post was a rare opportunity indeed.

        

Munger: In one of those - The Washington Post - we bought it at about 20% of the value to a private owner. So we bought it on a Ben Graham-style basis - at one-fifth of obvious value - and, in addition, we faced a situation where you had both the top hand in a game that was clearly going to end up with one winner and a management with a lot of integrity and intelligence. That one was a real dream. They're very high class people - the Katharine Graham family. That's why it was a dream - an absolute, damn dream.

         Of course, that came about back in '73-'74. And that was almost like 1932. That was probably a once-in-40- years-type denouement in the markets. That investment's up about 50 times over our cost. If I were you, I wouldn't count on getting any investment in your lifetime quite as good as The Washington Post was in '73 and '74.

        

But it doesn't have to be that good to take care of you.

        

Model #2: A low-priced item + a global marketing advantage.

        

Munger: Let me mention another model. Of course, Gillette and Coke make fairly low-priced items and have a tremendous marketing advantage all over the world. And in Gillette's case, they keep surfing along new technology which is fairly simple by the standards of microchips. But it's hard for competitors to do.

         So they've been able to stay constantly near the edge of improvements in shaving. There are whole countries where Gillette has more than 90% of the shaving market.

        

Model #3: The cancer surgery formula - a la GEICO.

        

Munger: GEICO is a very interesting model. It's another one of the 100 or so models you ought to have in your head. I've had many friends in the sick-business-fix- game over a long lifetime.

         And they practically all use the following formula - I call it the cancer surgery formula:

         They look at this mess. And they figure out if there's anything sound left that can live on its own if they cut away everything else. And if they find anything sound, they just cut away everything else. Of course, if that doesn't work, they liquidate the business. But it frequently does work.

         And GEICO had a perfectly magnificent business - submerged in a mess, but still working. Misled by success, GEICO had done some foolish things. They got to thinking that, because they were making a lot of money, they knew everything. And they suffered huge losses.

         All they had to do was to cut out all the folly and go back to the perfectly wonderful business that was lying there. And when you think about it, that's a very simple model. And it's repeated over and over again.

         And, in GEICO's case, think about all the money we passively made.... It was a wonderful business combined with a bunch of foolishness that could easily he cut out. And people were coming in who were temperamentally and intellectually designed so they were going to cut it out. That is a model you want to look for.

         And you may find one or two or three in a long lifetime that are very good. And you may find 20 or 30 that are good enough to be quite useful.

        

THE INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT BUSINESS:

          DON'T PRACTICE PSYCHOLOGICAL DENIAL

         ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

         Investment managers as a whole don't add any value....

        

Munger: Finally, I'd like to once again talk about investment management. That is a funny business - because on a net basis, the whole investment management business together gives no value added to all buyers combined. That's the way it has to work.

         Of course, that isn't true of plumbing and it isn't true of medicine. If you're going to make your careers in the investment management business, you face a very peculiar situation. And most investment managers handle it with psychological denial -just like a chiropractor. That is the sstandard method of handling the limitations of the investment management process. But if you want to live the best sort of life, I would urge each of you not to use the psychological denial mode.

        

However, it's not impossible to add value.

        

Munger: I think a select few - a small percentage of the investment managers - can deliver value added. But I don't think brilliance alone is enough to do it. I think that you have to have a little of this discipline of calling your shots and loading up - if you want to maximize your chances of becoming one who provides above average real returns for clients over the long pull.

         But I'm just talking about investment managers engaged in common stock picking. I am agnostic elsewhere. I think there may well be people who are so shrewd about currencies and this, that and the other thing that they can achieve good long-term records operating on a pretty big scale in that way. But that doesn't happen to be my milieu. I'm talking about stock picking in American stocks.

         I think it's hard to provide a lot of value added to the investment management client, but it's not impossible.

        

         -------------------------------------------------

 

         Investment Practices of Leading Charitable Foundations

        

         Speech of Charles T. Munger, Vice Chair, Berkshire Hathaway, at Miramar Sheraton Hotel, Santa Monica, CA, on October 14, 1998, to a meeting of the Foundation Financial Officers Group sponsored by The Conrad Hilton Foundation, The Amateur Athletic Foundation, The J. Paul Getty Trust, and Rio Hondo Memorial Foundation. The speech is reproduced here (http://www.tiff.org/pub/library/Other_Resources/Munger_Speech.html)

with Mr. Munger’s permission.

        

         I am speaking here today because my friend, John Argue, asked me. And John well knew that I, who, unlike many other speakers on your agenda, have nothing to sell any of you, would be irreverent about much current investment practice in large institutions, including charitable foundations. Therefore any hostility my talk will cause should be directed at John Argue who comes from the legal profession and may even enjoy it.

        

         It was long the norm at large charitable foundations to invest mostly in unleveraged, marketable, domestic securities, mostly equities. The equities were selected by one or a very few investment counselling organizations. But in recent years there has been a drift toward more complexity.

         Some foundations, following the lead of institutions like Yale, have tried to become much better versions of Bernie Cornfeld’s "fund of funds." This is an amazing development. Few would have predicted that, long after Cornfeld’s fall into disgrace, leading universities would be leading foundations into Cornfeld’s system.

        

         Now, in some foundations, there are not few but many investment counselors, chosen by an additional layer of consultants who are hired to decide which investment counselors are best, help in allocating funds to various categories, make sure that foreign securities are not neglected in favor of domestic securities, check validity of claimed investment records, insure that claimed investment styles are scrupulously followed, and help augment an already large diversification in a way that conforms to the latest notions of corporate finance professors about volatility and "beta."

        

         But even with this amazingly active, would-be-polymathic new layer of consultant-choosing consultants, the individual investment counselors, in picking common stocks, still rely to a considerable extent on a third layer of consultants. The third layer consists of the security analysts employed by investment banks. These security analysts receive enormous salaries, sometimes set in seven figures after bidding wars. The hiring investment banks recoup these salaries from two sources: (1) commissions and trading spreads born by security buyers (some of which are rebated as "soft dollars" to money managers), plus (2) investment banking charges paid by corporations which appreciate the enthusiastic way their securities are being recommended by the security analysts.

        

         There is one thing sure about all this complexity including its touches of behavior lacking the full punctilio of honor. Even when nothing but unleveraged stock-picking is involved, the total cost of all the investment management, plus the frictional costs of fairly often getting in and out of many large investment positions, can easily reach 3% of foundation net worth per annum if foundations, urged on by consultants, add new activity, year after year. This full cost doesn’t show up in conventional accounting. But that is because accounting has limitations and not because the full cost isn’t present.

        

         Next, we come to time for a little arithmetic: it is one thing each year to pay the croupiers 3% of starting wealth when the average foundation is enjoying a real return, say, of 17% before the croupiers’ take. But it is not written in the stars that foundations will always gain 17% gross, a common result in recent years. And if the average annual gross real return from indexed investment in equities goes back, say, to 5% over some long future period, and the croupiers’ take turns out to remain the waste it has always been, even for the average intelligent player, then the        average intelligent foundation will be in a prolonged, uncomfortable, shrinking mode. After all, 5% minus 3% minus 5% in donations leaves an annual shrinkage of 3%.

        

         All the equity investors, in total, will surely bear a performance disadvantage per annum equal to the total croupiers’ costs they have jointly elected to bear. This is an unescapable fact of life. And it is also unescapable that exactly half of the investors will get a result below the median result after the croupiers’ take, which median result may well be somewhere between unexciting and lousy.

        

         Human nature being what it is, most people assume away worries like those I raise. After all, five centuries before Christ Demosthenes noted that: "What a man wishes, he will believe." And in self appraisals of prospects and talents it is the norm, as Demosthenes predicted, for people to be ridiculously over-optimistic. For instance, a careful survey in Sweden showed that 90% of automobile drivers considered themselves above average. And people who are successfully selling something, as investment counselors do, make Swedish drivers sound like depressives. Virtually every investment expert’s public assessment is that he is above average, no matter what is the evidence to the contrary.

        

         But, you may think, my foundation, at least, will be above average. It is well endowed, hires the best, and considers all investment issues at length and with objective professionalism. And to this I respond that an excess of what seems like professionalism will often hurt you horribly — precisely because the careful procedures themselves often lead to overconfidence in their outcome.

        

         General Motors recently made just such a mistake, and it was a lollapalooza. Using fancy consumer surveys, its excess of professionalism, it concluded not to put a fourth door in a truck designed to serve also as the equivalent of a comfortable five-passenger car. Its competitors, more basic, had actually seen five people enter and exit cars. Moreover they had noticed that people were used to four doors in a comfortable five-passenger car and that biological creatures ordinarily prefer effort minimization in routine activies and don’t like removals of long-enjoyed benefits.

         There are only two words that come instantly to mind in reviewing General Motors horrible decision, which has blown many hundreds of millions of dollars. And one of those words is: "oops."

        

         Similarly, the hedge fund known as "Long Term Capital Management" recently collapsed, through overconfidence in its highly leveraged methods, despite I.Qs. of its principals that must have averaged 160. Smart, hard-working people aren’t exempted from professional disasters from overconfidence. Often, they just go around in the more difficult voyages they choose, relying on their self-appraisals that they have superior talents and methods.

        

         It is, of course, irritating that extra care in thinking is not all good but also introduces extra error.

         But most good things have undesired "side effects," and thinking is no exception. The best defense is that of the best physicists, who systematically criticize themselves to an extreme degree, using a mindset described by Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman as follows: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you’re the easiest person to fool."

        

         But suppose that an abnormally realistic foundation, thinking like Feynman, fears a poor future         investment outcome because it is unwilling to assume that its unleveraged equities will outperform equity indexes, minus all investment costs, merely because the foundation has adopted the approach of becoming a "fund of funds," with much investment turnover and layers of consultants that consider themselves above average. What are this fearful foundation’s options as it seeks improved prospects?

        

         There are at least three modern choices:

        

 1. The foundation can both dispense with its consultants and reduce its investment turnover as it changes to indexed investment in equities.

      

 2. The foundation can follow the example of Berkshire Hathaway, and thus get total annual croupier costs below 1/10 of 1% of principal per annum, by investing with virtually total passivity in a very few much-admired domestic corporations. And there is no reason why some outside advice can’t be used in this process. All the fee payor has to do is suitably control the high talent in investment counseling organizations so that the servant becomes the useful tool of its master, instead of serving itself under the perverse incentives of a sort of Mad Hatter’s tea party.

      

 3. The foundation can supplement unleveraged investment in marketable equities with

       investment in limited partnerships that do some combination of the following: unleveraged investment in high-tech corporations in their infancy; leveraged investments in corporate buy-outs, leveraged relative value trades in equities, and leveraged convergence trades and other exotic trades in all kinds of securities and derivatives.

        

         For the obvious reasons given by purveyors of indexed equities, I think choice (1), indexing, is a wiser choice for the average foundation than what it is now doing in unleveraged equity investment. And particularly so as its present total croupier costs exceed 1% of principal per annum. Indexing can’t work well forever if almost everybody turns to it. But it will work all right for a long time.

        

         Choice (3), investment in fancy limited partnerships, is largely beyond the scope of this talk. I will only say that the Munger Foundation does not so invest, and briefly mention two considerations bearing on "LBO" funds.

        

         The first consideration bearing on LBO funds is that buying 100% of corporations with much financial leverage and two layers of promotional carry (one for the management and one for the general partners in the LBO fund) is no sure thing to outperform equity indexes in the future if equity indexes perform poorly in the future. In substance, a LBO fund is a better way of buying equivalents of marketable equities on margin, and the debt could prove disastrous if future marketable equity performance is bad. And particularly so if the bad performance comes from generally bad business conditions.

        

         The second consideration is increasing competition for LBO candidates. For instance, if the LBO candidates are good service corporations, General Electric can now buy more than $10 billion worth per year in GE’s credit corporation, with 100% debt financing at an interest rate only slightly higher than the U.S. Government is paying. This sort of thing is not ordinary competition, but supercompetition. And there are now very many LBO funds, both large and small, mostly awash in money and with general partners highly incentivized to buy something. In addition there is increased buying competition from corporations other than GE, using some combination of debt and equity.

        

         In short, in the LBO field, there is a buried covariance with marketable equities — toward disaster in generally bad business conditions — and competition is now extreme.

        

         Given time limitation, I can say no more about limited partnerships, one of which I once ran. This leaves for extensive discussion only foundation choice (2), more imitation of the investment practices of Berkshire Hathaway in maintaining marketable equity portfolios with virtually zero         turnover and with only a very few stocks chosen. This brings us to the question of how much investment diversification is desirable at foundations.

        

         I have more than skepticism regarding the orthodox view that huge diversification is a must for those wise enough so that indexation is not the logical mode for equity investment. I think the orthodox view is grossly mistaken.

        

         In the United States, a person or institution with almost all wealth invested, long term, in just three fine domestic corporations is securely rich. And why should such an owner care if at any time most other investors are faring somewhat better or worse. And particularly so when he rationally believes, like Berkshire, that his long-term results will be superior by reason of his lower costs, required emphasis on long-term effects, and concentration in his most preferred choices.

        

         I go even further. I think it can be a rational choice, in some situations, for a family or a foundation to remain 90% concentrated in one equity. Indeed, I hope the Mungers follow roughly this course. And I note that the Woodruff foundations have, so far, proven extremely wise to retain an approximately 90% concentration in the founder’s Coca-Cola stock. It would be interesting to calculate just how all American foundations would have fared if they had never sold a share of founder’s stock. Very many, I think, would now be much better off. But, you may say, the diversifiers simply took out insurance against a catastrophe that didn’t occur. And I reply: there are worse things than some foundation’s losing relative clout in the world, and rich institutions, like rich individuals, should do a lot of self insurance if they want to maximize long-term results.

        

         Furthermore, all the good in the world is not done by foundation donations. Much more good is done through the ordinary business operations of the corporations in which the foundations invest.

         And some corporations do much more good than others in a way that gives investors therein better than average long-term prospects do. And I don’t consider it foolish, stupid, evil, or illegal for a foundation to greatly concentrate investment in what it admires or even loves. Indeed, Ben Franklin required just such an investment practice for the charitable endowment created by his will.

        

         One other aspect of Berkshire’s equity investment practice deserves comparative mention. So far, there has been almost no direct foreign investment at Berkshire and much foreign investment at foundations.

        

         Regarding this divergent history, I wish to say that I agree with Peter Drucker that the culture and legal systems of the United States are especially favorable to shareholder interests, compared to other interests and compared to most other countries. Indeed, there are many other countries where any good going to public shareholders has a very low priority and almost every other constituency stands higher in line. This factor, I think is underweighed at many investment institutions, probably because it does not easily lead to quantitative thinking using modern financial technique.

         But some important factor doesn’t lose share of force just because some "expert" can better        measure other types of force. Generally, I tend to prefer over direct foreign investment Berkshire’s practice of participating in foreign economies through the likes of Coca-Cola and Gillette.

        

         To conclude, I will make one controversial prediction and one controversial argument.

        

         The controversial prediction is that, if some of you make your investment style more like Berkshire Hathaway’s, in a long-term retrospect you will be unlikely to have cause for regret, even if you can’t get Warren Buffett to work for nothing. Instead, Berkshire will have cause for regret as it faces more intelligent investment competition. But Berkshire won’t actually regret any disadvantage from your enlightenment. We only want what success we can get despite encouraging others to share our general views about reality.

        

         My controversial argument is an additional consideration weighing against the complex, high-cost investment modalities becoming ever more popular at foundations. Even if, contrary to my suspicions, such modalities should turn out to work pretty well, most of the money-making activity would contain profoundly antisocial effects. This would be so because the activity would exacerbate the current, harmful trend in which ever more of the nation’s ethical young brainpower is attracted into lucrative money-management and its attendant modern frictions, as distinguished from work providing much more value to others. Money management does not create the right examples. Early Charlie Munger is a horrible career model for the young, because not enough was delivered to civilization in return for what was wrested from capitalism. And other similar career models are even worse.

        

         Rather than encourage such models, a more constructive choice at foundations is long-term investment concentration in a few domestic corporations that are wisely admired.

        

         Why not thus imitate Ben Franklin? After all, old Ben was very effective in doing public good. And he was a pretty good investor, too. Better his model, I think, than Bernie Cornfeld’s. The choice is plainly yours to make.

        

 

         Master's Class

          Berkshire Hathaway's vice chairman shreds the conventional wisdom on foundation investing

         By Charles Munger, 1999

        

It was long the norm at large charitable foundations to invest mostly in unleveraged, marketable, domestic securities, mostly equities. The equities were selected by one or a very few investment counseling organizations. But in recent years there has been a drift toward more complexity. Some foundations, following the lead of institutions like Yale, have tried to become much better versions of Bernie Cornfeld’s "fund of funds." This is an amazing development. Few would have predicted that, decades after his fall into disgrace, leading universities would be leading foundations into Cornfeld’s system.

         Now, in some foundations, there are not few but many investment counselors, chosen by an additional layer of consultants who are hired to decide which investment counselors are best, help in allocating funds to various categories, make sure that foreign securities are not neglected in favor of domestic securities, check validity of claimed investment records, ensure that claimed investment styles are scrupulously followed, and help augment an already large diversification in a way that conforms to the latest notions of corporate finance professors about measures of volatility.

         But even with this amazingly active, would-be-polymathic new layer of consultant-choosing consultants, in picking common stocks the individual investment counselors still rely to a considerable extent on a third layer of consultants. The third layer consists of the security analysts employed by investment banks. These security analysts receive enormous salaries, sometimes set in seven figures after bidding wars. The hiring investment banks recoup these salaries from two sources: First, from commissions and trading spreads borne by securities buyers; and second, from investment banking charges paid by corporations which appreciate the enthusiastic way their securities are being recommended by the security analysts.

         There is one sure thing about all this complexity, including its touches of behavior lacking the full punctilio of honor. Even when nothing but unleveraged stock-picking is involved, the total cost of all the investment management, plus the frictional costs of fairly often getting in and out of many large investment positions, can easily reach 3 percent of foundation net worth per annum if foundations, urged by consultants, add new activity year after year. This full cost doesn’t show up in conventional accounting. But that is because accounting has limitations and not because the full cost isn’t present.

        

Where Every Investment Advisor Is Above-Average

         Now is time for a little arithmetic: It is one thing each year to pay the croupiers 3 percent of starting wealth when the average foundation is enjoying a real return, say, of 17 percent before the croupiers’ take. But it is not written in the stars that foundations will          always gain 17 percent gross, a common result in recent years. And if the average annual gross real return from indexed investment in equities goes back, say, to 5 percent over some long future period, and the croupiers’ take turns out to remain the waste it has always been, even for the average intelligent players, then the average intelligent foundation will be in a prolonged, uncomfortable, shrinking mode. After all, 5 percent minus 3 percent minus 5 percent in donations leaves an annual shrink of 3 percent.

         All the equity investors, in total, will surely bear a performance disadvantage per annum equal to the total croupiers’ costs they have jointly elected to bear. This is an inescapable fact of life. And it is also inescapable that exactly half of the investors will get a result below the median result after the croupiers’ take, which median result may well be somewhere between unexciting and lousy.

         Human nature being what it is, most people assume away worries like those I raise. After all, in the 5th century B. C. Demosthenes noted that: "What a man wishes, he will believe." And in self-appraisals of prospects and talents it is the norm, as Demosthenes predicted, for people to be ridiculously over-optimistic. For instance, a careful survey in Sweden showed that 90 percent of automobile drivers considered themselves above average. And people who are successfully selling something, as investment counselors do, make Swedish drivers sound like depressives. Virtually every investment expert’s public assessment is that he is above average, no matter what is the evidence to the contrary.

         "But," some will say, "my foundation, at least, will be above average. It is well-endowed, hires the best, and considers all investment issues at length and with objective professionalism." And to this I respond that an excess of what seems like professionalism will often hurt you horribly—precisely because the careful procedures themselves often lead to overconfidence in their outcome.

         Not long ago, General Motors made just such a mistake, and it was a lollapalooza. Using fancy consumer surveys, its excess of professionalism, it decided not to put a fourth door in a truck designed to serve also as the equivalent of a comfortable five-passenger car. Its competitors, more basic, had actually seen five people enter and exit cars. Moreover they had noticed that people were used to four doors in a comfortable five-passenger car and that biological creatures ordinarily prefer effort minimization in routine activities and don’t like removals of long-enjoyed benefits. There are only two words that come instantly to mind in reviewing General Motors horrible decision, which has blown many hundreds of millions of dollars. And one of those words is: "Oops."

         Similarly, the hedge fund known as "Long Term Capital Management" collapsed last fall through overconfidence in its highly leveraged methods, despite I.Q.’s of its principals that must have averaged 160. Smart people aren’t exempt from professional disasters from overconfidence. Often, they just run aground in the more difficult voyages they choose, relying on their self-appraisals that they have superior talents and methods.

        

         Investment Secrets of Richard Feynman

        

It is, of course, irritating that extra care in thinking is not all good but actually introduces extra error. But most good things have undesired "side effects," and thinking is no exception. The best defense is that of the best physicists, who systematically criticize themselves to an extreme degree, using a mindset described by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman as follows: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you’re the easiest person to fool."

         But suppose that an abnormally realistic foundation, thinking like Feynman, fears a poor future investment outcome because it is unwilling to assume that its unleveraged equities, after deducting all investment costs, will outperform equity indexes, merely because the foundation has adopted the approach of becoming a "fund of funds" with much investment turnover and layers of consultants that consider themselves above average.

         What are this fearful foundation’s options as it seeks improved prospects? There are at least three modern choices:

• The foundation can both dispense with its consultants and reduce its investment turnover as it changes to indexed investment in equities.

• The foundation can follow the example of Berkshire Hathaway, and thus get total annual croupier costs below 0.1 percent of principal per annum, by investing with virtually total passivity in a very few much-admired domestic corporations. And there is no reason why some outside advice can’t be used in this process. All the fee payer has to do is suitably control the high talent in investment counseling organizations so that the servant becomes the useful tool of its master, instead of serving itself under the perverse incentives of a sort of mad hatter’s tea party.

• The foundation can supplement unleveraged investment in marketable equities with investment in limited partnerships that do some combination of the following: Unleveraged investment in high-tech corporations in their infancy, leveraged investments in corporate buy-outs, leveraged relative value trades in equities, and leveraged convergence trades and other exotic trades in all kinds of securities and derivatives. For the obvious reasons given by purveyors of indexed equities, I think choice #1, indexing, is a wiser choice for the average foundation than what it is now doing in unleveraged equity investment. And particularly so as its present total croupier costs exceed 1 percent of principal per annum. Indexing can’t work well forever if almost everybody turns to it. But it will work alright for a long time.

        

Contending with Supercompetitors

         Choice #3, investment in fancy limited partnerships, is largely beyond the scope of this article. I will only note that the Munger Foundation does not so invest and briefly mention two considerations bearing on leveraged buyout (LBO) funds.

        

         The first consideration bearing on LBO funds is that buying 100 percent of corporations with much financial leverage and two layers of promotional carry (one for the management and one for the general partners in the LBO fund) is no sure thing to outperform equity indexes in the future if equity indexes perform poorly in the future. In substance, an LBO fund is a better way of buying equivalents of marketable equities on margin, and the debt could prove disastrous if future marketable equity performance is bad. And particularly so if the bad performance comes from generally bad business conditions.

         The second consideration is increasing competition for LBO candidates. For instance, if the LBO candidates are good service corporations, General Electric can now buy more than $10 billion worth per year in GE’s credit corporation, with 100 percent debt financing at an interest rate only slightly higher than the U.S. government is paying. This is not ordinary competition, but supercompetition. And there are now very many LBO funds, both large and small, mostly awash in money and with general partners highly incentivized to buy something. In addition, there is increased buying competition from corporations other than GE, using come combination of debt and equity. In short, in the LBO field there is a buried "covariance" with marketable equities, toward disaster in generally bad business conditions, and competition is now extremely intense.

         This brings us to foundation choice #2—more imitation of the investment practices of Berkshire Hathaway in maintaining marketable equity portfolios with virtually zero turnover and with only a very few stocks chosen. And that in turn raises the question of how much investment diversification is desirable for foundations.

         I am more than skeptical of the orthodox view that huge diversification is a must for those wise enough that indexation is not the logical mode for equity investment. I think the orthodox view is grossly mistaken.

         In the United States, a person or institution with almost all wealth invested long-term in just three fine domestic corporations is securely rich. And why should such an owner care if at any time most other investors are faring somewhat better or worse? And particularly so when he rationally believes, like Berkshire, that his long-term results will be superior by reason of his lower costs, required emphasis on long-term effects, and concentration in his most-preferred choices.

         I would go even further. I think it can be a rational choice, in some situations, for a family or a foundation to remain 90 percent concentrated in one equity. Indeed, I hope      the Mungers follow roughly this course. And I note that the Robert Woodruff Foundations have, so far, proven extremely wise to retain an approximately 90 percent concentration in the founder’s Coca-Cola stock. It would be interesting to calculate just how all American foundations would have fared if they had never sold a share of the founder’s stock. Very many, I think, would now be much better off. But, some would say, the diversifiers simply took out insurance against a catastrophe that didn’t occur.

         And I reply: There are worse things than a foundation’s losing relative clout in the world, and rich institutions, like rich individuals, should do a lot of self-insurance if they want to maximize long-term results.

         Furthermore, all the good in the world is not done by foundation donations. Much more good is done through the ordinary business operations of the corporations in which the foundations invest. And some corporations do much more good than others in a way that gives investors therein better than average long-term prospects. And I don’t consider it foolish, stupid, evil, or illegal for a foundation to greatly concentrate investment in what it admires or even loves. Indeed, Ben Franklin required just such an investment practice for the charitable endowment created by his will.

 

         Investing Abroad—at Home

         So far, there has been almost no direct foreign investment at Berkshire and much foreign investment at foundations.

         Regarding this divergent history, I have to agree with Peter Drucker that the culture and legal systems of the United States are especially favorable to shareholder interests, compared to other interests and compared to most other countries. Indeed, there are many other countries where any good going to public shareholders has a very low priority and almost every other constituency stands higher in line. This factor, I think is underweighed at many investment institutions, probably because it does not easily lead to quantitative thinking using modern financial techniques. But some important factor doesn’t lose its "share of force" just because some "expert" can better measure other types of force.

         Generally, I tend to prefer over direct foreign investment Berkshire’s practice of participating in foreign economies through the likes of Coca-Cola and Gillette.

        

To conclude, I will make one controversial prediction and one controversial argument.    The one controversial prediction is that, if some foundations make their investment style more like Berkshire Hathaway’s, in a long-term retrospect they will be unlikely to have cause for regret, even if they can’t get Warren Buffett to work for nothing. Instead, Berkshire will have cause for regret as it faces more intelligent investment competition. But Berkshire won’t actually regret any disadvantage from their enlightenment.

         My controversial argument is an additional consideration weighing against the complex, high-cost investment modalities becoming ever more popular at foundations. Even if, contrary to my suspicions, such modalities should turn out to work pretty well, most of the money-making activity would contain profoundly antisocial effects. This, because the activity would exacerbate the current harmful trend in which ever more of the nation’s ethical young brainpower is attracted into lucrative money-management and its attendant modern frictions, as distinguished from work providing much more value to others.

         Money management simply does not create the right examples. Early Charlie Munger is a horrible career model for the young because not enough was delivered to civilization in return for what was wrested from capitalism. And other similar career models are even worse.

         Rather than encourage such models, a more constructive choice at foundations is long-term investment concentration in a few domestic corporations that are wisely admired.

         Why not thus imitate Ben Franklin? After all, old Ben was very effective in doing public good. And he was a pretty good investor, too. Better his model, I think, than Bernie Cornfeld’s.

          Charles T. Munger is vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and president of the Los Angeles-based Alfred C. Munger Foundation. This article is adapted from Mr. Munger's recent speech at a meeting of the Foundation Financial Officers Group.

        

 

         11/10/00 TALK OF CHARLES T. MUNGER TO BREAKFAST

         MEETING OF THE PHILANTHROPY ROUND TABLE

        

         I am here today to talk about so-called “wealth effects” from rising prices for U.S. Common stocks.

        

         I should concede, at the outset, that “wealth effects” are part of the academic discipline of economics and that I have never taken a single course in economics, nor tried to make a single dollar, ever, from foreseeing macroeconomic changes.

        

         Nonetheless, I have concluded that most PhD economists under appraise the power of the common-stock-based “wealth effect”, under current extreme conditions.

        

         Everyone now agrees on two things. First, spending proclivity is influenced in an upward direction when stock prices go up and in a downward direction when stock prices go down. And, second, the proclivity to spend is terribly important in macroeconomics. However, the professionals disagree about size and timing of “wealth effects”, and how they interact with other effects, including the obvious complication that increased spending tends to drive up stock prices while stock prices are concurrently driving up spending. Also, of course, rising stock prices increase corporate earnings, even when spending is static, for instance, by reducing pension cost accruals after which stock prices tend to rise more. Thus “wealth effects” involve mathematical puzzles that are not nearly so well worked out as physics theories and never can be.

        

         The “wealth effect” from rising U.S. stock prices is particularly interesting right now for two reasons. First, there has never been an advance so extreme in the price of widespread stock holdings and, with stock prices going up so much faster than GNP, the related “wealth effect” must now be bigger than was common before. And second, what has happened in Japan over roughly the last ten years has shaken up academic economics, as it obviously should, creating strong worries about recession from “wealth effects” in reverse.

        

         In Japan, with much financial corruption, there was an extreme rise in stock and real estate prices for a very long time, accompanied by extreme real economic growth, compared to the U.S. Then asset values crashed and the Japanese economy stalled out at a very suboptimal level. After this Japan, a modem economy that had learned all the would-be-corrective Keynesian and monetary tricks, pushed these tricks hard and long. Japan, for many years, not only ran an immense government deficit but also reduced interest rates to a place within hailing distance of zero, and kept them there. Nonetheless, the Japanese economy year after year, stays stalled, as Japanese proclivity to spend stubbornly resists all the tricks of the economists. And Japanese stock prices stay down. This Japanese experience is a disturbing example for everyone, and, if something like it happened here, would leave shrunken charitable foundations feeling clobbered by fate. Let us hope, as is probably the case, that the sad situation in Japan is caused in some large part by social psychological effects and corruption peculiar to Japan. In such case our country may be at least half as safe as is widely assumed.

        

         Well, grant that spending proclivity, as influenced by stock prices, is now an important subject, and that the long Japanese recession is disturbing. How big are the economic influences of U.S. stock prices? A median conclusion of the economics professionals, based mostly on data collected by the Federal Reserve System, would probably be that the “wealth effect” on spending from stock prices is not all that big. After all, even now, real household net worth, excluding pensions, is probably up by less than 100% over the last ten years and remains a pretty modest figure per household while market value of common stock is probably not yet one third of aggregate household net worth, excluding pensions. Moreover, such household wealth in common stocks is almost incredibly concentrated, and the super-rich don’t consume in proportion to their wealth. Leaving out pensions, the top 1% of households probably hold about 50% of common stock value and the bottom 80% probably hold about 4%.

        

         Based, on such data, plus unexciting past correlation between stock prices and spending, it is easy for a professional economist to conclude, say, that, even if the average household spends incrementally at a rate of 3% of asset values in stock, consumer spending would have risen less than ½% per year over the last ten years as a consequence of the huge, unprecedented, long lasting, consistent boom is stock prices.

        

         I believe that such economic thinking widely misses underlying reality right now. To me, such thinking looks at the wrong numbers and asks the wrong questions. Let me, the ultimate amateur, boldly try to do a little better, or at least a little differently.

        

         For one thing, I have been told, probably correctly, that Federal Reserve data collection, due to practical obstacles, doesn’t properly take into account pension effects, including effects from 401(k) and similar plans. Assume some 63-year-old dentist has $1 million in GE stock in a private pension plan. The stock goes up in value to $2 million, and the dentist, feeling flush, trades in his very old Chevrolet and leases a new Cadillac at the give-away rate now common.

         To me this is an obvious large “wealth effect” in the dentist’s spending. To many economists, using Federal Reserve data, I suspect the occasion looks like profligate dissaving by the dentist.

         To me the dentist, and many others like him, seem to be spending a lot more because of a very strong pension-related “wealth effect”. Accordingly, I believe that present day “wealth effect” from pension plans is far from trivial and much larger than it was in the past.

        

         For another thing, the traditional thinking of economists often does not take into account implications from the idea of “bezzle”. Let me repeat: “bezzle”, B-E-Z-Z-L-E.

        

         The word “bezzle” is a contraction of the word “embezzle”, and it was coined by Harvard Economics Professor John Kenneth Galbraith to stand for the increase in any period of undisclosed embezzlement. Galbraith coined the “bezzle” word because he saw that undisclosed embezzlement, per dollar, had a very powerful stimulating effect on spending. After all, the embezzler spends more because he has more income, and his employer spends as before because he doesn’t know any of his assets are gone.

        

         But Galbraith did not push his insight on. He was content to stop with being a stimulating gadfly. So I will now try to push Galbraith’s “bezzle” concept on to the next logical level. As Keynes showed, in a naive economy relying on earned income, when the seamstress sells a coat to the shoemaker for $20, the shoemaker has $20 more to spend and the seamstress has $20 less to spend. There is lalapaloose effect on aggregate spending. But when the government prints another $20 bill and uses it to buy pair of shoes, the shoemaker has another $20 and no one feels poorer. And when the shoemaker next buys a coat, - the process goes on and on, not to an infinite increase, but with what is now called the Keynesian multiplier effect, a sort of lalapaloosa effect on spending. Similarly, an undisclosed embezzlement has stronger stimulative effects per dollar on spending than a same-sized honest exchange of goods. Galbraith, being Scottish, liked the bleakness of life demonstrated by his insight. After all, the Scottish enthusiastically accepted the idea of pre-ordained, unfixable infant damnation. But the rest of us don’t like Galbraith’s insight.

         Nevertheless, we have to recognize that Galbraith was roughly right.

        

         No doubt Galbraith saw the Keynesian-multiplier-type economic effects promised by increases in “bezzle”. But he stopped there. After all, “bezzle” could not grow very big, because discovery of massive theft was nearly inevitable and sure to have reverse effects in due course. Thus, increase in private “bezzle” could not drive economies up and up, and on and on, at least for a considerable time, like government spending.

        

         Deterred by the apparent smallness of economic effects from his insight, Galbraith did not ask the next logical question: Are there important functional equivalents of “bezzle” that are large and not promptly self-destructive? My answer to this question is yes. I will next describe only one. I will join Galbraith in coining new words, first, “febezzle”, to stand for the functional equivalent of “bezzle” and, second, “febezzlement”, to describe the process of creating “febezzle”, and third “febezzlers” to describe persons engaged in “febezzlement”. Then I will identify an important source of “febezzle” right in this room. You people, I think, have created a lot of “febezzle” through your foolish investment management practices in dealing with your large holdings of common stock.

        

         If a foundation, or other investor, wastes 3% of assets per year in unnecessary, nonproductive investment costs in managing a strongly rising stock portfolio, it still feels richer, despite the waste, while the people getting the wasted 3%, “febezzelers” though they are, think they are virtuously earning income. The situation is functioning like undisclosed embezzlement without being self-limited. Indeed, the process can expand for a long while by feeding on itself. And all the while what looks like spending from earned income of the receivers of the wasted 3% is, in substance, spending from a disguised “wealth effect” from rising stock prices.

        

         This room contains many people pretty well stricken by expired years --- in my generation or the one following. We tend to believe in thrift and avoiding waste as good things, a process that has worked well for us. It is paradoxical and disturbing to us that economists have long praised foolish spending as a necessary ingredient of a successful economy. Let us call foolish expenditures “foolexures”. And now you holders of old values are hearing one of you own add to the case for “foolexures” the case for “febezzlements” --- the functional equivalent of embezzlements. This may not seem like a nice way to start a new day. Please be assured that I don’t like “febezzlements”. It is just that I think “febezzlements” are widespread and have powerful economic effects. And I also think that one should recognize reality even when one doesn’t like it, indeed especially when one doesn’t like it. Also, I think one should cheerfully endure paradox that one can’t remove by good thinking. Even in pure mathematics they can’t remove all paradox, and the rest of us should also recognize we are going to have to endure a lot of paradox, like it or not.

                 

         Let me also take this occasion to state that my previous notion of 3% of assets per annum in waste in much institutional investment management related to stocks is quite likely too low in a great many cases. A friend, after my talk to foundation financial officers, sent me a summary of a study about mutual fund investors. The study concluded that the typical mutual fund investor gained at 7.25% per year in a 15-year period when the average stock fund gained at 12.8% per year (presumably after expenses). Thus the real performance lag for investors was over 5% of assets per year in addition to whatever percentage per year the mutual funds, after expenses, lagged behind stock market averages. If this mutual fund study is roughly right, it raises huge questions about foundation wisdom in changing investment managers all the time as mutual fund investors do. If the extra lag reported in the mutual fund study exists, it is probably caused in considerable measure by folly in constant removal of assets from lagging portfolio managers being forced to liquidate stockholdings, followed by placement of removed assets with new investment managers that have high-pressure, asset-gaining hoses in their mouths and clients whose investment results will not be improved by the super-rapid injection of new funds. I am always having trouble like that caused by this new mutual fund study. I describe something realistically that looks so awful that my description is disregarded as extreme satire instead of reality. Next, new reality tops the horror of my disbelieved description by some large amount.

         No wonder Munger notions of reality are not widely welcome. This may be my last talk to charitable foundations.

        

         Now toss in with “febezzlement” in investment management about $750 billion in floating, ever-growing, ever-renewing wealth from employee stock options and you get lot more common-stock-related “wealth effect”, driving consumption, with some of the “wealth effect” from employee stock options being, in substance, “febezzle” effect, facilitated by the corrupt accounting practice now required by law.

        

         Next consider that each 100-point advance in the S&P adds about $1 trillion in stock market value, and throw in some sort of Keynesian-type multiplier effect related to all “febezzlement”.

         The related macro-economic “wealth effects”, I believe, become much larger than is conventionally supposed.

        

         And aggregate “wealth effect” from stock prices can get very large indeed. It is an unfortunate fact that great and foolish excess can come into prices of common stocks in the aggregate. They are valued partly like bonds, based on roughly rational projections of use value in producing future cash. But they are also valued partly like Rembrandt paintings, purchased mostly because       their prices have gone up, so far. This situation, combined with big “wealth effects”, at first up and later down, can conceivably produce much mischief. Let us try to investigate this by a “thought experiment”. One of the big British pension funds once bought a lot of ancient art, planning to sell it ten years later, which it did, at a modest profit. Suppose all pension funds purchased ancient art, and only ancient art, with all their assets. Wouldn’t we eventually have a terrible mess on our hands, with great and undesirable macroeconomic consequences? And wouldn’t the mess be bad if only half of all pension funds were invested in ancient art? And if half of all stock value became a consequence of mania, isn’t the situation much like the case wherein half of pension assets are ancient art?

        

         My foregoing acceptance of the possibility that stock value in aggregate can become irrationally high is contrary to the hard-form “efficient market” theory that many of you once learned as gospel from your mistaken professors of yore. Your mistaken professors were too much influenced by “rational man” models of human behavior from economics and too little by “foolish man” models from psychology and real-world experience. “Crowd folly”, the tendency of humans, under some circumstances, to resemble lemmings, explains much foolish thinking of brilliant men and much foolish behavior --- like investment management practices of many foundations represented here today. It is sad that today each institutional investor apparently fears most of all that its investment practices will be different from practices of the rest of the crowd.

        

         Well, this is enough uncredentialed musing for one breakfast meeting. If I am at all right, our - present prosperity has had a stronger boost from common-stock-price-related “wealth effects”, some of them disgusting, than has been the case in many former booms. If so, what was greater on the upside in the recent boom could also be greater on the downside at some time of future stock price decline. Incidentally, the economists may well conclude, eventually, that, when stock market advances and declines are regarded as long lasting, there is more downside force on   optional consumption per dollar of stock market decline than there is upside force per dollar of stock market rise. I suspect that economists would believe this already if they were more willing to take assistance from the best ideas outside their own discipline, or even to look harder at Japan.

        

         Remembering Japan, I also want to raise the possibility that there are, in the very long term, “virtue effects” in economics--- for instance that widespread corrupt accounting will eventually create bad long term consequences as a sort of obverse effect from the virtue-based boost double-entry book-keeping gave to the heyday of Venice. I suggest that when the financial scene starts reminding you of Sodom and Gomorrah, you should fear practical consequences even if you like to participate in what is going on.

        

         Finally, I believe that implications for charitable foundations of my conclusions today, combined with conclusions in my former talk to foundation financial officers, go way beyond implications for investment techniques. If I am right, almost all U.S. foundations are unwise through failure to understand their own investment operations, related to the larger system. If so, this is not good. A rough rule in life is that an organization foolish in one way in dealing with a complex system is all too likely to be foolish in another. So the wisdom of foundation donations may need as much improvement as investment practices of foundations. And here we have two more old rules to guide us. One rule is ethical and the other is prudential.

        

         The ethical rule is from Samuel Johnson who believed that maintenance of easily removable ignorance by a responsible office holder was treacherous malfeasance in meeting moral obligation. The prudential rule is that underlying the old Warner & Swasey advertisement for machine tools: “The man who needs a new machine tool, and hasn’t bought it, is already paying for it”. The Warner & Swasey rule also applies, I believe, to thinking tools. If you don’t have the right thinking tools, you, and the people you seek to help, are already suffering from your easily removable ignorance.

        

         The Great Financial Scandal of 2003

         (An Account by Charles T. Munger)

        

         The great financial scandal erupted in 2003 with the sudden, deserved disgrace of Quant Technical Corporation, always called “Quant Tech”. By this time Quant Tech was the country’s largest pure engineering firm, having become so as a consequence of the contributions of its legendary founder, engineer Albert Berzog Quant.

        

         After 2003, people came to see the Quant Tech story as a sort of morality play, divided into two acts. Act One, the era of the great founding engineer, was seen as a golden age of sound values. Act Two, the era of the founder’s immediate successors, was seen as the age of false values with Quant Tech becoming, in the end, a sort of latter day Sodom or Gomorrah.

        

         In fact, as this account will make clear, the change from good to evil did not occur all at once when Quant Tech’s founder died in 1982. Much good continued after 1982, and serious evil had existed for many years prior to 1982 in the financial culture in which Quant Tech had to operate.

        

         The Quant Tech story is best understood as a classic sort of tragedy in which a single flaw is inexorably punished by remorseless Fate. The flaw was the country’s amazingly peculiar accounting treatment for employee stock options. The victims were Quant Tech and its country. The history of the Great Financial Scandal, as it actually happened, could have been written by Sophocles.

        

         As his life ended in 1982, Albert Berzog Quant delivered to his successors and his Maker a wonderfully prosperous and useful company. The sole business of Quant Tech was designing, for fees, all over the world, a novel type of super-clean and super-efficient small power plant that improved electricity generation.

        

         By 1982 Quant Tech had a dominant market share in its business and was earning $100 million on revenues of $1 billion. It’s costs were virtually all costs to compensate technical employees engaged in design work. Direct employee compensation cost amounted to 70% of revenues. Of this 70%, 30% was base salaries and 40% was incentive bonuses being paid out under an elaborate system designed by the founder. All compensation was paid in cash. There were no stock options because the old man had considered the accounting treatment required for stock options to be “weak, corrupt and contemptible,” and he no more wanted bad accounting in his business than he wanted bad      engineering. Moreover, the old man believed in tailoring his huge incentive bonuses to precise performance standards established for individuals or small groups, instead of allowing what he considered undesirable compensation outcomes, both high and low, such as he believed occurred under other companies’ stock option plans.

        

         Yet, even under the old man’s system, most of Quant Tech’s devoted longtime employees were becoming rich, or sure to get rich. This was happening because the employees were buying Quant Tech stock in the market, just like non-employee shareholders. The old man had always figured that people smart enough, and self-disciplined enough, to design power plants could reasonably be expected to take care of their own financial affairs in this way. He would sometimes advise an employee to buy Quant Tech stock, but more paternalistic than that he would not become.

        

         By the time the founder died in 1982, Quant Tech was debt free and, except as a reputation-enhancer, really didn’t need any shareholders’ equity to run its business, no matter how fast revenues grew. However, the old man believed with Ben Franklin that “it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright,” and he wanted Quant Tech to stand upright. Moreover, he loved his business and his coworkers and always wanted to have on hand large amounts of cash equivalents so as to be able to maximize work-out or work-up chances if an unexpected adversity or opportunity came along. And so in 1982 Quant Tech had on hand $500 million in cash equivalents, amounting to 50% of revenues.

        

         Possessing a strong balance sheet and a productive culture and also holding a critical mass of expertise in a rapidly changing and rapidly growing business, Quant Tech, using the old man’s methods, by 1982 was destined for 20 years ahead to maintain profits at 10% of revenues while revenues increased at 20% per year. After this 20 years, commencing in 2003, Quant Tech’s profit margin would hold for a very long time at 10% while revenue growth would slow down to 4% per year. But no one at Quant Tech knew precisely when its inevitable period of slow revenue growth would begin.

        

         The old man’s dividend policy for Quant Tech was simplicity itself: He never paid a dividend. Instead, all earnings simply piled up in cash equivalents.

        

         Every truly sophisticated investor in common stocks could see that the stock of cash-rich Quant Tech provided a splendid investment opportunity in 1982 when it sold at a mere 15 times earnings and, despite its brilliant prospects, had a market capitalization of only $1.5 billion. This low market capitalization, despite brilliant prospects, existed in 1982 because other wonderful common stocks were also then selling at 15 times earnings, or less, as a natural consequence of high interest rates then prevailing plus disappointing investment returns that had occurred over many previous years for holders of typical diversified portfolios of common stocks.

        

         One result of Quant Tech’s low market capitalization in 1982 was that it made Quant Tech’s directors uneasy and dissatisfied right after the old man’s death. A wiser board would then have bought in Quant Tech’s stock very aggressively, using up all cash on hand and also borrowing funds to use in the same way. However, such a decision was not in accord with conventional corporate wisdom in 1982. And so the directors made a conventional decision. They recruited a new CEO and CFO from outside Quant Tech, in particular from a company that then had a conventional stock option plan for employees and also possessed a market capitalization at 20 times reported earnings, even though its balance sheet was weaker than Quant Tech’s and its earnings were growing more slowly than earnings at Quant Tech. Incident to the recruitment of the new executives, it was made plain that Quant Tech’s directors wanted a higher market capitalization, as soon as feasible.

        

         The newly installed Quant Tech officers quickly realized that the company could not wisely either drive its revenues up at an annual rate higher than the rate in place or increase Quant Tech profit margin. The founder had plainly achieved an optimum in each case. Nor did the new officers dare tinker with an engineering culture that was working so well. Therefore, the new officers were attracted to employing what they called “modern financial engineering” which required prompt use of any and all arguably lawful methods for driving up reported earnings, with big, simple changes to be made          first.

        

         By a strange irony of fate, the accounting convention for stock options that had so displeased Quant Tech’s founder now made the new officers’ job very easy and would ultimately ruin Quant Tech’s reputation. There was now an accounting convention in the United States that, provided employees were first given options, required that when easily marketable stock was issued to employees at a below-market price, the bargain element for the employees, although roughly equivalent to cash, could not count as compensation expense in determining a company’s reported profits. This amazingly peculiar accounting convention had been selected by the accounting profession, over the objection     of some of its wisest and most ethical members, because corporate managers, by and large, preferred that their gains from exercising options covering their employers’ stock not be counted as expense in determining their employers’ earnings. The accounting profession, in making its amazingly peculiar decision, had simply followed the injunction so often followed by persons quite different from prosperous, entrenched accountants.

         The injunction was that normally followed by insecure and powerless people: “His bread I eat, his song I sing.” Fortunately, the income tax authorities did not have the same amazingly peculiar accounting idea as the accounting profession. Elementary common sense prevailed, and the bargain element in stock option exercises was treated as an obvious compensation expense, deductible in determining income for tax purposes.

        

         Quant Tech’s new officers, financially shrewd as they were, could see at a glance that, given the amazingly peculiar accounting convention and the sound income-tax rules in place, Quant Tech had a breathtakingly large opportunity to increase its reported profits by taking very simple action. The fact that so large a share of Quant Tech’s annual expense was incentive bonus expense provided a “modern financial engineering” opportunity second to none.

        

         For instance, it was mere child’s play for the executives to realize that if in 1982 Quant Tech had substituted employee stock option exercise profits for all its incentive bonus expense of $400 million, while using bonus money saved, plus option prices paid, to buy back all shares issued in option exercises and keeping all else the same, the result would have been to drive Quant Tech 1982 reported earnings up by 400% to $500 million from $100 million while shares outstanding remained exactly the same! And so it seemed that the obviously correct ploy for the officers was to start substituting employee stock option exercise profits for incentive bonuses. Why should a group of numerate engineers care whether their bonuses were in cash of virtually perfect equivalents of cash? Arranging such substitutions, on any schedule desired, seemed like no difficult chore.

        

         However, it was also mere child’s play for the new officers to realize that a certain amount of caution and restraint would be desirable in pushing their new ploy. Obviously, if they pushed their new ploy too hard in any single year there might be rebellion from Quant Tech’s accountants or undesirable hostility from other sources. This, in turn, would risk killing a goose with a vast ability to deliver golden eggs, at least to the officers. After all, it was quite clear that their ploy would be increasing reported earnings only by adding to real earnings an element of phony earnings – phony in the sense that Quant Tech would enjoy no true favorable economic effect (except temporary fraud-type effect similar to that from overcounting closing inventory) from that part of reported earnings increases attributable to use of the ploy. The new CEO privately called the desirable, cautious approach “wisely restrained falsehood”.

        

         Plainly, the new officers saw, it would be prudent to shift bonus payments to employee stock option exercise profits in only a moderate amount per year over many years ahead. They privately called the prudent plan they adopted their “dollop by dollop system” which they believed had four obvious advantages:

        

         First, a moderate dollop of phony earnings in any single year would be less likely          to be noticed than a large dollop.

        

         Second, the large long-term effect from accumulating many moderate dollops of         phony earnings over the years would also tend to be obscured in the “dollop by dollop system.” As the CFO pithily and privately said: “If we mix only a moderate minority share of turds with the raisins each year, probably no one will recognize what will ultimately become a very large collection of turds.”

        

         Third, the outside accountants, once they had blessed a few financial statements containing earnings increases only a minority share of which were phony, would probably find it unendurably embarrassing not to bless new financial statements containing only the same phony proportion of reported earnings increase.

        

         Fourth, the “dollop by dollop system” would tend to prevent disgrace, or something more seriously harmful, for Quant Tech’s officers. With virtually all corporations except Quant Tech having ever-more-liberal stock option plans, the officers could always explain that a moderate dollop of shift toward compensation in option-exercise form was needed to help attract or retain employees. Indeed, given corporate culture and stock market enthusiasm likely to exist as a consequence of the strange accounting convention for stock options, this claim would often be true.

        

         With these four advantages, the “dollop by dollop system” seemed so clearly desirable that it only remained for Quant Tech’s officers to decide how big to make their annual dollops of phony earnings. This decision, too, turned out to be easy. The officers first decided upon three reasonable conditions they wanted satisfied:

        

         First, they wanted to be able to continue their “dollop by dollop system” without      major discontinuities for 20 years.

        

         Second, they wanted Quant Tech’s reported earnings to go up by roughly the same percentage each year throughout the whole 20 years because they believed that financial analysts, representing institutional investors, would value Quant Tech’s stock higher if reported annual earnings growth never significantly varied.

        

         Third, to protect credibility for reported earnings, they never wanted to strain credulity of investors by reporting, even in their 20th year, that Quant Tech was earning more than 40% of revenues from designing power plants.

        

         With these requirements, the math was easy, given the officers assumption that Quant Tech’s non-phony earnings and revenues were both going to grow at 20% per year for 20 years. The officers quickly decided to use their “dollop by dollop system” to make Quant Tech’s reported earnings increase by 28% per year instead of the 20% that would have been reported by the founder.

        

         And so the great scheme of “modern financial engineering” went forward toward tragedy at Quant Tech. And few disreputable schemes of man have ever worked better in achieving what was attempted. Quant Tech’s reported earnings, certified by its accountants, increased regularly at 28% per year. No one criticized Quant Tech’s financial reporting except a few people widely regarded as impractical, overly theoretical, misanthropic cranks. It turned out that the founder’s policy of never paying dividends, which was continued, greatly helped in preserving credibility for Quant Tech’s reports that its earnings were rising steadily at 28% per year. With cash equivalents on hand so remarkably high, the Pavlovian mere-association effects that so often impair reality recognition served well to prevent detection of the phony element in reported earnings.

        

         It was therefore natural, after the “dollop by dollop system” had been in place for a few years, for Quant Tech’s officers to yearn to have Quant Tech’s reported earnings per share keep going up at 28% per year while cash equivalents grew much faster than they were then growing. This turned out to be a snap. By this time, Quant Tech’s stock was selling at a huge multiple of reported earnings, and the officers simply started causing some incremental stock-option exercises that were not matched either by reductions in cash bonuses paid or by repurchases of Quant Tech’s stock. This change, the officers   easily recognized, was a very helpful revision of their original plan. Not only was detection of the phony element in reported earnings made much more difficult as cash accumulation greatly accelerated, but also a significant amount of Ponzi-scheme or chain-letter effect was being introduced into Quant Tech, with real benefits for present shareholders, including the officers.

        

         At this time the officers also fixed another flaw in their original plan. They saw that as Quant Tech’s reported earnings, containing an increasing phony element, kept rising at        28%, Quant Tech’s income taxes as a percentage of reported pre-tax earnings kept going lower and lower. This plainly increased chances for causing undesired questions and criticism. This problem was soon eliminated. Many power plants in foreign nations were built and owned by governments, and it proved easy to get some foreign governments to raise Quant Tech’s design fees, provided that in each case slightly more than the fee increase was paid back in additional income taxes to the foreign government concerned.

        

         Finally, for 2002, Quant Tech reported $16 billion in earnings on $47 billion of revenues that now included a lot more revenue from interest on cash equivalents than would have been present without net issuances of new stock over the years. Cash equivalents on hand now amounted to an astounding $85 billion, and somehow it didn’t seem impossible to most investors that a company virtually drowning in so much cash could be earning the $16 billion it was reporting. The market capitalization of Quant Tech at its peak early in 2003 became $1.4 trillion, about 90 times earnings reported for 2002.

        

         However, all man’s desired geometric progressions, if a high rate of growth is chosen, at last come to grief on a finite earth. And the social system for man on earth is fair enough, eventually, that almost all massive cheating ends in disgrace. And in 2003 Quant Tech failed in both ways.

        

         By 2003, Quant Tech’s real earning power was growing at only 4% per year after sales growth had slowed to 4%. There was now no way for Quant Tech to escape causing a big disappointment for its shareholders, now largely consisting of institutional investors.

         This disappointment triggered a shocking decline in the price of Quant Tech stock which went down suddenly by 50%. This price decline, in turn, triggered a careful examination of Quant Tech’s financial reporting practices which, at long last, convinced nearly everyone that a very large majority of Quant Tech’s reported earnings had long been phony earnings and that massive and deliberate misreporting had gone on for a great many years. This triggered even more price decline for Quant Tech stock until in mid-2003 the market capitalization of Quant Tech was only $140 billion, down 90% from its peak only six months earlier.

        

         A quick 90% decline in the price of the stock of such an important company, that was previously so widely owned and admired, caused immense human suffering, considering the $1.3 trillion in market value that had disappeared. And naturally, with Quant Tech’s deserved disgrace, the public and political reaction included intense hatred and revulsion directed at Quant Tech, even though its admirable engineers were still designing the nation’s best power plants.

        

         Moreover, the hatred and revulsion did not stop with Quant Tech. It soon spread to other corporations, some of which plainly had undesirable financial cultures different from Quant Tech’s only in degree. The public and political hatred, like the behavior that had caused it, soon went to gross excess and fed upon itself. Financial misery spread far beyond investors into a serious recession like that of Japan in the 1990s following the long period of false Japanese accounting.

        

         There was huge public antipathy to professions following the Great Scandal. The accounting profession, of course, got the most blame. The rule-making body for accountants had long borne the acronym “F.A.S.B.” And now nearly everyone said this         stood for “Financial Accounts Still Bogus”.

        

         Economics professors likewise drew much criticism for failing to blow the whistle on false accounting and for not sufficiently warning about eventual bad macroeconomic effects of widespread false accounting. So great was the disappointment with conventional economists that Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith received the Nobel Prize in economics. After all, he had once predicted that massive, undetected corporate embezzlement would have a wonderfully stimulating effect on the economy. And people could now see that something very close to what Galbraith had predicted had actually happened in the years preceding 2003 and had thereafter helped create a big, reactive recession.

        

         With Congress and the S.E.C. so heavily peopled by lawyers, and with lawyers having been so heavily involved in drafting financial disclosure documents now seen as bogus,       there was a new “lawyer” joke every week. One such was: “The butcher says ‘the reputation of lawyers has fallen dramatically’, and the check-out clerk replies: “How do you fall dramatically off a pancake?’”

        

         But the hostility to established professions did not stop with accountants, economists and lawyers. There were many adverse “rub-off” effects on reputations of professionals that had always performed well, like engineers who did not understand the financial fraud that their country had made not a permissible option but a legal requirement.

        

         In the end, much that was good about the country, and needed for its future felicity, was widely and unwisely hated.

        

         At this point, action came from a Higher Realm. God himself, who reviews all, changed His decision schedule to bring to the fore the sad case of the Great Financial Scandal of 2003. He called in his chief detective and said, “Smith, bring in for harsh but fair judgment the most depraved of those responsible for this horrible outcome.”

        

         But when Smith brought in a group of security analysts who had long and uncritically touted the stock of Quant Tech, the Great Judge was displeased. “Smith,” he said, “I can’t come down hardest on low-level cognitive error, much of it subconsciously caused by the standard incentive systems of the world.”

        

         Next, Smith brought in a group of S.E.C. Commissioners and powerful politicians. “No, no,” said the Great Judge, “These people operate in a virtual maelstrom of regrettable forces and can’t reasonably be expected to meet the behavioral standard you seek to impose.”

        

         Now the chief detective thought he had gotten the point. He next brought in the corporate officers who had practiced their version of “modern financial engineering” at Quant Tech. “You are getting close,” said the Great Judge, “but I told you to bring in the most depraved. These officers will, of course, get strong punishment for their massive fraud and disgusting stewardship of the great engineer’s legacy. But I want you to bring in the miscreants who will soon be in the lowest circle in Hell, the ones who so easily could have prevented all this calamity.”

        

         At last the chief detective truly understood. He remembered that the lowest circle of Hell was reserved for traitors. And so he now brought in from Purgatory a group of elderly persons who, in their days on earth, had been prominent partners in major accounting firms. “Here are your traitors,” said the chief detective. “They adopted the false accounting convention for employee stock options. They occupied high positions in one of the noblest professions, which, like Yours, helps make society work right by laying down the right rules. They were very smart and securely placed, and it is inexcusable that they deliberately caused all this lying and cheating that was so obviously predictable.

         They well knew what they were doing was disastrously wrong, yet they did it anyway. Owing to press of business in Your Judicial System, you made a mistake at first in punishing them so lightly. But now you can send them into the lowest circle in Hell.”

        

         Startled by the vehemence and presumption, the Great Judge paused. Then He quietly said: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

        

         -----------------------------------------------------

        

         This account is not an implied prediction about 2003. It is a work of fiction. Except in

         the case of Professor Galbraith, any resemblances to real persons or companies is

         accidental. It was written in an attempt to focus possibly useful attention on certain

         modern behaviors and belief systems.

        

         Munger Goes Mental

Charlie Munger, the famed right-hand man of Warren Buffett, gave a brilliant speech last October at the University of California, Santa Barbara. With Munger’s permission, Whitney Tilson is publishing a transcript for the first time -- a Motley Fool exclusive! -- and shares the highlights in this collumn.  

         By Whitney Tilson

         Published on the Motley Fool web site, 6/4/04

          (www.fool.com/news/commentary/2004/commentary040604wt.htm)

        

Berkshire Hathaway’s (NYSE: BRK.A)(NYSE: BRK.B) Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are undoubtedly the greatest investment duo ever, so I think any sensible investor should try to learn as much as possible about these two men and how they achieved their success. In the case of Buffett, it’s not hard -- there are many books about him, he’s published lengthy annual letters for decades (you can read the last 27 of them for free on Berkshire’s website), and he gives speeches and makes public appearances regularly. But Munger is more private; there are only two books about him, he is a far less prolific writer, and rarely gives speeches.

         Thus, my heart skipped a beat when a friend gave me a recording of a speech Munger gave to the economics department at the University of California, Santa Barbara last Oct. 3. It’s 85 minutes long and entitled, “Academic Economics: Strengths and Faults After Considering Interdisciplinary Needs.”

         With that kind of title, it sounds like a real snoozer, eh? But it’s not. In this speech, Munger applies his famous mental models approach to critiquing how economics is taught and practiced, and I think the lessons he teaches are profound -- both for investors as well as anyone who seeks to be a better, clearer thinker.

         I transcribed the speech for my own benefit, but after making such an effort (it took forever, as it’s 21 single-spaced pages), I thought that others might be interested in Munger’s wisdom, so I          sent him a copy and asked if I could publish it. He asked me not to until he’d had a chance to review it and make some edits. He has now done so, so I’m delighted to share it with you: Click here to read it.

         In this column, I will share some of the highlights of the speech.

        

Berkshire’s success

         Munger started his speech by highlighting his credentials to talk about economics -- namely the extraordinary success of Berkshire Hathaway over the years he and Buffett have been running it (Buffett ran it for a few years before Munger joined him):

        

         When Warren took over Berkshire, the market capitalization was about ten

         million dollars. And forty something years later, there are not many more shares

         outstanding now than there were then, and the market capitalization is about a

         hundred billion dollars, ten thousand for one. And since that has happened, year

         after year, in kind of a grind-ahead fashion, with very few failures, it eventually

         drew some attention, indicating that maybe Warren and I knew something useful

         in microeconomics.

        

 Efficient market theory

         Buffett and Munger have always heaped scorn upon the academics who cling to the efficient market theory, unable to distinguish between an obvious truth -- that the market is mostly efficient most of the time -- and obvious nonsense -- that the market is always perfectly efficient all of the time:

        

         Berkshire’s whole record has been achieved without paying one ounce of

         attention to the efficient market theory in its hard form. And not one ounce of

         attention to the descendants of that idea, which came out of academic economics

         and went into corporate finance and morphed into such obscenities as the capital

         asset pricing model, which we also paid no attention to. I think you’d have to

         believe in the tooth fairy to believe that you could easily outperform the market

         by seven-percentage points per annum just by investing in high volatility stocks.

         Yet…many people still believe it. But Berkshire never paid any attention to it.

        

 Multidisciplinary education and “man with a hammer syndrome”  

         Over the years, Munger has always preached the importance of learning -- and then using -- all of the big disciplines, such as math, science, psychology, etc. To him, this just came naturally:

        

         For some odd reason, I had an early and extreme multidisciplinary cast of mind. I

         couldn’t stand reaching for a small idea in my own discipline when there was a

         big idea right over the fence in somebody else’s discipline. So I just grabbed in all

         directions for the big ideas that would really work. Nobody taught me to do that; I

         was just born with that yen.

        

         If one doesn’t embrace all multidisciplinary thinking, Munger argues, then one is likely to fall into the trap of:

        

         “man with a hammer syndrome.” And that’s taken from the folk saying: To the

         man with only a hammer, every problem looks pretty much like a nail. And that

         works marvelously to gum up all professions, and all departments of academia,

         and indeed most practical life. The only antidote for being an absolute klutz due

         to the presence of a man with a hammer syndrome is to have a full kit of tools.

         You don’t have just a hammer. You’ve got all the tools. And you’ve got to have

         one more trick. You’ve got to use those tools checklist-style, because you’ll miss

         a lot if you just hope that the right tool is going to pop up unaided whenever you

         need it.

        

 Problems to solve

         During his speech, to illustrate the types of questions his ways of thinking will help answer, Munger posed a number of problems to solve:

        

 1. There’s an activity in America, with one-on-one contests, and a national championship. The same person won the championship on two occasions about 65 years apart. Name the activity.

 2. You have studied supply and demand curves. You have learned that when you raise the price, ordinarily the volume you can sell goes down, and when you reduce the price, the volume you can sell goes up. Now tell me several instances when, if you want the

     physical volume to go up, the correct answer is to increase the price?

 3. You own a small casino in Las Vegas. It has 50 standard slot machines. Identical in appearance, they’re identical in the function. They have exactly the same payout ratios. The things that cause the payouts are exactly the same. They occur in the same percentages. But there’s one machine in this group of slot machines that, no matter where you put it among the 50, in fairly short order, when you go to the machines at the end of the day, there will be 25% more winnings from this one machine than from any other machine. What is different about that heavy-winning machine?

        

         For the answers to these questions, you’ll have to read the transcript.

        

Second- and third-order consequences and free trade

         Munger gave a number of examples of how often people only look at immediate consequences of certain actions and fail to consider second- and third-order consequences. For example:

        

         Everybody in economics understands that comparative advantage is a big deal,

         when one considers first-order advantages in trade from the Ricardo effect. But

         suppose you’ve got a very talented ethnic group, like the Chinese, and they’re

         very poor and backward, and you’re an advanced nation, and you create free trade

         with China, and it goes on for a long time.

        

Now let’s follow and second- and third-order consequences: You are more

         prosperous than you would have been if you hadn’t traded with China in terms of

         average well-being in the U.S., right? Ricardo proved it. But which nation is

         going to be growing faster in economic terms? It’s obviously China. They’re

         absorbing all the modern technology of the world through this great facilitator in

         free trade and, like the Asian Tigers have proved, they will get ahead fast. Look at

         Hong Kong. Look at Taiwan. Look at early Japan. So, you start in a place where

         you’ve got a weak nation of backward peasants, a billion and a quarter of them,

         and in the end they’re going to be a much bigger, stronger nation than you are,

         maybe even having more and better atomic bombs. Well, Ricardo did not prove

         that that’s a wonderful outcome for the former leading nation. He didn’t try to

         determine second-order and higher-order effects.

        

If you try and talk like this to an economics professor, and I’ve done this three

         times, they shrink in horror and offense because they don’t like this kind of talk. It

         really gums up this nice discipline of theirs, which is so much simpler when you

         ignore second- and third-order consequences.

                 

 Open-mindedness

         How many people do you know who actively seek out opinions contrary to their own? Munger certainly does. For example, he said:

        

       …take Paul Krugman and read his essays, you will be impressed by his fluency. I can’t stand his politics; I’m on the other side. [Krugman constantly bashes Republicans and the Bush administration on the Op Ed page of The New York Times.] But I love this man’s essays. I think Paul Krugman is one of the best

       essayists alive.

        

 Destroying your own best-loved ideas

         Munger believes that it’s absolutely critical not to “cling to failed ideas.” You must become good, he argues, “at destroying your own best-loved and hardest-won ideas. If you can get really good at destroying your own wrong ideas, that is a great gift.”

         How important this is when it comes to investing! Not long ago, I publicly recommended a stock, yet a few weeks later, based on new information, I came to the conclusion that it was no longer a good idea. A natural tendency would have been to hold on to the stock and refuse to admit to my readers that I might have been mistaken. Making it even harder to sell was the fact that the stock had declined - why not wait until it rebounded to the price at which I had bought it, right? (This is a deadly error, as I’ve discussed in previous columns.) Fortunately, I did sell, refusing to “cling to failed ideas.”

 

Chutzpah

         I’ll conclude this column with a bit of classic Munger humor: While Buffett bends over backward to appear humble, Munger’s the opposite -- he jokes about his big ego. In his opening remarks, he said:

        

         As I talk about strengths and weaknesses in academic economics, one interesting

         fact you are entitled to know is that I never took a course in economics. And with

         this striking lack of credentials, you may wonder why I have the chutzpah to be

         up here giving this talk. The answer is I have a black belt in chutzpah. I was born

         with it.

        

          Contributor Whitney Tilson is a longtime guest columnist for The Motley Fool. He owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway at press time, though positions may change at any time. Under no circumstances does this information represent a recommendation to buy, sell, or hold any security. Mr. Tilson appreciates your feedback. To read his previous columns for The Motley Fool and other writings, visit www.tilsonfunds.com. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.  

        

 

         “Academic Economics: Strengths and Faults After Considering Interdisciplinary Needs”

         Herb Kay Undergraduate Lecture

         University of California, Santa Barbara

         Economics Department

         By Charles T. Munger

         October 3, 2003

        

Transcript by Whitney Tilson, T2 Partners LLC (feedback@T2PartnersLLC.com) who did

         original light editing and added web links. Later light editing by the speaker.

        

         TABLE OF CONTENTS

        

                                                                                                            Page

         Introduction by Rajnish Mehra .......................................................      1

Munger’s Opening Remarks:.................................................................... 1

         Non-use of Efficient Market Theory at Berkshire                                   2

 Personal Multidisciplinary Education.....................................................................3

         The Obvious Strengths of Academic Economics .......................................... 4

         What’s Wrong with Economics .................................................................... 5

         1) Fatal Unconnectedness, Leading To “Man With A Hammer Syndrome,”

Often Causing Overweighing What Can Be Counted ........... 5

         2) Failure To Follow The Fundamental Full Attribution Ethos of Hard Science ...... 6

         3) Physics Envy.............................................................................................. 7

                  Washington Post case study....................................................................... 7

                  Einstein and Sharon Stone ......................................................................... 7

         4) Too Much Emphasis on Macroeconomics................................................. 8

                  Case study: Nebraska Furniture Mart’s new store in Kansas City ........... 8

                  Case study: Les Schwab Tires .................................................................. 9

                  Causes of problem-solving success ........................................................... 9

         5) Too Little Synthesis in Economics .......................................................... 10

         6) Extreme and Counterproductive Psychological Ignorance...................... 13

         7) Too Little Attention to Second and Higher Order Effects ....................... 14

                  Mispredicting Medicare costs .................................................................. 14

                  Investing in textile looms......................................................................... 14

                  Workman’s comp madness ...................................................................... 15

                  Niederhoffering the curriculum ............................................................... 15

         8) Not Enough Attention to the Concept of Febezzlement .......................... 17

         9) Not Enough Attention to Virtue and Vice Effects ................................... 18

                  Religion.................................................................................................... 18

                  Pay for directors and judges..................................................................... 18

                  Not a vice that some systems are deliberately made unfair ..................... 19

                  Contributions of vice to bubbles .............................................................. 19

                  Paradoxical good contributions from vice; the irremovability of paradox...... 19

         Conclusion ................................................................................................. 20

         Clinging to failed ideas – a horror story .................................................. 20

         Repeating the big lesson .......................................................................... 21

         Q & A ....................................................................................................... 21

                          

 Introduction by Rajnish Mehra

          Music. Good afternoon. I am Rajnish Mehra, chair of the Economics Department [www.econ.ucsb.edu/~mehra/], and on behalf of the entire department it is my pleasure to welcome you to our annual Herb Kay Undergraduate Lecture, underwritten by the generosity of Herb Kay. Herb was on our faculty in the ‘60s and has remained a friend and benefactor of the Department. We are very fortunate to have Herb here in the audience today. So please join me in giving him a very warm welcome. (Applause).

         Mr. Munger’s achievements are very great. They are too numerous for me to detail here. He attended Caltech and Harvard, and in addition to being Vice Chair at Berkshire Hathaway, he’s the chair of a major legal newspaper corporation and also Wesco Financial Corporation. He’s the President of the Alfred C. Munger Foundation, a philanthropic foundation named after his father. He’s on the Forbes 400 list – and what makes that achievement remarkable is that he got there the old fashioned way: He earned it. (Laughter).

         He’s – after Warren Buffett – the largest shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway. And as you can see he’s a fan of Coke, both of the stock and the drink. (Laughter).

         It’s a personal privilege to introduce Mr. Munger to the UCSB community. I have long been a fan of his Mungerisms. And to quote a particular favorite one that has served me in good stead:

         Never wrestle with a pig, for if you do, you will both get dirty, but the pig will enjoy it.

         (Laughter).

         Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Charles Munger. He will speak to us today on Interdisciplinary Wisdom Involving Economics.

        

Munger’s Opening Remarks:

         I’ve outlined some remarks in a rough way, and after I’m finished talking from that outline, I’ll take questions as long as anybody can endure listening, until they drag me away to wherever else I’m supposed to go.

         As you might guess, I agreed to do this because the subject of getting the soft sciences so they talked better to each other has been one that has interested me for decades. And, of course, economics is in many respects the queen of the soft sciences. It’s expected to be better than the rest. It’s my view that economics is better at the multi-disciplinary stuff than the rest of the soft science. And it’s also my view that it’s still lousy, and I’d like to discuss this failure in this talk.

         As I talk about strengths and weaknesses in academic economics, one interesting fact you are entitled to know is that I never took a course in economics. And with this striking lack of credentials, you may wonder why I have the chutzpah to be up here giving this talk. The answer is I have a black belt in chutzpah. I was born with it. Some people, like some of the women I know, have a black belt in spending. They were born with that. But what they gave me was a black belt in chutzpah.

         But I come from two peculiar strands of experience that may have given me some useful        economic insights. One is Berkshire Hathaway and the other is my personal educational history.

         Berkshire, of course, has finally gotten interesting. When Warren took over Berkshire, the market capitalization was about ten million dollars. And forty something years later, there are not many more shares outstanding now than there were then, and the market capitalization is about a hundred billion dollars, ten thousand for one. And since that has happened, year after year, in kind of a grind-ahead fashion, with very few failures, it eventually drew some attention, indicating that maybe Warren and I knew something useful in microeconomics.

        

Non-use of Efficient Market Theory at Berkshire

         For a long time there was a Nobel Prize-winning economist who explained Berkshire Hathaway’s success as follows:

         First, he said Berkshire beat the market in common stock investing through one sigma of luck, because nobody could beat the market except by luck. This hard-form version of efficient market theory was taught in most schools of economics at the time. People were taught that nobody could beat the market. Next the professor went to two sigmas, and three sigmas, and four sigmas, and when he finally got to six sigmas of luck, people were laughing so hard he stopped doing it.

         Then he reversed the explanation 180 degrees. He said, “No, it was still six sigmas, but is was six sigmas of skill.” Well this very sad history demonstrates the truth of Benjamin Franklin’s observation in Poor Richard’s Almanac. If you would persuade, appeal to interest and not to reason. The man changed his view when his incentives made him change it, and not before.

         I watched the same thing happen at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. I asked at one point, why are you treating cataracts only with a totally obsolete cataract operation? And the man said to me, “Charlie, it’s such a wonderful operation to teach.” (Laughter). When he stopped using that operation, it was because almost all the patients had voted with their feet. Again, appeal to interest and not to reason if you want to change conclusions.

         Well, Berkshire’s whole record has been achieved without paying one ounce of attention to the     efficient market theory in its hard form. And not one ounce of attention to the descendants of that idea, which came out of academic economics and went into corporate finance and morphed into such obscenities as the capital asset pricing model, which we also paid no attention to. I think you’d have to believe in the tooth fairy to believe that you could easily outperform the market by seven-percentage points per annum just by investing in high volatility stocks.

         Yet, believe it or not, like the Jules Stein doctor, people once believed this stuff. And the belief was rewarded. And it spread. And many people still believe it. But Berkshire never paid any attention to it. And now I think the world is coming our way and the idea of perfection in all market outcomes is going the way of the DoDo.

         It was always clear to me that the stock market couldn’t be perfectly efficient, because as a teenager, I’d been to the racetrack in Omaha where they had the parimutuel system. And it was          quite obvious to me that if the house takes the croupier’s take, was 17%, some people consistently lost a lot less then 17% of all their bets, and other people consistently lost more than 17% of all their bets. So the parimutuel system in Omaha had no perfect efficiency. And so I didn’t accept the argument that the stock market was always perfectly efficient in creating rational prices.

         Indeed, there’s been some documented cases since, of people getting so good at understanding horses and odds, that they actually are able to beat the house in off-track betting. There aren’t many people who can do that, but there are a few people in America who can.

        

Personal Multidisciplinary Education

         Next, my personal education history is interesting because its deficiencies and my peculiarities eventually created advantages. For some odd reason, I had an early and extreme multidisciplinary cast of mind. I couldn’t stand reaching for a small idea in my own discipline when there was a big idea right over the fence in somebody else’s discipline. So I just grabbed in all directions for the big ideas that would really work. Nobody taught me to do that; I was just born with that yen. I also was born with a huge craving for synthesis. And when it didn’t come easily, which was often, I would rag the problem, and then when I failed I would put it aside and I’d come back to it and rag it again. It took me 20 years to figure out how and why the Reverend Moon’s conversion methods worked. But the psychology departments haven’t figured it out yet, so I’m ahead of them.

         But anyway, I have this tendency to want to rag the problems. Because WW II caught me. I drifted into some physics, and the Air Corps sent me to Caltech where I did a little more physics as part of being made into a meteorologist. And there, at a very young age, I absorbed what I call the fundamental full attribution ethos of hard science. And that was enormously useful to me. Let me explain that ethos.

         Under this ethos, you’ve got to know all the big ideas in all the disciplines less fundamental than your own. You can never make any explanation, which can be made in a more fundamental way, in any other way than the most fundamental way. And you always take with full attribution to the most fundamental ideas that you are required to use. When you’re using physics, you say you’re using physics. When you’re using biology, you say you’re using biology. And so on and so on. I could early see that that ethos would act as a fine organizing system for my thought.

         And I strongly suspected that it would work really well in the soft sciences as well as the hard sciences, so I just grabbed it and used it all through my life in soft science as well as hard science. That was a very lucky idea for me.

         Let me explain how extreme that ethos is in hard science. There is a constant, one of the fundamental constants in physics, known as Boltzmann’s constant. You probably all know it very well. And the interesting thing about Boltzmann’s constant is that Boltzmann didn’t discover it. So why is Boltzmann’s constant now named for Boltzmann? Well, the answer was that Boltzmann derived that constant from basic physics in a more fundamental way than the poor forgotten fellow who found the constant in the first place in some less fundamental way.

         The ethos of hard science is so strong in favor of reductionism to the more fundamental body of knowledge that you can wash the discoverer right out of history when somebody else handles his discovery in a more fundamental way. I think that is correct. I think Boltzmann’s constant should be named for Boltzmann.

         At any rate, in my history and Berkshire’s history Berkshire went on and on into considerable economic success, while ignoring the hard form efficient markets doctrine once very popular in academic economics and ignoring the descendants of that doctrine in corporate finance, where the results became even sillier than they were in the economics. This naturally encouraged me.

         Finally, with my peculiar history, I’m also bold enough to be here today, because at least when I was young I wasn’t a total klutz. For one year at the Harvard Law School, I was ranked second in my group of about a thousand, and I always figured that, while there were always a lot of people much smarter than I was, I didn’t have to hang back totally in the thinking game.

        

The Obvious Strengths of Academic Economics

         Let me begin by discussing the obvious strengths of academic economics. The first obvious strength, and this is true of lot of places that get repute, is that it was in the right place at the right time. Two hundred years ago, aided by the growth of technology and the growth of other developments in the civilization, the real output per capita of the civilized world started going up at about 2% per annum, compounded. And before that, for the previous thousands of years, it had gone up at a rate that hovered just a hair’s breadth above zero. And, of course, economics grew up amid this huge success. Partly it helped the success, and partly it explained it. So, naturally, academic economics grew. And lately with the collapse of all the communist economies, as the free market economies or partially free market economies flourished, that          added to the reputation of economics. Economics has been a very favorable place to be if you’re in academia.

         Economics was always more multidisciplinary than the rest of soft science. It just reached out and grabbed things as it needed to. And that tendency to just grab whatever you need from the rest of knowledge if you’re an economist has reached a fairly high point in Mankiw’s [post.economics.harvard.edu/faculity/mankiw/mankiw.html] new textbook [Principles of Economics, www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0324168624/tilsoncapitalpar]. I checked out that textbook. I must have been one of the few businessmen in America that bought it immediately when it came out because it had gotten such a big advance. I wanted to figure out what the guy was doing where he could get an advance that great. So this is how I happened to riffle through Mankiw’s freshman textbook. And there I found laid out as principles of economics: opportunity cost is a superpower, to be used by all people who have any hope of getting the right answer. Also, incentives are superpowers.

         And lastly, the tragedy of the commons model, popularized by UCSB’s Garrett Hardin [www.es.ucsb.edu/faculty/hardin.php; died 9/03]. Hardin caused the delightful introduction into economics – alongside Smith’s beneficent invisible hand – of Hardin’s wicked evildoing invisible foot. Well, I thought that the Hardin model made economics more complete, and I knew when Hardin introduced me to his model, the Tragedy of the Commons [www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html], that it would be in the economics textbooks eventually. And, low and behold, it finally made it about 20 years later.

         And it’s right for Mankiw to reach out into other disciplines and grab Hardin’s model and anything else that works well.

         Another thing that helped economics is that from the beginning it attracted the best brains in soft science. Its denizens also interacted more with the practical world than was at all common in soft science and the rest of academia, and that resulted in very creditable outcomes like the three cabinet appointments of economics PhD George Schultz and the cabinet appointment of Larry Summers. So this has been a very favored part of academia.

         Also, economics early on attracted some of the best writers of language in the history of the earth. You start out with Adam Smith. Adam Smith was so good a thinker, and so good a writer, that in his own time, Emmanuel Kant, then the greatest intellectual in Germany, simply announced that there was nobody in Germany to equal Adam Smith. Well Voltaire, being an even more pithy speaker than Kant, which wouldn’t be that hard, immediately said, “Oh well, France doesn’t have anybody who can even be compared to Adam Smith.” So economics started with some very great men and great writers.

         And then there have been later great writers like John Maynard Keynes, whom I quote all the time, and who has added a great amount of illumination to my life. And finally, even in the present era, if you take Paul Krugman [www.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/paulkrugman/index.html] and read his essays, you will be impressed by his fluency. I can’t stand his politics; I’m on the other side. But I love this man’s essays. I think Paul Krugman is one of the best essayists alive.

         And so economics has constantly attracted these fabulous writers. And they are so good that they have this enormous influence far outside their economic discipline, and that’s very uncommon in other academic departments.

         Okay, now it’s time to extend criticism, instead of praise. We’ve recognized that economics is      better than other soft-science academic departments in many ways. And one of the glories of civilization. Now it’s only fair that we outline a few things that are wrong with academic economics.

        

What’s Wrong with Economics

         1) Fatal Unconnectedness, Leading To “Man With A Hammer Syndrome,” Often Causing Overweighing What Can Be Counted

        

I think I’ve got eight, no nine objections, some being logical subdivisions of a big general objection. The big general objection to economics was the one early described by Alfred North Whitehead when he spoke of the fatal unconnectedness of academic disciplines, wherein each professor didn’t even know the models of the other disciplines, much less try to synthesize those disciplines with his own.

         I think there’s a modern name for this approach that Whitehead didn’t like, and that name is bonkers. This is a perfectly crazy way to behave. Yet economics, like much else in academia, is too insular.

         The nature of this failure is that it creates what I always call, “man with a hammer syndrome.”

         And that’s taken from the folk saying: To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks pretty much like a nail. And that works marvelously to gum up all professions, and all departments of academia, and indeed most practical life. The only antidote for being an absolute klutz due to the presence of a man with a hammer syndrome is to have a full kit of tools. You don’t have just a hammer. You’ve got all the tools. And you’ve got to have one more trick.

         You’ve got to use those tools checklist-style, because you’ll miss a lot if you just hope that the right tool is going to pop up unaided whenever you need it. But if you’ve got a full list of tools, and go through them in your mind, checklist-style, you will find a lot of answers that you won’t find any other way. So limiting this big general objection that so disturbed Alfred North Whitehead is very important, and there are mental tricks that help do the job.

        

 Overweighing what can be counted

         A special version of this “man with a hammer syndrome” is terrible, not only in economics but practically everywhere else, including business. It’s really terrible in business. You’ve got a complex system and it spews out a lot of wonderful numbers that enable you to measure some factors. But there are other factors that are terribly important, [yet] there’s no precise numbering you can put to these factors. You know they’re important, but you don’t have the numbers.

         Well practically everybody (1) overweighs the stuff that can be numbered, because it yields to the statistical techniques they’re taught in academia, and (2) doesn’t mix in the hard-to-measure stuff that may be more important. That is a mistake I’ve tried all my life to avoid, and I have no regrets for having done that.

         The late, great, Thomas Hunt Morgan [www.nobel.se/medicine/articles/lewis/], who was one of greatest biologists who ever lived, when he got to Caltech, had a very interesting, extreme way   of avoiding some mistakes from overcounting what could be measured, and undercounting what couldn’t. At that time there were no computers and the computer substitute then available to science and engineering was the Frieden calculator, and Caltech was full of Frieden calculators.

         And Thomas Hunt Morgan banned the Frieden calculator from the biology department. And when they said, “What the hell are you doing, Mr. Morgan?,” He said, “Well, I am like a guy who is prospecting for gold along the banks of the Sacramento River in 1849. With a little intelligence, I can reach down and pick up big nuggets of gold. And as long as I can do that, I’m not going to let any people in my department waste scarce resources in placer mining.” And that’s the way Thomas Hunt Morgan got through life.

         I’ve adopted the same technique, and here I am in my 80th year. I haven’t had to do any placer mining yet. And it begins to look like I’m going to get all the way through, as I’d always hoped, without doing any of that damned placer mining. Of course if I were a physician, particularly an academic physician, I’d have to do the statistics, do the placer mining. But it’s amazing what you can do in life without the placer mining if you’ve got a few good mental tricks and just keep ragging the problems the way Thomas Hunt Morgan did.

        

2) Failure To Follow The Fundamental Full Attribution Ethos of Hard Science

         What’s wrong with the way Mankiw does economics is that he grabs from other disciplines without attribution. He doesn’t label the grabbed items as physics or biology or psychology, or game theory, or whatever they really are, fully attributing the concept to the basic knowledge from which it came. If you don’t do that, it’s like running a business with a sloppy filing system.

         It reduces your power to be as good as you can be. Now Mankiw is so smart he does pretty well even when his technique is imperfect. He got the largest advance any textbook writer ever got.

         But, nonetheless he’d be better if he had absorbed this hard science ethos that I say has been so helpful to me.

         I have names for Mankiw’s approach, grabbing whatever you need without attribution.

         Sometimes I call it “take what you wish,” and sometimes I call it “Kipplingism.” And when I call it Kipplingism, I’m reminding you of Kippling’s stanza of poetry, which went something like this: “When Homer smote his blooming lyre, he’d heard men sing by land and sea, and what he thought he might require, he went and took, the same as me.” Well that’s the way Mankiw does it. He just grabs. This is much better than not grabbing. But it is much worse than grabbing with full attribution and full discipline, using all knowledge plus extreme reductionism       where feasible.

        

3) Physics Envy

         The third weakness that I find in economics is what I call physics envy. And of course, that term has been borrowed from penis envy as described by one of the world’s great idiots, Sigmund Freud. But he was very popular in his time, and the concept got a wide vogue.

          

Washington Post case study

         One of the worst examples of what physics envy did to economics was cause adaptation and hard-form efficient market theory. And then when you logically derived consequences from this wrong theory, you would get conclusions such as: it can never be correct for any corporation to buy its own stock. Because the price by definition is totally efficient, there could never be any advantage. QED. And they taught this theory to some partner at McKinsey when he was at some school of business that had adopted this crazy line of reasoning from economics, and the partner became a paid consultant for the Washington Post. And Washington Post stock was selling at a fifth of what an orangutan could figure was the plain value per share by just counting up the values and dividing. But he so believed what he’d been taught in graduate school that he told the Washington Post they shouldn’t buy their own stock. Well, fortunately, they put Warren Buffett on the Board, and he convinced them to buy back more than half of the outstanding stock, which enriched the remaining shareholders by much more than a billion dollars. So, there was at least one instance of a place that quickly killed a wrong academic theory.

         It’s my view that economics could avoid a lot of this trouble that comes from physics envy. I want economics to pick up the basic ethos of hard science, the full attribution habit, but not the craving for an unattainable precision that comes from physics envy. The sort of precise reliable formula that includes Boltzmann’s constant is not going to happen, by and large, in economics.

         Economics involves too complex a system. And the craving for that physics-style precision does little but get you in terrible trouble, like the poor fool from McKinsey.

        

 Einstein and Sharon Stone

         I think that economists would be way better off if they paid more attention to Einstein and Sharon Stone. Well, Einstein is easy because Einstein is famous for saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no more simple.” Now, the saying is a tautology, but it’s very useful, and some economist – it may have been Herb Stein – had a similar tautological saying that I dearly love: “If a thing can’t go on forever, it will eventually stop.”

        

         Sharon Stone contributed to the subject because someone once asked her if she was bothered by penis envy. And she said, “absolutely not, I have more trouble than I can handle with what I’ve got.” (Laughter).

         When I talk about this false precision, this great hope for reliable, precise formulas, I am reminded of Arthur Laffer, who’s in my political party, and who is one of the all-time horses’ asses when it comes to doing economics. His trouble is his craving for false precision, which is not an adult way of dealing with his subject matter.

         The situation of people like Laffer reminds me of a rustic legislator – and this really happened in America. I don’t invent these stories. Reality is always more ridiculous than what I’m going to tell you. At any rate, this rustic legislator proposed a new law in his state. He wanted to pass a law rounding Pi to an even 3.2 so it would be easier for the school children to make the computations. Well, you can say that this is too ridiculous, and it can’t be fair to liken economics professors like Laffer to a rustic legislator like this. I say I’m under-criticizing the professors. At least when this rustic legislature rounded Pi to an even number, the error was relatively small. But once you try to put a lot of false precision into a complex system like economics, the errors can compound to the point where they’re worse than those of the McKinsey partner when he was incompetently advising the Washington Post. So, economics should emulate physics’ basic ethos, but its search for precision in physics–like formulas is almost always wrong in economics.

        

4) Too Much Emphasis on Macroeconomics

         My fourth criticism is that there’s too much emphasis on macroeconomics and not enough on microeconomics. I think this is wrong. It’s like trying to master medicine without knowing anatomy and chemistry. Also, the discipline of microeconomics is a lot of fun. It helps you correctly understand macroeconomics. And it’s a perfect circus to do. In contrast, I don’t think macroeconomics people have all that much fun. For one thing they are often wrong because of extreme complexity in the system they wish to understand.

          

Case study: Nebraska Furniture Mart’s new store in Kansas City

         Let me demonstrate the power of microeconomics by solving two microeconomic problems.

         One simple and one a little harder. The first problem is this: Berkshire Hathaway just opened a furniture and appliance store in Kansas City [www.nfm.com/store_kansascity.asp]. At the time Berkshire opened it, the largest selling furniture and appliance store in the world was another Berkshire Hathaway store, selling $350 million worth of goods per year. The new store in a strange city opened up selling at the rate of more than $500 million a year. From the day it opened, the 3,200 spaces in the parking lot were full. The women had to wait outside the ladies restroom because the architects didn’t understand biology. (Laughter). It’s hugely successful.

         Well, I’ve given you the problem. Now, tell me what explains the runaway success of this new furniture and appliance store, which is outselling everything else in the world? (Pause). Well, let me do it for you. Is this a low-priced store or a high-priced store? (Laughter). It’s not going to have a runaway success in a strange city as a high-priced store. That would take time.

         Number two, if it’s moving $500 million worth of furniture through it, it’s one hell of a big store, furniture being as bulky as it is. And what does a big store do? It provides a big selection. So what could this possibly be except a low-priced store with a big selection?

         But, you may wonder, why wasn’t it done before, preventing its being done first now? Again, the answer just pops into your head: it costs a fortune to open a store this big. So, nobody’s done it before. So, you quickly know the answer. With a few basic concepts, these microeconomic problems that seem hard can be solved much as you put a hot knife through butter. I like such easy ways of thought that are very remunerative. And I suggest that you people should also learn to do microeconomics better.

        

 Case study: Les Schwab Tires

         Now I’ll give you a harder problem. There’s a tire store chain in the Northwest, which has slowly succeeded over 50 years, the Les Schwab tire store chain [www.lesschwab.com/]. It just        ground ahead. It started competing with the stores that were owned by the big tire companies that made all the tires, the Goodyears and so forth. And, of course, the manufacturers favored their own stores. Their “tied stores” had a big cost advantage. Later, Les Schwab rose in competition with the huge price discounters like Costco and Sam’s Club and before that Sears Roebuck and so forth. And yet here is Schwab now, with hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. And here’s Les Schwab in his 80s, with no education, having done the whole thing. How did he do it? (Pause). I don’t see a whole lot of people looking like a light bulb has come on.

         Well, let’s think about it with some microeconomic fluency.

         Is there some wave that Schwab could have caught? The minute you ask the question, the answer pops in. The Japanese had a zero position in tires and they got big. So this guy must have ridden that wave some in the early times. Then the slow following success has to have some other causes. And what probably happened here, obviously, is this guy did one hell of a lot of things right. And among the things that he must have done right is he must have harnessed what Mankiw calls the superpower of incentives. He must have a very clever incentive structure driving his people. And a clever personnel selection system, etc. And he must be pretty good at advertising. Which he is. He’s an artist. So, he had to get a wave in Japanese tire invasion, the Japanese being as successful as they were. And then a talented fanatic had to get a hell of a lot of things right, and keep them right with clever systems. Again, not that hard of an answer. But what else would be a likely cause of the peculiar success?

         We hire business school graduates and they’re no better at these problems than you were.

         Maybe that’s the reason we hire so few of them.

        

Causes of problem-solving success

         Well, how did I solve those problems? Obviously I was using a simple search engine in my mind to go through checklist-style, and I was using some rough algorithms that work pretty well in a great many complex systems, and those algorithms run something like this: Extreme success is likely to be caused by some combination of the following factors:

 A) Extreme maximization or minimization of one or two variables. Example, Costco or our furniture and appliance store.

 B) Adding success factors so that a bigger combination drives success, often in non-linear fashion, as one is reminded by the concept of breakpoint and the concept of critical mass in physics. Often results are not linear. You get a little bit more mass, and you get a lollapalooza result. And of course I’ve been searching for lollapalooza results all my life, so I’m very interested in models that explain their occurrence.

 C) An extreme of good performance over many factors. Example, Toyota or Les Schwab.

 D) Catching and riding some sort of big wave. Example, Oracle. By the way, I put down Oracle before I knew that the Oracle CFO was a big part of the proceedings here today.

        

Generally I recommend and use in problem solving cut-to-the quick algorithms, and I find you have to use them both forward and backward. Let me give you an example. I irritate my family by giving them little puzzles, and one of the puzzles that I gave my family not very long ago was when I said, “There’s an activity in America, with one-on-one contests, and a national championship. The same person won the championship on two occasions about 65 years apart.”

         “Now,” I said, “name the activity,” (Pause). Again, I don’t see a lot of light bulbs going on. And in my family not lot of light bulbs were flashing. But I have a physicist son who has been trained more in the type of thinking I like. And he immediately got the right answer, and here’s the way he reasoned:

         It can’t be anything requiring a lot of hand-eye coordination. Nobody 85 years of

         age is going to win a national billiards tournament, much less a national tennis

         tournament. It just can’t be. Then he figured it couldn’t be chess, which this

         physicist plays very well, because it’s too hard. The complexity of the system,

         the stamina required are too great. But that led into checkers. And he thought,

         “Ah ha! There’s a game where vast experience might guide you to be the best

         even though you’re 85 years of age.”

         And sure enough that was the right answer.

        

Anyway, I recommend that sort of mental trickery to all of you, flipping one’s thinking both backward and forward. And I recommend that academic economics get better at very small scale microeconomics as demonstrated here.

        

5) Too Little Synthesis in Economics

         My fifth criticism is there is too little synthesis in economics. Not only with matter outside traditional economics, but also within economics. I have posed at two different business schools the following problem. I say, “You have studied supply and demand curves. You have learned that when you raise the price, ordinarily the volume you can sell goes down, and when you reduce the price, the volume you can sell goes up. Is that right? That’s what you’ve learned?”

         They all nod yes. And I say, “Now tell me several instances when, if you want the physical volume to go up, the correct answer is to increase the price?” And there’s this long and ghastly pause. And finally, in each of the two business schools in which I’ve tried this, maybe one person in fifty could name one instance. They come up with the idea that occasionally a higher price acts as a rough indicator of quality and thereby increases sales volumes.

         This happened in the case of my friend Bill Ballhaus. When he was head of Beckman Instruments it produced some complicated product where if it failed it caused enormous damage to the purchaser. It wasn’t a pump at the bottom of an oil well, but that’s a good mental example. And he realized that the reason this thing was selling so poorly, even though it was better than anybody else’s product, was because it was priced lower. It made people think it was a low quality gizmo. So he raised the price by 20% or so and the volume went way up.

         But only one in fifty can come up with this sole instance in a modern business school – one of the business schools being Stanford, which is hard to get into. And nobody has yet come up with the main answer that I like. Suppose you raise that price, and use the extra money to bribe the other guy’s purchasing agent? (Laughter). Is that going to work? And are there functional equivalents in economics – microeconomics – of raising the price and using the extra sales proceeds to drive sales higher? And of course there are zillion, once you’ve made that mental jump. It’s so simple.

         One of the most extreme examples is in the investment management field. Suppose you’re the manager of a mutual fund, and you want to sell more. People commonly come to the following          answer: You raise the commissions, which of course reduces the number of units of real investments delivered to the ultimate buyer, so you’re increasing the price per unit of real investment that you’re selling the ultimate customer. And you’re using that extra commission to bribe the customer’s purchasing agent. You’re bribing the broker to betray his client and put the client’s money into the high-commission product. This has worked to produce at least a trillion dollars of mutual fund sales.

         This tactic is not an attractive part of human nature, and I want to tell you that I pretty completely avoided it in my life. I don’t think it’s necessary to spend your life selling what you would never buy. Even though it’s legal, I don’t think it’s a good idea. But you shouldn’t accept all my notions because you’ll risk becoming unemployable. You shouldn’t take my notions unless you’re willing to risk being unemployable by all but a few.

         I think my experience with my simple question is an example of how little synthesis people get, even in advanced academic settings, considering economic questions. Obvious questions, with such obvious answers. Yet people take four courses in economics, go to business school, have all these IQ points and write all these essays, but they can’t synthesize worth a damn. This failure is not because the professors know all this stuff and they’re deliberately withholding it from the students. This failure happens because the professors aren’t all that good at this kind of synthesis. They were trained in a different way. I can’t remember if it was Keynes or Galbraith who said that economics professors are most economical with ideas. They make a few they learned in graduate school last a lifetime. (Laughter).

          

The second problem with synthesis

 

The second interesting problem with synthesis involves two of the most famous examples in the economics. Number one is Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage in trade, and the other is Adam Smith’s pin factory. And both of these, of course, work to vastly increase economic output per person, and they’re similar in that each somehow directs functions into the hands of people who are very good at doing the functions. Yet they’re radically different examples in that one of them is the ultimate example of central planning, the pin factory, where the whole system was planned by somebody, while the other example, Ricardo’s, happens automatically as a natural consequence of trade.

 

And, of course, once you get into the joys of synthesis, you immediately think. “Do these things interact?” Of course they interact. Beautifully. And that’s one of the causes of the power of a modern economic system. I saw an example of that kind of interaction years ago. Berkshire had this former savings and loan company, and it had made this loan on a hotel right opposite the Hollywood Park Racetrack. In due time the neighborhood changed and it was full of gangs, pimps, and dope dealers. They tore copper pipe out of the wall for dope fixes, and there were people hanging around the hotel with guns, and nobody would come. We foreclosed on it two or three times, and the loan value went down to nothing. We seemed to have an insolvable economic problem -- a microeconomic problem.

        

Now we could have gone to McKinsey, or maybe a bunch of professors from Harvard, and we would have gotten a report about 10 inches thick about the ways we could approach this failing hotel in this terrible neighborhood. But instead, we put a sign on the property that said: “For sale or rent.” And in came, in response to that sign, a man who said, “I’ll spend $200,000 fixing up your hotel, and buy it at a high price on credit, if you can get zoning so I can turn the parking lot into a putting green.” “You’ve got to have a parking lot in a hotel,” we said. “What do you have in mind?” He said. “No, my business is flying seniors in from Florida, putting them near the airport, and then letting them go out to Disneyland and various places by bus and coming back. And I don’t care how bad the neighborhood is going to be because my people are self-contained behind walls. All they have to do is get on the bus in the morning and come home in the evening, and they don’t need a parking lot; they need a putting green.” So we made the deal with the guy. The whole thing worked beautifully, and the loan got paid off, and it all worked out.

        

Obviously that’s an interaction of Ricardo and the pin factory examples. The odd system that this guy had designed to amuse seniors was pure pin factory, and finding the guy with this system was pure Ricardo. So these things are interacting.

        

Well, I’ve taken you part way through the synthesis. It gets harder when you want to figure out how much activity should be within private firms, and how much should be within the government, and what are the factors that determine which functions are where, and why do the failures occur, and so on and so on.

        

It’s my opinion that anybody with a high IQ who graduated in economics ought to be able to sit down and write a ten-page synthesis of all these ideas that’s quite persuasive. And I would bet a lot of money that I could give this test in practically every economics department in the country, and get a perfectly lousy bunch of synthesis. They’d give me Ronald Coase [www.coase.org/aboutronaldcoase.htm]. They’d talk about transaction costs. They’d click off a little something that their professors gave them and spit it back. But in terms of really understanding how it all fits together, I would confidently predict that most people couldn’t do it very well.

        

 By the way, if any of you want to try and do this, go ahead. I think you’ll find it hard. In this connection, one of the interesting things that I want to mention is that Max Planck [www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Planck.html], the great Nobel laureate who found Planck’s Constant, tried once to do economics. He gave it up. Now why did Max Planck, one of the smartest people who ever lived, give up economics? The answer is, he said, “It’s too hard.

 

The best solution you can get is messy and uncertain.” It didn’t satisfy Planck’s craving for order, and so he gave it up. And if Max Planck early on realized he was never going to get perfect order, I will confidently predict that all of the rest of you are going to have exactly the same result.

        

By the way there’s a famous story about Max Planck which is apocryphal: After he won his prize, he was invited to lecture everywhere, and he had this chauffeur that drove him around to give public lectures all through Germany. And the chauffeur memorized the lecture, and so one day he said, “Gee Professor Planck, why don’t you let me try it as we switch places?” And so he got up and gave the lecture. At the end of it some physicist stood up and posed a question of extreme difficulty. But the chauffeur was up to it. “Well,” he said, “I’m surprised that a citizen     of an advanced city like Munich is asking so elementary a question, so I’m going to ask my chauffeur to respond.” (Laughter).

        

6) Extreme and Counterproductive Psychological Ignorance

        

All right, I’m down to the sixth main defect, and this is a subdivision of the lack of adequate multidisciplinarity: Extreme and counterproductive psychological ignorance in economics.

        

Here I want to give you a very simple problem. I specialize in simple problems.

        

You own a small casino in Las Vegas. It has fifty standard slot machines. Identical in appearance, they’re identical in the function. They have exactly the same payout ratios. The things that cause the payouts are exactly the same. They occur in the same percentages. But there’s one machine in this group of slot machines that, no matter where you put it among the fifty, in fairly short order, when you go to the machines at the end of the day, there will be 25% more winnings from this one machine than from any other machine. Now surely I’m not going to have a failure here. What is different about that heavy winning machine? (Silence) Can anybody do it?

        

 Male: More people play it.

        

Charles Munger: No, no, I want to know why more people play it. What’s different about that machine is people have used modern electronics to give a higher ratio of near misses. That machine is going bar, bar, lemon. Bar, bar, grapefruit, way more often than normal machines, and that will cause heavier play. How do you get an answer like that? Easy. Obviously, there’s a psychological cause: That machine is doing something to trigger some basic psychological response.

        

If you know the psychological factors, if you’ve got them on a checklist in your head, you just run down the factors, and, boom!, you get to one that must explain this occurrence. There isn’t any other way to do it effectively. These answers are not going to come to people who don’t learn these mental tricks. If you want to go through life like a one legged man in an ass-kicking contest, why be my guest. But if you want to succeed, like a strong man with two legs, you have to pick up these tricks, including doing economics while knowing psychology.

        

In this vein, I next want to mention a strange Latin American case of a dysfunctional economy that got fixed. In this little subdivision of Latin America, a culture had arisen wherein everybody stole everything. They embezzled from the company, they stole everything that was loose in the community. And of course, the economy came practically to a halt. And this thing got fixed. Now where did I read about this case? I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t in the annals of economics. I found this case in the annals of psychology. Clever people went down and used a bunch of psychological tricks. And they fixed it.

        

Well, I think there’s no excuse if you’re an economist, when there are wonderful cases like that of the dysfunctional economy becoming fixed, and these simple tricks that solve so many problems, and you don’t know how to do the fixes and understand the problems. Why be so ignorant about psychology that you don’t even know psychology’s tricks that will fix your own dysfunctional economic systems?

        

Here I want to give you an extreme injunction. This is even tougher than the fundamental organizing ethos of hard science. This has been attributed to Samuel Johnson [justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/20.html]. He said in substance that if an academic maintains in place an ignorance that can be easily removed with a little work, the conduct of the academic amounts to treachery. That was his word, “treachery.” You can see why I love this stuff. He          says you have a duty if you’re an academic to be as little of a klutz as you can possibly be, and therefore you have got to keep grinding out of your system as much removable ignorance as you can remove.

        

7) Too Little Attention to Second and Higher Order Effects

        

On to the next one the seventh defect: Too little attention in economics to second order and even higher order effects. This defect is quite understandable, because the consequences have consequences, and the consequences of the consequences have consequences, and so on. It gets very complicated. When I was a meteorologist I found this stuff very irritating. And economics makes meteorology look like a tea party.

          

Mispredicting Medicare costs

        

Extreme economic ignorance was displayed when various experts, including Ph D. economists, forecast the cost of the original Medicare law. They did simple extrapolations of past costs.

        

Well the cost forecast was off by a factor of more than 1000%. The cost they projected was less than 10% of the cost that happened. Once they put in place all these new incentives, the behavior changed in response to the incentives, and the numbers became quite different from their projection. And medicine invented new and expensive remedies, as it was sure to do. How could a great group of experts make such a silly forecast? Answer: They over simplified to get          easy figures, like the rube rounding Pi to 3.2! They chose not to consider effects of effects on effects, and so on.

          

Investing in textile looms

        

One good thing about this common form of misthinking from the viewpoint of academia, is that business people are even more foolish about microeconomics. The business version of the Medicare-type insanity is when you own a textile plant and a guy comes in and says, “Oh, isn’t this wonderful? They invented a new loom. It’ll pay for itself in three years at current prices because it adds so much efficiency to the production of textiles.” And you keep buying these looms for 20 years, and their equivalent, and you keep making 4% on capital, you never go anywhere. And the answer is, it wasn’t that technology didn’t work, it’s that the laws of economics caused the benefit from the new looms to go to the people that bought the textiles, not the guy that owned the textile plant. How could anybody not know that if he’d taken freshmen economics or been through business school? I think the schools are doing a lousy job. Otherwise such insanities wouldn’t happen so often.

        

Usually, I don’t use formal projections. I don’t let people do them for me because I don’t like throwing up on the desk (laughter), but I see them made in a very foolish way all the time, and many people believe in them, no matter how foolish they are. It’s an effective sales technique in America to put a foolish projection on a desk.

        

And if you’re an investment banker, it’s an art form. I don’t read their projections either. Once Warren and I bought a company and the seller had a big study done by an investment banker, it was about this thick. We just turned it over as if it were a diseased carcass. He said, “We paid $2 million for that.” I said, “We don’t use them. Never look at them.”

          

Workman’s comp madness

        

Anyway, as the Medicare example showed, all human systems are gamed, for reasons rooted deeply in psychology, and great skill is displayed in the gaming because game theory has so much potential. That’s what’s wrong with the workman’s comp system in California. Gaming has been raised to an art form. In the course of gaming the system, people learn to be crooked. Is this good for civilization? Is it good for economic performance? Hell no. The people who design easily–gameable systems belong in the lowest circle of hell.

        

I’ve got a friend whose family controls about 8% of the truck trailer market. He just closed his last factory in California and he had one in Texas that was even worse. The workman’s comp cost in his Texas plant got to be about 30% of payroll. Well, there’s no such profit in making truck trailers. He closed his plant and moved it to Ogden, Utah, where a bunch of believing Mormons are raising big families and don’t game the workman’s comp system. The workman’s comp expense is 2% of payroll.

        

Are the Latinos who were peopling his plant in Texas intrinsically dishonest or bad compared to the Mormons? No. It’s just the incentive structure that so rewards all this fraud is put in place by these ignorant legislatures, many members of which have been to law school, and they just don’t think about what terrible things they’re doing to the civilization because they don’t take into account the second order effects and the third order effects in lying and cheating. So, this happens everywhere, and when economics is full of it, it is just like the rest of life.

                   

Niederhoffering the curriculum

        

There was a wonderful example of gaming a human system in the career of Victor Niederhoffer [www.squashtalk.com/profiles/niederhoffer.htm] in the Economics Department of Harvard. Victor Niederhoffer was the son of a police lieutenant, and he needed to get A’s at Harvard. But he didn’t want to do any serious work at Harvard, because what he really liked doing was, one, playing world-class checkers; two, gambling in high-stakes card games, at which he was very good, all hours of the day and night; three, being the squash champion of the United States, which he was for years; and, four, being about as good a tennis player as a part-time tennis player could be.

        

This did not leave much time for getting A’s at Harvard so he went into the Economics Department. You’d think he would have chosen French poetry. But remember, this was a guy who could play championship checkers. He thought he was up to outsmarting the Harvard Economics Department. And he was. He noticed that the graduate students did most of the boring work that would otherwise go to the professors, and he noticed that because it was so hard to get to be a graduate student at Harvard, they were all very brilliant and organized and hard working, as well as much needed by grateful professors.

        

And therefore, by custom, and as would be predicted from the psychological force called reciprocity tendency, in a really advanced graduate course, the professors always gave an A. So Victor Niederhoffer signed up for nothing but the most advanced graduate courses in the Harvard Economics Department, and of course, he got A, after A, after A, after A, and was hardly ever near a class. And for a while, some people at Harvard may have thought it had a new prodigy on its hands. That’s a ridiculous story, but the scheme will work still. And Niederhoffer is famous: they call his style “Niederhoffering the curriculum.” (Laughter).

        

This shows how all-human systems are gamed. Another example of not thinking through the consequences of the consequences is the standard reaction in economics to Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage giving benefit on both sides of trade. Ricardo came up with a wonderful, non-obvious explanation that was so powerful that people were charmed with it, and they still          are, because it’s a very useful idea. Everybody in economics understands that comparative advantage is a big deal, when one considers first order advantages in trade from the Ricardo effect. But suppose you’ve got a very talented ethnic group, like the Chinese, and they’re very poor and backward, and you’re an advanced nation, and you create free trade with China, and it goes on for a long time.

        

Now let’s follow and second and third order consequences: You are more prosperous than you would have been if you hadn’t traded with China in terms of average well-being in the United States, right? Ricardo proved it. But which nation is going to be growing faster in economic terms? It’s obviously China. They’re absorbing all the modern technology of the world through this great facilitator in free trade, and, like the Asian Tigers have proved, they will get ahead fast. Look at Hong Kong. Look at Taiwan. Look at early Japan. So, you start in a place where you’ve got a weak nation of backward peasants, a billion and a quarter of them, and in the end they’re going to be a much bigger, stronger nation than you are, maybe even having more and better atomic bombs. Well, Ricardo did not prove that that’s a wonderful outcome for the former leading nation. He didn’t try to determine second order and higher order effects.

                 

If you try and talk like this to an economics professor, and I’ve done this three times, they shrink       in horror and offense because they don’t like this kind of talk. It really gums up this nice discipline of theirs, which is so much simpler when you ignore second and third order consequences.

        

The best answer I ever got on that subject – in three tries – was from George Schultz. He said, “Charlie, the way I figure it is if we stop trading with China, the other advanced nations will do it anyway, and we wouldn’t stop the ascent of China compared to us, and we’d lose the Ricardo-diagnosed advantages of trade.” Which is obviously correct. And I said, “Well George, you’ve just invented a new form of the tragedy of the commons. You’re locked in this system and you can’t fix it. You’re going to go to a tragic hell in a handbasket, if going to hell involves being once the great leader of the world and finally going to the shallows in terms of leadership.” And he said, “Charlie, I do not want to think about this.” I think he’s wise. He’s even older than I am, and maybe I should learn from him.

        

8) Not Enough Attention to the Concept of Febezzlement

        

Okay, I’m now down to my eighth objection: Too little attention within economics to the simplest and most fundamental principle of algebra. Now this sounds outrageous, that economics doesn’t do algebra, right? Well, I want to try an example – I may be wrong on this. I’m old and I’m iconoclastic – but I throw it out anyway. I say that economics doesn’t pay enough attention to the concept of febezzlement. And that I derive from Galbraith’s idea. Galbraith’s idea was that, if you have an undisclosed embezzlement, it has a wonderful Keynesian stimulating effect on the economy because the guy who’s been embezzled thinks he is as rich as he always was and spends accordingly, and the guy that had stolen the money gets all this new purchasing power. I think that’s correct analysis on Galbraith’s part. The trouble with his notion is that he’s described a minor phenomenon. Because when the embezzlement is discovered, as it almost surely will be, the effect will quickly reverse. So the effect quickly cancels out.

        

But suppose you paid a lot of attention to algebra, which I guess Galbraith didn’t, and you think, “Well, the fundamental principle of algebra is, ‘If A is equal to B and B is equal to C, then A is equal to C.’” You’ve then got a fundamental principle that demands that you look for functional equivalents, all you can find. So suppose you ask the question, “Is there such a thing in economics as a febezzlement?” By the way, Galbraith invented the word “bezzle” to describe the amount of undisclosed embezzlement, so I invented the word “febezzlement”: the functional equivalent of embezzlement.

        

This happened after I asked the question “Is there a functional equivalent of embezzlement?” I came up with a lot of wonderful affirmative answers. Some were in investment management. After all I’m near investment management. I considered the billions of dollars totally wasted in the course of investing common stock portfolios for American owners. As long as the market keep going up, the guy who’s wasting all this money doesn’t feel it, because he’s looking at these steadily rising values. And to the guy who is getting the money for investment advice, the money looks like well earned income, when he’s really selling detriment for money, surely the functional equivalent of undisclosed embezzlement. You can see why I don’t get invited to many lectures.

        

So I say, if you look in the economy for febezzlement, the functional equivalent of embezzlement, you’ll find some enormously powerful factors. They create some “wealth effect” that is on steroids, compared to the old “wealth effect.” But practically nobody thinks as I do, and I quitclaim my idea to any hungry graduate student who has independent means, which he will need before his thesis topic is approved.

        

9) Not Enough Attention to Virtue and Vice Effects

        

Okay, my ninth objection: Not enough attention to virtue and vice effects in economics. It has been plain to me since early life that there are enormous virtue effects in economics, and also enormous vice effects. But economists get very uncomfortable when you talk about virtue and vice. It doesn’t lend itself to a lot of columns of numbers. But I would argue that there are big virtue effects in economics. I would say that the spreading of double-entry bookkeeping by the Monk, Fra Luca de Pacioli [www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Pacioli.html], was a big virtue effect in economics. It made business more controllable, and it made it more honest. Then the cash register. The cash register did more for human morality than the congregational church. It was a really powerful phenomenon to make an economic system work better, just as, in reverse, system that can be easily defrauded ruins a civilization. A system that’s very hard to defraud, like a cash register, helps the economic performance of a civilization by reducing vice, but very few people within economics talk about it in those terms.

          

Religion

        

I’ll go further: I say economic systems work better when there’s an extreme reliability ethos. And the traditional way to get a reliability ethos, at least in past generations in America, was through religion. The religions instilled guilt. We have a charming Irish Catholic priest in our neighborhood and he loves to say, “Those old Jews may have invented guilt, but we perfected it.” (Laughter). And this guilt, derived from religion, has been a huge driver of a reliability ethos, which has been very helpful to economic outcomes for man.

        

Pay for directors and judges

        

Many bad effects from vice are clear. You’ve got the crazy booms and crooked promotions – all you have to do is read the paper over the last six months. There’s enough vice to make us all choke. And, by the way, everybody’s angry about unfair compensation at the top of American corporations, and people should be. We now face various crazy nostrums invented by lawyers which won’t give us a fix for unfair compensation, yet a good partial solution is obvious: If directors were significant shareholders who got a pay of zero, you’d be amazed what would happen to unfair compensation of corporate executives as we dampened effects from reciprocity tendency.

        

A roughly similar equivalent of this no-pay system has been tried in a strange place. In England the lower criminal courts which can send you to prison for a year or fine you substantially, are staffed by lay magistrates. You’ve got three judges sitting up there, and they all get a pay of zero. Their expenses are reimbursed, but not too liberally. And they work about 40 half-days a year, as volunteers. It’s worked beautifully for about 700 years. Able and honest people compete to become magistrates, to perform the duty and get the significance, but no pay.

                 

This is the system Benjamin Franklin, near the end of his life, wanted for U.S. government. He didn’t want the high executives of government to be paid, but to be like himself or the entirely unpaid, well-off ministers and rulers of the Mormon Church. And when I see what’s happened in California, I’m not sure he wasn’t right. At any rate, no one now drifts in Franklin’s direction. For one thing, professors – and most of them need money – get appointed directors.

        

Not a vice that some systems are deliberately made unfair

        

It is not always recognized that, to function best, morality should sometimes appear unfair, like most worldly outcomes. The craving for perfect fairness causes a lot of terrible problems in system function. Some systems should be made deliberately unfair to individuals because they’ll be fairer on average for all of us. I frequently cite the example of having your career over, in the Navy, if your ship goes aground, even if it wasn’t your fault. I say the lack of justice for the one guy that wasn’t at fault is way more than made up by a greater justice for everybody when every captain of a ship always sweats blood to make sure the ship doesn’t go aground. Tolerating a little unfairness to some to get a greater fairness for all is a model I recommend to all of you. But again, I wouldn’t put it in your assigned college work if you want to be graded well, particularly in a modern law school wherein there is usually an over-love of fairness-seeking process.

        

Contributions of vice to bubbles

        

There are, of course, enormous vice effects in economics. You have these bubbles with so much fraud and folly. The aftermath is frequently very unpleasant, and we’ve had some of that lately. One of the first big bubbles, of course, was the huge and horrible South Sea bubble in England. And the aftermath was interesting. Many of you probably don’t remember what happened after the South Sea Bubble, which caused an enormous financial contraction, and a lot of pain. They banned publicly traded stock in England for decades. Parliament passed a law that said you can have a partnership with a few partners, but you can’t have publicly traded stock. And, by the way, England continued to grow without publicly traded stock. The people who are in the business of prospering because there’s a lot of stock being traded in casino-like frenzy wouldn’t like this example if they studied it enough. It didn’t ruin England to have a long period when they didn’t have publicly traded shares.

        

Just as in real estate. We had all the shopping centers and auto dealerships, and so on, we needed for years when we didn’t have publicly traded real estate shares. It’s a myth that once you’ve got some capital market, economic considerations demand that it has to be as fast and efficient as a casino. It doesn’t.

          

Paradoxical good contributions from vice; the irremovability of paradox

        

Another interesting problem is raised by vice effects involving envy. Envy wisely got a very strong condemnation in the laws of Moses. You remember how they laid it on with a trowel: You couldn’t covet thy neighbor’s ass, you couldn’t covet thy neighbor’s servant girl, you couldn’t covet…--Those old Jews knew how envious people are and how much trouble it caused. They really laid it on hard, and they were right. But Mandeville, [htpp://cepa.newschool.edu/het/profiles/mandev.htm], remember his fable of bees? He demonstrated convincingly – to me, anyway – that envy was a great driver of proclivity to spend. And so here’s this terrible vice, which is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, and here it’s driving all these favorable results in economics. There’s some paradox in economics that nobody’s going to get out.

        

When I was young, everybody was excited by Godel [www.gap.dcs.stand.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Godel.html] who came up with proof that you couldn’t have a mathematical system without a lot of irritating incompleteness in it. Well, since then my betters tell me that they’ve come up with more irremovable defects in mathematics and have decided that you’re never going to get mathematics without some paradox in it. No matter how hard you work, you’re going to have to live with some paradox if you’re a mathematician.

        

Well, if the mathematicians can’t get the paradox out of their system when they’re creating it themselves, the poor economists are never going to get rid of paradoxes, nor are any of the rest of us. It doesn’t matter. Life is interesting with some paradox. When I run into a paradox I think either I’m a total horse’s ass to have gotten to this point, or I’m fruitfully near the edge of my discipline. It adds excitement to life to wonder which it is.

        

Conclusion

          

Clinging to failed ideas – a horror story

        

As I conclude, I want to tell one more story demonstrating how awful it is to get a wrong idea from a limited repertoire and just stick to it. And this is the story of Hyman Liebowitz who came to America from the old country. In the new country, as in the old, he tried to make his way in the family trade, which was manufacturing nails. And he struggled and he struggled, and finally his little nail business got to vast prosperity, and his wife said to him, “You are old, Hyman, it’s time to go to Florida and turn the business over to our son.”

        

So down he went to Florida, turning his business over to the son, but he got weekly financial reports. And he hadn’t been in Florida very long before they turned sharply negative. In fact, they were terrible. So he got on an airplane and he went back to New Jersey, where the factory was. As he left the airport on the way to the factory he saw this enormous outdoor advertising sign lighted up. And there was Jesus, spread out on the cross. And under it was a big legend, “They Used Liebowitz’s Nails.” So he stormed into the factory and said, “You dumb son! What do you think you’re doing? It took me 50 years to create this business!” “Papa,” he said, “trust me. I will fix it.”

        

So back he went to Florida, and while he was in Florida he got more reports, and the results kept getting worse. So he got on the airplane again. Left the airport, drove by the sign, looked up at this big lighted sign, and now there’s a vacant cross. And, low and behold, Jesus is crumpled on the ground under the cross, and the sign said, “They Didn’t Use Liebowitz’s Nails.” (Laugher).

        

Well, you can laugh at that. It is ridiculous but it’s no more ridiculous than the way a lot of people cling to failed ideas. Keynes said “It’s not bringing in the new ideas that’s so hard. It’s getting rid of the old ones.” And Einstein said it better, attributing his mental success to “curiosity, concentration, perseverance and self-criticism.” By self-criticism he meant becoming good at destroying your own best-loved and hardest-won ideas. If you can get really good at destroying your own wrong ideas, that is a great gift.

         

Repeating the big lesson  

        

Well, it’s time to repeat the big lesson in this little talk. What I’ve urged is the use of a bigger multidisciplinary bag of tricks, mastered to fluency, to help economics and everything else. And I also urged that people not be discouraged by irremovable complexity and paradox. It just adds more fun to the problems. My inspiration again is Keynes: Better roughly right than precisely wrong.

        

And so I end by repeating what I said once before on a similar occasion. If you skillfully follow the multidisciplinary path, you will never wish to come back. It would be like cutting off your hands.

        

Well, that’s the end. I’ll take questions as long as people can endure me.

        

(Applause)

        

Q & A

          

Male: …financial destruction from trading of derivative contracts. Buffett said that the genie’s out of the bottle and the hangover may be proportionate to the binge. Would you speculate for us how that scenario can play out? [The question was garbled, but the person asked about derivatives, which Buffett has called “financial weapons of mass destruction.”]

          

Munger: Well, of course, catastrophe predictions have always been quite difficult to make with success. But I confidently predict that there are big troubles to come. The system is almost insanely irresponsible. And what people think are fixes aren’t really fixes. It’s so complicated I can’t do it justice here – but you can’t believe the trillions of dollars involved. You can’t believe the complexity. You can’t believe how difficult it is to do the accounting. You can’t believe how big the incentives are to have wishful thinking about values, and wishful thinking about ability to clear.

        

Running off derivative book is agony and takes time. And you saw what happened when they tried to run off the derivative books at Enron. Its certified net worth vanished. In the derivative books of America there are a lot of reported profits that were never earned and assets that never existed.

        

And there are large febezzlement effects and some ordinary embezzlement effects that come from derivative activity. And the reversal of these is going to cause pain. How big the pain will be and how well it will be handled, I can’t tell you. But you would be disgusted if you had a fair mind and spent a month really delving into a big derivative operation. You would think it was Lewis Carroll [author of Alice in Wonderland]. You would think it was the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. And the false precision of these people is just unbelievable. They make the worst economics professors look like gods. Moreover, there is depravity augmenting the folly. Read the book “F.I.A.S.C.O.”, by law professor and former derivatives trader Frank Partnoy, an insider account of depravity in derivative trading at one of the biggest and best regarded Wall Street firms. The book will turn your stomach. [F.I.A.S.C.O.: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader]

          

Rajneesh Mehta: We’ll take one more question. There’s a class outside that has to come in. So one more question.

          

Male: Could you describe Warren’s reactions to the advice about the negative reaction that he

         got from musing about defects of California’s Prop 13? Was he shocked, surprised?

        

Munger: It’s hard to shock Warren. He’s past 70, he’s seen a lot. And his brain works quickly.

         He generally avoids certain subjects before elections and that is what I am going to do here.

         (Laughter).

        

                  ---------------------

 

         Sacrificing To Restore Market Confidence

          By Charles T. Munger

         Wednesday, February 11, 2009

        

Our situation is dire. Moderate booms and busts are inevitable in free-market capitalism. But a boom-bust cycle as gross as the one that caused our present misery is dangerous, and recurrences should be prevented. The country is understandably depressed -- mired in issues involving fiscal stimulus, which is needed, and improvements in bank strength. A key question: Should we opt for even more pain now to gain a better future? For instance, should we create new controls to stamp out much sin and folly and thus dampen future booms? The answer is yes.

        

Sensible reform cannot avoid causing significant pain, which is worth enduring to gain extra safety and more exemplary conduct. And only when there is strong public revulsion, such as exists today, can legislators minimize the influence of powerful special interests enough to bring about needed revisions in law.

        

Many contributors to our over-the-top boom, which led to the gross bust, are known. They include insufficient controls over morality and prudence in banks and investment banks; undesirable conduct among investment banks; greatly expanded financial leverage, aided by direct or implied use of government credit; and extreme excess, sometimes amounting to fraud, in the promotion of consumer credit. Unsound accounting was widespread.

        

There was also great excess in highly leveraged speculation of all kinds. Perhaps real estate speculation did the most damage. But the new trading in derivative contracts involving corporate bonds took the prize. This system, in which completely unrelated entities bet trillions with virtually no regulation, created two things: a gambling facility that mimicked the 1920s "bucket shops" wherein bookie-customer types could bet on security prices, instead of horse races, with almost no one owning any securities, and, second, a large group of entities that had an intense desire that certain companies should fail. Croupier types pushed this system, assisted by academics who should have known better. Unfortunately, they convinced regulators that denizens of our financial system would use the new speculative opportunities without causing more harm than benefit.

        

Considering the huge profit potential of these activities, it may seem unlikely that any important opposition to reform would come from parties other than conventional, moneyed special interests. But many in academia, too, will resist. It is important that reform plans mix moral and accounting concepts with traditional economic concepts. Many economists take fierce pride in opposing that sort of mixed reasoning. But what these economists like to think about is functionally intertwined, in complex ways, with what they don't like to think about. Those who resist the wider thinking are acting as engineers would if they rounded pi from 3.14 to an even 3 to simplify their calculations. The result is a kind of willful ignorance that fails to understand much that is important.

        

Moreover, rationality in the current situation requires even more stretch in economic thinking. Public deliberations should include not only private morality and accounting issues but also issues of public morality, particularly with regard to taxation. The United States has long run large, concurrent trade and fiscal deficits while, to its own great advantage, issuing the main reserve currency of a deeply troubled and deeply interdependent world. That world now faces new risks from an expanding group of nations possessing nuclear weapons. And so the United States may now have a duty similar to the one that, in the danger that followed World War II, caused the Marshall Plan to be approved in a bipartisan consensus and rebuild a devastated Europe.

        

The consensus was grounded in Secretary of State George Marshall's concept of moral duty, supplemented by prudential considerations. The modern form of this duty would demand at least some increase in conventional taxes or the imposition of some new consumption taxes. In so doing, the needed and cheering economic message, "We will do what it takes," would get a corollary: "and without unacceptably devaluing our money." Surely the more complex message is more responsible, considering that, first, our practices of running twin deficits depend on drawing from reserves of trust that are not infinite and, second, the message of the corollary would not be widely believed unless it was accompanied by some new taxes.

        

Moreover, increasing taxes in some instances might easily gain bipartisan approval. Surely both political parties can now join in taxing the "carry" part of the compensation of hedge fund managers as if it was more constructively earned in, say, cab driving.

        

Much has been said and written recently about bipartisanship, and success in a bipartisan approach might provide great advantage here. Indeed, it is conceivable that, if legislation were adopted in a bipartisan way, instead of as a consequence of partisan hatred, the solutions that curbed excess and improved safeguards in our financial system could reduce national pain instead of increasing it. After the failure of so much that was assumed, the public needs a restoration of confidence. And the surest way to gain the confidence of others is to deserve the confidence of others, as Marshall did when he helped cause passage of some of the best legislation ever enacted.

        

Creating in a bipartisan manner a legislative package that covers many subjects will be difficult. As they work together in the coming weeks, officials might want to consider a precedent that helped establish our republic. The deliberative rules of the Constitutional Convention of 1787          worked wonders in fruitful compromise and eventually produced the U.S. Constitution. With no Marshall figure, trusted by all, amid today's legislators, perhaps the Founding Fathers can once more serve us.

          

The writer, a Republican, is vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which owns 21 percent        of The Washington Post Co.'s common stock.  

        

                           ------------------------------

        

Wantmore, Tweakmore, Totalscum, and the Tragedy of Boneheadia

         A Parody about the Great Recession.

         By Charles Munger

         Posted Wednesday, July 6, 2011, at 4:57 PM ET

          

A Parody Describing the Contributions of Wantmore, Tweakmore, Totalscum, Countwrong, and  Oblivious to the Tragic "Great Recession" in Boneheadia and the Thoughts of Some People          Relating to This Disaster.  

                 

In the country of Boneheadia there was a man, Wantmore, who earned his income as a home mortgage loan originator. Wantmore operated conservatively. All his home loans bore interest rates of 6 percent or less, and he demanded of all borrowers large down payments, documented proof of adequate income, and an immaculate credit-using history. Wantmore sold all his loans to life insurance companies that, before closing purchases, checked loan quality with rigor—then held all loans to maturity.

        

As Wantmore prospered, he eventually attracted the attention of Tweakmore, a very bold and ingenious investment banker. There was no other investment banker quite like Tweakmore, even in the United States.

        

Tweakmore had become the richest person in Boneheadia, driven by an insight that had come to him when, as a college student, he had visited a collection of hotels that contained gambling casinos located in a desert.

        

As Tweakmore saw immense amounts of cash pouring into cashiers' cages surrounded by endless sand, in business operations that did not tie up any capital in inventories, receivables, or manufacturing equipment, he realized immediately that he was looking at the best business model in the world, provided one could also eliminate commitment of any capital or expense to hotel rooms, restaurants, or facilities providing parking or entertainment.

        

Tweakmore also saw exactly how he could create for himself an operation that possessed all the characteristics of his ideal business. All he had to do was add to investment banking a lot of activities that were the functional equivalent of casino gambling, with the bank having the traditional "house advantage." Such casino-type activities, masked by respectable-sounding labels, Tweakmore foresaw, could easily grow to dwarf all the action in ordinary casinos.

        

Determined to create and own his ideal business as fast as possible, Tweakmore quit college and entered investment banking. Within 12 years, Tweakmore was the most important investment banker in Boneheadia. Tweakmore rose so rapidly because he was very successful in convincing regulators and legislators to enlarge what was permissible.

        

Indeed, by the time Tweakmore called on Wantmore, any investment bank in Boneheadia could invent and trade in any bets it wished, provided they were called "derivatives," designed to make counterparties feel better about total financial risks in their lives, outcomes that automatically happened. Moreover, an investment bank faced no limit on the amount of financial leverage it employed in trading or investing in derivatives or anything else. Also, Tweakmore had obtained permission to use "Mark-To-Model" accounting that enabled each bank to report in its derivative book whatever profit it desired to report. As a result, almost every investment bank claimed ever-growing profits and had ownership of assets totaling at least 30 times an ever-swelling reported net worth. And despite a vast expansion of transaction-clearance risk, no big mess had so far occurred.

        

Tweakmore was pleased, but not satisfied, by what he had accomplished. And he now planned to revolutionize Boneheadia's home-mortgage loan business in a manner that would make Tweakmore a national hero.

        

In his first proposal to Wantmore, Tweakmore held much of his ingenuity in reserve. All he proposed was that Wantmore hereafter sell all his home loans to Tweakmore at a higher price than life insurers would pay. Tweakmore said that he planned to put all loans into trusts with no other assets. Each trust would be divided into five "tranches" with different priorities in use of loan payments. Four tranches would use their shares of loan payments to pay off complex new fixed-interest-bearing, freely tradable debt instruments, called CDOs. The fifth tranche got a tiny residue in case all home loan payments were received as due. The CDOs would be sold by Tweakmore, using a highly paid sales force, to anyone who could be induced to buy, even highly leveraged speculators and small Scandinavian cities near the Arctic.

        

To Wantmore, Tweakmore's proposal at first appeared unfeasible. The planned operation seemed to resemble the operation of a meat vendor who routinely bought 1,000 pounds of chuck roast, sliced it up, and then sold 950 pounds as filet mignon and the balance as dog food.

 

But Wantmore's doubts melted away when Tweakmore revealed how much he would pay. Under         the offered terms, Wantmore would double his income, something Tweakmore could easily afford because his own income was going to be three times that of Wantmore. After Wantmore accepted Tweakmore's proposal, everything worked out exactly as Tweakmore had planned, because buyers of CDOs in aggregate paid much more than the life insurers had formerly paid.

        

Even so, Wantmore, as he became familiar with Tweakmore's prosperity, was soon dissatisfied with a merely doubled income. With Wantmore restive, Tweakmore now displayed the full range of his ingenuity.

        

What Tweakmore next proposed was that Wantmore add to his product line a new class of "Subprime, pay-what-you-wish" home-mortgage loans. All loans would bear interest at 7½ percent or more, and borrowers would not be allowed to state anything except that they wanted the money. There would be no down payments and no credit checks or the like. Also, each loan would be very user-friendly in its first three years, during which the borrower could make only tiny payments with all unpaid interest being added to principal. After three years, very onerous loan service was required, designed to pay off the greatly swollen principal, plus all interest, over the next five years.

        

This proposal would have seemed preposterous, even hilariously satirical, if it had been presented to Wantmore when Tweakmore had first called. But by now Wantmore had doubled his income by going along with a peculiar idea of Tweakmore's. So Wantmore's credulity was easily stretched to allow acceptance of the new loan product, which Tweakmore projected would       triple Wantmore's already doubled income.

        

It is easy to see why Wantmore became a "true believer" in the new loan product. But why did the already super-rich, prominent, and sophisticated Tweakmore believe his revised scheme would work safely and well for him?

        

Well, we know the answer. As Tweakmore revealed in his prideful autobiography, his thought process was as follows:

 

 1. There would be no significant troubles during the first three years. Under the accounting standards of Boneheadia, all its accountants would be required for a long time to reserve no loan-loss provision at all against unpaid principal and unpaid interest on the new loans. And CDOs would be valued highly in traditional markets because underlying loans were booked at unreasonably high value. It wouldn't matter that homebuyers were making no down payments, had no personal liability at any time, and paid only a tiny portion of interest accrued for three years. It also wouldn't matter that any competent inquiry would have revealed extreme past improvidence on the part of most borrowers.

    

2. House prices in Boneheadia would not merely rise as they had done before. Prices would

     rise much faster as more and more people learned they could bid to acquire homes

     without using any of their own money, no matter how poor were their credit-using

     histories.

    

3. All the buyers of new CDOs would have a near-perfect investment experience. Ever-

     rising house prices would cause full payment of all mortgage debt as due. The market for the new CDOs would expand and expand as investors reliably earned much more and faster as the scheme fed on itself in a runaway feedback mode.

    

4. True, after the first three years many overstretched homebuyers were sure to suffer

     somewhat as they were forced, by threats of foreclosure, to sell their homes. This would       often cost them their credit and the respect of their children, friends, and employers, but that would be the only trouble, and it would prove endurable by Tweakmore and everyone else, except the people forced out of their homes.

    

5. The runaway feedback mode that drove up house prices would cause no significant

     trouble for decades, as had happened in Japan, where a big bust in real estate prices

     occurred only after the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo were apparently worth more

     than the market value of the entire state of California.

    

6. The principles of economics would give the scheme a large tailwind and considerable

     popularity. As Tweakmore, a former student in elementary economics, knew from

     studying Galbraith, a large undisclosed embezzlement strongly stimulates spending

     because the perpetrator is much richer and the victim spends as before because he does not yet feel poorer. And what Tweakmore was creating was the functional equivalent of a long-running undisclosed embezzlement on steroids. The perpetrators would not be the only ones to spend more, as typically occurs during ordinary embezzlements. The CDO-buying victims also would spend more as they believed they were getting richer and richer from ever-growing paper gains embodied in accrual of interest at above normal rates.

    

7. To be sure, the scheme looked a little like a chain-letter scheme, and such schemes were usually ill-regarded by prospective users, partly because the schemes were criminal and partly because the schemes always blew up so quickly, bringing criminal troubles so soon. Tweakmore's scheme, in contrast, would, by design, be lawful and benevolent, and recognized as such, because it would create big macroeconomic stimulus as a public      good.

    

8. And should the scheme eventually blow up after decades, like the land-price bubble in Japan, who could fairly blame Tweakmore? Nothing lasts forever. Besides, the blowup might be lost in a miasma of other blowups like those sure to come in many irresponsible countries and subdivisions of countries.

        

Tweakmore's revised scheme worked fantastically well for a considerable period. Naturally, there were some glitches, but Tweakmore turned each glitch into an opportunity to boost profit.          For instance, when Wantmore was made nervous as hordes of scumball-salesmen were drawn into his business by rich commissions paid for production of easy-to-sell "subprime" pay-what-you-wish home loans, Tweakmore responded by buying Wantmore's business. Then Tweakmore replaced Wantmore with a new CEO, Totalscum, who did not consider any business practice optimal unless it was depraved. Totalscum soon increased loan production by 400 percent and his success caused Tweakmore to buy five additional loan businesses and replace their CEOs with people like Totalscum, causing profits to soar and soar, even though Tweakmore never again found anyone else whose depraved operations could produce results that matched those of Totalscum.

        

As Tweakmore's scheme went on, it was necessary for its continuing success that the accountants of Boneheadia never stop treating as trustworthy a lot of hugely important loan-payment promises that any sensible person would deem unreliable. However, there was almost no risk that accountants would act otherwise than as Tweakmore desired. The accountants of Boneheadia were not allowed to be sensible. They had to use rote "rules-based" accounting standards set by a dominating man, Countwrong, who was head of Boneheadia's Accounting Standards Setting Board. And Countwrong had ordained, in effect, that all loss provisions on the new loans must remain based on the zero-loss record that had existed before Wantmore met Tweakmore. And, so long as Countwrong was in charge, no one was going to use in accounting an understanding of runaway feedback modes, instead of Countwrong's rules.

        

Of course, if Totalscum or Tweakmore ever started to have loan losses, he would have to start making loan-loss provisions against new loans. But there weren't any meaningful loan losses for anyone for a very long time.

        

Countwrong was so habit-bound as a thinker that he never recognized that his cognition was anti-social. He had always sought simplicity of process for accountants at the expense of "principles-based" rigor and thought that would better serve his country. He had been rewarded in his life for his convictions, and he was now proud of his conclusions, even as they were contributing mightily to the super-catastrophe sure to come eventually from Tweakmore's scheme.

        

A large economic boom occurred in Boneheadia just as Tweakmore had expected. The boom made the regulators of Boneheadia feel extremely good about themselves as they passively watched the ever-enlarging operations of Tweakmore and Totalscum.

        

A famous regulator named Oblivious was particularly approving. He had been over-influenced in early life by classical economics. So influenced, Oblivious loved all the new derivatives, even those based on outcomes of parts of complex CDOs composed of parts of other complex CDOs. And he did not believe the government should rein in any investment banker until the banker's behavior was very much worse than Tweakmore's.

        

The boom initiated by Tweakmore lasted only three years. He had underestimated the boom's strength and the power of people to understand, in due course, super-sized folly. These factors had helped shorten the boom's duration. Also, Boneheadia had proved less like Japan than had been hoped.

        

When the boom-ending bust came, it was a doozy. Almost every investment bank had been made collapse-prone by Tweakmore's innovations before he became interested in home loans. And now, in a huge bust, most big financial institutions were sure to disappear, causing total chaos and another "Great Depression" unless there was super-massive intervention by the government, financed by printing money.

        

Fortunately, Boneheadia did so intervene, guided by effective leaders who somehow obtained support from politicians in both political parties. And, after this massive intervention, Boneheadia, with doubled unemployment, is enormously worse off than if the boom and bust had never happened. And its options in case of future trouble are greatly reduced because, after its money-printing spree, it is nearer to facing general distrust of its money and credit.

        

Boneheadia's bust is now called the "Great Recession." Yet, even so, not much has been learned by the elite in Boneheadia. Among the protagonists and too-passive types who contributed so much to the mess, only one has expressed significant contrition. To his great credit, Oblivious has recognized that he was grossly wrong.

        

The accounting profession remains unaware of its large contribution to public woe. And it does not recognize the cognitive defects of Countwrong, which are still believed to be virtuous qualities that reduce accountants' litigation risks and their duty to cause antagonism by opposing the wishes of some of their best-paying clients.

        

The professoriate in economics has barely budged toward recognition of the importance of optimized, more conservative accounting in both macroeconomics and microeconomics. And economics professors, even now, do not recognize what was so easily recognized by Tweakmore: The functional equivalent of undisclosed embezzlement can be magnified and have massive macroeconomic consequences when the victims, as well as the perpetrators are led to believe they are getting richer under conditions that are going to last for a long time.

        

How about the legislators in Boneheadia? Well, most are confused by what has happened to their most powerful friends and draw no useful implications from the outcome of Canadia, a country just north of Boneheadia that had no "Great Recession" because its simple laws and regulations kept in place home loan operations much like those of Wantmore before he embraced modern finance in the state preferred by Tweakmore.

        

How about the regulators? Well, very few important regulators or former regulators in all Boneheadia have expressed really serious doubts about the status quo and interest in really serious re-regulation of investment banking. One the doubters is Follyseer, a long-retired former minister of finance. Follyseer has argued that all contributions of Tweakmore to investment banking should be removed and banned, because it is now obvious that (1) augmenting casino-type activities in investment banks was never a good idea, and (2) investment banks are less likely to cause vast public damage when they are forbidden to use much financial leverage and are limited to few long-traditional activities.

        

Regarding accounting, no regulator now in power seems to understand, in a way that has any chance of causing effective remedial action, that the disaster triggered by Tweakmore couldn't have happened if Boneheadia's system of accounting regulation had been more "principles-based," with a different and less tradition-bound group creating accounting standards that were less easy to game.

        

The former regulator and lifelong professor who seemed extra wise after the Great Recession was England's John Maynard Keynes, dead for more than half a century. Keynes had predicted, correctly, that "When the capital development of a country is a by-product of the operations of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done."

          

Afterword: The foregoing attempt is  not  an attempt to describe in a fair way real contributions to the "Great Recession" in the United States. Certain characters and industries, for instance, Tweakmore and investment banking, are grossly overdrawn as contributors to sin and mayhem, while other contributors are not discussed at all. The whole idea was to draw attention to certain issues in accounting, academic economics, and conceivable over-development of finance as a percentage of the entire economy, by making the characters and the story line extreme enough to be memorable.  

        

 

1999 Wesco Shareholder Meeting, Pasadena CA 1999

        

By simpleinvestor posted on www.fool.com | about stocks: BRK.A / BRK.B / WSC

        

Following note was found on Motley Food (www.fool.com) website, posted by user name “simpleinvestor”

        

        

FREE INVESTMENT SEMINAR

        

The last time I visited Pasadena in 1977, Michigan lost the Rose Bowl to USC. My team got a football lesson then and when I returned last week a lucky few got a world class investment lesson.

        

The Wesco annual meeting in Pasadena, California is more of a free investment seminar held in a classroom for 200 students. The Omaha meeting is more of a spectacle of financial advice staged in an arena of 15,000 participants. In the future plan to attend both but my preference is Pasadena. In Omaha you meet fellow shareholders in an arena. In Pasadena you learn in a classroom (University Club).

        

Charlie Munger was a different advisor. Never once did he say, “I have nothing further to add.” He spoke like a college professor with candor and experience. With such a small audience it was easy to ask questions. Some even had the opportunity to ask more than once. It's an open meeting. No ticket required.

        

Lou Simpson was in attendance (his first) and answered some GEICO questions. The tables were turned and Mr. Munger asked Alice Schroeder from PaineWebber some questions.

        

The entire meeting lasted 3 hours and I was able to take as many notes as the Omaha meeting. The most significant thing that I learned was a better comprehension of technology and the Internet. And an unexpected surprise tour the next day.

        

When you turn off the noise coming at you from all angles in the investment world, you need to know when to turn your senses back on. In Pasadena you could open your eyes and ears and listen to every question and remember every answer.

        

Here's a summary of my notes and observations.

        

1. GOOD IDEAS CAN HURT YOU. For as much as Mr. Munger and Mr. Buffett claim to not

     consider technology in their circle of competence, I learned a new way of looking at tech. When you come across a bad idea you and everyone else know it's bad, so it can't hurt you. On the other hand when you come across a good idea it's easy to over do it. Mr. Munger liken the Internet to railroads, refrigeration, radio, television and air conditioning. Great technological advances for mankind but not necessarily great investments. Ben Graham said it's not the bad ideas that do you in. It's the good ideas that get you. You can't ignore it and it's easy to over do it. Mr. Munger stressed that technology has opportunities but it's potentially way over done.

             

2. THERE'S ALWAYS SOMETHING THAT PEOPLE GO CRAZY OVER. In the 1920's it was

     the over-leveraged stock market and the Florida land speculation. In the 60's it was junk stocks, overvaluations and efficient market theorists. EMT reached insanity levels. Buffett closed his partnership in the 60's because of too much speculation. Which led to junk bonds of the 80's. Today it's the Internet stocks. Mr. Munger's prediction: immense losses will be realized with Internet investments. This is a major reason to have experienced money managers making decisions for you.

    

3. LESSONS FROM JAPAN. Looked what happened to Japan. A clannish people, smart, hard

     working and prosperous society. They were led into excessive land speculation, bank fictional accounting, and stock market excesses. The so called 'wealth effect' became a narcotic that eventually crashed. Mr. Munger told the story of Bank of America selling their modest Tokyo executive house for $55 million cash during the height of Japans over-exuberance. Japan attempted to fix their economy with classic Keyesian economic theory; interest rates to zero and high debt but still suffers from a long lasting depression.

    

4. TELEVISION COMPARED TO THE INTERNET. Mr. Munger considers the invention of

     the television more impactful than the Internet. Instant color pictures brought into the home could be captured by a few broadcasting networks, which led to good investment returns. Any single provider will soon wire the Internet into the home with unlimited bandwidth but no monopoly.

    

5. HOT STOCK TIPS VERSUS INVESTMENT LESSONS. One former stockbroker in

     attendance walked away from the annual meeting (free investment seminar) with a hot stock tip. Lou Simpson and Mr. Munger talked about Mercury Insurance and their respect for the fellow running it. Some took that as a stock tip. I interpreted it as something that I didn't understand and was glad to have experts in charge of making investment decisions for me. If Charlie or Lou thought Mercury was a great investment I am confident they would buy it on my behalf. We're partners in business not competitors.

    

6. CONCENTRATED PORTFOLIO. Mr. Munger, Mr. Simpson and Mr. Buffett's investments

     all have one thing in common. They believe in concentrating their portfolios. If you are confident enough to select 3 to 10 common stocks for the long term you too can compete against this distinguished group. If you need to diversify out of ignorance its best to own a low cost and tax efficient index fund. Mr. Munger took a poll of the audience and 90 percent owned fewer than 12 common stocks. Berkshire has 60 percent of its common stock holdings in 3 stocks. Wesco has 95 percent of its common stock holdings in just 3 stocks.

    

7. DON'T BELIEVE THE BERKSHIRE RUMORS. Mr. Munger said that Berkshire Hathaway

     is not buying REITS but Mr. Buffett was personally buying some. REITs are more suitable for personal investment because of the dividends. Munger teased Buffett saying that buying REITs was resorting to cigar butt investing and a need to support the lifestyle of his globetrotting wife.

    

8. GEN RE. Very happy with the way things are going with General Re. Cologne Re charge

     against earnings was a surprise and not an intentional deception by management.

             

9. STOCK OPTIONS. Berkshire handles executive compensation the honest way by declaring it as an expense on the earnings statement. When Berkshire acquired Gen Re it declared upfront $63 million of compensation expenses to inform shareholders as to the true costs against earnings. Mr. Munger considers himself the sole voice against a widely used practice of deceiving the shareholders with stock options. The typical stock option program is corrupt accounting and is like a Ponzi scheme. An investment farce where high profits are promised from fictitious sources and early investors are paid off with funds raised from later ones. The average stock option program bleeds 12 –14 percent of profits from shareholders. Mr. Munger thinks the accounting profession bends too much and should have higher standards like the engineering profession. Better standards are needed.

    

10. YEAR-END CASH. Berkshire loves companies that have earnings at the end of the year in cash. Mr. Munger compared this desire with a friend who had a construction equipment firm that had all his annual earnings in accounts receivable and equipment in the yard at the end of the year.

    

11. FOUNDATION MANAGEMENT. One word for it – preposterous. Mr. Munger likens it to a

     mad hatter's tea party. Too many layers. Consultants hired to hire more consultants. No value added.

    

12. ANALYST COVERAGE. Welcomed Alice Schroeder of PaineWebber and took the

     opportunity to ask her some questions. She reassured shareholders that she wasn't given any special treatment. Information that Alice used in her writings is available to all owners in the annual reports. Berkshire releases all public information on the Internet after market hours for all interested parties so no one has inside information.

    

13. CASUALTY BUSINESS. It's going to get more competitive. Mr. Munger compared the

     casualty insurance business to rowing against a strong current but Berkshire has a very large well-equipped boat.

    

14. GEICO COMPETION. Mr. Munger called on Lou Simpson to explain GEICO's competition. He said in Southern California its 20th Century and Mercury. Elsewhere its Progressive and potentially AIG, and GE (Colonial Penn), State Farm, and Allstate. Business will be tougher in the next 5 years, but Mr. Munger likes what's happening at GEICO. It's the biggest advertiser on cable.

    

15. ERRORS OF OMISSION. Mr. Munger said they should have bought more Coke. Once you know it's a good idea you don't need to talk about it. Berkshire's success is measured by how successful they were buying Coke but should be measured by how much more successful they would have been if they bought more. No other management team would be so candid to talk about their errors of omission.

    

16. CONTRIBUTION TO SEE'S. Berkshire's contribution to See's Candies has been to leave it alone. Often Headquarters screws it up by thinking it knows best. Berkshire doesn't like to micro manage.

    

17. DIFFICULTY OF ACHIEVING 15% RETURNS IN THE FUTURE. Because of its size

     Berkshire will have a difficult time achieving market-beating returns in the future. But Mr. Munger said that if you understand the difficulty of something you have a better chance.

    

18. S&P INDEX ADDITION. Just a matter of time before Berkshire is added and figuring out

     how to add a stock that has little shareholder turnover.

    

19. INVESTMENT SUCCESS. To win at investing you need to know and understand many

     main models of the world e.g. Ponzi scheme. Find an investment manager who is concerned about disappointing you, the customer. Evaluating human beings is important in management and investing.

    

20. BUSINESS SCHOOLS SHOULD TEACH RETAILING FIRST. Mr. Munger thinks a

     business education should start first with retailing. When Charlie and Warren walk into a retail business, like a car dealership, they immediately begin to analyze it. Its how they're wired.

    

21. HOW TO MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER. Mr. Munger believes in his latticework of models.

     And he believes that the best thing you can do to make your life better is to master life's models.

    

22. BUFFETT FOUNDATION. Mr. Munger said that the 5% annual payout required after both Mr. and Mrs. Buffett deaths will not affect the normal operations of Berkshire Hathaway and will be insignificant. No need to worry about future family influences of the Buffett's or Munger's.

    

23. GREAT STORIES. Mr. Munger told many great stories. A few about Wrigley Chewing Gum and an entertaining one about silver mining companies that made money on silver and by shareholder fraud. Another great story of an investment manager who recently made $100 million for himself by selling his firm but had not served his customers well.

        

All in all it was one of the best free investment seminars that I have ever attended. Honest. Straightforward. Unrehearsed. Unedited. Nothing to sell. Nothing to buy. Just a great way to size up management.

        

You can read the transcript but you won't be able to see and hear the tap dancing. This is a great mind available to us all. Next year by popular demand, Mr. Munger plans to expand the meeting.

        

A SIDE NOTE: Okay I have to admit that I did something after the Wesco Financial annual meeting that may rank higher than learning from one of the best minds in the investment business. In fact this may be the most fun of any business/manufacturing tour I have ever taken and hope to take again. I got a tour of See's Candy factory in Los Angeles.

        

Jesus Soria, production manager, said there were only a few rules on the chocolate factory tour. One, you can taste anything while inside the factory. Two, you can't take anything with you. Wow. Talk about a kid in a candy store. If you see a noticeable dip in next quarters See's candy profits you can attribute the loss to me.

        

 Being the loyal shareholder I am, I taste tested just about everything. What a tour. And Jesus (a.k.a. Chewy) was able to answer just about every question; including competition, distribution, synergies with other subsidiaries, production before Berkshire, expansion plans, employee relations, spoilage, shrinkage, the manufacturing process, shelf life, and seasonal workloads.

        

An annual tour of this production facility is a must for any shareholder attending the Wesco annual meeting. An extraordinary investment (and life) seminar followed by a gastronomic delight.

        

Hope to see you next year.

         Willy Wonka

          

        

Charlie Munger Speaks

Notes from the Wesco Annual Meeting

         By Whitney Tilson

         May 15, 2000

        

As an admirer of Warren Buffett and a Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A) shareholder, I make a point of attending the company's annual meetings so I can learn from the answers to dozens of questions from his shareholders. Sharing the stage with him is Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway's Vice Chairman and Buffett's long-time partner.

        

The dynamic is pretty funny to watch: Buffett generally takes the first stab at answering a question, but after giving his answer turns and says, "Charlie?" Munger, immobile and expressionless throughout the day (they could easily substitute a mannequin for quite a while and no-one would notice), typically replies, "I have nothing to add."

        

But as you can see from my notes from this year's meeting (summarized in my previous column), Munger often does have something to add, and it is invariably sharp and insightful. In many ways, he's more entertaining than Buffett because he doesn't pull any punches (I think his "mixing raisins and turds" line will go down in Berkshire history).

        

 Over time, I have come to realize that Munger is a genius in his own right, and has had a profound effect on Buffett's thinking (which Buffett freely acknowledges). So who is this "cranky, old fashioned" man (to use his words)? I think many of the answers will be revealed in Janet Lowe's upcoming book, Damn Right, which she tells me will be available in October. But I wanted to find out for myself, so I recently attended Wesco Financial's (AMEX: WSC) annual meeting, where Munger, the company's long-time Chairman, took questions from shareholders for two hours. (Since 1973, Berkshire Hathaway has owned 80.1% of Wesco. I am a Wesco shareholder and plan to write a future column about the company and why I believe it's attractively priced.)

        

 As I did in my last column, I will try to distill my notes down to the most important things I heard. Note that in some cases I am paraphrasing because I couldn't write quickly enough.

        

 Opening Statement

        

"This only masquerades as a shareholder's meeting. It's really a gathering to hear the thoughts of the assistant headmaster of a cult."

        

Comments on Berkshire Hathaway and Wesco

          

Making the Right Personnel Decisions

        

"It's amazing how few times over the decades we've have to remove a person -- far less than other companies. It's not that we're soft or foolish, it's that we're wiser and luckier. Most people would look back and say their worst mistake was not firing someone soon enough. [We don't say that.] Our record is fabulous. We're old-fashioned. For example, in the case of CORT Business Services [a furniture rental business that Wesco acquired this year], Warren said to me, 'You're going to love Paul Arnold [CORT's CEO].' And he was right. Paul's been running the business since he was in law school and loves it.

        

 Berkshire Hathaway's Culture

        

"There are certain virtues that are common in all of Berkshire's subsidiaries. We don't create them -- we select companies that have them allready. We just don't screw it up."

          

Writing More Insurance

        

"Both Berkshire Hathaway and Wesco write amazingly low amounts of insurance relative to our surplus. It gives us investment flexibility. We just don't find enough insurance to write -- we'd do more if we could. Writing insurance equal to 10% of surplus for Berkshire Hathaway would be hog heaven -- we don't come close to that. Wesco didn't either, but we took on one big policy this year."

                   

Lumpy Results

        

"That is one of our advantages as an insurer -- we don't give a damn about lumpy results. Everyone else is trying to please Wall Street. This is not a small advantage."

                 

 Risks to Berkshire Hathaway from Large Super Cat Losses

        

"We don't write big super cat contracts where there's no upper limit [cat means catastrophe; for example, insuring against a large earthquake in California]. It's inconceivable that we'd lose more than 6-7% of the company's assets after tax in one event. The real risk is borne by insurers who      write, for example, basic homeowner's policies against a storm or earthquake and don't lay off some of that risk. That's roughly what happened to 20th Century, where they lost 100% of their capital in the Northridge (CA) Earthquake due to writing lots of little policies concentrated in an earthquake area."

          

Buffett's Successors

        

A shareholder noted that Berkshire Hathaway's succession plan calls for two people to replace Buffett: one to make the investments and one to oversee the operating companies. Lou Simpson of GEICO has been designated (at least unofficially) for the former position, so the shareholder asked, "Could you share with us who has been designated for the latter role?" Munger's succinct reply, "I could but I won't." [In the past, Buffett has defended his decision not to reveal this person because he might change his mind and wants to avoid the media circus that would invariably occur were this to happen.]

                   

Why Not Use Wesco to Make Smaller Investments?  

        

A shareholder noted that Buffett and Munger have long maintained that Berkshire Hathaway's size makes finding attractive investments difficult. Why then, he asked, don't they use Wesco to make smaller investments? Munger replied, "Lou Simpson will occasionally do smaller investments. But we're not set up to do small investments. Also, Warren and I are idiosyncratic and are unlikely to change our spots."

                   

Berkshire Hathaway Repurchasing Shares

        

"In the past, when Berkshire has gotten cheap, we've found other even cheaper stocks to buy. I'd always prefer this. It's no fun to have the company so lacking in repute that we can make money for some shareholders by buying out others."

                   

Why Don't More Companies and Investors Copy Berkshire Hathaway?  

        

"It's a good question. Our approach has worked for us. Look at the fun we, our managers, and our shareholders are having. More people should copy us. It's not difficult, but it looks difficult because it's unconventional -- it isn't the way things are normally done. We have low overhead, don't have quarterly goals and budgets or a standard personnel system, and our investing is much more concentrated than average. It's simple and common sense.

        

 "Our investment style has been given a name -- focus investing -- which implies 10 holdings, not 100 or 400. Focus investing is growing somewhat, but what's really growing is the unlimited use of consultants to advise on asset allocation, to analyze other consultants, etc.

        

 "I was recently speaking with Jack McDonald, who teaches a course on investing rooted in our principles at Stanford Business School. He said it's lonely -- like he's the Maytag repairman.

        

 "I was in the ROTC for six years and saw a very limited culture [in the military] with few new ideas. It's the same elsewhere"

        

 Future Outlook for Berkshire Hathaway

        

"The future will be harder for Berkshire Hathaway for two reasons:

    

 1) We're so big. It limits our investment options to more competitive areas that are examined by very smart people like Alice Schroeder [Paine Webber's insurance analyst, who was sitting in the audience].

 2) The current climate offers prospects in common stocks over the next 15-20 years that are way less than we've experienced over the past 15-20 years. Read Warren's Fortune article -- I totally agree with it.

        

         "But this is not a tragedy. We're content. Berkshire Hathaway and Wesco will accumulate cash every year, and we have a structure that gives us enormous flexibility. While we're too big to buy the stock of a small company, we have the advantage of having entire companies offered to us. Something has always turned up for us. I'm not discouraged, but I don't think your money here is going to do anything like what you're used to."

        

Charlie Munger Speaks - Part 2

        

Notes from the Wesco Annual Meeting

         By Whitney Tilson

         May 15, 2000

        

Comments on Businesses

          

Coca Cola

 "Over the next 20-30 years, Coke will be selling more soda and other drinks. They will also be able to raise prices moderately and increase margins. Therefore, if you own Coke, you'll do all right. [Regarding the stock's high valuation,] if you project growth long enough into the future, you can get high current valuations. So what you're seeing in Coke's stock price is the residual prediction that despite its recent stumbles, they'll be coloring a lot more water 20 years from now."

        

 The Furniture Business

        

 "Berkshire Hathaway now owns the leading furniture retailer in six states and, through CORT, has a substantial position in the rent-to-rent [as opposed to rent-to-own] furniture business. This all came about by accident. The furniture business is generally not a good one, but if you own the best companies, it's a fine business for us. It seems like CORT's business wouldn't be a good one, but it is."

        

 MidAmerican Energy

        

"Who would have thought we'd buy an electric company in Iowa? But this is a perfectly decent investment. It also gives us a window into a field where a lot of crazy things are going on, which may give us other opportunities [see the discussion of the real options that MidAmerican has in          my recent column]."

        

 Net Jets' Expansion into Europe

        

"Europe is a bitch of a place to get into, with all its countries and rules. We are losing money and expect that this will continue for a while. But look at the situation faced by the 2nd mover: all the same troubles and we're already there. Coke has done this all over the world and look how it's paid off."

        

The Newspaper Business

        

"It is way less certain to be a wonderful business in the future. The threat is alternative mediums of information. Every newspaper is scrambling to parlay their existing advantage into dominance on the Internet. But it is way less sure [that this will occur] than the certainty 20 years ago that the basic business would grow steadily, so there's more downside risk. The perfectly fabulous economics of this business could become grievously impaired."

        

 General Comments

          

Earnings Manipulation and Accounting Shenanigans

        

"With so much money riding on reported numbers, human nature is to manipulate them. And with so many doing it, you get Serpico effects, where everyone rationalizes that it's okay because everyone else is doing it. It is always thus.

        

 "Now, it's chain letter mechanics. Because it's mixed with legitimate activities like venture capital, it looks respectable. But we're mixing respectable activity with disrespectable activity -- hence my comment at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting about if you mix raisins with turds, you've still got turds. There is nothing in accounting that can prevent unscrupulous managers from engaging in a chain-letter-type fraud.

                 

 "I hate with a passion GAAP [Generally Accepted Accounting Principles] as applied to derivatives and swaps. JP Morgan sold out to this type of accounting to front-end revenues. I think it's a disgrace."

        

 Interest Rates

        

"Neither Warren nor I have any record of making large profits from interest rate bets. That being said, all intelligent citizens of this republic think a bit about this. In my lifetime, I've seen interest rates range from 1% to 20%. We try to operate so that really extreme interest rates in either direction wouldn't be too bad for us. When interest rates are in a middle range, as they are now, we're agnostic."

        

 Japan's Recession

 

 "Anyone has to be flabbergasted by Japan's recession, which has endured for 10 years, despite interest rates below 1%. The government is playing all the monetary games, but it's not working. If you had described this situation to Harvard economists, they would have said it's impossible. Yet at the same time, there's an asset bubble in Hong Kong. Why? Because Japan and China are two vastly different cultures. The Chinese are gamblers.

        

 "This is a classic example of why, to be a successful investor, one must draw from many disciplines. Imagine an economist standing up at a meeting of economists and giving my explanation. It wouldn't be politically correct! But the tools of economics don't explain what's going on."

        

 Advice to Other Investors

 Opportunities for Small Investors

 

"If you have only a little capital and are young today, there are fewer opportunities than when I was young. Back then, we had just come out of a depression. Capitalism was a bad word. There had been abuses in the 1920s. A joke going around then was the guy who said, 'I bought stock for my old age and it worked -- in six months, I feel like an old man!'

        

 "It's tougher for you, but that doesn't mean you won't do well -- it just may take more time. But what the heck, you may live longer."

        

 Practice Evolution

        

"This is really important. For example, Hertz and Enterprise Rent-a-Car through practice evolution have developed personnel systems, etc. that work for them. They are like different species in similar ecological niches.

        

 "Common stock investors can make money by predicting the outcomes of practice evolution. You can't derive this by fundamental analysis -- you must think biologically.

        

 "Another example is Tupperware, which developed what I believe to be a corrupt system of psychological manipulation. But the practice evolution worked and had legs. Tupperware parties sold billions of dollars of merchandise for decades.

        

 "We wouldn't have bought CORT if we didn't like the culture, which resulted from long practice evolution."

        

 Mental Models for Investing

        

"You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines, and use them routinely -- all of them, not just a few. Most people are trained in one model -- economics, for example -- and try to solve all problems in one way. You know the old saying: to the man with a hammer, the world looks like a nail. This is a dumb way of handling problems."

        

 Be Satisfied with What You Have

        

"Here's one truth that perhaps your typical investment counselor would disagree with: if you're comfortably rich and someone else is getting richer faster than you by, for example, investing in risky stocks, so what?! Someone will always be getting richer faster than you. This is not a tragedy.

        

 "Look at Stanley Druckenmiller [who ran one of George Soros' funds, which is essentially being shut down due to large losses in speculative tech and biotech stocks]: he always had to be the best and couldn't stand that others were beating him by investing in these sectors.

        

 "A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you want to avoid: early death, a bad marriage, etc."

        

 Recommended Books and Comments on Silicon Valley

        

Munger was asked to name his favorite books of all time. He replied, "That's hard because I mix ideas from so many books. One fabulous book is The Selfish Gene, which provides basic insights on human conditions. [In the past, Munger has strongly recommended Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which I just read and liked enough to add it to my list of all-time favorite books related to investing.]

        

Later, Alice Schroeder, who covers the insurance industry for Paine Webber, asked if he'd read The New New Thing, Wall Street On Sale or the new translation of Beowulf. He had only read the former, and commented: "It was interesting enough for me to finish it. In some respects it describes an appalling culture. While Silicon Valley has made great contributions to society, some things come pretty close to 'the unacceptable face of capitalism.'"

        

EVA

        

Asked to elaborate on his comments at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting on Stern Stewart and their concept of Economic Value Added, Munger said:

        

 "It's obvious that if a company generates high returns on capital and reinvests at high returns, it will do well. But this wouldn't sell books, so there's a lot of twaddle and fuzzy concepts that have been introduced that don't add much -- like cost of capital. It's accepted because some of it is right, but like psychoanalysis, I don't think it's an admirable system in its totality."

        

 A number of people have asked whether I agree with Munger's dismissal of EVA. Sort of. I agree with his comment about the "twaddle," but fear that he may have deterred people from studying and understanding return on invested capital -- the single most important metric I consider when evaluating a company. Sure, Bennett Stewart' s book, The Quest for Value, is unbearably dense, but ROIC is not a difficult concept nor is it difficult to calculate. For an understandable (not to mention free) take on ROIC, I recommend the Fool's School, A Look at ROIC, and Paul Johnson's Introducing ROIC as an Economic Measure (focus on pages 1-9 and 35-37). Johnson is one of the authors of The Gorilla Game, my favorite book on tech investing.

        

         -- Whitney Tilson

        

 Charlie Munger Holds Court

        

Charlie Munger, who runs Wesco Financial, is the famed right-hand-man of Warren Buffett -- but is also a master investor in his own right. At Wesco's annual meeting last week, he shared his always-blunt opinions on the expected returns from Berkshire Hathaway and Wesco stocks as well as equities in general, the scandalous state of pension fund accounting, the decline of public schools, and more.

         By Whitney Tilson

        

Published on the Motley Fool web site, 5/8/01 (http://www.fool.com/news/foth/2001/foth010508.htm)

        

Given that more than 10,000 people attend Berkshire Hathaway’s (NYSE: BRK.A) annual meeting each year, I’m always surprised by the paltry attendance -- maybe a couple hundred people -- at the annual meeting of Wesco Financial (AMEX: WSC), which is 80.1%-owned by Berkshire and whose CEO is Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger. One needn’t even be a Wesco shareholder to attend.

        

While Buffett gets all the attention -- and is, according to Munger, the superior investor -- Munger is himself an investment genius and, were it not for Buffett, might well be acclaimed the world’s greatest investor. Before Munger joined forces with Buffett in the mid-1970s, his investment partnership compounded at an average rate of 24.3% annually -- vs. only 6.4% for the Dow -- between 1962 and 1975.

        

As I did in last week’s column on the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, I will try to distill more than 20 pages of notes down to the most important things I heard. (My notes can be seen in their entirety at my website.) I’ve added a little commentary, but will generally let Munger speak for himself. Recording devices were not allowed in the meeting, so in many cases I am paraphrasing because I couldn’t write quickly enough.

          

Future returns from equities: stocks and Rembrandts

 “If I’m wrong [about future stock market returns being in the mid-single digits], it could be for a bad reason. Stocks partly sell like bonds, based on expectations of future cash streams, and partly like Rembrandts, based on the fact that they’ve gone up in the past and are fashionable. If they trade more like Rembrandts in the future, then stocks will rise, but they will have no anchors. In this case, it’s hard to predict how far, how high, and how long it will last.

        

If stocks compound at 15% going forward, then it will be due to a big ‘Rembrandt effect.’ This is not good. Look at what happened in Japan, where stocks traded at 50 to 60 times earnings.

 

This led to a 10-year depression. I think that was a special situation, though. My guess is that we won’t get extreme ‘Rembrandtization’ and the returns will be 6%.”

          

Berkshire’s past returns

 “Berkshire’s past record has been almost ridiculous. If Berkshire had used even half the leverage of, say, Rupert Murdoch, it would be five times its current size.”

        

Future returns on Berkshire Hathaway and Wesco

 “The future returns of Berkshire and Wesco won’t be as good in the future as they have been in the past. The only difference is that we’ll tell you. Today, it seems to be regarded as the duty of CEOs to make the stock go up. This leads to all sorts of foolish behavior. We want to tell it like it is.

        

“I’m happy having 90% of my net worth in Berkshire stock. We’re going to try to compound it at a reasonable rate without taking unreasonable risk or using leverage. If we can’t do this, then that’s just too damn bad.”

          

Berkshire is “a hell of a business”

 “The businesses that Berkshire has acquired will return 13% pre-tax on what we paid for them, maybe more. With a cost of capital of 3% -- generated via other peoples’ money in the form of float -- that’s a hell of a business. That’s the reason Berkshire shareholders needn’t totally despair. Berkshire is not as good as it was in terms of percentage compounding [going forward], but it’s still a hell of a business.”

          

Wesco vs. Berkshire Hathaway

 “You shouldn’t buy Wesco stock instead of Berkshire’s.”

          

Conservative nature

 “This is an amazingly sound place. We are more disaster-resistant than most other places. We haven’t pushed it as hard as other people would have pushed it. I don’t want to go back to Go.

        

I’ve been to Go. A lot of our shareholders have a majority of their net worth in Berkshire, and they don’t want to go back to Go either.”

          

Synergies

 “The reason we avoid the word ‘synergy’ is because people generally claim more synergistic benefits than will come. Yes, it exists, but there are so many false promises. Berkshire is full of synergies -- we don’t avoid synergies, just claims of synergies.”

        

 The scandal of American pension fund accounting

 “IBM (NYSE: IBM) just raised its return expectations for its pension fund to 10%. [Editor’s note: Companies can make adjustments to the assumptions that make up the value of their pension funds, which can affect reported earnings.] Most companies are at 9%. We think 6% is more realistic. They may believe it -- they’re honest people -- but subconsciously they believe it because they WANT to believe it. It makes earnings good so they can promote the stock.

        

“The reason accountants don’t say anything is best summed up by the saying, ‘Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.’ I think you’re getting very foolish numbers in American accounting. I don’t think it’s willful dishonesty, but it might as well be.”

          

Corporate America’s addiction to “extraordinary” charges

 “If it happens every year like clockwork, what’s so extraordinary about it?”

          

 Freddie Mac

 “We’re exceptionally goosey of leveraged financial institutions. If they start talking about risk management [e.g., how good it is], it makes us nervous. We fret way earlier than other people.

        

We left a lot of money on the table through early fretting. It’s the way we are -- you’ll just have to live with it.”

        

“I don’t want to be in the position of criticizing Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE). It’s had a wonderful record so far and for all I know, its risk management is perfect.”

        

The decline of public schools

 “You could argue that [the decline of public schools] is one of the major disasters in our lifetimes. We took one of the greatest successes in the history of the earth and turned it into one of the greatest disasters in the history of the earth.”

          

Cheerful pessimism

 I asked a tongue-in-cheek question: “Mr. Munger, I recently read about a Mayo Clinic study that showed that optimists live 20% longer than pessimists. I’m concerned because in the Berkshire Hathaway movie last weekend, you were referred to as the ‘No-Man.’ Is it too late for you to turn over a new leaf, so that we can benefit from your investing prowess as long as possible?” He laughed and said, “Is there such thing as a cheerful pessimist? That’s what I am.”

        

Munger’s writings

At the meeting, Munger passed out a booklet with six of his writings and speeches that he used in a course he taught recently at Stanford Law School. To my knowledge, one of the essays,

        

“The Great Financial Scandal of 2003,” has never been released to the public. (More details regarding the contents of this booklet are available on my website.)

        

I will write Munger shortly and ask for permission to post on the Web the first three articles in the booklet (the other three are copyrighted). If he says yes, I will include a link in a future column.

        

-- Whitney Tilson

        

Guest columnist Whitney Tilson is Managing Partner of Tilson Capital Partners, LLC, a New York City-based money management firm. He owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Wesco  at the time of publication. Mr. Tilson appreciates your feedback at Tilson@Tilsonfunds.com. To  read his previous columns for The Motley Fool and other writings, visit       http://www.tilsonfunds.com/.

        

        

Whitney Tilson's Notes from the 2001 Wesco Annual Meeting

 Note: This is not a transcript. No recording devices were allowed at the meeting, so this has been reconstructed from 21 pages of frantic scribbles. I did not take notes on certain questions and answers that I felt weren't very interesting or that repeated what Munger has said many times in the past (or maybe my mind and/or wrist just needed to rest periodically).  

          

Wesco and Berkshire Hathaway

 Using Wesco as a vehicle for small investments

        

I asked Munger the following question: "Mr. Munger, an hour ago someone asked me what Wesco was worth. I threw up my hands and said, 'I don't know. With $1 billion in cash and a $2 billion market cap, Wesco's future returns will be largely dependent on how that cash is allocated.' Can you tell us how you plan to invest that money? In particular, you and Mr. Buffett have been saying for a long time that Berkshire Hathaway's increasing size is an anchor on the percentage rate of return it will be able to generate in the future. You have also said that certain investors with smaller pools of capital could generate very high rates of return. So why don't you use Wesco as your vehicle to do smaller investments, such as those that Mr. Buffett sometimes does in his personal portfolio?"

        

Munger replied, "Warren spends 70 hours a week thinking about investing, and we're not talking about large sums [in his personal portfolio]. He does these investments to amuse himself when he's not playing bridge."

        

"Even with the amount of money that Wesco has makes it very hard to play this game. You just have to have a prepared mind and be able to move rapidly."

        

"It took us months of buying all the Coke stock we could to accumulate $1 billion worth        -- equal to 7% of the company. It's very hard to accumulate major positions."

          

Competitive advantages

"We don't have automatic competitive advantages. We're seeing some more insurance volume, mainly from General Re, and Cort and Precision Steel have momentum, but we         have to find future advantages through our own intellect. We don't have enough critical mass and momentum in place at Wesco, so investors are betting on management."

        

"We have one slight edge that helps us: there's a lot of human love in building at least some businesses and some people who own businesses love them. They don't want to sell to a financial buyer who will dress it up and strip it down. When we buy a company, we don't tinker with winning businesses. So, for some sellers such as Justin, Berkshire Hathaway was the only acceptable buyer."

        

"If you want a culture like ours, I don't know anywhere to get it if not here. In that sense, we're stronger than we were years ago because we're better known. I don't think GE is going to catch us in this area."

        

 "So, we may well have a competitive advantage buying decent businesses at decent prices. But they won't be fabulous businesses and fabulous prices. There's too much competition and money out there, with many buyout specialists. Debt is tight right now, which helps us. Berkshire wouldn't have been able to buy Johns Manville were it not for this."

          

Wesco's history

"Wesco had a market capitalization of $40 million when we bought it [in the early 1970s]. It's $2 billion now. It's been a long slog to a perfectly respectable outcome -- not as good as Berkshire Hathaway or Microsoft, but there's always someone in life who's done better."

          

Berkshire buying Wesco outright

"It's a historical accident [that Wesco is only 80.1% owned by Berkshire and that its stock continues to trade], due to complicated tax reasons. I suspect that it will eventually become wholly owned by Berkshire, but it's hard to do when you people maintain this enthusiasm [for the stock]."

          

Berkshire's future returns

 "Warren said [at the Berkshire annual meeting] that he hoped to do modestly better than the market. 15% would be a hell of a number, so the target is the 6-15% range."

        

"You're in the same boat we are."

          

Buffett's decision making

 "Warren is amazingly quick to say both yes and no."

          

Cort

 "Cort will keep growing, both via acquisitions and expanding in its current markets. It will do pretty well. It's like Enterprise Rent-A-Car. They both have a terrific culture, service and incentive system."

        

"Cort has good relationships with its suppliers. Capitalism works better when there's trust in the system."

          

General Re

 "It's one of the best reinsurance operations in the world. It has a strong distribution network and culture -- a culture of intelligence and discipline. It sees reinsurance opportunities that Berkshire doesn't. They have a huge advantage being there for so long. Gen Re's competitive advantage is that it's smarter and sees more opportunities."

        

"I don't think its returns in the future will be as good, but a 2-3%/year advantage is a lot over time."

        

"Reinsurance is interesting. A lot of people get into the business because of the money.      Then, reinsurance brokers -- who are very well paid and can make dumb ideas look good---pitch them business. Boy, is this dangerous! Very smart people can make very dumb investments. Even GEICO and Gen Re get caught sometimes."

          

Insurance reserves

 "In the past, we've under-reserved, but more often been overly conservative. Consequently, Berkshire and especially Wesco have been reversing some reserves."

           

Insuring against natural disasters

 "No-one wanted to write California earthquake coverage [as Berkshire did]. We're like that."

        

"We don't think because it's never happened that it won't. There's no actuarial science, it's rough judgment. We just try to be conservative."

           

Wesco's and Berkshire's inefficient tax structure

 "We don't have any miraculous way of avoiding taxes at Wesco and Berkshire. With float, we get some tax benefit."

        

[Munger said something about some of the most foolish behavior he's ever seen was a result of trying to avoid paying taxes.]

        

"What a terrible, inefficient thing it is to own real estate and securities in a Section C Corporation [like Wesco and Berkshire]. The enormous taxes we paid when we sold Freddie Mac last year is an example of this. If we were a partnership, you wouldn't have had to pay this. It's very hard."

        

"We drifted into this structure by accident. We bought a doomed textile mill [Berkshire Hathaway] and a California S&L [Savings & Loan; Wesco] just before a calamity. Both were bought at a discount to liquidation value. It turned out wonderful for many people in this room -- Wesco's market cap has grown from $40 million to $2 billion -- but it was dumb. The structure is terribly inefficient and bad. It's much better when we buy wholly owned businesses like Precision Steel."

           

Why not franchise See's candy stores?

 "It takes almost no capital to open a new See's candy store. We're drowning in capital of our own that has almost no cost. It would be crazy to franchise stores like some capital-starved pancake house. We like owning our own stores as a matter of quality control."

        

Walter Scott, Level 3 Communications, and Berkshire's investment in electricity

 "Walter Scott has one of the best business records ever. People put a lot of money in new fiber optic networks, and now there is a bloodbath that has driven Level 3 stock down. I don't think it means that Walter Scott is any less of a businessman."

        

"Berkshire's electricity investment [in Mid-American Energy] was in a total system in Iowa and a distribution system in Britain. It's doing perfectly fine. I would not extrapolate these results to new capacity in a new field [such as Level 3]. Ours is a much more conservative investment."

        

"Electricity is a HUGE field. It's enormously stupid to run short of electricity. There's an opportunity to make reasonable returns and we're going to try."

        

Finova

 "We're never done anything like this before, so there's no model. We think our offer is a good example for the creditors of Finova -- an honorable, intelligent transaction. It's fair to bondholders -- we're the largest -- and leaves some room for the stock to come back. It brings in good management with the right incentives. Of course there will be some complaints, but I'd be surprised if someone else comes in with the same offer."

        

"I wish every place in which we had a junk bond investment, someone came forward with an offer like ours."

        

Auto insurance pricing

 "I think auto insurance is getting some rate increases. It was almost too good a business over the last 6-7 years."

        

Conservative nature

 "We don't feel some compulsion to swing. We're perfectly willing to wait for something decent to come along."

        

"We're rich in relation to the business that we're doing."

        

Future returns from equities

 "In certain periods, we have a hell of a time finding places to invest our money. We are in such a period."

        

"In Warren's Fortune article [11/22/99], he described the last two 18-year periods. During the first period, the market was essentially flat. The most recent one has been a marvelous period. Warren said that in the nature of things, double-digit returns couldn't go on and on and on. Therefore, individual shareholders and pension funds should reduce their expectations. My guess is that he'll be right for a long period ahead. There will be way lower returns over the next 15-18 years."

        

"The normal expectancy of the average investor -- for example, the pension funds of AT&T or IBM -- is 6% for a long time."

        

"With stocks yielding 1.5% and trading at 4-5x book value, it's not as much fun as it was buying Coke and Gillette at much lower prices relative to their valuations."

        

Recent stock market decline

 "What you've recently seen is just a tea party. If you, like me, lived through 1973-74 or even the early 1990s… There was a waiting list to get OUT of the country club -- that's when you know things are tough. If you live long enough, you'll see it."

        

Purchase vs. pooling for acquisitions

 "The problem is that the exact same transaction is treated differently. That's crazy. The proposal to require that all acquisitions be done using purchase accounting is perfectly reasonable. Berkshire made a mistake buying Dexter Shoes. When we found out, we wrote it down and took a charge against earnings. The difference is that we didn't say it was a one-time or unusual charge -- we just took it against earnings."

        

Retailing and Costco

 "If I were teaching at business school, I'd take people through retailing because it's easy to understand. Retailing is pretty simple. There are four or five strategies."

        

I'm a director of Costco. It's easy to understand. In the history of the world, few companies have succeeded on a 12% mark-up. They make it up with high volume. Costco has the right culture. They promote from within. It's a wonderful place to work."

        

"I think that Costco is a better operator in the warehouse club format than Sam's. Both companies will do well in the future, but I predict that Costco will do better."

        

"I don't know why schools don't teach this, but I'd teach a lot of things differently."

        

State Farm

 "State Farm is one of the very richest insurance companies in the world. It's an honorable, old fashioned, high-grade place. They have integrity and skill. In condominium insurance, for example, they're the best. They're in Indiana, don't have elaborate compensation schemes, no stock options, and no high-falutin' advisors -- and they've blown by competitors. We admire them."

        

"They're enormously rich, so if they decide to keep a lid on auto insurance, I can't predict when they might stop. We [at GEICO] have a better model though."

          

Demutualization

 "Are policy holders treated fairly [when an insurance company demutualizes]? The ordinary answer is 'No.' What a surprise."

        

How to detect bad reserving

 "If [an insurance company's] combined ratio is wonderfully regular, then it's probably crooked. It's also a bad sign if a company is consistently under-reserving."

        

"Sometimes you can tell by the people that the numbers are good. For example, George Joseph of Mercury General is a genius and you know his numbers are right."

        

Wrigley

 "Wrigley is a great business, but that doesn't solve the problem. Buying great businesses at advantageous prices is very tough."

        

Financial industry

 "The financial industry has become so big. We keep pushing it further and further and further. For example, we now lease new autos for 36 months and guarantee a high residual value. How much further can you push consumer credit? We don't like it. We don’t like pushing credit to extremes. We don't like daisy chain stock promotion. However, one of Berkshire's largest holdings is American Express, so we think it has a great future."

        

Medicare and HMOs

 "The cost was projected to be X, but was actually 10X. People forgot that effects have effects. Incentives have super-effects. [Notes are sketchy here.] The original system was on a cost-plus basis. For example, a test was not reimbursed in a doctor's office, but was at a hospital, so doctors referred patients to the hospital to have the test. It was great for doctors and hospitals, but bad for patients and taxpayers."

        

"So then the system switched to DRGs [whereby providers were reimbursed a fixed amount for a certain disease/problem], which controlled costs somewhat. Then, there was a switch to HMOs, which did control costs. People who hate HMOs should realize that it was a needed response to a totally out of control system."

        

"Yes, HMOs have an incentive to deny needed care -- this kind of behavior is just unspeakable -- but no-one ever gives HMOs credit for preventing unnecessary, harmful procedures that doctors would otherwise do."

        

The decline of family-controlled businesses when family foundations take over

 "Don't confuse correlation and causation. Almost all great records eventually dwindle. Those you mention [Reader's Digest, Kellogg] would have dwindled, even without family ownership."

        

"I think the foundation at Berkshire [Buffett's stake in Berkshire will pass to the Buffett Foundation upon his death] will be a plus because there will be a continuation of the culture. We'd still take in fine businesses run by people who love them."

        

Money managers

 "We have a number of high-IQ individuals -- an enormous group compared to the past, 4-5 times as many -- devoting extraordinary time to beatinng the market. They have new vehicles: hedge funds, LBO funds, venture capital, international investing, etc. In the nature of things, some will succeed. But I don't think the mass of people's results, even pretty sound, glued-together people, will be very high."

        

"It's natural that you'd have more brains going into money management. There are so many huge incomes in money management and investment banking -- it's like ants to sugar. There are huge incentives for a man to take up money management as opposed to, say, physics, and it's a lot easier."

        

"I think it's inevitable but terrible -- a disaster for the wider civilization. I'm somewhat ashamed… That I've profited from being shrewd with money is not by itself satisfying to me. To atone, I teach and try to set an example. I would hate it if the example of my life caused people to pursue the passive ownership of pieces of paper. I think lives so spent are disastrous lives. I think it's a better career if you help build something. I wish I'd built more, but I was cursed at being so good at stock picking. 'The man is the prisoner of his talents.' You can laugh, but I'll bet this room is full of people who are prisoners of their talents. It tends to be the human condition."

        

Asbestos litigation

 "This is one of the most interesting things on the current scene. It affects you as both citizens and investors."

        

"Asbestos had many wonderful qualities. But when the health risks became clear, the companies that were major users of asbestos such as Johns Manville covered it up and were rightly hit with damages through the tort system. But other companies only used small amounts -- for example, in brake pads or a bit in USG's paste. Because of a tiny bit of asbestos in brake pads, Ford has set aside $1.7 billion to pay claims. There was a gain to society and the risk was low. It's not clear to me the damage from these uses."

        

"The claims bar quickly drove into bankruptcy anyone who behaved like Johns Manville, and then went after companies that didn't know they did anything wrong."

        

"The tobacco companies caused almost all of this."

        

"Now there is a whole class of people filing claims who have no symptoms. This accounts for way more than half the money being paid out. You could argue that it was a mistake to pay these claimants."

        

"It's coming from companies on an extortion basis. There are judges in Texas who are in the pockets of the plaintiff's bar, and there are compliant juries. It's turning the courts into an extortion system."

        

"Isn't it interesting that the only brand names that plaintiffs can remember are the brands of the only two solvent companies?"

        

"Is it good for society that lawyers, workmen, etc. are lying, that junk science is accepted? It's a national disgrace. I don't know where it will stop."

        

"I regard what's happening to USG as a dishonorable mugging of an honorable place. I don't think they should be driven out of business, but I don't want to make predictions about this."

        

 "Is the system sound when obvious fraud goes on a massive scale? I would say no. And it spreads. You get what you reward for. That's why the claims keep coming and coming and coming. If you want ants, put sugar on the floor."

        

Later, another shareholder asked if he'd been too harsh on this topic. That set Munger off again:

        

"I wasn't harsh enough! Once you've got people benefiting from the system and use the money to influence judges and politicians [you've got a real mess]. It creates a situation that's very hard to fix. It would have been relatively easy to prevent if we'd had the will, but now it will be hell to fix. As Ben Franklin once said, 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.'"

        

The decline of public schools

 "There's a similar situation with schools. In Omaha years ago, there was an influx of poor minorities and white flight. It was obvious that Omaha Central High School was tipping toward 100% low-income minority students. If this happened, there would be no good high school in Omaha for minorities. This happened everywhere else. But in Omaha, a group of blacks demanded that there be an anti-black quota at Omaha Central, which passed and saved the school. It's a wonderful story, but the tragedy is that it only happened in Omaha."

        

"If you let it go, I don't see how you can reverse a lot of this stuff."

        

Estate tax

 "Personally, I'm against the estate tax at its current rate, with its rapid rise to 55%. It hits owners of auto dealers, plumbers, etc. I think the exemption should be raised. [Since this appears likely to happen,] out of our crazy democratic system, we're going to get a reasonable outcome.

        

"I have no problem with this rate [for estates] in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I have no problem personally with the estate tax."

        

California energy crisis

 "The California energy crisis is a disgrace -- to schools, executives, both political parties. There's enough disgrace to go around. We richly deserve this miserable result, which is due to extreme stupidity and indifference. [Quit beating around the bush, Mr. Munger. Tell us what you really think!] We are like the canary in a coal mine for other states, which are saying, 'Boy, have these guys done us a favor!' It's ABC basic what needs to be done: decrease pollution, increase conservation, and have the right incentives in the rates."

        

"In modern academia, there's no shame. People are taught Beowolf, but can't think their way out of a paper sack."

        

Investing abroad

 "We don't feel any compulsion to go abroad because of any strategic considerations. We haven't taken the advice of any financial planner that I'm aware of. We have more comparative advantage buying in the U.S. because we're well known. There's no master plan. We're individual opportunity driven."

        

Mental models

 "If you have the right mental equipment from the right education, you know it. We [at Berkshire and Wesco] have experienced people with the right models. You don't want to be the patient of a surgeon who's doing his first complicated procedure."

        

"My speech about mental models using Coke as an example was a failure. People had to read it two or three times before it sunk in, and even then it only sunk in if people already half knew it."

        

Prediction of interest rates

 "Neither Warren nor I has ever made a dime in this area."

        

John Train

 Asked to comment on John Train's books (The Money Masters, etc.), Munger said, "He's a gifted writer with moderate insights into the investment process."

        

Damn Right (biography of Munger by Janet Lowe)

 "I didn't want it done. I felt that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages. I like to keep private. But once it became clear that she would write it with or without me, it was obviously the right decision to cooperate. I got to like Janet Lowe -- she's a very high-grade person. The book gave me the chance to spread some of my ideas without having to do the work. One idea is that whenever you think something or some person is ruining your life, it's you. A victimization mentality is so debilitating. I love spreading this stuff around. Just because it's trite doesn't mean it isn't right. In fact, I like to say, 'If it's trite, it's right.'"

        

Munger's writings

 "For you masochists, I taught a course at Stanford Law School recently and compiled some readings. Copies are available in boxes at the front of the room."

        

The booklet, privately printed by Munger, is entitled "Some Investment-Related Talks and Writings Made or Selected by Charles T. Munger." In it is:

        

1) "The Great Financial Scandal of 2003, An Account by Charles T. Munger." Unlike the other readings in this booklet, I don't believe this has ever been published before. It details a hypothetical financial scandal in 2003, triggered by dishonest accounting, especially for options, at an imaginary tech company called Quant Tech (which appears to be a bit of Cisco, IBM and the like).

    

2) "11/10/00 Talk of Charles T. Munger to Breakfast Meeting of the Philanthropy Round Table." Munger rails against --among other things -- "common-stoock-price-related 'wealth effects'" and foundations and other investors "wasting 3% of assets per year in unnecessary, nonproductive investment costs."

    

3) "Investment Practices of Leading Charitable Foundations, Speech of Charles T. Munger on October 14, 1998 to a meeting of the foundation financial officers group." Munger continues railing against the investment practices of foundations -- lessons that apply to nearly all investors. You can read it at http://www.tiff.org/pub/pages/othres.html?body=Munger_Speech.html.

    

4) "Mr. Buffett on the Stock Market," 11/22/99. A reprint of Buffett's Fortune magazine article, in which Buffett presciently warns investors about the tech bubble and argues that stock market returns for the foreseeable will be in the mid-single digits. You can read it at http://w3.res.ulaval.ca/cours-gsf-60808/buffet.html.

    

5) Munger's 1994 presentation to the USC Business School on "Investment Expertise as       a Subdivision of Elementary, Worldly Wisdom." The transcript is from the 5/5/95 Outstanding Investor Digest. In this speech, Munger talks about the importance of mental models and argues that "you're got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head" to be a successful investor and thinker.

    

6) A transcript of last year's Wesco annual meeting, published in the 12/18/00 edition of Outstanding Investor Digest. My notes from that meeting are available at http://www.fool.com/boringport/2000/boringport00051500.htm.

        

------------------------------------- 

 

The Best of Charlie Munger

 Charlie Munger, who runs Wesco Financial, is the famed right-hand man of Warren Buffett. He is also a master investor in his own right. At Wesco’s annual meeting a week ago, he shared his always-blunt opinions on Berkshire Hathaway, the scandalous ethics in the accounting, law, and investment banking professions, and more.

         By Whitney Tilson

         Published on the Motley Fool web site, 5/15/02

         (http://www.fool.com/news/foth/2002/foth020515.htm)

        

Warren Buffett is generally acknowledged to be the greatest investor ever -- one of the reasons why 13,000 people flocked to the recent annual meeting of his investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A). But closely following Buffett are a handful of other legendary investors, including his long-time partner, Charlie Munger.

        

While Buffett gets all the attention -- and is, according to Munger, the superior investor – Munger is himself an investment genius and, were it not for Buffett, might well be acclaimed the world’s greatest investor. Before Munger joined forces with Buffett in the mid-1970s, his investment partnership compounded at an average rate of 24.3% annually from 1962 to 1975 (vs. only 6.4% for the Dow over the same period).

        

In addition to his role as vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Munger is chairman of Wesco Financial (AMEX: WSC), which is 80.1%-owned by Berkshire. In a similar open-mike format as the Berkshire meeting, Munger answers shareholder questions for a couple of hours at the Wesco meeting. Since Buffett does most of the talking at the Berkshire meeting, I always like to attend the Wesco meeting to hear Munger’s in-depth thinking. I wasn’t disappointed this year. As I did in last week’s column on Berkshire’s annual meeting, I will try to distill many pages of notes down to the most important things I heard. (My notes can be seen in their entirety at my website.) I’ve added a little commentary, but will generally let Munger speak for himself. Recording devices were not allowed in the meeting, so in many cases I am paraphrasing because I couldn’t write quickly enough.

          

Berkshire’s insurance operations

 “I do think we get some advantage in reinsurance because people trust our willingness and ability to pay, so it’s not a commodity. I think we have some special talents. That being said, I think it’s dangerous to rely on special talents -- it’s better to own lots of monopolistic businesses with unregulated prices. But that’s not the world today. We have made money exercising our talents and will continue to do so.

        

“I’m glad we have insurance, though it’s not a no-brainer, I’m warning you. We have to be smart to make this work.

        

 “The overall result is that we’re going to do pretty well -- meaning in the top 10% [of the industry] -- because we do different things....We’’re willing to do some unpleasant things.

        

“Generally speaking, we’re mildly optimistic about our insurance operations.” [This is Mungerspeak for “I’m quite enthusiastic about our insurance operations.”]

          

Berkshire’s future outlook

 “It’s a finite and very competitive world. All large aggregations of capital eventually find it hell on earth to grow and thus find a lower rate of return.

        

“Personally, I think Berkshire will be a lot bigger and stronger than it is. Whether the stock will be a good investment from today’s price is another question. The one thing we’ve always guaranteed is that the future will be a lot worse than the past.”

          

Types of businesses Berkshire buys

 “We tend to buy things -- a lot of things -- where we don’t knoow exactly what will happen, but the outcome will be decent.”

          

Would Berkshire ever invest in Level 3?

 “We have the same problem as everyone else: It’s very hard to predict the future [of Level 3 (Nasdaq: LVLT)]. Could we invest in it? Sure, it’s conceivable. After all, we’re in the electricity distribution business in the U.K. and the generating and distribution business in Iowa. We have a history when things are really horrible of wading in when no one else will.”

          

Berkshire’s culture

 “For many of our shareholders, our stock is all they own, and we’re acutely aware of that. Our culture [of conservatism] runs pretty deep.”

          

Becoming a good investor

 “If you’re going to be an investor, you’re going to make some investments where you don’t have all the experience you need. But if you keep trying to get a little better over time, you’ll start to make investments that are virtually certain to have a good outcome. The keys are discipline, hard work, and practice. It’s like playing golf -- you have to work on it.”

          

Investing mental models

 “You need a different checklist and different mental models for different companies. I can never make it easy by saying, ‘Here are three things.’ You have to derive it yourself to ingrain it in your head for the rest of your life.”

        

Circle of competence

 “There are a lot of things we pass on. We have three baskets: in, out, and too tough...We have to have a special insight, or we’ll put it in the ‘too tough’ basket. All of you have to look for a special area of competency and focus on that.”

        

 Buying into stock declines

 “Over many decades, our usual practice is that if [the stock of] something we like goes down, we buy more and more. Sometimes something happens, you realize you’re wrong, and you get out. But if you develop correct confidence in your judgment, buy more and take advantage of stock prices.”

          

Wall Street’s ethics (or lack thereof)

 “The ethics of Wall Street will always average out to mediocre at best.... This doesn’t mean there aren’t some wonderful, intelligent people on Wall Street -- there are, like those in this room – but everyone I know has to fight their own firm [to do the right thing].”

          

Critique of legal and accounting firms

 “Too many law and accounting firms get roped into shady things. For example, tax shelters, with their contingency fees and secrecy, are a total abomination.... I never have the least interest in defending miscreants and helping them misbehave. But the general view is that it’s wonderful what Johnny Cochran did.”

          

Derivatives

 “Everyone caved, adopted loose [accounting] standards, and created exotic derivatives linked to theoretical models. As a result, all kinds of earnings, blessed by accountants, are not really being earned. When you reach for the money, it melts away. It was never there.

        

“It [accounting for derivatives] is just disgusting. It is a sewer, and if I’m right, there will be hell to pay in due course. All of you will have to prepare to deal with a blow-up of derivative books.

        

“It’s a crazy idea for people who are already rich -- like Berkshire -- to be in this business. It’s a crazy business for big banks to be in.”

          

Risks of financial institutions

 “The beauty of a financial institution is that there are a lot of ways to go to hell in a bucket. You can push credit too far, do a dumb acquisition, leverage yourself excessively -- it’s not just derivatives [that can bring about your downfall].”

        

Universities

 “There’s a lot wrong [with American universities]. I’d remove 3/4 of the faculty -- everything but the hard sciences. But nobody’s going to do that, so we’ll have to live with the defects. It’s amazing how wrongheaded [the teaching is]. There is fatal disconnectedness. You have these squirrelly people in each department who don’t see the big picture.”

          

Thinking sensibly

 “The ethos of not fooling yourself is one of the best you could possibly have. It’s powerful because it’s so rare.

        

“Organized common (or uncommon) sense -- very basic knowledge -- is an enormously powerful tool. There are huge dangers with computers. People calculate too much and think too little.”

        

Guest columnist Whitney Tilson is Managing Partner of Tilson Capital Partners, LLC, a New York City-based money management firm. He owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway at the time  of publication. Mr. Tilson appreciates your feedback at Tilson@Tilsonfunds.com. To read his previous columns for The Motley Fool and other writings, visit http://www.tilsonfunds.com/.  

        

        

Notes from the 2002 Wesco annual meeting, 5/8/02

         By Whitney Tilson

        

COMMENTS ON BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY AND WESCO

 Berkshire's competitive advantages in reinsurance

 "I do think we get some advantage in reinsurance because people trust our willingness and ability   to pay, so it's not a commodity. I think we have some special talents. That being said, I think it's dangerous to rely on special talents -- it's better to own lots of monopolistic businesses with unregulated prices. But that's not the world today. We have made money exercising our talents and will continue to do so."

        

"I'm glad we have insurance, though it's not a no-brainer, I'm warning you. We have to be smart to make this work."

        

 Outlook for Berkshire's insurance operations

 "The overall result is that we're going to do pretty well -- meaning in the top 10% [of the industry] -- because we do different things. In Neew Jersey, when they capped rates, we said we were going to withdraw from the market, and we did. We're one of the only corporations in America to run off its derivative book. We had hoped to sell it, but that didn't work out. We're willing to do some unpleasant things."

        

"Generally speaking, we're mildly optimistic about our insurance operations." [This is Mungerspeak for "I'm quite enthusiastic about our insurance operations."]

          

Berkshire's future outlook

 "It's a finite and very competitive world. All large aggregations of capital eventually find it hell on earth to grow and thus find a lower rate of return."

        

"Personally, I think Berkshire will be a lot bigger and stronger than it is. Whether the stock will be a good investment from today's price is another question. The one thing we've always guaranteed is that the future will be a lot worse than the past."

        

Types of businesses Berkshire buys

 "A lot of things we do are fairly basic. Bricks have been around since Babylon. Their consumption is regular and predictable. Our brickyards dominate their region."

        

"We tend to buy things -- a lot of things -- where we don't know exactly what will happen, but the outcome will be decent."

        

Would Berkshire ever invest in Level 3?

 "We have the same problem as everyone else: it's very hard to predict the future [of Level 3]. Could we invest in it? Sure, it's conceivable. After all, we're in the electricity distribution business in the UK and the generating and distribution business in Iowa. We have a history when things are really horrible of wading in when no-one else will."

        

Berkshire's culture

 "Berkshire's culture could go on for a long, long time because we've decentralized power to people who deserve it."

        

"For many of our shareholders, our stock is all they own, and we're acutely aware of that. Our culture [of conservatism] runs pretty deep."

          

Share price

 "We don't like our stocks [Berkshire and Wesco] to get too high -- only deservedly high -- so we tend to throw deserved bits of cold water on them. For example, in the prospectus for the Berkshire B shares, we said we wouldn't advise anyone to buy our stock. People bought it anyway, but we tried to dampen it."

        

Share buybacks

 "If only you people thought a lot less of us, there would be more opportunity to buy back Wesco and Berkshire shares."

        

Bonds

 "Berkshire owns bonds in two ways:

 

 1) Through our insurance operations. Mainly mortgage backed, with some government and a

       little junk.

 2) Through our finance subsidiary. Interesting little things. I call it the 'miscellaneous Warren

       Buffett account.' As long as he's doing it, I'm OK with it. We've made a few hundred million [dollars] with little risk or fuss."

        

Comments on Wesco

 "Wesco's insurance operations are decent, but small."

        

"Wesco's business has come up some in the past year or two."

        

Berkshire's insurance accounting

 "Generally speaking, we think we're more conservative than most insurers. Nevertheless, in certain periods, we've discovered that our reserves were not adequate. But over time, we'll not only try to be more conservative, we will be."

        

Will Berkshire be in the S&P 500?

 "If Berkshire were owned by institutions, it would already be in the S&P 500. But Berkshire's loyal shareholders would cause a price spike if it were added to the S&P 500 [because of all the index funds that would have to buy the stock], which would be an embarrassment. Sooner or later it will be in, but not tomorrow."

        

History of Buffett's investing philosophy

 "Warren Buffett came to investing at the knee of Ben Graham, who ran a Geiger counter over the detritus of the 1930s. Stocks were ridiculously cheap. Graham bought companies that were quite mediocre on average, but made 20% when their stock bounced."

        

"Warren trained under this system and made money, so he was slower to come to the idea I learned that the best way to make money is to buy great businesses that earn high returns on capital over long periods of time."

        

"We're applying Graham's basic ideas, but now we're trying to find undervalued GREAT companies. That concept was foreign to Ben Graham."

        

"Warren would have morphed into a great investor without Ben Graham. He is a greater investor than Graham was. Warren would have been great had he never met anyone else. He would have excelled at any field that required a high IQ, quantitative skills and risk taking. He wouldn't have done well at ballet though."

        

Differences between Buffett, Munger and Simpson

 "Not very much."

        

[Lou Simpson, who manages GEICO's investment portfolio, was in the audience, so Munger asked him to address this question. He said:] "The big difference between you and Warren and my situation is the difference is size. We're $2.5 billion, whereas you and Warren are many times more, so we have an advantage in looking at smaller situations. If we find a $200-$250 million position, we can invest and make a difference."

        

Munger: "It does make a difference. Maybe Lou is just smarter. His returns have been better [over the past few years]."

        

COMMENTS ON BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY HOLDINGS

          

Gen Re

 "Gen Re misguessed its reserves -- almost every insurer in America did -- which is why we took a big loss."

        

"Gen Re always tried to do it right [reserve properly]. Losses crept up on everybody. You'd think that under Berkshire, their reserving, which was always very good, would be more conservative, consistent with Berkshire's culture."

          

"At Warren's level, we operate through the CEO of Gen Re, who has to tinker with the culture. It's a good culture, but with the world so tough, we need to improve it a bit."

          

Munger's role in the purchase of Gen Re

 "That thing was very far along before I ever heard of it. There will be more of this as the years go on."

        

 Finova

 "Finova is a run-off situation. It's not going to run off as well as it would have before 9/11 happened, but it will work out fine. We'll make hundreds of millions. It's a blip in the history of Berkshire."

        

American Express

 "American Express has had some things that didn't work out. Am I satisfied by what we know at American Express? Yes. We never expected them to handle their investments the way we'd handle ours. But we're big boys. We're not depressed about American Express."

        

USG

 "[Our investment in] USG obviously hasn't worked out very well. It wasn't just asbestos -- the market for wallboard went to hell. We missed that too. What can I say? It reminds me of a story about a man who had a wife and three kids. He conceived an illegitimate child with a woman he'd just met. When asked why he did it, he said, 'It seemed like a good idea at the time.'"

        

 INVESTMENT ADVICE

 

 Becoming a good investor

 "If you're going to be an investor, you're going to make some investments where you don't have all the experience you need. But if you keep trying to get a little better over time, you'll start to make investments that are virtually certain to have a good outcome. The keys are discipline, hard work and practice. It's like playing golf -- you have to work on it." >

        

Investing mental models

 "You need a different checklist and different mental models for different companies. I can never make it easy by saying, 'Here are three things.' You have to derive it yourself to ingrain it in your head for the rest of your life."

        

Circle of competence

 "There are a lot of things we pass on. We have three baskets: in, out and too tough. A lot of stuff goes into the 'too tough' basket. We can't do that if it's a problem at a Berkshire subsidiary company, but if we don't own it, we just pass."

        

"I don't know how people cope [trying to figure everything out]."

        

"We have to have a special insight, or we'll put it in the 'too tough' basket. All of you have to look for a special area of competency and focus on that."

        

Buying into stock declines

 "Over many decades, our usual practice is that if [the stock of] something we like goes down, we buy more and more. Sometimes something happens, you realize you're wrong, and you get out. But if you develop correct confidence in your judgment, buy more and take advantage of stock prices."

        

        

COMMENTS ON VARIOUS COMPANIES, INDUSTRIES AND OTHER ECONOMIC

         MATTERS

        

 Freddie Mac

 "We held that stock for a great many years, and of course made a great deal of money."

        

"Warren and I get nervous with vast amounts of leverage unless we're 100% confident that risk-taking won't creep into the culture."

        

"It reminds me of a guy running a company who fired his top producer. The guy asked him, 'Why are you firing me? I'm your top producer.' To which he responded, 'You make me nervous. I'm a rich old man. Why should I be nervous?"

        

Lloyd's

 "At present, Lloyd's is greatly improved. Lloyd's had become a sewer. Ethics became terrible, easy money, three-hour lunches with drinks... The culture got quite bad and it degenerated into huge underwriting losses."

        

"It's way better now, but not totally reformed. The jury's still out."

        

Moody's

 "Most of the bonds Berkshire buys, Warren picks. He doesn't need Moody's, nor does he look at their rating. But he believes Moody's provides a useful service."

        

Influence of board members (or lack thereof)

"Joe Rosenfeld -- a marvelous human being and great friend -- was asked to be on the board of Northwestern Bell. He said it was the last thing they ever asked him. That's typical. Sometimes a CEO asks for advise when a board has expertise, but they generally make their own decisions and use their staff. Averaged out, the CEO decides what he wants to do and the board says yes."

        

"We have very little influence [on the boards Warren and I serve on]. There's an occasional exception if someone has very high regard for us."

        

Risks of financial institutions

 "The beauty of a financial institution is that there are a lot of ways to go to hell in a bucket. You can push credit too far, do a dumb acquisition, leverage yourself excessively -- it's not just derivatives [that can bring about your downfall]."

        

Consumer credit

 "My method for a nation growing is Germany after World War II -- no consumer credit, but high growth."

        

"In the U.S. today, we push consumer credit harder year after year. There are occasional blow-ups like Providian. Could we have a big national blow-up? Yes. It tends to be self-correcting."

        

 "Once you get used to growing each year by goosing consumer credit 5%, what do you do when you've reached the limit?"

        

"I don't like it. I don't like thinking up ads to get people to use their credit card more. But it's not illegal and maybe the world's even better for it. It's not my temperament though."

        

The wealth effect

 "The wealth effect is the extent to which consumer spending is goosed upward due to increases in stock prices. Of course it exists, but to what extent? I made a speech a while back in which I said that the wealth effect is greater than economists believe. I still say this."

        

"The wealth effect is one driver of economic assumption, but not the only one. The government in two years has gone from back-to-back surpluses to increasing spending 10% each year. Also, the decline in interest rates has led to an increase in housing values, which makes people feel richer. So, there are countervailing effects."

        

"Look at Borsheim's. When Level 3 [a widely held stock in Omaha] crashed 97%, there was a big effect [on Borsheim's sales]. There are also more homes for sale [in Omaha]."

        

"So many people try to predict macroeconomic factors by looking at only one factor. You need to look at all the factors."

        

Risk of the unexpected

 "A lot of things happen that you can't predict. Who would have predicted the war on terrorism, government spending increasing 10% each of the past two years, etc.?"

        

"We try to run our companies so there's no chance of going back to Go. I think we're way more aware of that possibility [the risk of going back to Go], but that's no guarantee [that it can't happen to us]. In our insurance underwriting, we put in more clauses [limiting our risk] and are more aware of aggregate risks."

        

Expect the unexpected (Japan example)

 "Warren has said that over 40 years, a lot of surprising things will happen."

        

"What's interesting in Japan is that every life insurance company is essentially insolvent because they promised to pay 3%. Who'd have thought that this could lead to insolvency, but interest rates went to zero and stayed there for years. They tried to invest in equities, but got negative returns. Can you imagine 13 years with negative equity returns and interest rates below 1%?"

        

"Is it inconceivable that it could ever happen here? I don't think so. Strange things happen."

          

CRITIQUES OF ACCOUNTANTS AND INVESTMENT BANKERS

          Wall Street's ethics (or lack thereof)

        

"Generally speaking, ethics on Wall Street have been imperfect throughout my lifetime. In the old days, brokers would sell old ladies very conservative utility stocks with a big mark-up."

         

"Underwriting standards were better then. Now, what can be sold, will be sold. It's terrible."

        

"With First Boston, under the Mellons, there are just some things they wouldn't do."

        

"It's always hard. Some guy needs to pay his kid's tuition and at the end of the month, let's say he's behind on his quota and there's Suzi's account. Lo and behold, there's some activity."

        

"The ethics of Wall Street will always average out to mediocre at best."

        

"I don't think you get a lot of credit in life for not committing adultery with the Virgin Mary."

        

"Analysts as shills were always present, but it reached extremes in the dot-com boom because there was so much money at stake. Wall Street firms can't make money trading stocks for two cents per share, but can make so much money doing deals."

        

"If you set up incentives to reward A, and then say you want B, you'll give people schizophrenia."

        

"This doesn't mean there aren't some wonderful, intelligent people on Wall Street -- there are, like those in this room -- but everyone I know has to fight their own firm [to do the right thing]."

        

Critique of legal and accounting firms

 "I think there's plenty wrong with the legal profession. Plenty of law firms take business they shouldn't. Accounting has this problem in spades. All have clients they shouldn't have. All the leading law and accounting firms aren't quick enough to decline or kick out bad clients."

        

"Too many law and accounting firms get roped into shady things. For example, tax shelters, with their contingency fees and secrecy, are a total abomination. The troubles are contagious -- they spread."

        

"Lawyers have gotten away with murder. The rule of thumb now is to defend anyone, using any means, and not get sued. This is changing however. Now, people are being more careful. This tendency to pull back is good."

        

"I never have the least interest in defending miscreants and helping them misbehave. But the general view is that it's wonderful what Johnny Cochran did."

        

"They say the second-happiest day for a defense lawyer is winning an acquittal of an innocent man."

          

Derivatives

 "Originally, there were interest rate swaps. If you did them naked, you could lose or make an enormous amount. But there wasn't enough money for traders, so they adopted mark-to-market accounting. Everyone caved, adopted loose [accounting] standards and created exotic derivatives linked to theoretical models. As a result, all kinds of earnings, blessed by accountants, are not really being earned. When you reach for the money, it melts away. It was never there."

        

"The accountants have written 800 pages of rules on this."

        

"If you're the least bit venal, you can do what Enron did. Even if you're not, your employees will still [get you in trouble with derivatives]."

        

"It [accounting for derivatives] is just disgusting. It is a sewer, and if I'm right, there will be hell to pay in due course. All of you will have to prepare to deal with a blow-up of derivative books. To me, it's always been obvious it [the accounting for derivatives] is ridiculous."

        

"It's a crazy idea for people who are already rich -- like Berkshire -- to be in this business. It's a crazy business for big banks to be in."

        

[On this topic, here's an excerpt from the 5/20/02 Business Week:

        

"Critics say FASB's nitpicking hit bottom with Financial Accounting Standard No. 133, which governs accounting for financial derivatives and hedging. Launched in 1992, the standard is based on a simple principle: Futures, swaps, options, and other derivatives should be carried on books at their market value. But revaluing derivatives every quarter can create wide and unpredictable swings in corporate earnings. To avoid that, FASB carved out exceptions for hedging deals, forward contracts for materials, insurance policies, and other special cases. 'The exceptions are legitimate,' says FASB member John M. 'Neel' Foster, 'but once you start down that path, it's hard to stop.' The result: FAS 133 and its supporting documents weigh in at 800 pages--and it's still a work in progress."]

        

COMMENTS ON EDUCATION AND PROPER THINKING

          

Fooling oneself

 "The ethos of not fooling yourself is one of the best ethoses you could possibly have. It's powerful because it's so rare."

        

Mental models

 "Generally speaking, you need to have appropriate mental models and a checklist to go through each of them. If 2-3 items are not on the checklist, and you're a pilot, you might crash."

        

"It [this approach] is perfectly obvious. But how many of you were taught to think this way at university?"

        

[One person in a room of perhaps 200 raised his hand and, when asked which university he attended, said "MIT."]

        

Munger snorted and said: "This wasn't rehearsed. This underscores the importance of science. If you have kids or grandkids, make them take science [classes]. Can you imagine the kind of nonsense we'd get from the head of the poetry department at Amherst?"

        

Personal computer use

 "Do I use a computer? Not so far. I just had a computer installed, but so far it's dark. I don't every type. As for the future? We'll see."

        

"I'm a big follower of Thomas Hunt Morgan [in 1933, he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine]. While at Cal Tech, he banned the Frieden calculator, which everyone used for all sorts of calculations. Why? I walk along the river and pick up gold. So why should I do placer mining? I'm willing to do placer mining if need be, but I'm hoping to go to my grave without doing so."

        

"Organized common (or uncommon) sense -- very basic knowledge -- is an enormously powerful tool. There are huge dangers with computers. People calculate too much and think too little."

        

Importance of science

 "I think scientific literacy is terribly important…Habits of the mind formed from science are so valuable."

        

"I once spoke at one of New York's great Catholic girls schools, and they require every student to take physics."

        

"Even if you're not a scientist, you can pick up on the big ideas like thermodynamics. A lot of people haven't bothered to learn thermodynamics, and that's a big mistake. I recall a utility that invested in a scheme to create energy from seawater. [Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of science would know that] this violates the laws of thermodynamics."

        

Inner-city schools

 "Center-city school systems are a disaster. The schools are dealt a difficult hand, but many schools have shown not an impossible one."

        

Universities

 "There's a lot wrong [with American universities]. I'd remove 3/4 of the faculty -- everything but the hard sciences. But nobody's going to do that, so we'll have to live with the defects. It's amazing how wrongheaded [the teaching is]. There is fatal disconnectedness. You have these squirrelly people in each department who don't see the big picture."

        

"This doesn't just happen in academia. Companies can get balkanized. Look at what happened at Arthur Andersen and Enron. They weren't all bad people, but their cultures were dysfunctional. It's easy to create such a culture, in which you have good people but terrible results. Many areas of government are dysfunctional. Universities are complicit. They don't feel guilty about the product they're producing."

        

"We have the best universities in the world. They are strong in the hard sciences, but if you go to business, law, sociology…"

        

ADVICE ON LIFE AND OTHER

        

Terrorism risk and immigration policy

 "Our handling of the terrorism risk has been insanely sloppy. Can you imagine that someone with an Arabic name, who was Arabic looking, took lessons on flying big jets in which he didn't want to learn how to take off or land, and no-one asked any questions?! But it's the human condition. It's what bureaucracies do."

        

"I would be in favor of foolproof national identity cards, and wouldn't worry about due process with immigrants -- I'd really be more rigorous. But we're a democracy, and we'll muddle through."

        

"Canada's [immigration policies are] worse. They should have a banner that says, 'Welcome Terrorists!'"

        

"It's sad that we need an event like 9/11 to wake up."

        

Books

 "Ice Age [only available in the UK; will be published in the U.S. later this year] is one of the best books I've ever read. I've spent thousands of dollars buying copies for my friends. If you don't like Ice Age, then you have some limitations."

        

"I also recommend How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It. It's amazing how one million poor people with a lousy climate and no resources had such a large and constructive influence on the world. I tried to figure it out and couldn't. This professor did that. It's a wonderful book."

        

Charlie Munger’s Worldly Wisdom

          

Charlie Munger, who runs Wesco Financial, is the famed right-hand man of Warren Buffett. He is also a master investor in his own right. At Wesco’s annual meeting on Wednesday, he shared his always-blunt opinions on Berkshire Hathaway, the danger of derivatives, how to get rich, and more.

         By Whitney Tilson

         Published on the Motley Fool web site, 5/9/03

          (http://www.fool.com/news/commentary/2003/commentary030509wt.htm)

        

While Warren Buffett gets most of the attention, Charlie Munger, his partner in managing Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A), is an investment genius in his own right. In fact, I suspect that were it not for Buffett -- who Munger freely acknowledges is the superior investor –Munger might well be acclaimed the world’s greatest investor. Before Munger joined forces with Buffett in the mid-1970s, his investment partnership compounded at an average rate of 24.3% annually from 1962 to 1975 (vs. only 6.4% for the Dow over the same period).

        

In addition to his role as vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Munger is chairman of Wesco Financial (AMEX: WSC), which is 80.1%-owned by Berkshire. In an open-mike format similar to that of the Berkshire meeting, Munger answers shareholder questions for a couple of hours at the Wesco meeting. Since Buffett does most of the talking at the Berkshire meeting, I always like to attend the Wesco meeting to hear Munger’s in-depth thinking. I wasn’t disappointed this year. As I did in Monday’s column on Berkshire’s annual meeting, I will try to distill extensive notes down to the most important things I heard. (My notes can be seen in their entirety at my website.)

        

I’ve added a little commentary, but will generally let Munger speak for himself. Recording devices were not allowed in the meeting, so in many cases I am paraphrasing because I couldn’t type quickly enough.

          

Thoughts on Buffett

 While Buffett is now 71 years old, Munger raved, “It’s hard to believe that he’s getting better with each passing year. It won’t go on forever, but Warren is actually improving. It’s remarkable: Most almost-72-year-old men are not improving, but Warren is.”

          

Berkshire without Buffett

 The most common concern investors seem to have about Berkshire is, “What happens when Buffett dies?” Munger acknowledged that “if he were gone, we couldn’t invest the money as well as Warren,” but noted that “the place is drowning in money -- we have great business pounding out money. If the stock went down, Berkshire could buy it back. There’s no reason to think it will go to hell in a bucket, and I think there’s reason to believe it could go on quite well. I’d be horrified if it isn’t bigger and better over time, even after Warren dies.”

          

Berkshire’s acquisition strategy

 Berkshire continues to have spectacular success on the acquisition front. According to Munger, there’s no secret: “We’ve bought business after business because we admire the founders and what they’ve done with their lives. In almost all cases, they’ve stayed on and our expectations have not been disappointed.”

          

Berkshire and Wesco’s stock prices relative to intrinsic value

 Unlike so many corporate managers who seem to believe that it’s their #1 duty to inflate their stock price -- often by unethical or illegal means -- Buffett and Munger “like the stocks of both Berkshire and Wesco to trade within hailing distance of what we think of as intrinsic value. When it runs up, we try to talk it down. That’s not at all common in Corporate America, but that’s the way we act.”

        

As for Berkshire’s current share price (it closed yesterday at $72,600 per A share), Munger said “there’s been a deafening silence [on what we think of the stock price]. Berkshire is trading in a reasonable way given our environment and opportunities, which is why we’ve been silent. We are in no distress at all about the current value of the stock.” When was the last time you heard a senior manager of a company say that?!

          

Derivatives

 Munger, like Buffett, has long warned about the dangers of derivatives, and did so again this week: “It’s easy to see [the dangers] when you talk about [what happened with] the energy derivatives -- they were kerflooey. When they [the companies] reached for the assets that were on their books, the money wasn’t there. When it comes to financial assets, we haven’t had any such denouement and the accounting hasn’t changed, so the denouement is ahead of us. “We tried to sell Gen Re’s derivatives operation and couldn’t, so we started liquidating it. We had to take big markdowns. I would confidently predict that most of the derivative books of [this country’s] major banks cannot be liquidated for anything like what they’re carried on the books at.

        

When the denouement will happen and how severe it will be, I don’t know. But I fear the consequences could be fearsome. I think there are major  problems, worse than in the energy field, and look at the destruction there.” Alan Greenspan is apparently listening and singing a different tune than he was only a short while ago. Just yesterday, he expressed concern about derivatives and J.P. Morgan (NYSE: JPM) in particular.

        

 Attractive investment opportunities tend to be ephemeral

 The dates stick in my mind: July 23rd and October 9th last year [2002] and March 11th this year -- all days in which the market bottomed amidst panicked selling, when bargains abounded. But if you weren’t ready to buy, stocks snapped back quickly. Munger noted that “a lot of opportunities in life tend to last a short while, due to some temporary inefficiency... For each of us, really good investment opportunities aren’t going to come along too often and won’t last too long, so you’ve got to be ready to act and have a prepared mind.”

          

Views on Ben Graham’s ideas

 While Munger largely rejects Ben Graham’s cigar-butt style of investing, he embraces the core principles: “The idea of a margin of safety, a Graham precept, will never be obsolete. The idea of making the market your servant will never be obsolete. The idea of being objective and dispassionate will never be obsolete. So Graham had a lot of wonderful ideas.”

        

 Stock valuations

 Munger continues to report difficulty finding good stocks to buy: “In terms of the general climate, I think it’s pretty miserable for anyone who likes easy, sure money. Common stocks may be reasonably fairly valued, but they are not overwhelming bargains.”

          

The importance of reading

 “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time -- none, zero... You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads -- at how much I read.

        

My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

          

How to get rich

 A young shareholder asked Munger how to follow in his footsteps, and Munger brought down the house by saying, “We get these questions a lot from the enterprising young. It’s a very intelligent question: You look at some old guy who’s rich and you ask, ‘How can I become like you, except faster?’”

        

Munger’s reply was: “Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts... Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day, at the end of the day -- if you live long enough -- most people get what they deserve.”

          

Humor

 Munger has an acerbic, dry wit and he was in rare form this week. Here were my favorites:

        

“If you rise in life, you have to behave in a certain way. You can go to a strip club if you’re a beer-swilling sand shoveler, but if you’re the Bishop of Boston, you shouldn’t go.”

        

“The idea of caring that someone is making money faster [than you are] is one of the deadly sins. Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at. There’s a lot of pain and no fun. Why would you want to get on that trolley?”

        

“What’s the best way to get a good spouse? The best single way is to deserve  a good spouse because a good spouse is by definition not nuts.”

        

“I think liberal art faculties at major universities have views that are not very sound, at least on public policy issues -- they may know a lot of French [however].”

        

Ben Franklin “was a very good ambassador and whatever was wrong with him from John Adams’s point of view [I’m sure] helped him with the French.”

           

Whitney Tilson is a longtime guest columnist for The Motley Fool. He owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway at press time, though positions may change at any time. Under no circumstances does this information represent a recommendation to buy, sell, or hold any security. Mr. Tilson appreciates your feedback on the Fool on the Hill discussion board or at Tilson@Tilsonfunds.com. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.  

        

        

Notes from the 2003 Wesco Annual Meeting, 5/7/03

         By Whitney Tilson (WTilson@Tilsonfunds.com)

        

Note: This is not a transcript. No recording devices were allowed at the meeting, so this is based on 2 1/2 hours of rapid typing, combined with my memory (egads!). Other than the opening statement, I have reorganized the content of the meeting by subject area. Words in [brackets] are my comments or edits.

        

For more on this meeting, see my 5/9/03 column, Charlie Munger’s Worldly Wisdom. For my columns and notes on previous Berkshire and Wesco meetings, click here.

        

To learn more about Munger, I recommend the book Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger. I also recommend reading my column and transcript of Munger’s speech, “24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgment,” which has powerful implications for investors.

        

OPENING COMMENTS

          

This group is the hard core cultists. Most have actually been to the Berkshire meeting [last Saturday], sat through hours and hours of questions, and now here they are again. Some are doing it with other people’s money, but many are doing it with their own money. If you’ve traveled this far, you’re hard core.

 

Why do people come? Partly, I’m sure out of respect for the long-term record of compounding money at high rates. But also there’s the cast of mind that helped create the record. I’m very sympathetic to people who share our twists of mind. If you’re Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, you’re lonely. The whole of academia, business and economics believe a lot of things we don’t believe at all, and conversely don’t believe a lot of things we do believe.

        

Critique of the Efficient Market Theory and Institutional Money Managers

 They used to criticize us bitterly, but stopped doing that when criticized by their heirs[?]. There’s a world in academia where markets are perfectly efficient, where nobody knows if one company is better than another at any time, where value is dictated based on price. Then, it can never make any sense for a company to buy back its own stock. But if you say, “I can point to you many situations in which a stock was selling for 1/5th of its value, so why shouldn’t a company buy it back?”, some purists still won’t change their minds. A corollary of this says that you can never find a price that is rational to buy a stock that you know a lot about.

        

It makes it hard for Warren and I to go on every year. We don’t really care actually. [Laughter] In what other profession do the leading practitioners differ so much from the leading theorists? [Laughter] Hopefully this is not true in surgery, engineering and so forth.

        

Institutional money managers hire consultants who hire other consultants. They put money in venture capital, little companies, big ones, growth, value, etc. One thing that’s sure is that at the end of the year, you’ve spent a lot on the consultants and frictional costs. Berkshire and Wesco never have and never will [behave this way].

        

20 Punches

 Warren said at the Berkshire meeting (or maybe it was to the press afterward?), that he often tells business school students that if he gave them a card that only had 20 punches for a lifetime, and each time they made an investment they would use up one punch, and that after 20 punches there would be no more, then on average, with those rules, you’ll die a lot richer. But people can’t grasp this; they don’t know what to make of it. But I believe it’s true -- you’ll do better over a lifetime [following the 20-punch way of thinking], assuming you’re a smart, disciplined person. This room is filled with people who followed that advice. But that is absolute apostasy in academia.

        

How many different things has Wesco done since Blue Chip Stamps? [A major acquisition that Wesco made under Munger and Buffett’s leadership in the 1970s.] We’ve only bought two or three companies and made a few big stock purchases. We’ve probably made a significant decision every two years. But nobody manages money this way. For one thing, clients won’t want to pay you. [Laughter]

        

But our theory is that getting a real chance to invest at rates way better than average is not all that easy. I’m not saying it’s not moderately easy to beat the indices by half a percentage point every year, but the moment you seek higher returns, is a very rarified achievement. The only way we know how to do this is to make relatively few investments of size.

        

What you can know if that if you spread your capital over a large number of securities, this will lead to average returns. Why anyone would pay a lot of money to learn what is so obvious is beyond me. [Laughter] I’m serious, people get paid to teach this! [Laughter]

        

It’s not so bad to have one’s money scattered over three wonderful investments. Suppose you were a real estate investor with a 1/3 interest in the best apartment complex in town, the best mall, and the best [I missed what he said -- another type of real estate investment]. Would you feel like a poor, undiversified investor? No! But as soon as you get into stocks, people feel this way. Partly, people need to justify their fees.

        

Envy is a Really Stupid Sin

 Then there’s the chasing of the investment return rabbit. What if you had an investment that you were confident would return 12% per annum. A lot of you wouldn’t like that -- especially if you’ve done better -- but many would say, “I don’t care if someone else makes money faster.” The idea of caring that someone is making money faster [than you are] is one of the deadly sins. Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at. [Laughter] There’s a lot of pain and no fun. Why would you want to get on that trolley? [Laughter]

        

Options and Circle of Competency

 We have a theory that you go through life in an orderly way. It gives us extra options. There’s an obvious doctrine in life that all individuals and companies have to make decisions based on opportunity costs -- that’s how all people make decisions. If you’re married, you can keep [your spouse] but you always have the option to say, “I can do better elsewhere.” Now you don’t say this… [Laughter]

        

 Most people have options: what job to take, school to go to, and so forth. One should measure investment opportunities this way. The more attractive things are, the higher the bar is. Berkshire has raised the opportunity bar by looking at stocks, bonds, private companies, public companies, etc. We have more opportunities by operating in a wider range.

        

The danger is that you have more risk of operating outside of your circle of competency. I don’t think we’re ever gone outside our circle of competency. We find things across a fairly wide range that we think is within our circle of competency. If you can widen your range and broaden your circle of competency, then you’ll be a better investor.

        

Focus Investing

I remember when Warren was buying American Express when the company was suffering from a scandal [the 1963 Salad Oil Scandal]. Warren said to me, “I can’t find anything else that’s nearly as attractive.” So, he asked his partners [this was before Berkshire, when he was managing the Buffett Partnership] to change the partnership agreement [which, I assume, prevented him from putting too much of the partnership into one position] and put 40% of his capital into American Express. When was the last time you saw a mutual fund do this [I’m not sure if he meant investing so heavily in one stock, or changing the contract with investors to take advantage of an opportunity]? It happens, but it’s rare. To me, it’s the most ordinary common sense, but it’s not the most conventional wisdom of the time.

        

I know value investors who [I missed this]. There’s a graduate of Stanford Business School who can compound money at 25% per annum so why does he need to invest other people’s money, and he’s now a very rich man. Warren operated out of a sun porch [in his house] for years.

        

Unattractive Investment Environment

At Wesco, we’re in a state of arrest. We have way more capital than we’re using. We have some investments in bonds that went up $20 or $30 million [over the past year], but this is not fun, watching and waiting, for people who have an action bias. Too much action bias is dangerous [however], especially if you’re already rich.

        

In terms of the general climate, I think it’s pretty miserable for anyone who likes easy, sure money. Common stocks may be reasonably fairly valued, but they are not overwhelming bargains. Interest rates are really low. When you get five-year rates under 3%, it starts getting really unpleasant for people who are used to better results. But I don’t think this is a tragedy. If things get really bad, like Japan, then things will be very unpleasant. Think of how you’d like to run a big university under those circumstances. I don’t think that will happen here -- I think we’re a better place in terms of investing.

        

But the world can throw you a lot of surprises. Who would have predicted the World Trade Center, interest rates where they are, life insurers in Japan insolvent because they agreed to pay 3% interest per annum.

        

A New Way to Measure Returns

Think of professional money management. A typical fund might do well, the money comes in, and then there’s a big collapse. If you took into account the negative results at the end, with the big money in the fund, the overall result would be negative. If I were running the world, I’d require all people running mutual funds and investment funds to report results in two ways: the current way and per dollar year. The big funds would really look terrible because they took in really a lot of money and then collapsed. If you took venture capital, which did well with a small amount of capital, and then took in a huge amount of capital [and lost most of it], they’d have trouble shaving in the morning.

        

[To understand what Munger is talking about, consider a fund with $100 that has a spectacular year and doubles to $200, a 100% return. Money of course pours in (let’s say $800), chasing this performance, such that the fund grows from $200 to $1,000. Then, the fund falls by 50% the next year to $500. The fund’s IRR (internal rate of return) is 0% (a +100% year followed by a -50% year), yet investors have lost a massive amount of capital: a $100 gain in the first year, followed by a $500 loss in the second year.]

        

COMMENTS ON BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY

        

Berkshire Without Buffett

 I said to my fellow directors of Berkshire quite recently, when we were discussing Berkshire in his [Buffett’s] absence, “It’s hard to believe that he’s getting better with each passing year.” It won’t go on forever, but Warren is actually improving. It’s remarkable: most almost-72-year-old men are not improving, but Warren is.

        

If he were gone, we couldn’t invest the money as well as Warren, but the place is drowning in money -- we have great business pounding out mmoney. If the stock went down, Berkshire could buy it back. There’s no reason to think it will go to hell in a bucket, and I think there’s reason to believe it could go on quite well. The people at MidAmerican Energy are quite formidable. I’d be horrified if it isn’t bigger and better over time, even after Warren dies. And I can’t imagine Ajit not being one of the jewels of the insurance business in the world as far as the eye can see.

        

If your problem is that eventually all things crest, then you’re right. The loss of dominance rate is 100%. Every great civilization that was dominant eventually passed the baton. Similarly, the greatest companies of yore are not the great companies of hence. I like looking back and seeing who would have predicted what happened to [formerly great companies like] Kodak, Sears and General Motors.

        

Sure, vicissitudes come to all places, but I think Berkshire is structured so that it’s unlikely to fall back the way GM has. GM basically transferred the enterprise value to the employees instead of the shareholders. That is not the Berkshire culture. We want employees to be esteemed, get rich and enjoy life, but we’re not in business of deliberately transferring the company from shareholders to employees.

        

At GM, they tried to get by each year without a calamity [e.g., a strike] by giving [whichever union whose contract was due for renegotiation] a lot, which they then had to give to the other unions. Do this over 40 years and at the end there’s nothing left for shareholders. That’s not the culture at Berkshire.

        

Will it ever fail? I suppose it will. [I believe he was referring to Berkshire, not GM, in the context of his earlier comment, "Every great civilization that was dominant eventually passed the baton."]

        

Berkshire and Wesco’s Stock Prices Relative to Intrinsic Value

 We like the stocks of both Berkshire and Wesco to trade within hailing distance of what we think of as intrinsic value. When it runs up, we try to talk it down. That’s not at all common in Corporate America, but that’s the way we act.

        

At Berkshire, there’s been a deafening silence [on what we think of the stock price]. Berkshire is trading in a reasonable way given our environment and opportunities, which is why we’ve been silent. We are in no distress at all about the current value of the stock, and we’re the type who feel uncomfortable if the stock gets too high or too low.

        

I have yet to see a shareholder who needs to get out not be able to sell it. So far, we haven’t had any crisis of liquidity. If there were a crisis of liquidity, there’s someone around who has plenty of liquidity. [E.g., Buffett/Berkshire] [Laughter]

        

There have been two times that my Berkshire stock holdings have fallen by more than 50%. So what? Warren has always said that if you’re not prepared to experience a 50% quotational loss, you shouldn’t be in stocks.

          

Intrinsic Value of Berkshire vs. Wesco

 [He gave two explanations -- I missed them -- and concluded:] Either way you calculate it, Berkshire has way more value per dollar of book value [than Wesco].

        

Berkshire’s Advantages in Super Cat Insurance Underwriting

 If it could easily be done, just by manipulating rules of statistics, like life insurance, then everyone would have done it and there wouldn’t be much profit in it. But what you point out -- what everyone doesn’t like about it -- is what we like about it. For example, there have been lots of earthquakes but the average actuary says that after 50 years without an earthquake, it means that one is now less likely. But we think that maybe pressure is building up, making it more likely not less. We try to take into account all of these factors.

        

There is a close collaboration between Warren and Ajit Jain. I’ve known both a long long time and if there are two better people on this earth to do this [super cat underwriting], I don’t know who they are. We can’t guarantee results, but they’ve done fine -- in fact, more than fine.

 

Sometimes they will do things where it’s a straight Pascalian calculation -- the odds are x and we get paid at a rate that give us better odds than Las Vegas. The reason other people won’t do it is because if they’re wrong, it’ll be a big money loss, but Berkshire can handle a big number loss. I’m quite comfortable watching those two people do it. I wish I could do it, but I can’t. It’s reasonable heuristics by two tough, sharp-minded men.

        

Event Arbitrage Investing and Berkshire’s Junk Bond Investments in 2002

 We haven’t been doing much event arbitrage in recent years. In earlier years we did a fair amount, but now it’s rare. The equivalent is we bought something around $10 billion of junk bonds last year, and $7 billion are left around. It’s sort of similar to event arbitrage that Warren used to do in his earlier days. I don’t think you’d find the recent records in event arbitrage are very good compared to the results we’ve had.

        

 Warren calculated that over the past 60 years, if you combined Ben Graham’s record and his, they generated returns of 20% per annum on event arbitrage. Ben Graham called them “Jewish Treasury Bills.”

        

[Graham was Jewish. Here's the full story: When Buffett graduated from Columbia Business School, he offered to work for Graham at his investment firm, Graham-Newman, for free. Graham turned him down, even though Buffett was his only student to ever receive an A+ grade, because he only hired Jews. (This was not unusual at the time, as Wall Street had a number of all-Jewish firms to balance the many all-white, male, Christian firms.) Buffett returned to Omaha and worked as a stock broker (and occasionally wrote research reports on companies like GEICO) until Graham contacted him years later in 1954, after he had decided to open up the firm       to non-Jews. Buffett took the job for two years, until Graham shuttered the firm in 1956, and then went back home to Omaha to open his own partnership. Incidentally, it was at Graham-Newman that Buffett met another legendary investor, Walter Schloss, who was also a junior analyst there.]

        

Now, that way of investing [event arbitrage] has gotten fashionable [today] because some money will be coming in even if world goes to hell in a hand basket. You can amuse yourself with that calculation as much as you want, but we tend not to do that. I suppose we could if the right opportunity came along. For one thing, its hard to do with a lot of capital.

        

The junk bonds are an interesting case. When we were buying [last year], the mutual [bond] funds were getting net redemptions and had to sell. Even under those conditions, we only got $8 or $10 billion invested. Now, the mutual funds have net inflows and you can’t buy anything.

        

[I share Munger’s bearish on bonds, as I argued in Don’t Chase Performance.]

        

More on Bonds

 Warren’s doing most of the work on Berkshire’s bond portfolio. I scarcely look at them.

        

We normally don’t talk about what we are or aren’t investing in, but I can’t help saying that we don’t own tobacco bonds. As for the WPPSS bonds, we bought every bond that traded, but we could only buy $300 million. It’s hard to invest large sums of money.

        

[According to Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett (a wonderful 1,490 page tome for true Berkshire junkies), “Buffett quietly bought $139 million worth of Projects 1, 2, and 3 of Washington Public Power Supply System bonds in 1983 and 1984…Buffett explained how WPPSS had defaulted on $2.2 billion worth of bonds issued to help finance Projects 4 and 5. That stigma stained other projects and Buffett was able to buy the bonds at a steep discount.”]

        

Berkshire’s SQUARZ deal in 2002

 Warren has a big motor and there isn’t enough going on at Berkshire with a tiny pile of assets and an insufficient number of large businesses [laughter] so when he sees a mispriced security, so he’s willing to issue it. Personally, I wouldn’t issue it. But it’s one of Warren quirks.

Remember the LIONS [a security Berkshire issued long ago]? We only have to put up with this every 20 years. To Warren, the appeal is that it could be done. I think the mere fact of borrowing money at a negative interest rate turned him on [because] not many people are able to do that. Just call it an intellectual quirk.

        

 [For more on the SQAURZ deal, see my column, Berkshire’s Unusual Security.]

        

Berkshire’s Acquisition Strategy

We’ve bought business after business because we admire the founders and what they’ve done with their lives. In almost all cases, they’ve stayed on and our expectations have not been disappointed.

        

Buying Stock vs. Entire Companies

We do both, but we get tax advantages by buying whole companies rather than stocks -- very significant ones. Also, if we buy a company, we can change management, dividend policy, etc. if we need to.

        

We’ll pay more per share for 100% of a company than 3%, but practically everyone else will too.

        

Why Did Berkshire Bid for Burlington Industries?

That’s very easy: Burlington has a segment that relates to Shaw. Shaw does flooring and carpets [so there’s a part of Burlington that] would fit in nicely with Shaw. What wouldn’t fit in, we         were will to buy for the price we offered. It was a peculiar add-on thing. We haven’t suddenly decided that textiles are the thing.

        

The judge was willing to have us give the company a put [for an inadequate fee]. In our world, puts are worth a lot of money. There was a perfectly reasonable judge, but we’re perfectly reasonable too, so we walked.

        

A Change in Dividend Tax Policy Wouldn’t Change Us

[At the Berkshire meeting, Warren did talk about dividends. It [making dividends tax-free] wouldn’t change us. Our long-stated policy is that as long as we think that, over an extended period of time, we think we can create more than $1 of value for every $1 retained, then we’ll retain it. If that changes, we’ll shell it out.

        

Would Corporate America change if dividends could be distributed tax free? Sure. For one thing, people would think the law might change [and therefore rush to pay out dividends before they became taxable again].

        

Failing to Buy Wal-Mart Stock

Wal-Mart was an $8 billion sin. What happened is that we started to buy it and the price started to go up and we’re naturally so cheap that we stopped buying. It’s not $8 billion we lost, but $8 billion we didn’t gain. We keep doing this. We haven’t done this hundreds of times, but our sins of omission have cost us a lot in terms of opportunity. I wish I could tell you we won’t do this again. We do find things to actually do and they tend to work out well. If we only could have been 5% smarter, our shareholders would be a lot better off.

        

Costco and Wal-Mart

Costco [Munger is on the Board] and Wal-Mart are two of the most admirable retailing operations in the history of the world. In fact, Wal-Mart has the best retailing record in the history of the world. It was started by a guy in his 40s and he hasn’t been dead that long. There’s a similar story at Costco. Costco would be worth a lot more money if there weren’t any Wal-Mart [Laughter]. Sam Walton talked to Sol Price about buying what is now Costco, but those two titans never got together. We screwed up by not buying Wal-Mart stock, and Wal-Mart screwed up by not paying whatever price Sol Price wanted.

        

Future Relationship With Wal-Mart

 Obviously based on past history, with Garan and McLane, we trust Wal-Mart. [Wal-Mart accounts for more than 85% of Garan’s sales.] We admire Wal-Mart. How could you have a good value system and not admire Wal-Mart?

        

[When asked about Berkshire expanding its relationship with Wal-Mart to put Dairy Queens in Wal-Mart, sell GEICO insurance, knives, etc. through Wal-Mart, Munger replied:] I wouldn’t get carried away with two transactions. Wal-Mart has perhaps the best buying systems on earth. They won’t be buying from us because they like us. We wouldn’t want it any other way. I wouldn’t expect any fast flood of products into Wal-Mart.

        

 COMMENTS ON BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY AND WESCO HOLDINGS

          

McLane

Obviously we like the manager [of McLane, Grady Rosier] a great deal, and obviously we trust Wal-Mart to stay with us as a major customer. Obviously we think it’s a good buy at the price we paid. What more can I say? It’s not some business that’s going to grow at fantastic rates forever and ever, partly because one of its main products is tobacco. But we didn’t pay for a business that’s going to grow forever and ever. We like buying decent businesses at fair prices.

        

You should think of a business like McLane not as a normal merchandising business -- it’s a logistics business like FedEx or UPS. It’s a super-slick, super-efficient system for carrying out a logistics function. I think Wal-Mart sold it because they’re the best in the world at retailing and they want to concentrate at what they’re best at. I would too.

        

Clayton Homes

We wouldn’t have bought Clayton Homes if the family members weren’t there and weren’t planning to remain. With reference to the price, the entire industry worked itself into a disastrous collapse with vast oversupply of used units, big financial losses, etc. Even Clayton has felt the effects of this calamity. We think Berkshire will help make Clayton stronger. We agree that Clayton is the jewel of the industry. We’re buying at period of maximum distress. We think it’s okay for Berkshire and okay for Clayton shareholders.

        

A lot of people wouldn’t be interested because they can’t stand taint. There’s nothing wrong with Clayton, but the whole industry is tainted. We’re willing to do things like that all of the time. Our triple A credit rating won’t hurt Clayton [Laughter]. Everything you like about Clayton’s culture -- does it seem that inconsistent with Berkshire’s culture?

        

I’ve always felt that manufactured housing should have a bigger place in our society. It might morph into something different. Houses are built in many places in a very inefficient way.

        

CORT Business Services

CORT [which Wesco acquired in January 2000] has been clobbered by the big dot-com decline. The whole temporary office business in the country had a huge boom. Law firms, accounting firms, venture capital firms, etc. all expanded. When they went bust, rental firms went bust. In that business, we caught a big recession.

        

We’re having a similar recession in NetJets in that used jets have gone down in price. CORT and NetJets are losing a lot of money. Do I think CORT is going to fail? No. Net Jets? No. There are vicissitudes in life. In fact, we’re buying other furniture rental companies. Some people vote with their feet; we vote with our wallets. Was our timing great in buying CORT? No, it was terrible.

        

Asbestos and Berkshire’s Investment in USG

Obviously, so far at least, USG has not been one of our happiest moments. Everyone in American has underestimated how much asbestos could cost. One reason is that an awful lot of money goes to people who haven’t been hurt -- way more than half goes to lawyers and experts and those who haven’t been hurt. They [the country] did it a lot better when they had [a settlement] for black lung [disease] for coal miners. They simply put a tax on coal and all the money didn’t go to lawyers and people who weren’t sick.

        

In my judgment, the common stock of USG won’t go to zero, but how well it will work out on the plus side, from zero to infinity, I’ll leave you to figure out.

          

Won’t Talk About Investments

[When asked to comment on Berkshire’s investment in Mueller Industries (NYSE: MLI; a manufacturer of brass, copper, plastic and aluminum products; Mueller also owns a short-line railroad and various natural resource properties in the western United States), Munger replied:] We ordinarily don’t talk about the reasons for making particular investments. We don’t want people following us into particular stocks. It’s sort of like asking, “What are you buying tomorrow?” We tend not to answer those questions.

          

INVESTMENT ADVICE

          

Attractive Investment Opportunities Tend to Be Ephemeral

 A lot of opportunities in life tend to last a short while, due to some temporary inefficiency. If you’re Berkshire, you can get a few billion dollars out, but most institutions would miss it -- they would have to meet with trustees, lawyers, etc. By the time they were done, they’d have missed it. In this environment, you have to be present and ready to act. Look at some of our recent acquisitions. They faced default and needed money by Monday, and it was Friday afternoon. It was an ephemeral opportunity. For each of us, really good investment opportunities aren’t going to come along too often and won’t last too long, so you’ve got to be ready to act and have a prepared mind.

        

Cigar-Butt Investing and the Value of Meeting With Management

 I don’t think Warren would think it [cigar-butt investing] was useless -- he just doesn’t want to do it. [Laughter] And he trained under Ben Graham, who said, “Just look at the facts. You might lose an occasional valuable insight, but you won’t get misled.” If you sit down and talk to the key manager for an hour and you’re a smart person, I think that could be a significant plus. But a smart person might be right 60% of the time and, for the balance, be misled. If you have some specific questions that the management is going to answer, obviously that would be helpful.

        

 Warren reads a lot of what people have written. He just doesn’t want to do it [spend a lot of time talking to managements]. There’s a good argument that at a certain level of skill, you’re better off without it, especially if you’re Warren Buffett. But even he finds it helpful.

        

I remember a few years ago, Warren met with a CEO and afterward said he thought the CEO wasn’t very shareholder friendly and was the biggest horse’s ass. So we didn’t invest and the stock compounded at 15% per annum for 20 years.

        

Views on Ben Graham’s Ideas

 The idea of a margin of safety, a Graham precept, will never be obsolete. The idea of making the market your servant will never be obsolete. The idea of being objective and dispassionate will never be obsolete. So Graham had a lot of wonderful ideas. Warren worshipped Graham. He got rich, starting essentially from zero, following in the footsteps of Graham.

        

I liked Graham, and he always interested and amused me. But I never had the worship for buying the stocks he did. So I don’t have the worship for that Warren does. I picked up the ideas, but discarded the practices that didn’t suit me. I don’t want to own bad businesses run by people I don’t like and say, “no matter how horrible this is to watch, it [the stock] will bounce by 25%.” I’m not temperamentally attracted to it.

        

[For more on Graham, read his classics: The Intelligent Investor [the single greatest book on investing, in my opinion] and Security Analysis. Another book I recommend on Graham is The Rediscovered Benjamin Graham. Finally, my friend Rich Rockwood wrote a nice piece on Graham's thinking recently, Invest the Buffett Way.]

        

Diversification and Circle of Competence

 95% of American managements, the minute they get out of their chosen activities, why shouldn’t they just slaughter themselves? I think most managements are nice people, but their general powers of capital allocation are inadequate. And the people advising them, the investment bankers, etc., they will mislead you 95% of the time. The consequences for the utilities that tried to diversity were lethal.

        

Why are we different? We’re working harder at trying to be rational. If you don’t work hard at it, and just float along, you will fall victim to the folly of the crowd -- and there will always be folly of the crowd. I wish people would learn more from this than I think they will.

        

A Shareholder Case Study

 [A shareholder stood up and said he first discovered Buffett and Munger and bought Wesco stock in 1984, and kept buying more -- and also added Berkshire stock -- despite Munger talking down Wesco all the time. Munger replied:] If I was steering you toward Berkshire rather than Wesco, then I hope I didn’t hurt you. [Laughter]

        

The man who just spoke is teaching by providing an example of what I was talking about earlier. Here’s a guy who is acting like he has 20 punches in life. He likes these guys [Buffett and Munger], gets to know them better, doesn’t ask a consultant if he should buy a burlap bag manufacturer in India -- he just kept buying what he knows and has confidence in.

        

 [Munger then asked the shareholder:] How many investments have you made in which you had as much confidence as you had in us?

 

Shareholder: “Maybe 10.”

        

Munger: “A typical rich shareholder, which means he probably doesn’t have a chauffer.”

        

Shareholder: “I drive a ‘94 Buick.”

        

Munger: “They won’t teach this in all of the finance departments. Maybe you should give all of the money back.” [Laughter]

          

Investing Taught at Business Schools

 There are a handful of business school professors who teach investing properly. Jack McDonald of Stanford Business School, for one. He comes to the Berkshire meetings. I’ve taught in his class and Warren has come to his class. There are others.

        

Reforming academia, except accidentally by having a view that catches on, isn’t something I try. It’s amazing how difficult it is to change ideas, no matter how wrong they are.

        

Neither Warren nor I has ever thought for two seconds about beta. But every business school teaches this [concept]. Maybe if we had a few more hundreds of billions of dollars, people would pay attention to us. [Laughter]

        

Competitive Threat from China

 If you’re in any business of a manufacturing nature that China can do well, after you consider transport, then you’re in the crosshairs of a very formidable opponent.

        

Why didn’t we recognize this with the shoe business? Well, as a German philosopher once said, “Too soon old and too late smart.”

        

Comments on Philip Fisher

 Phil Fisher believed in concentrated investing and knowing a lot about your companies -- it’s in our playbook, which is partly because we learned from him.

        

[For more on Fisher, I recommend his books: Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits [one of the all-time great books on investing, in my opinion], Conservative Investors Sleep Well, and Developing an Investment Philosophy.]

          

Recommended Reading for Investors

I think the business publications, because they digest so much so well, are a good resource. There’s a lot of brainpower on the staffs of Fortune, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.

        

RISKS IN THE FINANCIAL SYSTEM

          

Derivatives

It’s easy to see [the dangers] when you talk about [what happened with] the energy derivatives -- they were kerflooey. When they [the companies] reached for the assets that were on their books, the money wasn’t there. When it comes to financial assets, we haven’t had any such denouement and the accounting hasn’t changed, so the denouement is ahead of us.

        

We tried to sell Gen Re’s derivatives operation and couldn’t, so we started liquidating it. We had to take big markdowns. I would confidently predict that most of the derivative books of [this country’s] major banks cannot be liquidated for anything like what they’re carried on the books at. When the denouement will happen and how severe it will be, I don’t know. But I fear the consequences could be fearsome. I think there are major  problems, worse than in the energy field, and look at the destruction there.

        

Consumer Credit

Consumer credit has been a gold mine -- it’s like selling heroin to addicts. There are a lot of fiscalaholics [a new Mungerism] who will probably find some way to pay their bills. Some banks understood this and made a great deal of money.

        

What I said last year was that it made me nervous, that constant pushing of consumer credit. I didn’t say when [a blow-up might occur], but it still makes me nervous.

          

COMMENTS ON OTHER ECONOMIC MATTERS

          

The Banking Industry, Past and Future

The banking industry has been a gold mine. I think Warren and I blew it -- we should have invested a lot of money in banks. While we did well in it, we should have been heavier in it. The amount of money made in banking has been awesome. And [this despite the fact that] the people who made the money -- how shall I say it -- have been moderately skillful. [Laughter] [I think he said something here about one being able to make a lot of money in banking even if one is “a perfect ass.”] [Bankers have been like] a duck sitting on a pond and they raised the pond. By borrowing short and lending long, one can make a lot of money. It’s so easy that people are tempted to do more and more.

        

Can it go on forever? A wise economist once said, “If a thing can’t go on forever, it will eventually stop.” My guess is that the extremes are over. Banking has been a marvelous business, but I wouldn’t think it would continue to get better and better and it might even get a lot worse.

        

Pension Fund Consultants

I’m glad you asked, as it gives me a chance to talk about a deeper reality. [Laughter] Let’s compare pension fund consulting with bass fishing. You can go on the bass fish tour and catch bass and get prizes. Or you can go into the business of selling tackle and giving advice to bass fisherman. They are two different businesses. The people who choose the latter wouldn’t be very good at catching bass. That’s how Warren and I view things. We want to win the bass fishing tour, whereas pension fund consultants sell tackle. We’re not interested in selling tackle, we’re interested in catching bass.

        

Housing Boom

We’ve had a boom in housing that has been almost unprecedented in the country, and it keeps going on despite setbacks in certain places. It’s partly due to interest rates being so low, and partly because everyone who previously bought [houses] did so well. But in some places, like Silicon Valley, prices got so high that they’ve come down. I don’t know a lot about the housing price market. I wouldn’t have predicted that a little house in Palo Alto would be worth $3.5 million. It took a good educational system and being amidst the Silicon Valley boom.

        

Having failed to predict accurately [what would happen in the housing industry] in the past, I don’t know why, based on a clear lack of competency, why I should predict anything now. Ordinarily, [my advice is to] buy housing when you need it, and don’t try to time the market.

          

 

ADVICE ON LIFE AND OTHER (MUNGER’S WORLDLY WISDOM)

          

Approach to Life

We’ve tried to do that [convey our philosophy] in everything we’ve ever done and said. But you can’t say: “Please dispense all wisdom in one sentence.” We’re just not up to it. Other people have tried. If you want it short, try Buddha, who said: “I only teach one thing: I teach the cause of human sorrow and how to avoid some of it.” (This isn’t word for word, but some of it.)

        

That’s my approach: Go around figuring out what doesn’t work and then avoid it -- and when you get the sorrow, how to handle it. I think this is a very rational approach to the human condition. If you want to avoid sorrow, you gotta know the cause of sorrow. There are certain ways of improving life that have a certain outcome.

        

If it’s trite, it’s right. That’s not totally true, but mostly true.

        

How to Get Rich

We get these questions a lot from the enterprising young. It’s a very intelligent question: you look at some old guy who’s rich and you ask, “how can I become like you, except faster?” [Laugher] My answer is that I did it slowly, inch by inch, taking losses mentally when they occurred. If you want to do it with fast rapidity, then you’re talking to the wrong man, but I know my way works.

        

If you don’t just want to play tiddlywinks, I say welcome to the pool. Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts. You may not need Zsa Zsa Gabor or a Lamborghini or a lot of other things you think you need now. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day, at the end of the day -- if you live long enough -- most people get what they deserve.

        

It’s so simple. What’s the best way to get a good spouse? The best single way is to deserve a good spouse because a good spouse is by definition not nuts. [Laughter] It’s the same with the responsibilities in life.

        

Iraq and Afghanistan

As for Iraq and Afghanistan, your guess is as good as mine. But I will say that it’s very easy to shrink from something unpleasant and conclude we don’t really need it. At least I admire the ability to suffer now in the hopes of making something better. I’m skeptical of the approach that never finds it necessary to suffer now to make it better. There’s a lot to be said to seeking ways to suffer now to make things better. That’s the way it is in investing -- sacrifice now in the hopes of something better. Now whether it will actually turn out better [in the Middle East], your guess is as good as mine, but I kind of like the fact that we tried.

        

[For more on this, see my two columns, Iraq and Investing and Weathering Iraq’s Storm.]

        

Don’t Change the Dividend Tax Policy

I think in a democracy, you have to kind of work to keep appearances not too unfair. The way to do this is to keep the reality not too unfair. I think that to some cab driver working seven days a week and paying taxes at a 40% rate, that someone at the country club paying zero tax would be     unacceptable. Look what happened when American Airlines executives took part of their compensation and made it secure. The resentment among the workers, who were being asked to sacrifice, was overwhelming -- and I think rightly so.

        

I think if you make it [e.g., become wealthy], then you have a duty not to mess up the system. I think Corporate American has been terrible at setting an example. If you rise in life, you have to behave in certain way. You can go to a strip club if you’re a beer-swilling sand shoveler, but if you’re the Bishop of Boston, you shouldn’t go. [Laughter]

        

Opinion on a Temporary Wealth Tax

The wealth tax has existed in the past. For example, immediately after WW II, to recover from the war, Germany instituted a temporary wealth tax and people cheerfully paid it. In this country, I think that once people got accustomed to it, it would stay [e.g., politicians would make it permanent].

        

Estate Taxes

I like the idea of retaining gift and death taxes, but as for the guy who builds up a good business worth $5 million and wants to pass it to his children, I think the death tax should be zero. But for people who really strike it big, I think there should be an intergenerational tax.

        

Intergenerational Tensions

If the growth rate of the country goes to zero, then of course we’ll have intergenerational tensions. If it continues to grow at 2% -- per capita real growth of 2% per annum -- then we won’t, and Social Security will be okay.

        

Don’t Invest Part of Social Security in Stocks

People grew accustomed to stocks doing well. A lot of people behind these schemes thought stocks would yield very high returns over a long period of time. I don’t have any gospel from god that stocks will yield 8-10% real returns over a long period. But I do have faith that if government gets involved, it will gum it up. I don’t want trustees appointed by the government voting shares of the common stocks in America. Leave it well enough alone.

        

Common stocks are valued in 2 ways: 1) rational estimates based on future use value [e.g., as Buffett has said in the past: future cash flows that the underlying businesses will generate from now until kingdom come, discounted back to the present at an appropriate rate]; 2) in the hopes that they will go up because people want to buy them. Like bonds and Rembrandts. Once you have government buying stocks every year like [they are] Rembrandts, God knows what would happen. This doesn’t appeal to me at all. I’m afraid of it, afraid of the politics, and I don’t believe the numbers of those projecting them. By the way, the numbers of those proposing this idea three years ago now look silly. What would happen to the morale of this country if [we invested Social Security into stocks and then what’s happened over the past 20+ years in Japan happened here? Imagine that the] government of Japan had put [their] Social Security into common stocks. For a while, stock prices went up and everyone felt good, consumers and politicians spent more, etc., and then stocks declined by 80%. I think they’d be in even worse shape. The more anything sounds like easy free money, the less I tend to believe it.

        

Giving Money Away

I don’t like to think of bequests, not because it reminds me that I’m going to die, but because I find it very hard to figure out what to do with money. Some people like to have people come up to them asking for money, but I don’t.

        

I know a lot of people who like to remain anonymous when they give away money, and you may think that this is a becoming modestly, but mostly it’s because they’re afraid someone else will ask them for more money.

        

Charities Cooperating More

In terms of getting all charities in the world to act together, I can’t get all of my children to act together, and they’ve been in my house and under my control.

          

View of Liberal Art Faculties

[Every year, Munger takes a shot at what he believes are clueless, disconnected-from-reality liberal art faculties at major universities. This year was no exception:] I think liberal art faculties at major universities have views that are not very sound, at least on public policy issues -- they may know a lot of French [however]. [Laughter]

        

The Importance of Reading

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time -- none, zero. Now I know all kinds of shrewd people who have done well by staying in a narrow area. But investing requires broad knowledge.

        

You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads -- at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out. [Laughter]

          

Recommended Reading

A Matter of Degrees, by physicist named Segre, is a perfectly marvelous book. Not a book you can go through at 90 mph, but if you parse through it slowly, you’ll get a lot out of it. You’ll get a lot of hours per dollar if you use it right.

        

How much GNP per capita there is really matters. It multiplied by seven times in a single century [in the U.S.] -- a lot by previous history of man. I certainly recommend the Carnegie biography by the Grinnell guy -- I forget his name [he was referring to Andrew Carnegie by Joseph Frazier Wall], but it’s the definitive biography. It’s a very interesting story. Carnegie started in absolute poverty and had only 4 1/2 years of grade school in a one-room schoolhouse with only one teacher for 170 or 180 students. From this beginning came Carnegie Steel and all of his eccentricities. He was married at 51 and was a virgin -- it was a different world.

         [Laughter]

        

It’s very interesting -- the past is strange. People behave differently there. [Laughter] The way labor was treated was really something. People did dangerous work, had no Workman’s Comp, insurance or pensions, companies could arbitrarily slash their pay by 40%, etc. And that was only 100 years ago. It makes you think how different the world will be 100 years from now.

        

Johnson, Adams and Franklin Biographies

Yes, I’ve read the whole Johnson biographies [Robert Caro's trilogy: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, and Master of the Senate] and I’ve read the Adams biography [John Adams by David McCullough] and the various Franklin biographies.

        

Sure, Franklin was quite old when he was ambassador to France. This was after he was world famous and rich, and he was more self-indulgent than when he was young and making his way in the world. But he was a very good ambassador and whatever was wrong with him from John Adams’s point of view [I’m sure] helped him with the French. [Laughter] I think Franklin was a marvelous steward. I’m willing to take the fellow as he averaged out. And certainly I’m in favor of old people having a little enjoyment. [Laughter]

 

        

Notes from the 2004 Wesco Annual Meeting

         May 5, 2004

         Pasadena, CA

        

         By Whitney Tilson

         WRTilson@T2PartnersLLC.com

         www.T2PartnersLLC.com

        

Notes: This is not a transcript. Recording devices are not allowed at the meeting, so this is based on many hours of rapid typing, combined with my memory (egads!). I have reorganized the content of the meeting by subject area. All quotes are Munger’s unless otherwise noted. Words in [brackets] are my comments or edits, and all web link insertions are mine.

        

For more on this meeting, see my 5/7/04 column, Charlie Munger In Rare Form. To read my columns and notes from previous Berkshire and Wesco meetings, click here. Links to all of my published columns are here.

          

 OFFICAL MEETING

          

         [The official business of the annual meeting is generally wrapped up in five minutes, with Munger calling for approval of directors, etc. He said, “All those in favor, say “Aye.”

         (Audience: “Aye”) All those opposed? (Audience: silence) Those people may leave.

         (Laugher)]

          

 OPENING SPEECH

[After the official affairs of the meeting are taken care of, Munger always gives an opening speech. Unlike previous years, however, it went on for nearly an hour. I had trouble typing fast enough to keep up, so my notes are a little spotty in places.]

        

What Explains the Phenomenon of Berkshire’s Annual Meeting?

This of course is the aftermath of the Berkshire meeting held in Omaha four days ago. 19,500 people were there, packed to the gills in the main arena, plus 2,500 or more in a separate room with video.

        

When something as unusual as that – 19,500 shareholders at a meeting, and everyone having a whee of a time – you might ask two questions: What the hell is going on here? and Why did it happen?

        

What’s going on of course is that alone among all companies in the history of the capitalist world, Berkshire has created an annual meeting that has cult-like attractions – attractions that attract an enormous number of people. It’s like Chautauqua [an area in upstate New York where there a various cultural and educational activities; here’s a link to the Chautauqua Institution]. There are parties and all sort of other events, as well as discount shopping (on which Berkshire makes a substantial profit because we have so many subsidiaries).

        

The reason this thing happens is because there’s a value system at Berkshire – and also at Wesco – and that value system is really adored by shareholders. It’s partly because people are so mad at the rest of corporate America – which is not so flattering – and partly because we’ve been around for so many years and made a lot of money, of course. But IBM made more money for shareholders back in its heyday from [the stock’s] bottom to top, yet people didn’t flock to its meetings, even though it had a widely admired culture.

        

Berkshire has created this system, and the intellectual content has been limited to a fairly short catechism: low pay for the people at the top and a high sense of duty. A lot of shareholders        trusted us when we were young and in many cases it was almost all of their money. So our shareholders were not represented by analysts; we know a lot of them personally. It’s hard to love a group of analysts working for institutions. The analysts who are here are not from institutions; they’re oddballs like us.

        

The typical analyst would sell his mother to get another 10 cents in earnings per share so the stock would pop and he would look good. The analysts who represent institutions are not liked by CEOs – but the CEOs of course are smart enough not to let on.

        

A lot of [corporations’ annual] meetings are set up to avoid groups like you – they’re in inconvenient locations and at inconvenient times – and they hope people like you won’t come.

        

Not just shareholders attend the Berkshire annual meetings. People from our subsidiaries come and bring their families. It’s enormously valuable. It wouldn’t work with just discount shopping. It takes ethos. In that sense we’re cult-like and like a religion.

        

So we try to run this [in a certain way]. We don’t hire compensation consultants or financial relations people, and there’s no [in-]house [legal] counsel (not that there’s anything wrong with house counsel).

        

Lou Vincenti [former Chairman of Wesco; briefly mentioned in Buffett’s 1977 and 1979 annual letters], who used to sit here, said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember your lies.” [Laughter]

        

We don’t care about quarterly earnings (though obviously we care about how the business is doing over time) and are unwilling to manipulate in any way to make some quarter look better. So that’s a very different ethos.

        

When it comes to intellectual content, we try harder to be rational and ethical and not be abusive. Now, with 175,000 employees at Berkshire, I’ll bet one of them is doing something I wouldn’t like right now, but overall Berkshire has been remarkably free of scandal over the decades.

        

I think these things [referring to well-attended annual meetings] happen when 3-4 things work together. I don’t think it would happen if Warren and I didn’t have a significant wise-ass streak. To sit for six hours – people wouldn’t do it without this. [Laughter]

        

With this sense of ethos, people sense we’re trying to do it right. We don’t have an isolated group [of senior managers] surrounded by servants. Berkshire’s headquarters is a tiny little suite. We just came back from Berkshire’s board meeting; it had moved up to the board room of the Kiewit company and [it was so large and luxurious that] I felt uncomfortable.

        

Long ago, every S&L [Savings & Loan like Wesco] had big, luxurious offices built, but Louie just made his own office extra large for board meetings. He wasn’t about to pay for an extra room.

        

Many companies have financial counselors. Many hope they’ll learn something. If one guy won 50% of all bass fishing tournaments, and he had a talk on how he twisted the reel, a lot people would come. I think our meetings are a big source [I missed this – I think he talked about how people come to Berkshire meetings for similar reasons: to learn how Buffett and Munger have had so much success].

        

The Wesco meeting of course gets the hard-core nutcases. [Laughter] There’s a little group that comes locally, but the rest come from far away – some come from Europe. Like the Catholic catechism, we don’t have much new to say, but like the Catholic priesthood, we just say the same old catechism.

        

Investment Philosophy

We don’t believe that markets are totally efficient and we don’t believe that widespread diversification will yield a good result. We believe almost all good investments will involve relatively low diversification.

        

Maybe 2% of people will come into our corner of the tent and the rest of the 98% will believe what they’ve been told [e.g., that markets are totally efficient, etc.].

        

Investing as Taught By Academia

We’ve had very little impact. Warren once said to me, “I’m probably misjudging academia generally [in thinking so poorly of it] because the people that interact with me have bonkers theories.” Beta and modern portfolio theory and the like – none of it makes any sense to me. We’re trying to buy businesses with sustainable competitive advantages at a low – or even a fair price. [The reason the professors teach such nonsense is that if they didn’t], what would they teach the rest of the semester? [Laughter] Teaching people formulas that don’t really work in real life is a disaster for the world.

        

At Stanford, Jack McDonald is the most popular professor at Stanford business school [he teaches a value investing course rooted in Graham/Buffett/Munger principles]. He teaches a double course load, yet still his courses are oversubscribed and he is voted the most popular teacher, yet they can hardly wait for Jack to leave [I assume Munger is referring to other finance professors, because what McDonald is teaching is so threatening to what they’re teaching]. [Laughter] I’m not making this up.

        

[For more on Jack McDonald, I’ve posted Chapter 4 (with his permission, of course) from my friend Andy Kilpatrick’s outstanding book, Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett/More in '04, California Edition, which I highly recommend.]

        

Berkshire has never believed in extreme diversification.

        

Moral Code

We believe there should be a huge area between everything you should do and everything you can do without getting into legal trouble. I don’t think you should come anywhere near  that line. We don’t deserve much credit for this. It helps us make more money. I’d like to believe that we’d behave well even if it didn’t work. But more often, we’ve made extra money from doing the right thing. Ben Franklin said I’m not moral because of it’s the right thing to do – but because it’s the best policy.

        

Berkshire’s and Wesco’s Cash Hoard and Valuations

Berkshire and Wesco are full of cash that we don’t know what do with. Berkshire has $70 billion if you count the bonds, and Wesco is drowning in cash. It’s the most extreme it’s ever been. In the past, we’ve just been patient and we were able to put it to work.

        

In the early days, Wesco had $40 million in book value, and it’s now $2 billion – and the market value is 20-30% above book. This is ridiculous. [A premium to book] happened in Ben Graham’s closed-end fund, which traded for 120% of liquidation value. I never would have paid this. But Ben Graham bought control of GEICO, which wasn’t legal, so when he realized it, he distributed the stock to shareholders, and people who paid 120% [of book for the fund] and held it [the GEICO stock], did extremely well.

        

I can almost promise you that there will not be a similar result here. [Laughter] We’re too big and too old. [Laughter] But I hope we will do credibly. I don’t think we’ll do badly, and given that I don’t see much else out there that’s attractive, [I missed this, but basically he said that investors in Wesco (he might also be referring to Berkshire investors) might well do better than the average investor, given how overpriced nearly all types of assets are].

        

If you’re locked into a security [like Wesco stock], there are worse things. If you want to create a cult, you gotta expect you’ll pay some consequences. [Laughter]

        

How Has Berkshire Succeeded?

How does a little company in the textile business, sure to go blooey, [succeed on such a massive scale?] Textiles are [little more than] congealed power, so if Warren had just stayed in the textile business, he would have been sure to go bankrupt. But he wrung a little money out of it, invested it in insurance and many years later, a business with a $10 million market cap become one with $100 billion – and there aren’t a lot more shares outstanding.

        

How did this happen? If you took the top 15 decisions out, we’d have a pretty average record. It wasn’t hyperactivity, but a hell of a lot of patience. You stuck to your principles and when opportunities came along, you pounced on them with vigor. With all that vigor, you only made a decision every two years. We do more deals now, but it happened with a relatively few decisions and staying the course for decades and holding our fire until something came along worth doing.

        

Master Plans

And there has never been a master plan. Anyone who wanted to do it, we fired because it takes on a life of its own and doesn’t cover new reality. We want people taking into account new information.

        

It wasn’t just Berkshire Hathaway that had this attitude about master plans. The modern Johns Hopkins [hospital and medical school] was created by Sir William Osler. He built it following what Carlyle said: “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the distance but to do what lies clearly at hand.”

        

Look at the guy who took over the company that became IBM. At the time, it had three equal sized business: [a division that made] scales, like those a butcher uses; one that made time clocks          (they bought this for a block of shares, making an obscure family very rich); and the Hollerith Machine Company, which became IBM. He didn’t know this would be the winner, but when it took off, he had the good sense to focus on it. It was enlightened opportunism, not some master plan.

        

I happen to think great cities develop the way IBM or Berkshire did. I think master plans do more harm than good. Anyway, we don’t allow them at Berkshire, so you don’t have to worry about them.

        

Outlook

I don’t have the slightest glimmer that things are getting a lot better [in terms of investing all of Berkshire’s and Wesco’s cash]. It’s still a world awash in cash. Every university has to have a fixed income arbitrage department, a leveraged buyout department, a department for small cap investing, mid-cap investing, and so forth – and consultants to tell them what do with it all. There’s enormous manpower to shuffle paper. But anyway, that’s where we live in the culture.

        

Scandals

One thing that people ask about is the enormous amount of scandal. This isn’t new – there’s a lot of historical precedent. You can go back to Jay Gould – there was a lot of misbehavior by the robber barons, though they did some good too.

        

[In recent years,] We’ve had an enormous amount of corporate misbehavior, and it’s affected the lawyers, accountants and investment bankers (though they never used to behave well).

        

Where will it stop? Royal Dutch Shell was about the best: it had a rigid meritocracy comprised mainly of excellent engineers. And to have the lying about the reserves become so extreme that the #2 guy creates a written record when he tells the top guy he’s tired of lying about the reserves – [when this happens at a company like Shell], I can guarantee you [that corporate misbehavior] is widespread. When everyone [every CEO] becomes Jack Welsh, [who managed GE] to have income go up steadily [it’s a bad thing]. [GE under Welsh was notorious for managing the natural volatility if its earnings so show investors a false picture of steadily rising profits.]

        

[Part of the problem is that] The time horizon is wrong. The guy who fudged the reserves [at Shell] was near retirement, so [the accounting games] only had to last 3-4 years. The time horizons of CEOs are wrong.

        

And it’s not just CEOs – the people investing the pension plans of municipalities have done terrible things. And the pension plans of police departments [my notes are weak here; I think he talked about how the pension plans are gamed by retiring cops working a lot of extra hours in their last year, which translates into much higher pension payouts]. No-one has the least sense of shame; [they rationalize that] everyone else does it…

        

Demise of Ethics Among the Major Accounting Firms

When I was younger, the senior partners at the major accounting firms were Scottish – more than half were. And they were quite ethical places and nobody got filthy rich – I know because I handled some of their estates. The were many Indians and few chiefs.

        

But in the space of 25 years, they sold out to terrible behavior, one little step at a time. Once you start doing something bad, then it’s easy to take the next step – and in the end, you’re a moral sewer. The idea that the major accounting firms of the country would sell obviously fraudulent tax shelters... [Their strategy was to] make it so obscure that it won’t be caught. One after another, the accounting firms went into it. And the lawyers got paid big feels. I don’t know where it would have stopped had the scandal not hit. Deloitte has cashiered all of its culpable tax partners, but they waited until it was obvious – they should have acted sooner. It was the same at the other accounting firms.

        

[I spoke with Wesco’s auditor from Deloitte, who was on stage with Munger at the meeting, and he took issue with Munger’s characterization of his firm, saying that Deloitte was alone among the big accounting firms in not pushing abusive tax shelters. (But he said he loved everything else Munger had to say!)]

        

J.P. Morgan Chase set up something in the Canary Islands to avoid taxes. What the hell were they thinking? [I missed some of his rant here – but it was a good one!]

        

To a guy who’s a Republican like me, [all of this bad behavior – I think he’s referring to behavior across corporate America, not just accountants] is awkward because they [the perpetrators] were all Republicans. [Laughter]

        

I do think we’re coming back from that. When the guys went to the penitentiary to pound rocks for price fixing, I think it changed [that type of behavior]. I think a goodly number of people going to prison will help things. But there are enormous pressures. There’s so much money [at stake], and it’s easy to report a little more [in earnings, to keep the stock price up]. I don’t think we’ve seen the last person to succumb to the temptations.

        

Impact of Sarbanes-Oxley

I think you’ll even get some bad things from Sarbanes-Oxley. Some people will have a really good quarter, and they formerly wanted to be conservative, but under their impression of Sarbanes-Oxley, they will make a wrong call [and not be as conservative as they otherwise would be].

        

There’s nothing wrong with conservatism, as long as it’s consistent. Reporting more earnings when the business is weak and less when it’s strong – that’s obviously wrong. The world would be better if everybody was consistently conservative, but we’re a long way from that result.

        

[I was initially confused by these comments because being excessively conservative is hardly a problem in Corporate America – though some companies do use “cookie-jar” accounting to smooth earnings. A friend of mine thinks that what Munger is really talking about is the impact on Berkshire (and the few other companies that are as conservative as Berkshire is). Let’s say Berkshire was extremely conservative and set aside $3 billion (he’s making up this number) in reserves for World Trade Center losses. In past years, my friend argues, if it turned out that losses were only going to come in at $2 billion, then Buffett and Munger would say to themselves, “Well, let’s keep the extra $1 billion in reserves, rather than running it through the income statement as unexpected profit, just to be extra conservative and because we’re sure to get hit with surprises on other policies that we haven’t reserved for at all.” Now, under Sarbanes-Oxley, Berkshire can no longer be extra conservative like this, which Munger surely thinks is a bad thing.]

        

Signs of Hope – New Zealand Example

There are a lot of hopeful signs – and this ought to cheer up Republicans. New Zealand over time developed socialist systems – it had every sign you could image of socialism gone mad: import barriers, high unemployment, big deficits, high taxes, big government, etc. But in now has low taxes, a flat 10% consumption tax, a budget surplus, reduced debt, and so forth. The school system was a disaster, but in one fell swoop they revised it the way Milton Friedman would like. And this was led by the Labor Party!

        

So, at least there’s some hope somewhere where a highly socialist system like New Zealand can change. And the change was dramatic – it made what Margaret Thatcher did in the UK look like nothing. New Zealand took folly by its neck and wrung it out. It took one department, the works ministry, and cut [all of its staff] to one person. They just hired private firms to do it.

        

They had terrible unemployment – nobody was working. That’s what caused the Labor party to say, “We’re this tiny little island, nobody’s working, so we have to fix it.”

        

But the scandal and dysfunction has to get very extreme before someone will do something.

        

 Workman’s Comp

Take Workman’s comp in California – to say it was sinful is an understatement. It had crooked chiropractors, lawyers, legislators, etc. It was a miracle that we got 20% of the reform that we needed – we needed a recall [of the governor], threats from Schwarzenegger, etc. [to make it happen].

        

So it happened, and we do get reform, so my guess is that we’ll see some of the worst behavior in modern business dissipate.

        

Lawyers

The lawyers have escaped most criticism [and undeservedly so]. The tax shelters [were approved by lawyers, who got paid huge commissions to do so] and every miscreant had a high-falutin’ lawyer at his side. Why don’t more law firms vote with their feet and not take clients who have signs on them that say, “I’m a skunk and will be hard to handle?” I’ve noticed that firms that avoid trouble over long periods of time have an institutional process that tunes bad clients out. Boy, if I were running a law firm, I’d want a system like that because a lot of firms have a lot of bad clients.

        

Martha Stewart

What happened with Martha Stewart was that she heard some news, panicked and sold the stock. It turns out that if she’s just told the truth [about what she did], she’d have been OK, but because she had a vague idea that what she’d done was wrong, she had a totally phony story when the investigators came and she lied to them and that’s a felony. And she did these acts after she’d hired high-fallutin’ lawyers! And I’m sure they charged her a lot. [Laughter] I do not invent these stories.

        

Were I her lawyer, I would have said, “You know Martha, that’s an interesting story and I’m your lawyer, so I’m required to believe you, but nobody else will. So, you’re going to have to come up with a different story or you’ll have to tell it through a different lawyer because I don’t like losing cases.” [Laughter] And it’ll work. It’s so simple. Literally, she’s going to prison for her behavior after  she’d hired a lawyer!

        

Tell the Truth

Look at Bill Clinton and the Paula Jones case. Because he lied, he lost his license to practice law, which is a significant disgrace for a sitting President of the United States. I would have advised him to just settle.

        

It’s everywhere you turn. Remember Louis Vincenti’s rule: “Tell truth and you won’t have to remember your lies.” It’s such a simple concept.

        

Imagine what it was like in third or fourth year [after the lying about reserves had begun] at Shell. What seemed like a good idea in year one is getting really uncomfortable. You [the CEO] have been knighted by the Queen and you don’t want to admit that reserves went down a bit. What’s wrong with that? Why get your ego involved?

        

These things happen over again and the plots are very similar – they come back time after time.

        

Bad Behavior in the Money Management Industry

I feel obligated to ramble a bit when people have traveled so far. [Laughter]

        

I have one more anecdote: I have fun with this when I speak in front of students and professors. I say, “You all understand supply and demand curves. If you raise price, you sell less, but make more margin. So, give me four instances where the correct answer is to raise the price [meaning volume will go up].” I’ve done this about four times, and maybe one person in 50 can give me one answer that’s correct.

        

I can easily name four or five: Say you sold widgets to company X, and then raised your prices, but used some of the proceeds to bribe the purchasing agent for X. [For an example of this,] Look at the mutual fund industry. Many mutual funds pay a 5% commission [load on the fund] to buy their mutual fund instead of other securities or funds. So, in substance, they’re really bribing the purchasing agent [the purchasing agent is the financial advisor who receives the bribe/kickback from the mutual fund company to which he steered his clients’ assets]. [Munger added, however, that:] Many people [referring to the fund companies that pay the bribes] behave well once they’re over this.

        

But not always. Can you imagine the people who mutual fund taking a bribe to steal from their own clients?! This is not a minor sin. I think Chris Davis [of Davis Funds] is here. At his shop, when they came in and offered [to invest] $40 million [in the Davis Funds in exchange for] allowing [abusive] trading, it went through two layers before someone said, “This is crazy!” [I think Munger is praising the Davis Funds – a great value-oriented firm that I’m sure Munger admires – for making the right decision, though I’m sure everyone agrees that the right decision should have been arrived at instantly.]

        

It’s as if someone approached you and said, “Let’s murder your mother and split the life insurance proceeds 50/50,” and you saying, “Well, I have other siblings [so losing my mom wouldn’t be so bad], and I’m not sure 50/50 is fair, but let’s do it.” [Laughter]

        

It was not only immoral, but stupid. Imagine you’re as rich and successful as Dick Strong was, and then stealing $500,000 more?

        

I think that will get a lot better. We really ended up with something in the mutual fund business that we didn’t intend. [I missed some here; he talked about how the industry was originally set up by investment counseling operations.] If mutual fund directors are independent, then I’m the lead character in the Bolshoi Ballet. [Laughter]

        

I don’t think management companies should be allowed to sell [their] mutual funds. I think Capital Guardian took the high moral ground [I’m not sure what he’s referring to]. But if you spent so much time building it, and everyone else is doing it…[of course they’re going to want to sell it].

        

QUESTION & ANSWER PERIOD COMMENTS ON WESCO

 

Intrinsic Value of Berkshire and Wesco

Berkshire has more in intrinsic value per dollar of book value than Wesco, and the gap is widening. I’ve written that many times. It’s easy to calculate the intrinsic value of Wesco, but hard to do so for Berkshire. You’ll have to do this yourself.

          

What If Munger Dies?

As you can tell, we’re planning on immortality here. [Laughter] What do you need – [isn’t it enough that we’re] sitting on a pile of money and Warren Buffett [is] sitting at the parent corporation?

          

Quant Tech

[At the 2001 Wesco annual meeting, Munger passed out a booklet entitled “Some Investment-Related Talks and Writings Made or Selected by Charles T. Munger,” which contained a number of articles and writings by Buffett and Munger. One of the essays in the handout was entitled “The Great Financial Scandal of 2003.” It’s a story Munger wrote – that I think loosely resembles Cisco, IMB and the like – in which the managers of a formerly reputable tech company become greedy, start giving themselves vast numbers of stock options and cooking the books, and it eventually all comes crashing down. Asked to comment on this, Munger said:]

        

It wasn’t hard for a person with any mathematical training to see the scale to which the misleading was possible. All I did in that story was escalate the scale using the accounting conventions. Of course, since I was writing the story, I could punish the miscreants. I sent the accountants to the lowest rung of hell – they were the custodians of a great profession (whereas we expected the investment bankers to behave terribly). Remember that traders occupy the lowest rungs of hell. The accountants who lived in the nice neighborhoods [who sold out] were sent to join the traders. It’s fun sending people to where you think they belong. I had a lot of fun writing that story.

        

Cort

Cort has blipped a little tiny bit back from the pit. Obviously, our timing was terrible. I don’t see how we could have had worse timing if we’d tried to have bad timing. But it will work out OK over time.

        

Wesco Movie

 [A shareholder asked, tongue-in-cheek, when there would be a movie at the Wesco annual meeting.]

        

There will never  be a Wesco Corporation annual meeting movie. [Laughter]

        

 COMMENTS ON BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY & ITS SUBSIDIARIES

          

Munger’s Impact on Buffett

I think those authors give me more credit than I deserve. It is true that Warren had a touch of brain block from working under Ben Graham and making a ton of money – it’s hard to switch from something that’s worked so well. But if Charlie Munger had never lived, the Buffett record would still be pretty much what it is.

        

What Happens When Buffett’s Gone?

When Warren is gone, the acquisition side of Berkshire will not do as well, but the rest will do well. And the acquisition side will do just fine. In any case, we’ve guaranteed you that the historical rate of growth will go down, and we wouldn’t want to make a liar out of me. [Laughter]

        

[Later in the meeting, Munger returned this topic:]

        

I think the top guy won’t be as smart as Warren. But it’s silly to complain: “What kind of world is this that gives me Warren Buffett for 40 years and then some bastard comes along who’s worse?” [Laughter]

        

Danger of Losing Berkshire’s Corporate Culture?

[One shareholder asked about the danger of Buffett’s descendents being outflanked by professional managers who destroyed the culture, as happened at Disney and Hewlett-Packard?]

        

I am not worried about the Munger family having a huge concentration in Berkshire stock long after I’m dead. I think Berkshire’s culture will last, just as Wal-Mart’s culture has lasted for 15 years after Sam Walton’s death. There are some real similarities, including roughly similar percentage ownership levels by the families.

        

I can’t be responsible for the conduct of my heirs – I have enough difficulty being responsible for my own conduct, so I don’t want to be blamed for my children. And for my nieces and nephews [and more distant descendants], I really don’t want to be blamed. [Laughter]

        

I think Berkshire has a way better chance of maintaining its culture than just about any company. I think we’re way more like Wal-mart than Disney. I think we won’t lose the culture – that it’ll last a long, long time.

          

Comments on Gen Re

Regret Purchase of Gen Re?

Shortly after acquiring Gen Re, of course, we soon came into adverse developments, including the happenstance of the World Trade Center events. But we also found that the culture was weaker that we thought. But we’re delighted now and it’s fixed.

        

I don’t know where we’d get a Gen Re now, like the Gen Re we have, if we wanted one, so I’m not gnashing my teeth. We bought at the peak of the market, sold everything [Gen Re’s stock holding], took losses, and we now we have the capital asset. So it made us look silly for a while, but in the long game for Berkshire, the bad part was a blip and the long-term looks quite favorable.

          

Comparative Merits of Gen Re vs. Other Reinsurers

I don’t like to appraise the comparative merits of other reinsure companies because we do business with them all the time, but the problem I have is that in my heart of hearts, I like my business so much better than theirs.

           

Flight to Quality in Reinsurance?

There’s obviously been some flight to quality in reinsure, but I’d call it more of a dribble to quality. [Laughter]

          

Impact of Judge’s Ruling on How Much Insurers Have to Pay Larry Silverstein, the Developer of the World Trade Center Site

[Missed this – it was a quick answer; something about multiple verdicts expected and that based on the first verdict, Gen Re’s share was $109 million.]

          

Gen Re’s Declining Volumes and Loss of Market Share

[Munger asked Gen Re’s CEO, Joe Brandon, to answer this question. Brandon said:] There’s no doubt that Gen Re’s share of North American premium volume has gone down in the last few years. That’s because we’ve had a deliberate focus on profitability. We’ve made no macro calls on which lines [of insurance or reinsurance] we want to be in. We underwrite the transactions one at a time, only doing what makes sense. If they don’t make sense, we just say “no thank you” and don’t write the business. We have no premium volume or market share goals. I expect the premium volume will be down again, modestly, in 2004.

        

From 1986 to 1988, Gen Re’s premiums declined by about 28%. From 2001-2004, it will likely be similar before it bottoms out -- it’s impossible to predict for sure. We are not focused on share, but profitability.

        

Munger: “The tone of your question implied that it’s terrible that we’re losing share, but you’d be out of your mind to focus on share as opposed to profitability.

        

[After the meeting, Brandon talked with a group of shareholders about the efforts to change Gen Re’s culture from one focused on premium growth to one not caring if premiums fell if the pricing wasn’t right. The key, he said, is to convince people that their jobs are safe, even if they don’t write as much business as they used to. He also tells them, “If we do nothing (i.e., don’t write any business), we’ll make almost $1 billion pre-tax this year, so we don’t want to mess it up by being undisciplined in how we price and underwrite business.” Overall, he said that the culture isn’t entirely fixed, but he’s pleased with the progress. He also noted that overall pricing in the insurance market, after rising strongly in recent years, has stopped rising, and, in some lines, has begun to fall. (These notes are included with Brandon’s permission.)]

        

Coke’s Future

Well, the nature of all remarkable growth rates is that they peak in due course. Personally, I don’t think Coke has reached a peak in its volume, though perhaps in its growth rate. 10 years from now, I think they’ll be selling more volume. It’s a mature product, but its decline phase is  way out there.

        

Clayton Homes Acquisition and Controversy

Regarding Clayton Homes, we did get a reaction that it was worth more [than what we offered], but that wasn’t so. The Claytons knew more than we did. There had been so much disgrace and bad behavior by so many people in the industry that lenders weren’t willing to lend to anyone in the sector, so even Clayton Homes, which is the class of the industry, was having serious problems making their business model work.

        

I suppose it’s flattering that people think that if we’re so smart [to buy Clayton at the price we did, then] we must be stealing, but it’s not true. We paid a fair price.

        

Commissions Paid and Market Impact When Buying or Selling

On commissions, we pay under five cents per share. As for market impact, we generally don’t try to buy thinly traded stocks. Is there market impact? That depends on what we’re buying, but it’s been so long since we’ve bought anything that it’s like asking Rip Van Winkle about the past 20 years. [Laughter] We try not to have much market impact. There’s a little art in this process.

        

Silver

We don’t comment on what we’re doing or whether we’re still in it. If we know enough to beat the market over time, we know enough not to tell everyone, who could act in ways that might hurt us.

        

Do You Have Thoughts on How to Calculate the Intrinsic Value of Commodities Like Silver

 No.

        

Home for Entrepreneurs

[Munger was asked what advice he would give if someone wanted to create another home for entrepreneurs (and their businesses) like Berkshire. He said he didn’t know.]

        

        

HOW TO BECOME A BETTER INVESTOR

          

Keys to Investment Success

It’s a common question – like the fellow who wins all the bass tournaments, to ask how did you jiggle the lure? Partly its temperament – most people are too fretful, they worry to much. Success means being very patient, but aggressive when it’s time. And the more hard lessons you can learn vicariously rather than through your own hard experience, the better.

        

I don’t know anyone who [learned to be a great investor] with great rapidity. Warren has gotten to be one hell of a lot better investor over the period I’ve known him, so have I. So the game is to keep learning. You gotta like the learning process.

        

You seem to like learning a lot. But I’d inject one line of caution: there’s an apocryphal story about Mozart. A 14-year-old came to him and said, “I want to learn to be a great composer.” And Mozart said, “You’re too young.” The young man replied, “But I’m 14 years old and you were only eight or nine when you started composing.” To which Mozart replied, “Yes, but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it.” [Laughter]

          

Proper Thinking

Einstein was reported to have said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no more simple.” If he didn’t say it, he should have.

        

And another thing: Thinking success comes from four things [I missed one]: curiosity, perseverance, and self-criticism. Any year that passes in which you don’t destroy one of your best loved ideas is a wasted year.

        

[I missed this. He quoted Philip Wiley (?) saying something about there’s nothing you can squeeze between what you know and what you want to know…(?)] You want a guy who can destroy his well-loved ideas.

          

Investing Overconfidence

Most people who try it don’t do well at it. But the trouble is that if even 90% are no good, everyone looks around and says, “I’m the 10%.”

        

 

         BUSINESS AND INVESTING TOPICS

          

Are Any Asset Classes Undervalued?

Our cash is speaking for itself. If we had a lot of wonderful ideas, we wouldn’t have so much cash.

          

Concerns About Consumer Debt

Gigantic macroeconomic predictions are something I’ve never made any money on, and neither has Warren. Of course I’m troubled by huge consumer debt levels – we’ve pushed consumer credit very hard in the US. Eventually, if it keeps growing, it will stop growing. As Herb Stein said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” When it stops, it may be unpleasant. Other than Herb Stein’s quote, I have no comment. But the things that trouble you are troubling me.

        

Channel Stuffing

The channel stuff in the soda [pop] industry, where it has occurred, has not been [having excess inventories] at end of the aisles in supermarkets, because the supermarkets would not allow this. Where it’s occurred has been in excesses concentrate sent to the distributors. With Gillette, it was excess razor blades sent to distributors.

        

A lot of channel stuffing in America was done to make quarterly numbers. I think it’s gone way down compared to its earlier times, and I think this is to the good – it was a very pernicious practice. It happened because CEO’s said, “I’m a steward of shareholders and by moving things        out a quarter [e.g., stuffing the channel], I can report better earnings, so I’m obligated to do it. I think that’s changed a lot. It’s less common now, though I think there was a recent case in ethical drugs [I think he’s referring to Biovail]. It’s a pernicious practice.

        

Asbestos

I don’t think only allowing the truly sick to sue is politically viable, which is why we don’t have a settlement. There’s so much money in the system that you don’t get a sensible solution. 70-80% of the money doesn’t go to the people who have been injured. It’s a crazy system. The guy who has mesothelioma gets a little bit [of money], and the guy who has nothing wrong with him gets way more than he deserves, along with his dishonorable doctor and lawyer.

        

And the subornation of perjury is a disgrace. The people who are left [the companies who have not yet gone bankrupt] had no moral fault at all – their products caused no damage, but they’re the few people left solvent, so if you want to make money, you find guy with a spot on his lung, get him to testify that he spends his life worrying cancer, that it’s ruining his life, and that of the 50 brand names, he only remembers the three brand names of the companies that happen to be solvent today. It creates behavior that’s beneath contempt. Most of these claimants were smokers, so the net incremental damage [caused by asbestos] was between zero and trivial. It’s a total disgrace, but there’s so much money that there’s no way to stop it. The politicians say that if we took enough money from Gen Re and its ilk, we’d solve the problem. But if you take money from Paul to pay Peter, but you just create more Peters – it’s like dousing a fire by pouring gas in it. I predict it goes on and on and on.

        

Impact of Baby Boomers

Regarding the demographic trend called Baby Boomers, it’s peanuts compared to the trend of economic growth. Over the last century, [our] GNP is up seven times. This was not caused by Baby Boomers, but by the general success of capitalism and the march of technology. Those trends were so favorable that little blips in the birth rate were not that significant.

        

We can keep social peace as long as GNP rises 3% annually – this can pay for spending by politicians. If we ever got to stasis [no growth], then with all the promises, you’d get real tensions between the generations. The Baby Boomers would exacerbate it, but the real cause would be lack of growth.

        

[When asked whether he thought growth would slow or cease, Munger said:] I don’t think my prediction is any better than yours. There certainly been some remarkable technology. When I was young, there was no medicine for most diseases, no joint replacement surgery, etc.

        

The key is energy: in 100 years, if we get 3% growth worldwide – it’s be higher in India and China – then I think we’ll have to rethink how we use energy.

        

Independent Directors and Compensation

Generally speaking, if you’re counting on outside directors to act [forcefully to protect your interests as a shareholder, then you’re crazy]. As a general rule in America, boards act only if there’s been a severe disgrace.

        

My friend Joe was asked to be on the board of Northwestern Bell and he jokes that “it was the last thing they ever asked me.” [Laughter]

        

I think you get better directors when you get directors who don’t need the money. When it’s half your income and all your retirement, you’re not likely to be very independent. But when you have money and an existing reputation that you don’t want to lose, then you’ll act more independently.

        

I’d argue that’s the board we have at Berkshire and to a lesser extent at Wesco. Warren said to me once, “I think we may have the best board in the country” – and he wouldn’t say it if he didn’t believe it. They’re awfully high grade people, and they’re serving with little pay and no directors and officers insurance.

        

The best idea is to not pay [people to be directors at all]. I think tons of eminent people would serve on boards of companies like Exxon without being paid. The lower courts in England are run by unpaid magistrates. And Harvard is run by boards of people who don’t get paid – in fact, they have to pay [in the form of donations to the school].

        

I think boards would be better if they were run like Berkshire Hathaway’s.

        

It’s incredible the reciprocity that happens when CEOs keep recommending that directors get paid more, and then the directors raise the CEO’s pay – it’s a big game of pitty pat. And then they hire compensation consultants to make sure no-one else is getting paid more. This is true even is the CEO a klutz and a little dishonorable.

        

I think the existing system is very bad and my system would work better, but it’s not going to happen.

        

Franklin said government would run better if no-one was paid. The Mormon church doesn’t pay its clergy, but other than that…

        

Can Two Brands Co-Exist in a Market?

Obviously there are industries where two brands can co-exist like Ford and Chevrolet, but there are others like newspapers in one city where one brand tends to destroy the other. That’s just the way it is. It’s hard to predict what will happen with two brands in a market. Sometimes they will behave in a gentlemanly way, and sometimes they’ll pound each other. I know of no way to predict whether they’ll compete moderately or to the death. If you could figure it out, you could make a lot of money.

          

Under-Reserving in the Insurance Industry

It’s a field where you get a fair amount of discretion on what you get to report. I would bet a lot of money that both Gen Re and Berkshire are way more conservative than average and will stay that way, even if they have terrible quarters to report. Generally speaking, I don’t think you’ve seen the last scandal in insurance.

        

Derivatives

[I missed some of this, but he talked about how much money was involved, how much leeway people have in valuation positions, and the problems this raises.]

        

The real scandal will come in derivatives. Gen Re is running off its derivative book and we’re seeing a lot of losses – far more than were stated.

        

I think a good litmus test of the mental and moral quality at any large institution [with significant derivatives exposure] would be to ask them, “Do you really understand your derivatives book?”

         

Anyone who says yes is either crazy or lying.

          

Investment Advisors

The investment advisors who come to the Berkshire meeting are not a cross-section – we get the cream of the crop. Many have gotten rich [by following our teachings]. [I think I missed something in here.] Franklin said it’s hard for an empty sack to stand upright.

        

Comments on Hedge Funds

Mine [the Munger Partnership] wasn’t a hedge fund in legal terms. I had the power to go short, but I rarely did. In the last years, I didn’t short anything.

        

Today, there are 8,000 hedge funds and the number is growing rapidly. There are hundreds of billions of dollars in them. Every university has to have hedge fund investments, and there are funds of hedge funds and layers upon layers of fees. There are hedge funds giving layers of incentive fees to operating businesses beneath them. [I think he’s referring to fund of funds charging fees on top of the already-high fees charged by the underlying hedge funds.]

        

I think you can confidently predict that per dollar year, all the hedge funds, for the hedge fund owners [meaning investors], after all fees and losses, they will not be moneymakers. In fact, the results will be somewhere between mediocre and lousy.

        

That being said, Berkshire has a hedge fund that’s like a private fixed arb account. Some will do well. The trouble is, as someone once said about banks: “We have more banks than bankers.” The problem is that there are more hedge funds than competent people to run them. Some hedge funds will do well no doubt.

        

I think it’s very pernicious for the civilization that so much brainpower is going into hedge funds. Wesco is trying to build some property in Pasadena, and part of the reason we’re doing it is that I don’t want to be known a person who just bought and sold paper [securities/investments]. I would regards this as a failure. I want to be doing something to make civilization better.

        

Think about it. Would you really like it if all five of your children went into hedge funds, even if they were successful? Would you say to yourself, “Boy, I really hit it out of the park with these kids?” Wouldn’t it be better if one was a surgeon, a lawyer, someone who rose through the ranks at Costco, and so forth?

        

It’s amazing the brainpower being drawn into the hedge fund industry. When I was young, guys in the investment business were mediocre at best – they had eastern [East Coast] tailoring and didn’t know very much. Now, it’s a cascade of brainpower. Collectively, they add nothing to the GNP. Indeed, they’re adding costs, collectively. If you take the money invested in common stocks, and then subtract the 2% per year that goes out in investment management costs and frictional trading costs, that’s more than companies pay in dividends. It’s more than the twin deficits. This would fit very well into Alice in Wonderland: pay dividends of X and pay the same amount to investment managers and advisors.

        

         COMMENTS ON GOVERNMENT, REGULATORY & POLITICAL MATTERS

          

More on Sarbanes-Oxley

The pain [of so many scandals and trials] is helping to cleanse the system. But there’s all this prejudice and ignorance in major power centers.

        

By no means everything that is done will improve matters. I don’t think Sarbanes-Oxley is going to work very well. A CEO can’t possibly attest to the veracity of the financial statements, as required by law, except by relying on other people. Now, if he was personally engaged in cooking the books, it’s easier for the government to get him. If you took an extra $1 million in your expense account and then certified incorrect financial statements, it’s easier to get him.

        

Dennis Kozlowski got so accustomed to taking so much, that one of the jurors said “He couldn’t possibly have had criminal intent because there’s no sense of shame.” [Laughter]

        

Sarbanes-Oxley makes it easier to prosecute something like Martha Stewart.

        

Sarbanes-Oxley has raised our costs. I don’t think it’s done anything favorable for the quality [of our financial results], because there was quality to begin with.

        

Will it outsmart the crooks? I little bit. The incentives to fudge must be extreme if the head of Royal Dutch will fall into it. Passing Sarbanes-Oxley will not change it all that much. It will change it a little bit. Sarbanes-Oxley is not making it worse – it was terrible to begin with.

        

Congress Recent Relaxing Rules Requiring Companies to Set Aside Enough Money to Meet Pension Obligations

You had some very important institutions like airlines that couldn’t pay their pension obligations, so Congress just papered it over by saying they didn’t have to pay. Whether that’s a good idea, I’ll leave that up to you. It can’t be a good sign for the civilization.

        

Recent Spitzer Inquiry Into Insurance Brokers

[I missed some of this.] A lot of the customers are big, sophisticated institutions who know the industry, so it’s not like a little old lady trusting her broker.

        

Which Country Should America Emulate?

I still prefer this country, and so does Warren. But we’re both troubled deeply by the twin deficits [trade and budget]. [Bad] Things can go on for a long time, starting from our [wealthy] base and especially if other counties have things wrong with them, so it’s a very complex subject.

        

Iraq

Regarding Iraq, there are a lot of very intelligent people in this country that believe it was invading the country was totally stupid and that everything bad that’s happened since then was totally predictable, and some believe that we should get the hell out.

        

All regret the loss of life and everyone concedes we overestimated the weapons of mass destruction risk, but a lot of people believe it was nevertheless worth it remove this terrible man that was so rich with so much hatred.

        

I don’t think it was an easy decision – that’s why so many intelligent people have such different views. It’s not clear how it’s going to work out and I don’t have any special competence to predict this. But I think it’s very wrong to assume that people on the other side are stupid and evil. If you’re absolutely sure you’re right, then you’re probably committing a significant intellectual sin.

        

Schwarzenegger’s Impact

Of course budgets in the real world are political compromises, and I don’t think we’ve repealed that in California. But I think it’s changed because Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. Reforming Workman’s comp is a huge step in the right direction, and it wouldn’t have happened without the recall. So, overall I think Arnold Schwarzenegger has been good for California.

        

How to Fix the U.S. Healthcare System

I’m all for capitalism and the kind of cap that New Zealand went to, but I think that if you have a single payer system and an opt-out for people who want to pay more [for better service, etc.], I think it would be better – and I think we’ll eventually get there. It wouldn’t be better at the top – [our current system] is the best in the world at the top. But the waste in the present system is awesome and we do get some very perverse incentives.

        

Proper Tax Policy

My attitude toward taxes is that if I were running the world, we’d have a very substantial consumption tax, and the tax on earned income would be 40% at the top and taxes on long-term capital gains would be 20%.

        

And by the accident of history, we’re not that far away from where we ought to be. I love consumption taxes – they’re so effective. That that’s why conservatives hate them – they work and the government gets a lot of money to spend.

        

In New Zealand, there’s a national 10% consumption tax. Is it so bad to have to pay 10% extra if you go out for a nice meal or charter a plane? I don’t worry about the miser who accumulates money and dies with it. What harm is he doing?

        

A 50% corporate tax rate would be too high. [I missed this. I think he said something about being fine on capital gains (?) and that 35% plus state taxes is just too high (for whom?)]. I’m not in favor of doing away with the 50% estate tax on people like me, but there should be a big exemption. Someone who builds a small business shouldn’t be whacked, but there’s nothing wrong with saying give 50% to society when you die if you’ve done really well.

        

My views would make me anathema in both parties.

        

Inflation Under Democracies

I think democracies are prone to inflation because politicians will naturally spend [excessively] – they have the power to print money and will use money to get votes. If you look at inflation under the Roman Empire, with absolute rulers, they had much greater inflation, so we don’t set the record.

        

It happens over the long-term under any form of government. There was no inflation in the US from 1860-1914, and this period was accompanied by strong growth. I don’t think we’ll get deflation. The bias is way more pro-inflation than it was between 1860-1914. But I don’t think other forms of government will necessarily do better. Some of the worst excesses occur under the tyrannies.

        

 

         ADVICE ON LIFE AND OTHER

          

Things That Keep Munger Up at Night

Personally, I think the most important issue is still the threat that something really god-awful happens in terms of an atomic bomb or pathogens. It’s so unpleasant to think about that people put it off, but if you think about what’s likely to really spoil the party, that’s far worse than a little inflation or one president vs. another.

        

What makes the Iraq thing so hard is that it’s hard to know whether we’re reduced or increased this risk [of a WMD attack]. But I don’t think we want to have a lot of really rich countries in the hands of nuts full of hatred. I think the policy of sitting back and doing nothing is the wrong policy, because the nut will eventually do something awful.

        

The threat of bioterrorism and an atomic attack is still our worst problem. But people prefer to talk about Workman’s comp and corporate malfeasance...

        

How to Teach Ethics

I think the best single way to teach ethics is by example: take in people who demonstrate in all their daily conduct a good ethical framework. But if your ethics slip and people are rewarded [nevertheless, then] it cascades downward. Ethics are terribly important, but best taught indirectly by example. If you just learn a few rules [by having ethics taught in school] so they can pass the test, it doesn’t do much. But if you see people you respect behaving in a certain way, especially under stress, [that has a real impact].

        

Incentive Cause Bias

Incentive cause bias is widespread because it’s routinely used in all compensation systems. If you’re rewarding a man for believing his mutual fund is the best in the world and he needs the money to feed his family, he will believe this [however wrong]. Routine stuff creates incentive cause bias. It’s good if you’re a reputable institution. Take Mass General [the famed Boston hospital]: people who work there believe it’s great institution – and this is good.

        

But there can be terrible effects for both good and ill. Think about those fraudulent accountants.     I talked to one accountant, a very nice fellow who I would have been glad to have his family marry into mine. He said, “What these other accounting firms have done is very unethical. The [tax avoidance scheme] works best if it’s not found out [by the IRS], so we only give it to our best clients, not the rest, so it’s unlikely to be discovered. So my firm is better than the others.” [Laughter] I’m not kidding. And he was a perfectly nice man. People just follow the crowd…Their mind just drifts off in a ghastly way…

        

I recall one story when Arco was celebrating making a lot of money on its oil fields. Their house        counsel was an Irish guy who could get away with saying things, so he said: “I want to toast the guy who really deserves the credit for our success: Here’s to King Faisal! All the predictions we made were wrong, costs were way over budget, etc. But along came King Faisal, who formed a cartel [OPEC], caused the price of oil to soar, and made us a fortune.”

        

That is the kind of toast you seldom hear in corporate life, because it’ll get you fired. But I love the kind of man who’ll make a toast like that – a credit to the human race and an ornament to the civilization. Anyone who can join that [group], do so.

        

Deterioration in Union and Political Structure

I think we have enormous deterioration in union structure and political structure. [I missed this rant, but I think he referred to the union that represents prison guards in California, which has attained extraordinary political power and protects guards, allowing them to be abusive, which is especially worrisome since “I think the people who are attracted to be prison guards are not nature’s noblemen to begin with.” (Laughter)]

        

It’s similar to the guards [who abused the prisoners] in Iraq. Remember the people at Stanford in the famous experiment? [He’s referring to Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment] They started abusing the prisoners almost immediately – and they weren’t even really guards!

        

Book Recommendations

You can’t predict when earthquakes will occur, but you can predict the distribution of their size, which follows what’s called a power law. It’s sort of like gravity – a very useful idea. A lot of think type of thinking is in Deep Simplicity [by John Gribbon. It’s not published yet in North America, but here is a link to the book on Amazon.com’s UK web site; they’ll ship to the U.S.] Not everyone will like Deep Simplicity. It’s pretty hard to understand everything, but if you can’t understand it, you can always give it to a more intelligent friend. [Laughter]

        

I want to thank Peter Bevelin [author of Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, which is only available at Hudson Booksellers in Omaha at (402) 345-8676 or jamhross@aol.com], who keeps sending me books. They’re so good that I send them to all of my friends, which gets expensive, so I can’t afford too many friends like Peter Bevelin.

        

I loved Caro’s book – I thought it was very well done. [I assume he’s referring to the first book, The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1). Caro wrote second and third books: Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 2) and Master of the Senate:The Years of LBJ, Vol. III.] I think reading his biography on LBJ is very important for anyone who wants a view into the human condition. LBJ never told the truth when a lie would be better.

        

This is the way he went through life. He had a high intellect and extraordinary energy and did a lot of good along with the bad. I’m not sure he didn’t do more good than bad. But I think it’s an appalling life to lie as much as LBJ. What I said at Berkshire meeting about the robber barons applies here: “When he’s talking, he’s lying, and when he’s quiet, he’s stealing.” [Laughter]

        

The Isaacson book on Franklin was terrific [Benjamin Franklin: An American Life]. He had a terrific subject – it’s hard to write a bad book on such an interesting subject.

        

[At the Berkshire meeting, Munger also said: If you want to read one book, read the autobiography of Les Schwab [Les Schwab Pride in Performance: Keep It Going]. He ran tire shops in the Midwest and made a fortune by being shrewd in a tough business by having good systems…He made hundreds of millions selling tires.]

        

 

         Notes from 2005 Wesco Financial Annual Meeting

         May 4, 2005

        

         By Whitney Tilson

        

 Note: This is not a transcript. No recording devices were allowed at the meeting, so this is based on many hours of rapid typing, combined with my memory. I have reorganized comments by subject matter. Words in [brackets] are my comments or edits.

        

 For my columns and notes on previous Berkshire and Wesco meetings, click here.

           

 CHARLIE MUNGER’S OPENING REMARKS

        

I feel a duty in these later years to talk a little bit because so many of you have come so far and therefore I’m going to talk a little about current change conditions in corporate governance, the investment world, how we’re adapting at Berkshire Hathaway and Wesco, and how you might face these challenges.

        

Corporate Governance

          

First, corporate governance. We’re having a mild revolution in corporate governance. Congress passed rules requiring that a majority of directors be independent, which has affected all kinds of companies, including Berkshire Hathaway and Wesco. At Costco, we added Bill Gates Sr. [actually, Bill Gates’s father is Jr. and Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, is Bill Gates III (hence the nickname “Trey”), but everyone calls them Sr. and Jr.] and Daniel Evans – I like to see young people joining the board. [Laughter. Gates and Evans are both 79 years old.]

        

I think it’s a plus at Berkshire Hathaway. We have a very able, brilliant group of shareholders. We pay a pittance but everyone we asked [to join our board] agreed to come aboard: Bill Gates, Sandy Gottesman, Tom Murphy, Don Keough, Charlotte Guyman – there’s a couple of billion dollars of Berkshire Hathaway stock in the Gottesman family.

        

 Sarbanes-Oxley

        

Then they passed Sarbanes-Oxley, which creates all kinds of oaths and compliance procedures. One thing it caused was an enormous increase in costs. The auditors must certify the internal controls. At Berkshire Hathaway, including Wesco, this used to cost $200,000 but now it’s in the multiple millions. It’s not all wasted though – only about 80% is wasted. (Laughter)

 

There are some results to the good. But the cost of being a publicly traded stock has gone way, way up. It doesn’t make sense for a little company to be public anymore. A lot of little companies are going private to be rid of these burdensome requirements.

        

The problem is that you can require people to solemnly swear that their financials are accurate, but the only way to do it is to trust a lot of other people. That’s what they did    before and that’s what they do now. I think someone in Congress thought that the President of Exxon would run around and count the barrels of oil. Well, it’s not going to happen. There needs to be deserved trust.

        

I think the current requirements are good. It makes it easier to prosecute crooks. But for the organization and for ordinary people, I don’t think Sarbanes-Oxley will create a lot of control.

        

 Impact of Scandals and Press Coverage

          

But another change is having a dramatic effect on corporate governance and behavior – that’s the widespread scandal and press coverage which has caused shame, disgrace, personal legal costs, and ruined many lives. That has changed behavior – even more so than in the past, during the price-fixing scandal when they carted executives off to jail. That had an effect [but the current scandals are having more of an effect].

        

This wave of scandal and widespread press coverage has had an unbelievably strong impact on corporation behavior – it’s overdue.

        

Think of the publicity of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco. And the mutual fund industry – many firms had some whiff of scandal. Personally, I think what happened to the Strong funds was an outrage. The independent directors found him stealing, but instead of firing him and finding another manager for the funds, they instead allowed him to sell the firm. This shows how permissive and evil a culture can become.

        

Kudos to Spitzer

          

Prosecutors have used the press instead of relying on quiet lawyerly procedures. Personally, I’m in favor of this approach. While some have claimed that this is abusive, 99% of the time it’s not.

        

As far I’m concerned Eliot Spitzer has behaved very well and has done a lot of good. He’s caused a lot of reforms the SEC wouldn’t have caused.

        

Some claim that those targeted by Spitzer are not getting due process, but only lawyers like endless due process – they get paid by the hour. It reminds me of the story about the lawyer who goes to hell and all he gets is endless due process and no decision.

        

There’s been a tremendous change in behavior. In the insurance business, I’d say it’s changed virtually overnight. All kinds of gamey insurance products which fall under financial reinsurance – a meaningless term, by the way – you couldn’t get written today.

        

Obsession With Quarterly Earnings

          

In many corporations, there’s an obsession with meeting quarterly earnings targets. To do so, they’d fudge a little, sell stock at a capital gain, sell a building or two... Then, if that wasn’t enough, they’d engage in channel stuffing – if you were selling through a middleman, you could unload your product at the end of the quarter and make the current quarter look better, but of course the next quarter would be worse. It went on a lot and the penalties were pretty light. For many major pharmaceutical, consumer products and software companies, at the end of quarter, this was very common. That’s pretty well over. A few public hangings will really change behavior.

        

One of our Presidents said if he could execute three people each year for no cause, it would make it a lot easier to govern. When someone said that’s not enough, he said, “Oh yes it is, because I’d publish the list of people under consideration.” (Laughter)

        

So this is all to the good and the cost of doing it has been really low. The public hanging aspect has really worked. People now go to seminars to learn how to avoid this.

        

Sentencing shows that if you try to avoid this [companies trying to avoid reporting false or misleading earnings], you’ll get lower penalties, so corporations are putting in policies to prevent this.

        

Temptation of Commissions

          

This has worked in the insurance and reinsurance industries. It has worked less well where you have direct commissions because you have a sales force relying on commissions. You’ll always have brokers, annuity salesman and the like who go astray. You’ll never be able to stamp it out in these areas. It’s human nature – people will rationalize all sorts of things to get paid.

        

If you want good behavior, don’t pay on a commission basis. Our judges aren’t paid so much a case. We keep them pretty well isolated with a fixed salary. Judges in this whole thing have come out pretty well – there have been relatively few scandals.

        

So not everything has gone to hell in a bucket in our civilization. (Laugher)

        

Accounting Firms and Investment Banks

          

Accounting firms and investment banks had reached a near bottom. The combination helped messes like Enron to happen.

        

In the accounting business, you’ve had a change – it’s been separated from the consulting business.

        

There’s another temptation: building buildings. You can save a lot of money by pouring less concrete, which is why buildings in Latin America often fall down. People will yield to temptation if they’re not carefully checked, so we have regulations and the building commissioners actually have to be present when the concrete is poured. By and large, [the result is that] the building record is pretty good in the U.S.

        

Building inspectors and permitters are like judges – they are paid a salary.

        

In accounting, we’re not going to treat them like building permit issuers – limit them to just checking things. We let them do consulting for tax shelters, etc. I was for it all the way along because for the most part they could do these things and the behavior was pretty good. But four or five years ago, this changed and pretty much every major accounting firm was selling fraudulent tax shelters and were participating – at least one partner was – in accounting fraud. They have thrown out those partners, in some cases reluctantly, but in any case they’re gone and the accounting is way better.

        

Whether we should have gone all the way and only let accounting firms do audits is an interesting question. I like accounting firms – we’ve had good service. But given all the temptations, I don’t know if it wouldn’t be best to make them do only audits.

        

If we have another wave of scandals, CPAs will be asked to choose between certifying the accounts of publicly traded corporations vs. other activities. They hate it – checking the accounts is very boring; other work is more interesting, so they won’t be able to attract good people [to the profession].

        

The investment banks were just unbelievable. If you want to be really horrified, those of you who haven’t already read FIASCO [The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader, by Frank Partnoy], the account of the derivatives trading desk at Morgan Stanley, it will turn your stomach.

        

I recommend the new book by Kurt Eichenwald, Conspiracy of Fools [about the Enron scandal]. He takes some liberties, like what the guy was thinking as he got on the elevator, but I don’t think the gist is wrong. The title is right: Conspiracy of Fools. A lot of this was delusion.

        

But the thing that is sickening is the investment bankers – but lawyers and accountants behave badly too.

        

It’s good to rub your nose in it. If you can’t stand it all at once, then do it in bursts. If you throw up in between episodes, that’s OK too. (Laughter)

        

Some of these faults ought to be judged as they are in the church – as mortal vs. venial. The sin of smoothing of earnings was so widely done by so many people that we have to accept it as a venial sin. But now we’re changing the category, and we should. I think we should think long and hard before we smooth the achievement record.

        

I think a lot of smart people have decided “I’m not going within 10 miles of this whirlpool that can suck you down, break you up and spit you out.” Some people who only had small sins are going to get clobbered. But overall the prosecutorial discretion has not been abused.

        

However, once people are disgraced, pay a fine, etc., what’s the point of beating up a guy who’s half dead? Once he’s disgraced, do you need to stomp on him?

        

I don’t want to suggest that all of the puffery and folly is over, however.

        

Now they wear tailored suits, but there’s a good bit of the old Mark Twain culture in those suits.

        

Part of it is from people who shrink from doing unpleasant things. Who hasn’t? It’s terribly unpleasant to fire someone. Or how do you tell someone not to go into a field [of business] with lots of money to be made because it smells? Or if their incomes are going down, there’s huge pressure to invent some products to keep their income up.

        

That’s why Warren doesn’t lay people off when our home-grown insurance company volume goes down.

        

There’s been ghastly behavior in the sale of annuities. The idea of shifting an old lady from one annuity to another to make a commission – you laugh, but it happens. The trouble is always with us.

        

At the cost of being sickened by all the scandal, I think the behavior is getting better.

        

Hedge Funds

          

I don’t know what will happen with hedge funds. They now have $1 trillion and all of them are on margin. History would indicate a certain percentage will lie about their results if they have any discretion whatsoever, and will try to cover up market errors if they can. I can confidently predict scandals. It will always be thus.

        

Corporate Compensation

          

The corporate governance thing, as it affects compensation, I do not think is getting improved. They [CEOs] will accomplish the same old thing, helped by clever lawyers. People will just get more sophisticated in the way they do it.

        

Perhaps a semi-public place like the NYSE will behave better, but the ordinary corporation will continue to escalate compensation. The key officers appoint the directors and then the directors decide how much the officers make. And then the officers increase the compensation of the directors, etc. You look around the table and nobody else is objecting. There are psychological pressures tending to gross abuse. That’s not to say that all CEOs are overpaid. In my opinion, Jack Welch was under paid for what he did at GE.

        

But if you rise high in a corporation or elsewhere in life, you have a duty to be an exemplar – you have a duty to take less than you deserve, to set an example. This goes all the way back to Athens. The Athenians were like today’s United Jewish Appeal. Public duty was not optional. Civilized man had a duty to act as an exemplar – and this was not a minor duty; it was a major duty of life. This is not mentioned by compensation consultants. (Laughter)

        

Conduct Unbecoming an Officer

          

This should change. When I was an officer in the military, we had a rule called Conduct Unbecoming an Officer. It was not specific, but it said there were certain ways to behave as an example for others. I don’t see why we shouldn’t have this for our corporate executives. I would argue the CEO of Boeing was removed for Conduct Unbecoming an      Officer. Messing up the email system of a corporation with hot and dirty email is       Conduct Unbecoming an Officer. I would love to see the SEC make it explicit: “We hereby exercise our authority and say that there will be a new standard for officers of public companies called Conduct Unbecoming an Officer.” The lawyers would scream though – it’s not specific enough.

        

But if we ask our military officers, who risk their lives and risk being maimed [to adhere to this standard], then why can’t we ask this of some guy making $2 million per year? (Applause)

        

Well that’s corporate governance. It’s certainly been interesting to watch as these messy stories unfurl.

        

More on Bad Accounting

          

Oh, I’d say this: if you read the Eichenwald book on Enron, if there’s one issue to highlight, it’s that Arthur Andersen and the SEC allowed them to use Wall Street accounting to account for long-term contracts. It’s one of the worst things. A well-trained orangutan could see what it would lead to, but the SEC and the accountants lay down. This was 90% of the problem.

        

When accountants lie down, they are failing civilization in a truly important way. There’s no reason that people so secure – there are only four firms and they’re all the same, so it doesn’t do any good to fire them – can’t do better than they do. They’re secure and it’s terrible publicity, so there’s no reason the accounting can’t be better.

        

Investment returns

          

There’s $1 trillion in hedge funds and private equity is 3-4 times larger. Private universities have fixed-income departments, private equity for mid-stage investments, masses of complicated math to track risk in each class and how to judge each class, etc.

        

So far, it’s worked beautifully for Harvard and Yale – they got into some good things. But I feel about Harvard and Yale the way I feel about my own career: I feel that by getting rich in the way I did, I think my own example has hurt my own country. I think that Harvard and Yale have caused every charitable foundation to act in the same way. I think it has pernicious effects on civilization.

        

Too Much Brainpower Going Into Money Management

          

It’s my guess that something like 5% of GDP goes to money management and its attendant friction. I define it broadly – annuities, incentive pay, all trading, etc. Nobody else has used figures that high, but that’s my guess. Worst of all, the people doing this are among the best and the brightest. Hundreds and thousands of engineers, etc. are going into hedge funds and investment banking. That is not an intelligent allocation of the brainpower of the civilization.

        

While we’re doing this, in Korea at Samsung, they have a meeting every day at 11 pm to review the day. Well, who is going to win if our brainpower is going into hedge funds and theirs is having a meeting at 11 pm? But nobody is talking about this. These people are honored. If people talk at the country club, one person might say, “Boy, my daughter is getting married to a hedge fund manager.” They’re making heroes.

        

My daughter is an art dealer and she says that most of her business is selling to hedge fund managers. If you make $100 million, why not have a fancy apartment and two Chagalls? You can’t get this [kind of money] elsewhere, so it goes on.

        

Too Much Credit

          

The action, the trading, the amount of credit... And to get good returns, the hedge funds need more use of credit.

        

Of course, the firms that are extending the credit are the investment banks. If there’s any great wave of running for the exits, those people will get out fast. Unless the Federal Reserve decides to protect hedge funds, you could have a real mess.

        

Tough Environment

          

So that’s where we’re at. Meanwhile, it’s like an Easter egg hunt with too many hunters and not enough eggs. So you value investors, look around the room. There are a lot of hunters. So if you’re having trouble, please join the club.

        

I regard that as a very interesting development. I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my whole life – it’s hit all asset classes together. Real estate is priced very high by past standards. Stocks are priced very high by past standards. Fixed income is priced very high by past standards. All of these asset classes have been hit. And all of these people accounting for a vast part of GDP want to get rich, and they will likely push.

        

This could end up in two ways: keep going up or there could be a classic bust, as occurred in Japan.

        

The competition to buy companies is heating up. The private equity firms will rationalize almost any price. My friend buys warehouses and for months he’s been unable to buy anything. He says, “All I do is raise the price paid to the owner of the warehouse.” So my friend stopped trying to buy warehouses.

        

The Rise of the Orient

          

Take the vast improvement of conditions in the Orient – that is really something. At Berkshire Hathaway we do not like to compete against Chinese manufacturers. They learn fast and are good at getting things to you. They’re coming up fast.

        

The amount of talent in the Asian populations is amazing. They were held down by ridiculous systems -- first ruled by autocrats and then by communists – but now under capitalism, the potential is awesome.

        

My test is I look at symphony orchestras. For the hardest instruments, that require the most dedicated training, 80% of the faces are Asian. This was not true years ago. They are a very talented, driven ethnic group. A good thing about the U.S. is that they come here. Look around this room – look how many Asians are here. 20 years ago at the Wesco meeting, this was not true.

        

Go to the UC Berkeley engineering department – you’d think you were in Asia.

        

My grandchildren may be displaced [by Asians]. If so, that’s too damn bad for the Mungers. I’m all for meritocracy.

        

The economic implications are huge when you have a population base so large, so intrinsically talented, with family values so good. I don’t know an Asian family that doesn’t kill itself for education. In Korea, one of the biggest businesses is tutors. Kids go to school all day and then the tutor comes – and the kid is three! (Laughter)

        

We’re