Buffett and Munger speak: Berkshire Hathaway 2021 oddities and highlightsPosted: May 4, 2021
I always feel like I’m getting both nutrition and entertainment when I read the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting transcript, found here at Rev.com
Asked about the morality of owning an oil and gas company like Chevron, Charlie Munger poses and then answers a strange hypothetical:
You can imagine two things. A young man marries into your family, he’s an English professor at, say, Swarthmore, or he works for Chevron. Which would you pick? Sight unseen? I want to admit, I’d take the guy from Chevron. Yeah.
Did not know this about the origin of the rear view mirror:
Warren Buffett: (01:35:54)
Maybe that’s why they called it Marmon. And that we’re proud of the fact that the company in 1911 named one of the first Indianapolis 500. It also was the company that invented the rear view mirror. I’m not sure whether that was a big contribution to society. And certainly around your household rear view mirror, you don’t want to emphasize too much. But they, the car that was entered in Indianapolis 500, the guy who normally sat next to the driver and looked backwards to tell what the competitors were doing, he was sick. So they invented the rear view mirror. So let’s just assume that you had decided that autos were this incredible thing. And someday there’d be an Indianapolis 500 and someday they’d have rearview mirrors on cars. And someday 290 million cars would be buzzing around the United States or autos or trucks there.
On BNSF railroad:
15% of the interstate goods move on our railroad
Competition for BNSF, and for Geico:
This question comes from Glen Greenberg, it’s on the profitability of GEICO and BNSF. He said, “Why do these companies operate at meaningfully lower profit margins than their main competitors, Progressive and Union Pacific? Can we expect current managements to at least achieve parity?
Warren Buffett: (02:33:25)
Was it GEICO and-
Warren Buffett: (02:33:28)
Oh, actually, if you look at the first quarter figures, you’ll see that the Berkshire Hathaway/Union Pacific comparisons has gotten quite better. Katie Farmer’s doing an incredible job at BNSF, and it’d be an interesting question whether five years from now or 10 years from now, BNSF or Union Pacific has the higher earnings. We’ve had higher earnings in the past, Union Pacific passed us. The first quarter, you can look at and they think they’ve got a slightly better franchise. We think we’ve got a slightly better franchise. We know we’re larger than Union Pacific, we will do more business than they do. And we should make a little more money than they do, but we haven’t in the last few years. But it’s quite a railroad, I feel very good about that.
And it’s a very interesting business, both Progressive and GEICO were started in the ’30s. I believe I’m right about Progressive on that, and we were started in ’36. We have had the better product for a long, long time, I mean, in terms of cost. And here we are 80, 85 years later, in our case, and we have about 13% or so of the market, whatever it may be, and Progressive as just a slight bit less. So the two of us have 25% of the market, roughly, in this huge market, after 80 something years of having a better product. So it’s a very slow changing, competitive situation, but Progressive has done a very, very good job recently. We’ve done a very, very good job over the years, and we’re doing a good job now, but we have made some very significant improvements.
Is Flo just more appealing than the Geico Gecko? Ajit Jain doesn’t think so:
Progressive has certainly done better, but when it comes to branding, GEICO is, I think, miles, excuse me, ahead of Progressive. And in terms of managing expenses as well, I think GEICO does a much better job than anyone else in the industry.
On interest rates:
I mean, interest rates, basically, are to the value of assets, what gravity is to matter, essentially. …
I mean, if I could reduce gravity, it’s pull by about 80%, I mean, I’d be in the Tokyo Olympics jumping. And essentially, if interest rates were 10%, valuations are much higher. So you’ve had this incredible change in the valuation of everything that produces money, because the risk-free rate produces, really short enough right now, nothing. It’s very interesting. I brought this book along, because for 25 or more years, Paul Samuelson’s book was the definitive book on economics. It was taught in every school and Paul was… he was the first Nobel a prize winner. It’s sort of a cousin to the Nobel prize, they started giving it in economics, I think, in the late ’60s, he was the first winner from the United States, Paul Samuelson. Amazingly enough, the second winner was Ken Arrow, and both of them are the uncles of Larry Summers. Larry Summers had the first two winners as uncles.
Weird, did not know that. Buffett goes on:
But if present rates were destined to be appropriate, if the 10 years should really be at the price it is, those companies that the fellow mentioned in this question, they’re a bargain. I mean, they have the ability to deliver cash at a rate that’s, if you discounted back and you’re discounting at present interest rates, stocks are very, very cheap. Now, the question is what interest rates do over time. But there’s a view of what interest rates will be based in the yield curve out to 30 years and so on.
It’s a fascinating time. We’ve never really seen what shoveling money in on the basis that we’re doing it on a fiscal basis, while following a monetary policy of something close to zero interest rates, and it is enormously pleasant. But in economics, there’s one thing always to remember, you can never do one thing, you always have to say, “And then what?”
Buffett goes on to invoke the St. Peterburg paradox.
On, basically, what’s cool about the stock market:
we’ve got the greatest markets the world could ever imagine. I mean, imagine being able to own parts of the biggest businesses in the world and putting billions of dollars in them and take it out two days later. I mean, compared to farms or apartment houses or office buildings, where it takes months to close a deal, the markets offer a chance to participate in earning assets on a basis that’s very, very low cost and instantaneous, huge, all kinds of good things, but it makes its real money if they can get the gamblers to come in because they provide more action and they’re willing to pay silly or fees and all kinds of things.
On the market as a casino:
Well, the stock market, we’ve had a lot of people in the casino in the last year. You have millions and billions of people who’ve set up accounts where they day trade, where they’re selling… Put some calls, where they, I would say that you had the greatest increase in the number of gamblers essentially. And there’s nothing wrong with gambling and they got better odds than they’ve got if they play the state lottery, but they have cash in their pocket. They’ve had action. And they actually don’t have a lot of good results. And if they just bought stocks, they do fine and held them.
But the gambling impulse is very strong in people worldwide, and occasionally it gets an enormous shove and conditions lead this place where more people are entering the casino than are leaving every day, and that creates its own reality for a while. And nobody tells you when the clock is going to strike 12:00, and it all turns to pumpkins and mice. But when the competition is playing with other people’s money, or if they’re playing foolishly with their own money, but the big stuff is done with other people’s money, they’re going to beat us. I mean, we’re not… that’s a different game and they’ve got a lot of money, so we’re not going to have much luck on acquisitions while this sort of a period continues.
Charlie Munger saying Bernie Sanders “has won,” but he didn’t mean it in a complimentary way:
MUNGER: And I think one consequence of the present situation is that Bernie Sanders has basically won. And that’s because with the, everything boomed up so high and interest rates, so low what’s going to happen is the millennial generation is going to have a hell of a time getting rich compared to our generation. And so the difference between the rich and the poor and the generation that’s rising is going to be a lot less. So Bernie has won. He did it by accident, but he won.
Charlie is asked, given high tax rates, what keeps him in California?
MUNGER: Well, that’s a very interesting question. I frequently say that I wouldn’t move across the street to save my children 500 million in taxes and stuff. So I have that, that’s my personal view of the subject, but I do think it is stupid for states to drive out their wealthiest citizens, the old people that don’t commit any crimes, they donate to the local charity. Who in the hell in their right mind would drive out the rich people? I mean, Florida and places like that are very shrewd and places like California are being very stupid. It’s contrary to the interest of the state.
I love the dodge here on a question about Bitcoin:
Yeah, I knew there’d be a question on Bitcoin. I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve watched these politicians dodge questions all the time.” I always find it kind of disgusting when they do it. But the truth is, I’m going to dodge that question because we’ve probably got hundreds of thousands of people watching this that own Bitcoin, and we’ve got two people that are short. We’ve got a choice of making 400,000 people mad at us and unhappy and/or making two people happy. That’s just a dumb equation. I thought about it. We had a governor one time in Nebraska, a long time ago. He would get a tough question, what do you think about property taxes or what should we do about schools? He’d look right at the person, and he’d say, “I’m all right on that one,” and he’d just walk off. Well, I’m all right on that one and maybe we’ll see how Charlie is.
A quality of a great business:
Well, we’ve always known that the green business is the one that takes very little capital and grows a lot, and Apple and Google and Microsoft and Facebook are terrific examples of that. I mean, Apple has $ 37 billion in property, plant, equipment. Berkshire has 170 billion or something like that, and they’re going to make a lot more money than we do. They’re in better business. It’s a much better business than we have, and Microsoft’s business is a way better business than we have. Google’s business is a way better business.
I thought this was funny. The question was re: Robinhood.
But they have attracted, maybe set out to attract, but they have attracted, I think I read where 12 or 13% of their casino participants were dealing in puts and calls. I looked up on Apple, the number of seven day calls and 14 day calls outstanding. I’m sure a lot of that is coming through Robinhood and that’s a bunch of people writing… They’re gambling on the price of Apple over the next seven days or 14 days. There’s nothing illegal about it. There’s nothing immoral. But I don’t think you would build a society around people doing it. If a group of us landed on a desert island, we knew that we’d never be rescued, and I was one of the group and I said, “Well, I’ll set up the exchange over and I’ll trade our corn futures and everything around it.” I think the degree to which a very rich society can reward people who know how to take advantage essentially of the gambling instincts of, not only American public, worldwide public, it’s not the most admirable part of the accomplishment. But I think what America has accomplished is pretty admirable overall. And I think actually, American corporations have turned out to be a wonderful place for people to put their money and save, but they also make terrific gambling chips.
Odd anecdote from Warren, Munger is talking about state lotteries (he doesn’t approve):
Charlie Munger: (04:40:03)
The states in America, replaced the mafia as the proprietor of the numbers game. That’s what happened.
Warren Buffett: (04:40:03)
Charlie Munger: (04:40:03)
They pushed the mafia aside and said, “That’s our business, not yours.” Doesn’t make me proud of my government.
Warren Buffett: (04:40:03)
When I was a kid, my dad was in Congress, they had a numbers runner in the house office building, actually.
On the potential CP/KSU railway merger, which would strengthen a rival to Berkshire’s own BNSF:
In terms of the price that’s being paid, like I say, if you can borrow all the money for nothing, it doesn’t make much difference to people. This would not be being paid under a different interest rate environment. I mean, it’s very simple. There’s no magic to the Kansas City Southern. I think their deal with Mexico ends in 2047. It’s the number of carloads carried. I mean, it’s not going to change that much, but it is kind of interesting. There’s only two major Canadian, what they call Class I railroads, and there’s five in the United States. This will result in, essentially, three of the units being Canadian, four being U.S., which is not the way you normally think of the way the development of the railroad system would work in the United States.
We looked at buying CP. Everybody looks at everything. We would not pay this price. It implies a price for BNSF that’s even higher than what the UP is selling for. But it’s kind of play money to some degree, I mean, when interest rates are this low. I’m sure from the standpoint of both CP and CN, there’s only one K.C. Southern. They’re not going to get a chance to expand. They’re not going to buy us. They’re not going to buy the UP. The juices flow, and the prices go up.
Charlie Munger: (03:37:15)
They’re buying with somebody else’s money.
Warren Buffett: (03:37:18)
Yeah. It’s somebody else’s money, and you’re going to retire in five or 10 years. People are not going to remember what you paid, but they’re going to remember whether you built a larger system. The investment bankers are cheering you on at every move. They’re just saying, “You could pay more.” They’re moving the figures around. The spreadsheets are out, and the fees are flowing.
The juices flow, indeed.