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.
Charlie Munger, age 97, recently held forth at the annual meeting for Daily Journal Company. Blunt and entertaining as ever. “Amateurs talk about Buffett, professionals talk about Munger” as the old saying goes.
Our long fascination with Munger has been a frequent topic on this site, resulting in some wonderful communication and connection with the secret world of Mungerists out there.
Munger was asked a question that got me thinking. It was about the founder of modern Singapore, long time prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew:
Question: Charlie, you have been a long-time admirer of Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew. You once said to study the life and work of Lee Kuan Yew. You are going to be flabbergasted. I would be curious to know how you started your interest in Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew. Have you met Lee Kuan Yew in person? And if there is one thing the world could learn from Singapore, what would that be?
Charlie Munger: Well, Lee Kuan Yew had the best record as a nation builder. If you’re willing to count small nations in the group, he had probably the best record that ever existed in the history of the world. He took over a malarial swamp with no army, no nothing. And, pretty soon, he turned that into this gloriously prosperous place.
His method for doing it was so simple. The mantra he said over and over again is very simple. He said, figure out what works and do it. Now, it sounds like anybody would know that made sense. But you know, most people don’t do that. They don’t work that hard at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. And they don’t just keep everlastingly at it the way he did.
He was a very smart man and he had a lot of good ideas. He absolutely took over a malarial swamp and turned it into modern Singapore—in his own lifetime. It was absolutely incredible.
He was a one party system but he could always be removed by the electorate. He was not a dictator. And he was just so good. He was death on corruption which was a very good idea. There’s hardly anything he touched he didn’t improve.
When I look at the modern Singapore health system, it costs 20% of what the American system costs. And, of course, it works way better than our medical system. That’s entirely due to the practical talent of Lee Kuan Yew. Just time after time, he would choose the right system.
In Singapore, you get a savings account the day you’re born. If you don’t spend the money, you and your heirs get to spend it eventually. In other words, it’s your money. So, to some extent, everybody buying medical services in Singapore is paying for it themselves. Of course, people behave more sensibly when they’re spending their own money.
Just time after time he would do something like that. That recognized reality and worked way better than what other people were doing. There aren’t that many people like Lee Kuan Yew that have ever lived. So, of course, I admire him. I have a bust of Lee Kuan Yew in my house. I admire him that much.
Sometimes Munger’s harsh rationality has an edge that makes me a little uncomfortable. The unabashed admiration of Singagore’s Lee Kuan Yew is an aspect of that. I’ve never visited Singapore. I’d like to, and see these weird tree buildings and eat the street food. In my travels I’ve met several people from Singapore. What discussion we had of Lee Kuan Yew was pretty ginger, because I’m too ignorant to have much of an opinion, because it’s polite to be sensitive when discussing another country’s main founding guy, and because, well, I get the sense in Singapore you don’t really criticize Lee Kuan Yew. Though LKY is dead, his eldest son is still in charge. That sense that we’re dealing with a bit of an authoritarian is what makes me uncomfortable.
Thomas Meaney has a review of Michael Barr’s history of Singapore in the LRB which gives me just the kind of context I need.
Lee Kuan Yew, by contrast, made no such attempt. ‘That’s the end of the British Empire,’ he told one of his classmates at Raffles College when the first blasts were felt over the city. Lee, then in his late teens, not only learned Mandarin and Japanese during the occupation, but worked as a translator of Allied news reports for the main Japanese propaganda bureau in the Cathay Building. A few floors down, Yasujirō Ozu, freshly arrived in Singapore, produced propaganda about the Indian National Army’s fight against the British Empire. ‘The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life,’ Lee wrote in his memoirs. He admired the ruthlessness of the Japanese, and believed it had toughened up his generation. The efficiency of their brothels impressed him. Spotting the head of a Chinese looter hanging from the marquee of a movie theatre, he thought: ‘What a marvellous photograph this would make for Life magazine.’
how about this?:
The key was to make Singapore appealing to US investment by ensuring laws favourable to corporate capital, and prioritising economic prerogatives over political freedom. With no local capitalist class to discipline the workforce, independent Singapore resorted to what Christopher Tremewan calls ‘forced proletarianisation’. The city-state’s notorious public order laws – lashes and prison for spitting, graffiti and public urination; swift execution for drug possession – were part of a breakneck effort to make Singapore’s citizens the most cowed and reliable semi-skilled workforce in Asia. ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’ was the way William Gibson described it. Free hospital care – which scandalised Milton Friedman when he learned of it – was ended. Lee consolidated all the trade unions into a single union under his control. With the Central Provident Fund, he could force workers to save part of their salaries for retirement, adjusting amounts at will, which allowed him to raise and lower wages in co-ordination with the needs of foreign industry. American corporate elites marvelled at such a partner. Lee personally escorted visiting CEOs around the island. The result was a boom of massive proportions, with Singapore leading the region in electronics assembly, ship repair and food processing. Full employment was achieved within a decade.
I don’t want anyone making me cowed, even if I am at best semi-skilled.
Here is Balaji Srinivasan on the Tim Ferriss podcast, articulating why CEO types seem to like LKY so much:
What Lee Kuan Yew did, really, the reason I think he’s so important, is I think he’s a piece of the 21st century that fell into the 20th, to paraphrase. Basically, I think he was the first startup CEO of a country, of a city state. And I think we’ll see a thousand more like him.
So he’s a very important person to study, his life and history, because here’s the thing: he did what he did with minimal coercion. He’s not famous for winning some giant violent conflict. He’s not famous for some activist movement. He stands for delivering results. That’s actually really, really interesting. He’s famous for boosting prosperity and zero-to-one-ing a society. He was really a lion, really a great guy.
But what about the collaborating with the Japanese?
In any case, I am trying to figure out what works in my own life, and do it. Munger’s right, it’s not that easy! Of course, there’s a question of how we’re measuring what works.” Posting thought-provoking stuff here on Helytimes works, that’s for sure, so I’ll keep doing it. Let us know what you think! We’re working to keep the posts “medium length.”
Did not watch, but read a transcript of this year’s Berkshire Annual Meeting. Even though he tends to repeat himself, especially once you’ve gone over a few of his letters, there’s something comforting and eternal about going over the wisdom again, like reading The Bible.
Is there simpler investment advice?
I would love to talk to Ajit Jain for a few minutes:
I didn’t know about this event:
from the National Archives:
The morning after was an archivist’s nightmare, with ankle-deep water covering records in many areas. Although the basement vault was considered fireproof and watertight, water seeped through a broken wired-glass panel in the door and under the floor, damaging some earlier and later census schedules on the lower tiers. The 1890 census, however, was stacked outside the vault and was, according to one source, “first in the path of the firemen.”(11)
Could be a good clue in a National Treasure style mystery.
Speculation and rumors about the cause of the blaze ran rampant. Some newspapers claimed, and many suspected, it was caused by a cigarette or a lighted match. Employees were keenly questioned about their smoking habits. Others believed the fire started among shavings in the carpenter shop or was the result of spontaneous combustion. At least one woman from Ohio felt certain the fire was part of a conspiracy to defraud her family of their rightful estate by destroying every vestige of evidence proving heirship.(15) Most seemed to agree that the fire could not have been burning long and had made quick and intense headway; shavings and debris in the carpenter shop, wooden shelving, and the paper records would have made for a fierce blaze. After all, a watchman and engineers had been in the basement as late as 4:35 and not detected any smoke.(16) Others, however, believed the fire had been burning for hours, considering its stubbornness. Although, once the firemen were finished, it was difficult to tell if one spot in the files had burned longer than any other, the fire’s point of origin was determined to have been in the northeastern portion of the file room (also known as the storage room) under the stock and mail room.(17) Despite every investigative effort, Chief Census Clerk E. M. Libbey reported, no conclusion as to the cause was reached.
Charlie Munger unfortunately couldn’t be in Omaha, but looks like he had interesting things to say as always at the Daily Journal annual meeting in February:
Question 28: You talk frequently about having the moral imperative to be rational. And yet as humans, we’re constantly carrying this evolutionary baggage which gets in the way of us thinking rationally. Are there any tools or behaviors you embrace to facilitate your rational thinking?
Charlie: The answer is, of course. I hardly do anything else. One of my favorite tricks is the inversion process. I’ll give you an example. When I was a meteorologist in World War II. They told me how to draw weather maps and predict the weather. But what I was actually doing is clearing pilots to take flights.
I just reverse the problem. I inverted. I said, “Suppose I wanted to kill a lot of pilots, what would be the easy way to do it?” And I soon concluded that the only easy way to do it, would be to get the planes into icing the planes couldn’t handle. Or to get the pilot to a place where he’d run out of fuel before he could safely land. So I made up my mind that I was going to stay miles away from killing pilots. By either icing or getting him into (inaudible) conditions when they couldn’t land. I think that helped me be a better meteorologist in World War II. I just reversed the problem.
And if somebody hired me to fix India, I would immediately say, “What could I do if I really want to hurt India?” And I’d figure out all the things that could most easily hurt India and then I’d figure out how to avoid them. Now you’d say it’s the same thing, it’s just in reverse. But it works better to frequently invert the problem. If you’re a meteorologist, it really helps if you really know how to avoid something which is the only thing that’s going to kill your pilot. And you can help India best, if you understand what will really hurt India the easiest and worst.
Algebra works the same way. Every great algebraist inverts all the time because the problems are solved easier. Human beings should do the same thing in the ordinary walks of life. Just constantly invert. You don’t think of what you want. You think what you want to avoid. Or when you’re thinking what you want to avoid, you also think about what you want. And you just go back and forth all the time.
How about this:
Question 30: My question is about electric vehicles and BYD. Why are electric vehicles sales at BYD down 50 to 70 percent while Tesla is growing 50 percent? And what’s the future hold for BYD?
Charlie: Well, I’m not sure I’m the world’s greatest expert on the future of electric vehicles, except I think they’re coming generally and somebody’s going to make them. BYD’s vehicle sales went down because the Chinese reduce the incentives they were giving to the buyers of electric cars. And Telsa’s sales went up because Elon has convinced people that he can cure cancer. (laughter)
And then by Question 33 he really gets going.
Lots of luck if you’re an impulsive person that has to be gratified immediately, you’re probably not going to have a very good life and we can’t fix you. (laughter)
Buffett is like beer, Munger is like whiskey.
Looking forward to getting a transcript of Charlie Munger yesterday at the Daily Journal shareholders’ conference. Here the 95 year old former meteorologist and HelyTimes Hero talks to CNBC’s Becky Quick:
BECKY QUICK: Anything that rises to your radar screen now that may be under the radar for other people?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, nobody knows how much of this money printing we can do. And of course we have politicians who like– and are in both parties, who like to believe that it doesn’t matter how much you do. That we can ignore the whole subject and just print money as convenient. Well, that’s the way the Roman Empire behaved, then it was ruined. And that’s the way the Weimar Republic was ruined. And– it’s– there is a point where it’s dangerous. You know, and of course, my attitude when something is big and dangerous is to stay a long way away from it. Other people want to come as close as possible without going in. That’s too tricky for me. I don’t like it.
BECKY QUICK: In terms of possibly getting sucked up into it?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yes. I– I– if there’s a big whirlpool in the river, I stay a long way away from it. There were a bunch of canoeists once that tried to– to run the Aaron Rapids. I think they were from Scandinavia. And– and the fact that the whirlpools were so big made them very eager to tackle this huge challenge. The death rate was 100%. I regard that as a normal result.
Are we in The Great Stagnation?
CHARLIE MUNGER: The opportunities that we all remember came from a demoralized period when about 90% of the natural stock buyers got very discouraged with stocks. That’s what created the opportunity for these fabulous records that my generation had. And that was a rare opportunity that came to a rare group of people of whom I was one. And Warren was another.
BECKY QUICK: So you’re talking–
CHARLIE MUNGER: And people who start now have a much less– they have lower opportunity.
BECKY QUICK: Do you think we saw a generational low after 2008, beginning of 2009?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Generational? Maybe.
BECKY QUICK: Charlie, so many of the people who come here come because they’re looking for advice not on business or investments as much as they’re looking for just advice on life. There were a lot of questions today, people trying to figure out what the secret to life is, to a long and happy life. And– and I just wonder, if you were–
CHARLIE MUNGER: Now that is easy, because it’s so simple.
BECKY QUICK: What is it?
CHARLIE MUNGER: You don’t have a lot of envy, you don’t have a lot of resentment, you don’t overspend your income, you stay cheerful in spite of your troubles. You deal with reliable people and you do what you’re supposed to do. And all these simple rules work so well to make your life better. And they’re so trite.
BECKY QUICK: How old were you when you figured this out?
CHARLIE MUNGER: About seven. I could tell that some of my older people were a little bonkers. I’ve always been able to recognize that other people were a little bonkers. And it helped me because there’s so much irrationality in the world. And I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, its causes and its preventions, and so forth, that I– sure it’s helped me.
I noticed a glitch in the transcript, btw. It’s written as follows:
BECKY QUICK: Do you think we saw a generational low after 2008, beginning of 2009?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Generational? Maybe.
BECKY QUICK: We–
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, I don’t think the market is going to be cheaper.
But if you listen closely it’s pretty clear Munger says “I don’t think Bank of America is going to be cheaper.” Almost exactly nine years ago today, Feb 2009, BAC was trading at $5.57. Today it’s at $29.12.
In 2011 Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger came to visit The Office to film a video for the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. I hadn’t heard of Charlie Munger. From the Internet I learned that he was a brilliant dude in his own right, as well as a guy Warren Buffett trusted, learned from, and considered his closest partner.
At lunchtime, everyone was huddled around the more famous Buffett, while Charlie Munger was sitting by himself. In this way I ended up having lunch with Charlie Munger.
From his Wikipedia page I knew he’d been a meteorologist in World War II, so I asked him about that. His job was hand drawing weather maps to make predictions as the US was sending planes over the Bering Strait to our then-ally the Soviet Union.
Ever since this encounter I’ve read everything I can find by Charlie Munger.
This is a good place to start.
In my hunt for Munger deep cuts, came across this speech he gave in October 1998 at the Santa Monica Miramar Hotel to a group of institutional investors. Stunningly blunt and direct advice on how to invest:
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.
If only stupid Harvard had listened!
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.
More Munger deep cuts from the 2017 Shareholders Meeting of Daily Journal Co., (I found here on the wonderful Mine Safety Disclosures website but it’s in a couple places). Daily Journal Co is a business that, as I understand it, exists on the fact that companies have to publish legal notices somewhere, and this company more or less has a monopoly on the business.
Munger gets real:
the Mungers have three stocks: we have a block of Berkshire, we have a block of Costco, we have a block of Li Lu’s Fund, and the rest is dribs and drabs. So am I comfortable? Am I securely rich? You’re damn right I am.
Could other people be just as comfortable as I who didn’t have a vast portfolio with a lot of names in it, many of whom neither they nor their advisors understand? Of course they’d be better off if they did what I did. And are three stocks enough? What are the chances that Costco’s going to fail? What are the chances that Berkshire Hathaway’s going to fail? What are the chances that Li Lu’s portfolio in China is going to fail? The chances that any one of those things happening is almost zero, the chances that all three of them are going to fail.
That’s one of the good ideas I had when I was young. When I started investing my little piddly savings as a lawyer, I tried to figure out how much diversification I would need if I had a 10 percentage advantage every year over stocks generally. I just worked it out. I didn’t have any formula. I just worked it out with my high school algebra, and I realized that if I was going to be there for 30 or 40 years, I’d be about 99% sure that it would be just fine if I never owned more than three stocks and my average holding period is three or four years.
Once I had done that with my little pencil, I just…I never for a moment believed this balderdash they teach about. Why diversification? Diversification is a rule for those who don’t know anything. Warren calls them “know-nothing investors”. If you’re a know-nothing investor, of course you’re going to own the average. But if you’re not a know-nothing —if you’re actually capable of figuring out something that will work better—you’re just hurting yourselves looking for 50 when three will suffice. Hell, one will suffice if you do it right. One. If you have one cinch, what else do you need in life?
Li Lu is himself a super interesting character.
A student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests, escapes China (with the help of Western intelligence?) ends up penniless at Columbia, hears about a lecture by Warren Buffett and misunderstands that this has something to do with a “buffet” and becomes of the most successful investors in the world?
More from Munger on a range of topics:
on Lee Kuan Yew and the history of Singapore:
Lee Kuan Yew may have been the best nation builder that ever lived. He took over a malarial swamp with no assets, no natural resources, nothing, surrounded by a bunch of Muslims who hated him, hated him. In fact, he was being spat out by the Muslim country. They didn’t want a bunch of damn Chinese in their country. That’s how Singapore was formed as a country—the Muslims spat it out. And so here he is, no assets, no money, no nothing. People were dying of malaria, lots of corruption—and he creates in a very short time, by historical standards, modern Singapore. It was a huge, huge, huge success. It was such a success, there is no other precedent in the history of the world that is any stronger.
Now China’s more important because there are more Chinese, but you can give Lee Kuan
Yew a lot of the credit for creating modern China because a lot of those pragmatic communist leaders—they saw a bunch of Chinese that were rich when they were poor and they said, “to hell with this”. Remember the old communist said, “I don’t care whether the cat is black or white, I care whether he catches mice”. He wanted some of the success that Singapore got and he copied the playbook. So I think the communist leadership that copied Lee Kuan Yew was right. I think Lee Kuan Yew was right. And of course, I have two busts of somebody else in my house. One is Benjamin Franklin, and the other is Lee Kuan Yew. So, that’s what I think of him.
on real estate:
MUNGER: Real estate?
Q: Yeah, real estate.
MUNGER: The trouble with real estate is that everybody else understands it and the people who you are dealing with and the competing with, they specialized in a little 12 blocks in a little industry. They know more about the industry than you do. And you got a lot of bullshitters and liars and brokers. So it’s not that easy. It’s not a bit easy.
Your trouble is if it’s easy—all these people, a whole bunch of ethnics that love real estate,. You know, Asians, Hasidic Jews, Indians from India, they all love real estate; they’re smart people and they know everybody and they know the tricks. And the thing is you don’t even see the good offers in real estate. They show the big investors and dealers. It’s not an easy game to play from a beginners point of view; whereas with stocks, you’re equal with everybody if you’re smart. In real estate, you don’t even see the opportunities when you’re a young person starting out. They go to others. The stock market’s always open, except venture capital. Sequoia sees the good stuff. You can open an office—Joe Shmo Venture Capitalist—startups come to me. You’d starve to death.
You’ve gotta figure out what your competitive position is in what you’re choosing. Real estate has a lot of difficulties. And those Patels from India that buy all the motels, they know more about motels than you do. They live in a god damn motel. They pay no income taxes. They don’t pay much in worker’s compensation and every dime they get, they fix up the thing to buy another motel. Do you want to compete with the Patels? Not I.
on Sumner Redstone:
Well, I never knew Sumner Redstone but I followed him because he was a little ahead of me in Law School, but Sumner Redstone is a very peculiar man. Almost nobody has ever liked him. He’s a very hard-driven, tough tomato, and basically almost nobody has ever liked him, including his wives and his children. And he’s just gone through life. There’s an old saying, “Screw them all except six and save those for pallbearers.” And that is the way Sumner Redstone went through life. And I think he was in to the pallbearers because he lived so long. So I’ve used Sumner Redstone all my life as an example of what not to do.
He started with some money, and he’s very shrewd and hard-driven. You know he saved his life by hanging while the fire was up in his hands. He’s a very determined, high IQ maniac, but nobody likes him and nobody ever did. And though he paid for sex in his old age, cheated him, you know always had one right after another.
That’s not a life you want to admire. I used Sumner Redstone all my life as an example of what I don’t want to be. But for sheer talent, drive and shrewdness, you would hardly find anybody stronger than Sumner. He didn’t care if people liked him. I don’t care if 95% of you don’t like me, but I really need the other 5%. Sumner just…
on the movie business:
And the movie business I don’t like either because it’s been a bad business-—crooked labor unions, crazy agents, crazy screaming lawyers, idiosyncratic stars taking cocaine-—it’s just not my field. I just don’t want to be in it.
on copying other investors:
Q: On the topic of cloning, do you really believe that Mohnish said that if investors look at the 13Fs of super investors, that they can beat the market by picking their spots? And we’ll add spinoffs.
MUNGER: It’s a very plausible idea and I’d encourage one young man to look at it, so I can hardly say that it has no merit. Of course it’s useful if I were you people to look at what other—what you regard as great—investors are doing for ideas. The trouble with it is that if you’d pick people as late in the game as Berkshire Hathaway, you’re buying our limitations caused by size. You really need to do it from some guy that’s operating in smaller places and finding places with more advantage. And of course, it’s hard to identify the people in the small game, but it’s not an idea that won’t work.
If I were you people, of course I would do that. I would want to know exactly what the shrewd people were doing and I would look at every one of them, of course. That would be a no-brainer for me.
on Li Lu:
I got to tell you a story about Li Lu that you will like. Now General Electric was famous for always negotiating down to the wire and just before they were at close, they’ll add one final twist. And, of course, it always worked, the other guy was all invested, so everybody feels robbed and cheated and mad, but they get their way in that last final twist.
So, Li Lu made a couple of venture investments and he made this one with this guy. The guy made us a lot of money in a previous deal and we’re now going in with him again on another—a very high-grade guy and smart and so forth.
Now we come to the General Electric moment. Li Lu said, “I have to make one change in this investment.” It sounds just like General Electric just about to close. I didn’t tell Li Lu to do it; he did it himself. He said, “You know, this is a small amount of money to us and you got your whole net worth in it. I cannot sign this thing if you won’t let me put in a clause saying if it all goes to hell we’ll give you your money back.” That was the change he wanted. Now, you can imagine how likely we were to see the next venture capital investment. Nobody has to tell Li Lu to do that stuff. Some of these people, it’s in their gene power. It’s just such a smart thing to do. It looks generous and it is generous, but there’s huge self-interest in it.
on Al Gore:
Oh, I got another story for you that you’ll like.
Yeah get that thing (peanut brittle out of here or I’ll eat it all).
Al Gore has come into you fella’s business. Al Gore, he has made $300 or $400 million in your business and he is not very smart. He smoked a lot of pot. He coasted through Harvard with a Gentlemen’s C. But he had one obsessive idea that global warming was a terrible thing and he understandably predicted the world for it. So his idea when he went into investment counseling is he was not going to put any CO2 in the air. So he found some partner to go into investment counseling with and he says, “we are not going to have any CO2”. But this partner is a value investor. And a good one.
So what they did was Gore hired his staff to find people who didn’t put CO2 in the air. And of course, that put him into services-—Microsoft and all these service companies that were just ideally located. And this value investor picked the best service companies. So all of a sudden the clients are making hundreds of millions of dollars and they’re paying part of it to Al Gore, and now Al Gore has hundreds of millions of dollars in your profession. And he’s an idiot. It’s an interesting story and a true one.
“The first $100,000 is a bitch, but you gotta do it. I don’t care what you have to do—if it means walking everywhere and not eating anything that wasn’t purchased with a coupon, find a way to get your hands on $100,000. After that, you can ease off the gas a little bit.”
found that Munger quote in this long but interesting post about Jim O’Shaughnessy on 25iq by Tren Griffin.
There’s a trick of capitalism, which is if you have capital, it’s not that hard to multiply it into more capital. The hard part is getting capital in the first place. Charlie Munger acknowledges that yes, that is a challenge, there’s no easy solution.
If you prefer Oprah to Munger, 25iq has a roundup on her lessons as well!
Andy Serwer, editor in chief of Yahoo Finance, reports on our favorite former weatherman:
Finally, I asked Munger about Trump and reminded him he had previously said that the president’s behavior exhibited a form of “sickness.”
“I’ve mellowed because I consider it counterproductive to hate as much as both parties now hate, and I have disciplined myself,” Munger said. “I now regard all politicians higher than I used to. I did that as a matter of self-preservation.” He said that he had re-read “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and it made him “feel a lot better about the current political scene. We’re way ahead of the Romans at the end.”
That’s a pretty low bar, I pointed out.
“It’s very helpful — I suggest you try it,” Munger replied. “Politicians are never so bad that you don’t live to want them back. There will come a time when the people who hate Trump will wish that he was back
And when the Buffett family moved to Washington, D.C., Warren just had one request for his dad:
“When we got to Washington, I said, ‘Pop, there’s just one thing I want. I want you to ask the Library of Congress for every book they have on horse handicapping.’ And my dad said, ‘Well, don’t you think they’re going to think it’s a little strange if the first thing a new Congressman asks for is all the books on horse handicapping?’”
But Buffett reminded his father of the help he gave him during the winning campaign, and pledged to be there for him again during his re-election. So Howard got Warren hundreds of books about handicapping horses.
“Then what I would do is read all these books. I sent away to a place in Chicago on North Clark Street where you could get old racing forms, months of them, for very little. They were old, so who wanted them? I would go through them using my handicapping techniques to handicap one day and see the next day how it worked out. I ran tests of my handicapping ability – day after day – all these different systems I had in mind.”
I was looking for someone who’d compiled up every reference Buffett and Munger made to horse race wagering, and I found it here, “DRF Legend Steven Crist on Value Investing and Horse Betting,” by Dillon Jacobs on Vintage Value. (Note that much of that quotes from The Snowball.)
Buffet on Value and DRF
Buffett noted that a bookie actually took action inside Washington’s Old House Office Building.“You could go to the elevator shaft and yell, ‘Sammy!’ or something like that and this kid would come up and take bets.”
Even Buffett himself did some bookmaking for guys who wanted to get down on the big races like the Preakness Stakes. “That’s the end of the game I liked, the 15 percent take with no risk,” Buffett said.
Buffett got along well with his high school golf coach, Bob Dwyer, and the two frequently rode the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad together from Silverspring, MD to Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia. Dwyer taught Buffett how to better understand the Daily Racing Form.“I’d get the Daily Racing Form ahead of time and figure out the probability of each horse winning the race. Then I would compare those percentages to the odds,” said Buffett, who bet from $6 to $10 to win. “Sometimes you would find a horse where the odds were way, way off from the actual probability. You figure the horse has a 10 percent chance of winning, but it’s going off at 15-to-1.”
That last part sounds a lot like Crist on Value, doesn’t it?
This method, looking for overlays, is at the heart of every serious book about horse wagering.
Going broke one day at Charles Town
One day, Buffett went to Charles Town by himself. He lost the first race and his performance went from bad to worse until he was down $175. Feeling depressed, he went to an ice cream shop and bought himself a sundae with the last of his money.
While eating, Buffett thought to himself that he had just lost more money than he made in a week.“And I’d done it for dumb reasons. You’re not supposed to bet every race. I’d committed the worst sin, which is that you get behind and you think you’ve got to break even that day. The first rule is that nobody goes home after the first race, and the second rule is that you don’t have to make it back the way you lost it. That is so fundamental.”
This was an important lesson that definitely influence Buffett’s investing later in life. You’re not supposed to be every race. Instead, just wait for the right pitch.
What Buffett and Munger both discovered is that making money in the stock market is much, much easier than making money at horse betting. For one thing, there’s no 14-25% track takeout. But it’s interesting how both markets teach similar lessons.
First, there’s mathematics. Obviously, you’ve got to be 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. It was all worked out in the course of about one year between Pascal and Fermat. They worked it out casually in a series of letters.
so says Charlie Munger in his 1994 speech, “A Lesson on Elementary Worldly Wisdom as it Relates To Investment Management & Business.”
These letters between Pascal and Fermat sounded worth a read, so I went to check them out. The year in question was 1654. Up until that time, no one* had really worked out and set down the math of probability. You can’t blame them, if you think about it. Even in 1654 it was probably pretty hard to even get your hands on enough paper for working out math problems.
Struggling to really wrap my head around the contents of the letters (on top of everything, the first letter is now lost), I picked up The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern: A Tale of How Mathematics is Really Done by Keith Devlin. An interesting book and a great introduction to the mental blocks that had kept people from working out probability before these two weirdos started corresponding.
An even clearer articulation of the problem of points that set Pascal and Fermat to work can be found in Peter Bernstein’s Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk:
In 1654, a time when the Renaissance was in full flower, the Chevalier de Méré, a French nobleman with a taste for both gambling and mathematics, challenged the famed French mathematician Blaise Pascal to solve a puzzle. The question was how to divide the stakes of an unfinished game of chance between two players when one of them is ahead. The puzzle had confounded mathematicians since it was posed some two hundred years earlier by the monk Luca Paccioli. This was the man who brought double-entry bookkeeping to the attention of the business managers of the day, and tutored Leonardo da Vinci in the multiplication tables. Pascal turned for help to Pierre de Fermat, a lawyer who was also a brilliant mathematician. The outcome of their collaboration was intellectual dynamite. What might appear to have been a seventeenth century game of Trivial Pursuit led to the discovery of the theory of probability, the mathematical heart of the concept of risk.
Their solution to Paccioli’s puzzle meant that people could for the first time make decisions and forecast the future with the help of numbers.
Bernstein helpfully restates the problem of points in the form of a World Series situation. What is the probability your team will win the best of seven series after it has lost the first game? (assume the teams are, as in a game of chance, evenly matched)
Well, Pascal pointed out that we just need to list all the possible outcomes of the remaining six games, and calculate from there. There are 22 combinations in which your team would come out on top after losing the first game, and 42 combinations in which the opposing team would win. As the result, the probability is 22/64 = .34375
As Bernstein points out, there’s something here that trips a lot of people up, even Fermat. There aren’t really 64 possible outcomes, because why would we include possibilities like your team goes win-win-win-win-win-win for the remaining six games? The World Series would’ve been over after that fourth win. W-W-W-W-W-W is not a possible outcome of the remaining six games.
As Pascal remarked in the correspondence with Fermat, the mathematical laws must dominate the wishes of the players themselves, who are only abstractions of a general principle. He declares that “it is absolutely equal and immaterial to them both whether they let the [game] take its natural course.
So there you go. Win-win-win-win-win-win-win is one of the forked paths off win-win-win-win. It must be accounted for, or we won’t count the potential possibilities correctly.
Naturally enough I got bored with the math part and wanted to know more about the Chevalier de Méré. Who was this fun loving gambling nobleman who put two all-time math geniuses to work helping him win at dice?
Turns out he was a guy, named Antoine Gombaud, who dubbed himself Chevalier de Méré in his writing. Much of his writing was obsessed with the idea of honnête, and how to be l’homme honnête, which included honesty but also modesty, elegance, appropriateness, excellence, sociability. You can read all about it here in what appears to be an excerpt of Manning The Margins: Masculinity and Writing in Seventeenth-Century France by Lewis Seifert, a professor at Brown.
But still, how did this cool guy hook up with Pascal? Devlin says that the Chevalier and Pascal met at a gambling table. Pascal would go back and forth between somewhat extreme religious periods. During an early one of these, when he was getting pretty hard core, a doctor warned him off:
His doctor advised him that for the sake of his health, he should abandon the Jansenist ways and lead a life more normal for a young man. Although he would remain strongly religious for the remainder of his all-too-short life, Pascal resumed normal activities. Indeed, he did so with vigor, adding regular visits to the gaming rooms to his earlier academic pursuits. It was at the gambling table that Pascal met the Chevalier de Méré
Looking into this question of how, exactly, the Chevalier and Pascal met, I found a different, more detailed, and funnier, version. Here is the Chevalier de Méré himself describing how he met Pascal:
“I once made a trip with the Duke of Roannez, who used to express himself with good and just sense and whom I found good company. Monsieur Mitton, whom you know and who is liked by all at court was also with us, and because that trip was supposed to be a promenade rather than a voyage, we only thought of entertaining ourselves and we discussed everything. The duke was interested in mathematics, and in order to relieve tedium on the way he had provided a middle-aged man, who was then very little known, but who later certainly has made people talk about him. He was a great mathematician who knew little but that. These sciences gave little sociable pleasure, and this man, who had neither taste nor sentiment, could not refrain from mingling into all we said, but he almost always surprised us and made us laugh.” De Méré goes on to tell that Pascal carried strips of paper which he brought forth from time to time to write down some observations. After a few days Pascal came to enjoy the company and talked no more of mathematics.
so reports Oystein Ore, writing in the May 1960 issue of The American Mathematical Monthly (vol 67, No. 5, “Pascal and the Invention of Probability Theory”). Oystein Ore says:
Pascal and Fermat never met in person, which is kind of sad. In 1660 Fermat proposed that they meet, but at the time they were both too sick and miserable to travel very far. Within a few years they were both dead.
Pascal invented a kind of calculator, the Pascaline, but it was too expensive to produce them:
Late in life, in another religious phase, Pascal reflected on gamblers:
And that’s the story of Pascal and Fermat!
* it wouldn’t blow my mind if one of the great mathematicians of the Arab world had worked some of this out, written it down, and put a copy in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, but most of those books were destroyed when Hulagu, Genghis Khan’s grandson, destroyed that city in 1258. Bummer!
The Vibes Speculator
You hear about two schools of investing. Value investing, and growth investing. First, value investing.
Value investing involves generating a number for what a company’s intrinsic worth might be, comparing that number to the price the company’s shares are trading for on the stock market, and buying when there’s a discount (plus a margin of safety to account for the risk). You want to buy stocks that are cheap, on sale, and wait for their prices to return to what they should be.
Howard Marks, in his new memo “Something of Value” for Oaktree Capital, has a great definition of value investing, and we’re taking that as our text today. We would quote it extensively, but there’s a stern disclaimer on it. After an email correspondence with Oaktree Capital, I appreciate their denial of my request for permission to use lots of quotes in this piece.
We encourage third parties that are interested in sharing Howard’s memos with an audience to write their own summary/article about the memo and then link to the memo in its entirety on our website. Howard’s memos are meant to be read/viewed in their entirety and removing specific quotes can lead to them being taken out of Howard’s intended context. Also, as we operate in a highly regulated business, we are required to include our legal disclosures to Howard’s writings, and removing portions of his writing without the disclosures attached goes against our internal policies.
as Leia Vincent of Oaktree put it to me in an email. I see their point.
Check out Marks summary of value investing, paragraph four.
investing was pioneered by Benjamin Graham, whose teachings were transcribed by David Dodd, Graham taught Warren Buffett. There’s a lot to love about value investing. It’s bargain hunting. It almost feels virtuous. You must be rational to be a value investor. You must have emotional discipline as the market goes up and down.
Value investing is widely preached. Aswath Damodaran of NYU, who wrote a little book on the topic, will teach you on YouTube. Shawn Badlani spoke about his training as a value investor on episode 8 of my podcast, Stocks: Let’s Talk.
Value investing thinking has served Shawn pretty well. Every investor would be wise to study valuation.
As Marks acknowledges though, value investing has significant downsides. You’ve got to do a lot of calculating of discounted cash flow for one thing. Math, which is maybe not that hard, but tedious. There are computers, which can help you with the math. I like Guru Focus (you gotta pay to be a member) which can do shorthand estimates for you, like this one for Tesla:
but that can only get you so far, and it also reveals another problem. Value investing has imbedded in it both an attraction for the rational and a torture for them: stocks aren’t always trading for what they should be worth.
That is, their price isn’t always what it “should” be. That’s supposed to be an advantage, if you buy them when they’re cheap, and wait for the equilibrium that must come, when their true value will be revealed.
But what if that never happens? Consider the angst of Value Stock Geek, a smart writer on this subject. How long do you wait for the stock to achieve the correct price?
Not only that, but for all that math, you’re still just guessing! All your calculations are only as good as your inputs, some of which are guesses!
Plus, you’re competing against Warren Buffett, Munger, Aswath Damodaran, Shawn, Value Stock Geek, and literally one million other people. Wall Street has been sucking off physicists, computer scientists, “quants” of all kinds, taking them away from useful work and putting them into complex valuation shops. Their computers are faster, more powerful, and more expensive than yours, I guarantee. Their computers blow your puny computer out of the water. They’ve got an Alienware Aurora R11 with Intel Core i9 10900KF and an Nvidia GTX 1650 Super – RTX 3090, with 2TB M.2 PCIe SSD + 2TB SATA HDD and you’ve got an Epson 512K with 5.25 inch floppy disc. Who’s gonna kill if you’re playing Red Baron?
So much for value investing.
Then there’s growth investing.
The story of Marks’ memo is of how spending time during the pandemic with his son Andrew has opened his eyes to the second major school: growth investing. Marks memo describes how now he has his son Andrew living with him, and Andrew is opening his eyes to the thinking of a growth investor.
Growth investing is about assigning a valuation to a company that may not yet have shown its value, but whose growth, as measured by one metric or another, has a potential to grow into cash flows of great value.
Recently, growth chasing has worked out very well. The one quote I’ll lift from Marks:
the performance of value investing lagged that of growth investing over the past decade-plus (and massively so in 2020)
It’s easy to understand why that might be. The speed at which the fast growing companies grow is almost incomprehensible. In 2002 the so-called facebook at Harvard was a physical book the college handed out with pictures of faces in it. In 2020, eighteen years later, one young person’s lifetime, $FB has two point five billion people using it every month. Facebook has swallowed up billions of dollars in advertising, helped wipe out at least two thousand local newspapers, and influences world events, from elections in the USA to ethno-religious violence in Burma.
Scary stuff, if you’re an innocent citizen. Groovy if you’re a shareholder of Facebook (I am not).
Or take Amazon:
For a sense of scale, it took Amazon more than 14 years—58 quarters after its May 1997 initial public offering—to make, cumulatively, as much profit as it produced in the latest quarter alone. Keep in mind that Amazon consistently lost money for its first several years as a public company.
(first article when I Google “when did Amazon finally make a profit?” ) From Wikipedia:
The company finally turned its first profit in the fourth quarter of 2001: $0.01 (i.e., 1¢ per share), on revenues of more than $1 billion.
A traditional value investor would not have been into Amazon in 2001.
The endgame for growth investing is you grow so big you’re the biggest animal in the pond and you have no competitors, only, in this pond example, small frogs to amuse you, and minnows to tickle your feet, and perhaps birds, and someone (local villagers? customers?) just keeps bringing you food because they have to. Or even want to? Or because of a curse? The example fails at this point but you get the idea.
Picking those winners can be hard. You need to choose what metrics of growth to focus on. The important metric may not be how much money you’re making. This seems to defy logic and economics and years of Wall Street lore, but that is how the market has reacted. The word is out that even if a company is not only not making money but is losing more and more money, that can in some cases be fine, that can still be fine, as long as they’re swallowing market share.
(This has created some funny wins for the consumer, like MoviePass).
So: value and growth. Marks’ memo is lucid well-expressed thinking on how his thinking is evolving about the blend of these two schools.
i just read the memo and agree, it is really good. love the idea that value investing just means buying something for less than it’s worth, even if that thing you’re buying is a fast growing company with a high current p/e multiple.
Now, there’s also technical investing, which seems to be people studying candlestick charts, and then trying to reverse-divine the algorithms that make automated trading decisions in Flash Boys style scenarios. I admire these folks, and there’s probably something to it, but it’s not for me.
There’s also momentum investing, where you chase where you think the herd is going, based on anything from complex systems of pattern recognition to just what people seem to be talking about and what’s in the headlines. I used to study this school, and it’s very fun.
What I’d like to propose is a new school.
Vibes Investing we discussed on episode 7 of Stocks: Let’s Talk, with the legend Liz Hall.
We believe Vibes Investing has a bright future.
Is vibes investing even investing? Is growth investing investing? Most definitions of investing say something about “an expectation of achieving a profit,” or “a reasonable expectation.” What we’re talking about here may be something more like speculating. A different and perhaps equally noble pursuit.
The vibes speculator would not compete against the quants and the computers. The vibes speculator would look for signals the computer couldn’t see, invisible, unquantifiable signals. The vibes speculator would look for growth, but not according to any metric that might be spotted by a million growth investors. The vibes speculator would feel the growth.
I’ll have more to say on the topic of vibes speculating. I’ve considered launching a prestigious and expensive newsletter, The Vibes Speculator. Or perhaps a small book on the topic. I’m not sure if the book would be in the category “business” or “humor.”
If you control a budget at a well-funded company I’d consider giving a talk on vibes speculating for an extravagent fee.
If you have thoughts on vibes speculating, get in touch. It’s an exciting conversation.
(Disclaimer: none of what I say is investment advice of any kind. These are the musings of an enthusiastic amateur. If anything the sign that amateurs are talking about the stock market is a classic signal of a market top.)
We’re pleased with our small, distinguished, growing audience. These were our most popular posts of the year.
about how JFK spent the night before the 1960 Wisconsin primary. Somebody wrote in to correct me that the movie in question was more like “sexploitation” than porn, but “porno” is the word Bradley used.
grateful this year that we got a chance to see Chaco Canyon, walking the site only increased the fascination
The book has been released here as 150 Glimpses of the Beatles. What’s great about Craig Brown is that he goes to the sources, the primary sources, and tells you not just the details of the incident, but the historiography, the story of the story.
always a popular top.
another inspiration. Got a beautiful note from Vickers’ daughter which was really touching, glad we could add to the information available about this remarkable man.
Glad to be introduced to this stunning work in a readable translation. Why not let the Norse gods advise you on how to conduct yourself when you travel?
This is just an image we found somewhere else, it’s illuminating.
We had a nice guest post this year, Founding Documents by Billy Ouska. We’d love to have more of those in 2021.
Hope you’re all keeping well and safe.
Wired: Sir John Templeton
(Inspired: Charlie Munger)
Everybody wants one of a few things in this country. They’re willing to pay to lose weight. They’re willing to pay to grow hair. They’re willing to pay to have sex. And they’re willing to pay to learn how to get rich.
If you buy something because it’s undervalued, then you have to think about selling it when it approaches your calculation of its intrinsic value. That’s hard. But if you buy a few great companies, then you can sit on your ass. That’s a good thing.
– Charlie Munger.
When I was a kid I played this Nintendo game. It was kind of just a bells-and-whistles version of Dopewars.
One significant flaw in the game as a practice tool for the individual investor is it does not account for the effect of capital gains taxes, which would make the rapid fire buying and selling of this game pure madness.
In 2018, my New Year’s Resolution this will be the Year of Business.
Hope and greed vs sound business reasoning
On the speculative side are the individual investors and many mutual funds buying not on the basis of sound business reasoning but on the basis of hope and greed.
So says Mary Buffett and David Clark in Buffetology: The Previously Unexplained Techniques That Have Made Warren Buffett The World’s Most Famous Investor.
By nature I’m a real speculative, hope and greed kinda guy. My mind is speculative, what can I say? Most people’s are, I’d wager. I don’t even really know what “sound business reasoning” means.
The year of business was about teaching myself a new mental model of reasoning and thinking.
Where to begin?
Finally, when young people who “want to help mankind” come to me, asking: “What should I do? I want to reduce poverty, save the world” and similar noble aspirations at the macro-level. My suggestion is:
1) never engage in virtue signaling;
2) never engage in rent seeking;
3) you must start a business. Take risks, start a business.
Yes, take risk, and if you get rich (what is optional) spend your money generously on others. We need people to take (bounded) risks. The entire idea is to move these kids away from the macro, away from abstract universal aims, that social engineering that bring tail risks to society. Doing business will always help; institutions may help but they are equally likely to harm (I am being optimistic; I am certain that except for a few most do end up harming).
so says Taleb in Skin In The Game.
Taleb’s books hit my sweet spot this year, I was entertained and stimulated by them. They raised intriguing ideas not just about probability, prediction and hazard, but also about how to live your life, what is noble and honorable in a world of risk.
Do you agree with the statement “starting a business is a good way to help the world”? It’s a proposition that might divide people along interesting lines. For example, Mitt Romney would probably agree, while Barack Obama I’m guessing would agree only with some qualifications.
I doubt most of my friends, colleagues and family would agree, or at least it’s not the first answer they might come up with. Among younger people, I sense a discomfort with business, an assumption that capitalism is itself kind of bad, somehow.
But could most of those who disagree come up with a clearer answer for how to help mankind?
As an experiment I started thinking about businesses I could start.
My best idea for a business
Selling supplements online seems like a business to start, I remembered Tim Ferriss laying out the steps in Four Hour Work Week, but it wasn’t really calling my name.
My best idea for a business was to buy a 1955 Spartan trailer and set it up by the south side of the 62 Highway heading into Joshua Tree. There’s some vacant land there, and many people arrive there (as I have often myself) needing a break, food, a sandwich, beer, firewood and other essentials for a desert trip.
The point itself – arrival marker of the town of Joshua Tree – is already a point of pilgrimage for many and a natural place to stop, while also being a place to get supplies.
Setting up a small, simple business like that would have reasonable startup cost, aside from my time, and maybe I could employ some people in an economically underdeveloped area.
However, selling sandwiches is not my passion. It’s not why I get out of bed in the morning.
Starting a business is so hard is requires absolute passion. I had a lack of passion.
Further, there was at least one big obstacle I could predict: regulatory hurdles.
Setting up a business that sold food in San Bernadino County would involve forms, permits, regulations.
What’s more, there’d probably be all kinds of rules about what sort of bathrooms I’d need.
This seemed like a time and bureaucracy challenge beyond my capacity.
Work, in other words. I wanted to get rich sitting on my ass, you see, not working.
Plus, I have a small business, supplying stories and jokes, and for most of the Year of Business my business was sub-contracted to HBO (AT&T).
That was more lucrative than selling PB&Js in the Mojave so I suspended this plan pending further review.
Time to pause, since I had to pause anyway.
What can you learn about “business” from books and the Internet?
No way you can learn more from reading than from starting a business, far from it. But in the spare minutes I had that’s what I could do: learn from the business experience of others.
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 in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.
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.
Fantastic book, it was recommended to me by an MBA grad. Reviewed at length over here, a great cheat sheet and friendly intro to basic concepts of sound business reasoning.
The most important concept it got be thinking about was discounted cash flow analysis. How to calculate the present and future values of money. How much you should pay for a machine that will last eight years and print 60 ten dollar bills a day and cost $20 a day to maintain?
That’s a key question underlying sound business reasoning. How do you value an investment, a purchase, a property, a plant, a factory, or an entire business using sound business reasoning? The prevailing and seemingly best answer is discounted cash flow analysis.
However, the more one learns these concepts, the clearer it becomes that there’s an element of art to all these calculations.
A discounted cash flow analysis depends on assumptions and predictions and estimates that require an element of guessing. Intuition and a feel for things enter into these calculations. They’re not perfect.
A few more things I took away from this book:
- I’d do best in marketing
- Ethics is by far the shortest chapter
- A lot of MBA learning is just knowing code words and signifiers, how to throw around terms like EBITDA, that don’t actually make you wiser and smarter. Consider that George W. Bush and Steve Bannon are both graduates of Harvard Business School.
- To really understand business, you have to understand the language of accounting.
Accounting is an ancient science and a difficult one. You must be rigorous and ethical. Many a business catastrophe could’ve been prevented by more careful or ethical accounting. Accounting is almost sacred, I can see why DFW became obsessed with it.
The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations by MacArthur winner Jacob Soll was full of interesting stuff about the early days of double entry accounting. The image of a dreary Florentine looking forward to his kale and bread soup stood out. There are somewhat dark implications for the American nation-state, I fear, if we take the conclusions of this book — that financial accountability keeps nations alive.
However I got very busy at the time I picked up this book and lost my way with it.
Perhaps a more practical focus could draw my attention?
Warren Buffett and the Interpretation of Financial Statements: The Search for the Company with a Durable Competitive Advantage by Mary Buffett and David Clark was real good, and way over my level, which is how I like them.
The key concept here is how to find, by scouring the balance sheets, income statements, and so on, which public companies have to tell you and are available for free, which companies have a durable competitive advantage.
The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense For The Thoughtful Investor by Howard Marks.
are the two that my friend Anonymous Investor recommended, and they pick up the durable competitive advantage idea. Both books have a central understanding the fact that capitalism is brutal competition, don’t think otherwise. To prosper, you need a “moat,” a barrier competitors can’t cross. A patent, a powerful brand, a known degree of quality people will pay more for, some kind of regulatory capture, a monopoly or at least and part of an oligarchy, these can be moats.
What we’re talking about now is not starting a business, but buying into a business.
There are about 4,000 publicly traded companies on the major exchanges in the US, and another 15,000 you can buy shares of OTC (over the counter, basically by calling up a broker). You can buy into any of these businesses.
Charlie and I hope that you do not think of yourself as merely owning a piece of paper whose price wiggles around daily and that is a candidate for sale when some economic or political event makes you nervous. We hope you instead visualize yourself as a part owner of a business that you expect to stay with indefinitely, much as you might if you owned a farm or apartment house in partnership with members of your family.
so says Buffett. Oft repeated by him in many forms, I find it here on a post called “Buy The Business Not The Stock.”
But how do you determine what price to pay for a share of a business?
Aswath Damodaran has a website with a lot of great information. Mostly it convinced me that deep valuation is not for me.
Extremely Basic Valuation
Always remember that investing is simply price calculations. Your job is to calculate accurate prices for a bevy of assets. When the prices you’ve calculated are sufficiently far from market prices, you take action. There is no “good stock” or “bad stock” or “good company”. There’s just delta from your price and their price. Read this over and over again if you have to and never forget it. Your job is to calculate the price of things and then buy those things for the best price you can. Your calculations should model the real world as thoroughly as possible and be conservative in nature.
Martin Shkreli on his blog (from prison), 8/1/18
The simplest way to determine whether the price of a company is worth it might be to divide the price of a share of a company by the company’s earnings, P/E.
Today, on December 29, 2018:
Apple’s P/E is 13.16.
Google’s (GOOGL): 39.42.
Netflix (NFLX): 91.43.
Union Pacific Railroad (UNP): 8.99.
This suggests UNP is the cheapest of these companies (you get the most earnings per share) while NFLX is the most “expensive” – you get the least earnings).
But: we’re also betting on or estimating future earnings. These numbers change as companies report their earnings, and the stock price goes up and down. Two variables that are often connected and often not connected.
Now you are making predictions.
The most intriguing and enormous field in the world on which to play predictions is the stock market.
What is the stock market?
The stock market is a set of predictions.
Buying into businesses on the stock market can be a form of gambling. Or, if you use sound business reasoning, it can be investing.
What is investing?
Investing is often described as the process of laying out money now in the expectation of receiving more money in the future. At Berkshire we take a more demanding approach, defining investing as the transfer to others of purchasing power now with the reasoned expectation of receiving more purchasing power – after taxes have been paid on nominal gains – in the future.
More succinctly, investing is forgoing consumption now in order to have the ability to consume more at a later date.
Warren B., in Berkshire’s 2011 Letter To Shareholders.
A great thing about investing is you can learn all about it for the price of an Internet connection. All of Buffett’s letters are free.
How to assess a public company as an investment with sound business reasoning
In researching a specific company, Buffett gathers these resources:
- most recent 10-Ks and 10-Qs
- The annual reports
- News and financial information from many sources
The authors said he wants to see the most recent news stories and at least a decade’s worth of financial data. This allows him to build up a picture of
The companies historical annual return on capital and equity
Management’s record in allocating capital
(from The New Buffetology, Mary Buffett and David Clark).
Cheap stocks (using simple ratios like price-to-book or price-to-sales) tend to outperform expensive stocks. But they also tend to be “worse” companies – companies with less exciting prospects and more problems. Portfolio managers who own the expensive subset of stocks can be perceived as prudent while those who own the cheap ones seem rash. Nope, the data say otherwise.
(from “Pulling The Goalie: Hockey and Investment Implications” by Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown.
This sounds too hard
Correct. Most people shouldn’t bother. You should just buy a low cost index fund that tracks “the market.”
What can we we expect “the stock market” to return?
The VTSAX, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index, has had an average annual return of 7.01% since inception in 1992. (Source)
10% is the average, says Nerd Wallet.
9.8% is the average annual return of the S&P 500, says Investopedia.
Now, whether the S&P 500 is “the market” is a good question. We’ll return to that.
O’Shaughnessy has thought a lot about the question, it’s pretty much the main thing he’s thought about for the last twenty years or so as far as I can tell, and comes in at around 9%.
Some interesting data from here.
Munger cautions against assuming history repeats itself, in 2005:
Why Bother Trying To Beat The Market?
A good thing about the Buffettology book is they give you little problems for a specific calculator:
The Texas Instruments BA-35, which it looks like they don’t even really make anymore,. You can get one for $100 over on Amazon.
This calculator is just nifty for working out future values of compounding principal over time.
One concept that must be mashed hard into your head if you’re trying to learn business is the power of compounding.
Let’s say you have $10,000. A good amount of money. How much money can it be in the future?
9% interest, compounded annually, $10,000 principal, 20 years = $61,621
15% interest, compounded annually, $10,000 principal, 20 years= $175,447
9% interest, compounded annually, $1,000 principal, 30 years= $13,731
15% interest, compounded annually, $1,000 principal, 30 years= $86,541
9% interest, $10,000 principal, 40 years= $314,094.2
A significant difference.
Any edge over time adds up.
Let’s say the stock market’s gonna earn 7% over the next years and you have $10,000 to invest. In twenty years you’ll have $38,696.
But if you can get that up to just 8%, you’ll have $46,609.57.
A difference of $8,000.
Is it worth it? Eh, it’s a lotta work to beat the market, maybe not.
Still, you can see why people try it once we’re talking about $1,000,000, and the difference is $80,000, or the edge is 2%, and so on.
Plus there’s something fun just about beating the system.
Lessons from the race track
This book appeals to the same instinct — how to beat the house, what’s the system?
Both Buffett and Munger are interested in race tracks. Here is Munger:
This might be the single most important lesson of the Year of Business. Buffett and Munger repeat it in their speeches and letters. You wait for the right opportunity and you load up.
“The stock market is a no-called-strike game. You don’t have to swing at everything – you can wait for your pitch. The problem when you’re a money manager is that your fans keep yelling, ‘swing, you bum!'”
“Ted Williams described in his book, ‘The Science of Hitting,’ that the most important thing – for a hitter – is to wait for the right pitch. And that’s exactly the philosophy I have about investing – wait for the right pitch, and wait for the right deal. And it will come… It’s the key to investing.”
“If you find three wonderful businesses in your life, you’ll get very rich. And if you understand them — bad things aren’t going to happen to those three. I mean, that’s the characteristic of it.”
OK but don’t you need money in the first place to make money buying into businesses?
Yes, this is kind of the trick of capitalism. Even Munger acknowledges that the hard part is getting some money in the first place.
“The first $100,000 is a bitch, but you gotta do it. I don’t care what you have to do—if it means walking everywhere and not eating anything that wasn’t purchased with a coupon, find a way to get your hands on $100,000. After that, you can ease off the gas a little bit.”
The Unknown and Unknowable
One of the best papers I read all year was “Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable,” by Richard Zeckhauser.
David Ricardo made a fortune buying bonds from the British government four days in advance of the Battle of Waterloo. He was not a military analyst, and even if he were, he had no basis to compute the odds of Napoleon’s defeat or victory, or hard-to-identify ambiguous outcomes. Thus, he was investing in the unknown and the unknowable. Still, he knew that competition was thin, that the seller was eager, and that his windfall pounds should Napoleon lose would be worth much more than the pounds he’d lose should Napoleon win. Ricardo knew a good bet when he saw it.1
This essay discusses how to identify good investments when the level of uncertainty is well beyond that considered in traditional models of finance.
Zeckhauser, in talking about how we make predictions about the Unknown and Unknowable, gets to an almost Zen level. There’s a suggestion that in making predictions about something truly Unknowable, the amateur might almost have an edge over the professional. This is deep stuff.
“Beating the market”
When we talk about “beating the market,” what’re we talking about?
If you’re talking about outperforming a total stock market index like VTSAX over a long time period, that seems to be a lot of work to pull off something nearly impossible.
Yes, people do it, but it’s so hard to do we, like, know the names of the people who’ve consistently done it.
There’s something cool about Peter Lynch’s idea that the average consumer can have an edge, but even he says you gotta follow that up with a lot of homework.
Lynch, O’Shaughnessy – it’s like a Boston law firm around here. I really enjoyed Jim O’Shaughnessy’s Twitter and his Google talk.
Sometimes when there’s talk of “beating the market,” the S&P 500 is used interchangeably with “the market.” As O’Shaughnessy points out though, the S&P 500 is itself a strategy. Couldn’t there be a better strategy?
is full of backtesting and research, much of it summarized in this article. Small caps, low P/S, is my four word takeaway.
Jim: Sure. So when I was a teenager, I was fascinated because my parents and some of my uncles were very involved in investing in the stock market, and they used to argue about it all the time. And generally speaking, the argument went, which CEO did they feel was better, or which company had better prospects. And I kind of felt that that wasn’t the right question, or questions to ask. I felt it was far more useful, or, I believed at the time that it would be far more useful to look at the underlying numbers and valuations of companies that you were considering buying, and find if there was a way to sort of systematically identify companies that would go on to do well, and identify those that would go on to do poorly. And so I did a lot of research, and ultimately came up…
says O’Shaughnessy in an interview with GuruFocus. I’m not sure I agree.
Narrative can be a powerful tool in business. If you can see where a story is going, there could be an edge.
I like assessing companies based on a Google image search of the CEO, for instance.
O’Shaughnessy suggests cutting all that out, getting down to just the numbers. But do you want to invest in, I dunno, RCI Hospitality Holdings ($RICK) (a company that runs a bunch of Hooters-type places called Bombshells) or PetMed Express ($PETS) just because they’re small caps with low p/s ratios and other solid indicators?
Actually those both might be great investments.
I will concede that narrative investing is not systematic. I will continue to ruminate on it.
Charlie Tian’s book is dense but I found it a great compression of a lot of investing principles. It’s also just like a cool immigrant story.
The service that Charlie Tian built, GuruFocus, is a fantastic resource.
Premium membership costs $449 for a year, which is a lot, but I’d say I got way more than that in value and education from it.
J. R. Collins
His book is great, his Google talk is great.
Investing doesn’t have to be all Munger and Buffett. Towards the end of the Year of Business I got into Sir John Templeton.
His thing was finding the point of maximum pessimism. Australian real estate is down? South American mining companies are getting crushed? Look for an opportunity there.
This guy worked above a grocery store in the Bahamas.
Great-niece Lauren carrying on the legacy.
Thought this was a cool chart from her talk demonstrating irrational Mr. Market at work even while long term trends may be “rational.”
Why bother, again?
At some point if you study this stuff it’s like, if you’re not indexing, shouldn’t you just buy Berkshire and have Buffett handle your money for you? You can have the greatest investor who ever lived making money for you just as easily as buying any other stock.
It seems to me that there are 3 qualities of great investors that are rarely discussed:
1. They have a strong memory;
2. They are extremely numerate;
3. They have what Warren calls a “money mind,” an instinctive commercial sense.
Alice Schroeder, his biographer, talking about Warren Buffett. I don’t have any of these.
Even Munger says all his family’s money is in Costco, Berkshire, Li Lu’s (private) fund and that’s it.
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.
The answer is it’s fun and stimulates the mind.
A thing to remember about Buffett:
More than 2,000 books are dedicated to how Warren Buffett built his fortune. Many of them are wonderful.
But few pay enough attention to the simplest fact: Buffett’s fortune isn’t due to just being a good investor, but being a good investor since he was literally a child.
The writings of Morgan Housel are incredible.
You can read about Buffett all day, and it’s fun because Buffett is an amazing writer and storyteller and character as well as businessman. But studying geniuses isn’t necessarily that helpful for the average apprentice. Again, it’s like studying LeBron to learn how to dribble and hit a layup.
Can Capitalism Survive Itself?
The title of this book is vaguely embarrassing imo but Yvon Chouinard is a hero and his book is fantastic. Starting with blacksmithing rock climbing pitons he built Patagonia.
They make salmon now?
Towards the end of his book Chouinard wonders whether our economy, which depends on growth, is sustainable. He suggests it might destroy us all, which he doesn’t seem all that upset about (he mentions Zen a lot).
The last liberal art
Have yet to finish this book but I love the premise. Investing combines so many disciplines and models, that’s what makes it such a rich subject. So far I’m interested in Hagstrom’s connections to physics. Stocks are subject to some kind of law of gravity. Netflix will not have a P/E of 95 for forever.
Compare perception to results:
Dominos, Amazon, Berkshire, and VTSAX since 2005.
Stocks Let’s Talk
The stock market is interesting and absurd. The stock market is not “business,” but it’s made of business, you know?
The truth is the most I’ve learned about business has come from conversation.
To continue the conversation, I started a podcast, Stocks Let’s Talk. You can find all six episodes here, each with an interesting guest bringing intriguing perspective.
I intend to continue it and would appreciate it if you rate us on iTunes.
- you can get rich sitting on your ass
- business is hard and brutal and competitive
- you need a durable competitive advantage
- if you are unethical it will catch up to you
- we’re gonna need to get sustainable
- the works of Tian, Lynch, O’Shaughnessy, Templeton, Chouinard, and Munger are worth study
- accounting is crucial and must be done right, even then you can be fooled
- I’m too whimsical for business really but it’s good to learn different models
As part of my Year of Business I’ve been reading lots of investing websites. An area of insane hype at the moment is Canadian marijuana stocks.
(The picks and shovels play here might be stock images of marijuana leaves).
Recreational marijuana will be legal in Canada in October, and unlike the United States, where federal regulation of the plant makes doing anything on the national level very difficult, it’s all good up there in Justin Trudeau land.
Once Constellation Brands, makers of Corona beer, made a $4 billion deal with Canopy Growth (traded on the New York Stock Exchange as CGC) it was off to the races.
I did not invest in Canopy Growth because a quick image search of CEO Bruce Linton did not inspire confidence.
An interesting aspect of Canada’s marijuana rules are that the packaging has to adhere to very strict regulation, with very little advertising. This, it seems to me, presents kind of a Zen marketing challenge. How will one brand distinguish itself from another?
Blessedly I have kind of a Peter Lynch advantage here. From watching lots of Trailer Park Boys, I know that “BC Hydro” and marijuana from British Columbia is highly prized by the Canadian consumer. Even a low information Canadian marijuana consumer might know to ask for weed from British Columbia.
Tilray, traded on the NASDAQ as TLRY, is a respected marijuana grower based in Naniamo, British Columbia. Here is their respectable looking management team.
A few more observations:
- It is worth remembering our Charlie Munger here. Here he is talking in 2014 about why Berkshire Hathaway, the original textile company, was doomed:
The other rare example, of course, is Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire started with three failing companies: a textile business in New England that was totally doomed because textiles are congealed electricity and the power rates were way higher in New England than they were down in TVA country in Georgia. A totally doomed, certain-to-fail business.
In a way, marijuana itself is congealed electricity. I’m told power rates are cheapest in Ontario, where Canopy is based. And of course Medicine Hat, Alberta, is the sunniest city in Canada.
- I find it interesting and a testament to the world’s absurdity that if you had eight ounces of marijuana in New York City, the minimum jail sentence is three years, while down the street billions of dollars of shares of marijuana growers are being traded. Maybe Governor Cynthia Nixon will correct that imbalance. (Since I first discussed this on Twitter, Tilray’s stock went up 67%)
- If the President of the USA really cared about us defeating Canada, wouldn’t he work towards legalizing marijuana immediately, so that US companies could compete without Canada getting a jump on us?
- At first I thought legalized marijuana would end up being just like any commodity, like corn or something. But the technical know-how to extract and present CBD or THC as an oil or in something like a Dosist pen might give an advantage to companies with good processes. Note this picture of a laboratory on Tilray’s website:
- It’s my casual observation that a lot of very dumb bros, like guys who are too dumb to be in tech, are in the marijuana business. There’s something great about a field where many of your competitors will be dumb. (There are also many very, very smart people in this field.)
These dudes started a fake Warren Buffett account on a bet, and within a few days it was retweeted by Peggy Noonan, Kanye, etc.
Impressed with how generic and bland the advice was.
The worship of Buffett as an oracle is not just a US phenomenon. If anything it may be stronger in Asia. In Korea in 2007, I saw subway vending machines selling biographies of Warren Buffett. In this video, being interviewed by a Chinese magazine, you can see Warren Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger, attempt to explain why he thinks he and Buffett are so popular in China. He suggests that it’s because much of their advice is very Confucian:
Actual Warren Buffett’s advice is free and very available. You can read all of Berkshire Hathaway’s letters to shareholders, which are funny and interesting at times (the better you are at skimming the boring parts, the more enjoyment you will get out of them). You can see everything he invests in — he legally has to tell you!
Investing is simple, but not easy
is a quote often attributed to Buffett, though I myself cannot find the original source for it.
Buffett himself was asked about the fake account on CNBC:
QUICK: BUT THERE WAS A FAKE TWITTER ACCOUNT, A FAKE WARREN BUFFETT TWITTER ACCOUNT THAT WENT FROM 20,000 FOLLOWERS TO 200,000 FOLLOWERS IN 24 HOURS BY TWEETING OUT ALL KINDS OF PITHY SORT OF SOUND ADVICE, THINGS THAT FOLKSY SAYINGS THAT SOUNDED LIKE IT COULD HAVE COME FROM YOU. WHY DON’T YOU TWEET MORE OFTEN?
BUFFETT: WELL I JUST DON’T SEE A REASON TO. I PUT OUT AN ANNUAL REPORT, AND I DO NOT HAVE A DAILY VIEW ON ALL KINDS OF THINGS. AND, AND MAYBE I’VE GOT A GUY IN THIS COPYCAT OR IMITATOR, MAYBE HE’S PUTTING OUT BETTER STUFF THAN I WOULD. SO IF HE PUTS OUT GOOD ADVICE, I’LL TAKE CREDIT FOR IT.
QUICK: WE HAVE SEEN SOME CEOs WHO LIKE TO TWEET VERY FREQUENTLY, INCLUDING ELON MUSK.
QUICK: HE’S CERTAINLY SOMEBODY WHO TWEETED A LOT. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT PEOPLE WHO TWEET A LOT?
BUFFETT: I DON’T THINK IT’S HELPED HIM A LOT. NO, I THINK IT’S — WELL, IT’D BE PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS TO START COMMENTING ON BERKSHIRE DAILY, WHICH I NEVER WOULD DO. I WON’T DO IT WITH YOU. BUT I THINK THERE’S OTHER THINGS IN LIFE I WANT TO DO THAN TWEET. I MEAN, I’M NOT THAT DESPERATE FOR SOMEBODY TO HEAR MY OPINION ON THIS.
This aspect of Buffett is much celebrated:
It’s sometimes forgotten or overlooked that he also owns a $7.9 million house in Laguna Beach.
Though in fairness he bought it in 1971 for $150,000.
I’ve noticed that writing about investing is very popular on the Internet so I’m gonna try it.
This post is about Twitter (TWTR). At the moment: the stock is priced at 15.88, I don’t own it.
Twitter is one of my favorite products in the world. If I’m being real, I probably spend minimum an hour a day looking at Twitter.
Lots of people hate it — my Great Debates colleague Dan Medina, for instance, claims to find it unusable. Yet there he is:
and he’s fascinated by it.
How can you not be? Here are entertainers, comedians, athletes, famous people of all kinds, plus millions of strong-opinioned randos, bots, sex bots, ordinary citizens, kids, organizations, Vine people, all gabbing away at some fantastically weird party / school assembly gone mad.
On the one hand maybe Twitter is a negative in my life, because I read fewer books. On the other hand, while I’ve been putting off reading William Gibson’s books, I’ve been enjoying his Twitter feed:
Little Esther tells me Twitter is for losers, but her feed is hilarious:
Twitter is a fiendishly perfect invention for distracting comedians because so many of them
- Crave instant feedback/laughs
- Are desperate for connection
- Are bored
- Are traveling / waiting around for something
- Are video game addicts
If anything, the biggest problem I have a user of Twitter is how much stuff there is I want to look at, and how to sift it out from all the garbage.
I’ve solved that problem more or less to my satisfaction by making private lists. The second biggest problem might be the jarring combos of information:
but maybe that’s a feature, not a bug.
For all this entertainment, hours and hours of it, Twitter charges me…
NOTHING?! Zero dollars?
That is ridiculous.
I mean, I guess sometimes I have to look at ads. But I gotta tell ya, these ads don’t tend to get in the way. Often they are wack enough to be part of the fun:
(What? The Embassy of Poland wants to brag to me, specifically, about its military expenditures?)
What kind of wonderful company is this, that gives me entertainment, information and amusement for free?!
Should I get in on?
When a product becomes a part of your life, you have to ask yourself if maybe you should go ahead and own part of the company by buying shares in it.
SHOULD YOU INVEST IN TWITTER (TWTR)?
What I know about investing is cobbled together from skimming and half-reading investment books, blogs and articles (and Twitter) plus mistakes plus talking to people.
First, big believer in the Peter Lynch method.
Peter Lynch was a wealthy Bostonian of my youth who got his start caddying for the president of Fidelity Investments, became an intern there, and rose up to manage Fidelity’s Magellan fund:
From 1977 until 1990, the Magellan fund averaged a 29.2% return and as of 2003 had the best 20-year return of any mutual fund ever.
and also wrote some bestselling investment guides:
which I haven’t read. But which Wikipedia helpfully summarizes:
His most famous investment principle is simply, “Invest in what you know,” popularizing the economic concept of “local knowledge“. Since most people tend to become expert in certain fields, applying this basic “invest in what you know” principle helps individual investors find good undervalued stocks.
Lynch uses this principle as a starting point for investors. He has also often said that the individual investor is more capable of making money from stocks than a fund manager, because they are able to spot good investments in their day-to-day lives before Wall Street. Throughout his two classic investment primers, he has outlined many of the investments he found when not in his office – he found them when he was out with his family, driving around or making a purchase at the mall. Lynch believes the individual investor is able to do this, too.
I would say I’m not an expert but I’m pretty serious about:
Twitter is a great way to get comedy in quick, easy form. Every comedian I know is on Twitter.
- written entertainment
Not every writer is on Twitter but a lot of them are, and there’s neat writing on Twitter every day.
from this I’ve had my biggest insight of all: journalists are obsessed with Twitter. They give better, faster, more interesting news directly to their Twitter feeds.
Plus, the news makers and influencers are themselves talking directly to the Twitter user:
That’s how I identified Twitter as a possible opportunity. Now let’s run it through a rigorous Lynchian checklist.
Do you use it yourself?
Yes, so much so that I have to impose rules on myself that I then break.
Do people you know use it?
Oh God they’re obsessed.
Does it seem like a good product?
Well, I dunno. For instance I have no idea how or if they make money.
That brings us to the next level.
Everybody knows billionaire investor and Omaha cheapskate Warren Buffett, he is one of the great American characters.
You might also know his partner and former WWII Army Air Corps meteorologist Charlie Munger:
A good intro to some of Munger’s ideas can be found here on the blog of Tren Griffin, who rounds up a lot of wisdom.
Buffett and Munger’s insights are many and not easy to summarize, but a crudely simplified version in three quotes might be:
Buy into a company because you want to own it, not because you want the stock to go up.
I never attempt to make money on the stock market. I buy on the assumption that they could close the market the next day and not reopen it for five years.
(that quote I can’t 100% track down to the source but it appears legit).
Never invest in a business you cannot understand.
Buffett is a value investor. He asks, is the business valuable? For instance, a railroad.
Only a few companies control all the railroad track in North America:
and they’re not building more. People continue to ship things on railroad. Warren Buffett decided that he understood railroads I guess, because he bought one.
Presumably before he did that, though, he ran BNSF through the third level of investment analysis, which is the level of numbers.
This is the level that is so boring. You almost can’t believe it.
Try, for instance, to read the wikipedia page on valuation (finance) and if your eyeballs don’t turn to mush maybe investment banking is for you.
For me, I can only handle the very basics. There’s P/E (price of the stock to earnings), for instance. Should be simple enough:
Theoretically, a stock’s P/E tells us how much investors are willing to pay per dollar of earnings. For this reason it’s also called the “multiple” of a stock. In other words, a P/E ratio of 20 suggests that investors in the stock are willing to pay $20 for every $1 of earnings that the company generates. However, this is a far too simplistic way of viewing the P/E because it fails to take into account the company’s growth prospects.
So says investopedia. Ugh, everything is always far too simplistic with these guys.
Let’s take it down to basics.
OK, I can do this.
EBITDA is earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. A measure, right, of how much money the company is making.
Twitter’s is negative two hundred and eight million dollars.
Coca-Cola, by comparison, is $124 million.
Amazon’s is $7.8 billion.
Netflix’s is $368.1 million.
Chipotle’s is $908 million.
How about profit margin, that seems simple.
OK, so let us answer the key question:
- How much money is Twitter making?
Negative a lot?
- How is that possible?
Well, I took to the Internet. Here are some things I learned:
- Twitter makes huge amounts of revenue, but not a profit.
From this week’s earnings call, we learned that Twitter’s revenue in the fourth quarter totaled $710 million, up 48 percent year-over-year.
Most of that money ($641 million) comes from ad sales, with the rest ($69 million?) coming I guess from data sales. Although apparently Twitter has somehow screwed up selling that up — last year it made $147 million from data sales before they shut off their data “fire hose.”
I ran all this by my colleague Anonymous Investor. Here’s what he has to say:
Let’s say you owned a pizza shop. In 2015 you sell a million dollars worth of pizza (or said another way, you made a million dollars in revenue). At first glance, that might seem good. But if your food, labor and rent costs add up 1.3 million, you would have ended up losing money for the year. (a $300,000 loss for 2015).
Likewise, Twitter sold 2 billion dollars worth of stuff (mostly advertising sales). But they spent around 2.5 billion dollars doing it. I haven’t dug deep into it, but lots of their costs seem like wasteful spending — such as 778 million on research and development, which seems ridiculous for a company that’s basically not much more than a slightly-advanced message board.Seems the company could be profitable if google or someone else bought it. They could slash costs and make some profit off that revenue.
- Twitter wastes lots of money.
How much does it cost to run Twitter? I honestly have no idea, but the brilliant thing about the business is that the users are doing the hard work of generating the content. All Twitter should have to do is run the servers and so on, right?
In looking into it, I found that Twitter spends an insane amount of money on research and development. This is from a 2013 Fortune article:
According to its IPO document, in the third quarter of the year, Twitter shelled out nearly $90 million on R&D. That was equal to more than half, 52%, of the company’s revenue in the same period. It is Twitter’s largest cost, nearly 50% more than it spent on marketing. And it’s far more than most of its rivals spend. Facebook, for instance, spent just 14% of its revenue on R&D in the the quarter right before it went public. It has since ramped up that spending to 26%. But Facebook FB 0.10% makes money, unlike Twitter.
Google spends just 15% of revenue on R&D. And Google is working on a self-driving car, high-tech glasses and, maybe, space elevators.
There is no sign that Twitter is working on anything that cool. Twitter actually gives very little detail about what it spends its R&D budget on in the offering documents for its IPO. It says that R&D expenses are to “improve our products and services.” And it doesn’t appear that Twitter is building some kind of high-tech lab or supercomputer. In fact, the bulk of Twitter’s R&D expenses go toward personnel-related expenses. And a good portion of that expense, about a quarter, was the cost of handing out stock options.
Twitter doesn’t say how many employees work in its R&D groups. The company has a total of 2,300 employees. That would be $104,000 per employee if all of its employees were in R&D, which they are not.
That sounds crazy. And it seems like the problem has not been solved. Take a look at this:
Again, I am no expert, the whole point of writing this is to educate myself, but Twitter is spending $800 million dollars on research & development?! WTF? To research and develop what?!
Your job is to bring me this shit as simply as possible:
And you don’t even do a good job of that!
Much of that money, apparently, is stock distribution.
- Twitter’s employee stock distribution system is screwy.
At the same time, depending on how you count Twitter employees’ stock options, the company is either still continuing to lose money or only modestly profitable.
That murkiness definitely makes me uneasy.
Is this an accounting anomaly that’s falsely inflating how much money Twitter is spending?
Or is Twitter like giving away too much of itself to its employees?
- Twitter is not gaining users
That seems to be what’s making “Wall Street” so mad, since when they bought into it at its IPO with a valuation of $30 billion dollars they were assuming it would be the next Facebook or whatever. Not happening.
As far as I can tell at least some significant percentage of Twitter users are bots anyway. If some of your users are artificial sex picture machines, and you’re still losing users?
- Twitter has untapped revenue potential?
So says this bullish article:
According to Twitter, there are 500 million people who consume Twitter that don’t actively use Twitter, or have accounts. These people see tweets on websites, mobile apps, in articles, or in Google search among other places. After much debate, and criticism about how Twitter can convert those users to the platform, Dorsey made the decision to begin showing promoted tweets to its logged out userbase of 500 million, rather than wasting money trying to convert those consumers to users.
I don’t really understand this. Does it mean you’re gonna get users back to Twitter? Doubt it. We’ll watch the test case of our colleague Dan Medina, but in my experience people don’t come back to social media apps they left.
- This guy has a terrible idea. Or is it genius?
The title of his article is:
How Twitter could be 10X bigger, 100X more profitable, and 1000X more awesome
and I have to say this is a case of what we might call Bro Exaggeration.
- What about the exact opposite?
Twitter pays you if your tweets get 2,500 RTS. Celebrities excluded, can only win a few times, scams will have to be dodged etc., but: essentially Twitter becomes a joke casino where anyone can play. Americans love casinos. Casino owners do not go broke but they sometimes get murdered I guess.
OK so those are the things I know
Can I pass any of Buffett’s tests?
Do I want to own Twitter as a business, not just as a stock?
Not if it costs ten billion dollars, no, which is market cap as of this writing.
If the stock market shut down for five years tomorrow, would Twitter emerge well?
Ehhhhhh…. yes I think so but not worth ten billion dollars or its five year equivalent.
Do you understand the business?
Not really. It is a simple mobile entertainment company where the content is generated for free but somehow it costs TWO billion dollars a year to run it? Where all the ads are like garbage and increasingly young people tell me it is for losers?
I don’t understand that.
I kind of do understand it like the world’s news feed and it’s free. Something like an AP wire that anyone can post on, that (mostly) sorts itself out but has as it’s biggest problem filtering, a problem it has to solve fast or it will be replaced like MySpace by something nimbler and cooler that doesn’t cost two billion dollars to run.
It all comes down to the final piece of the Hely Investment Method: look at a photo of the CEO.
Does he look like he knows what he’s doing? Would you trust this man with your money?
Hrmm. I dunno. How can you tell with these tech guys?
Maybe Jack Dorsey will:
- figure out innovations that draw new users to Twitter without antagonizing the existing users
- find deep new trenches of revenue
- cut operating expenses
and Twitter will be an amazingly valuable company. OR, maybe he will
- appear or come close enough to doing that so the stock price goes way up.
Another possibility is
- they go too far and drive off the users they do have.
Jack Dorsey, knowing he has to do something, uses his neuro-atypical brain to change interfaces in ways that actual humans hate. No new users join, Wall Street freaks out. The company stock plummets. Maybe some giant buys it out of perverse experimentation or nostalgia or valuation of scrap parts at some lower level.
One thing I can almost guarantee:
- Twitter will not grow in new user gain numbers
New people are not lining up to join Twitter. Everyone in the world has had a chance to try it out.
What I would suggest to Jack Dorsey?:
- DON’T DO ANYTHING.
Some huge number of people are insane devotees of your site as is.
Let them keep entertaining and informing themselves with it.
Change nothing. You won’t gain any new users, but you won’t lose any either. In the meantime, you can figure out how to sort out operating expenses and improve advertising.
Wall Street investment banks overvalued the company because they were in a hysteria about tech and had no idea how to value a company that had nothing but enormous user growth, so they overvalued it. Now the user growth has stopped and they are panicking. But it’s fine. Maybe Twitter isn’t worth $10 billion / $15 a share, but it is worth something.
At this price I would suggest do not buy Twitter. Marc Cuban agrees with me, here’s what he said to CNBC on Feb. 11 (funny how their transcripts are in all caps):
WAPNER: THAT LEADS ME TO MY LAST QUESTION. SINCE WERE TALKING TECH AND SO-CALLED FALLING KNIVES, WHEN YOU LOOK AT A TWITTER, WHAT DO YOU SEE IF YOU ARE PART OF AN INVESTMENT GROUP OR IF YOU WERE A CEO OF ANY NUMBER OF TECH COMPANIES OUT THERE, WOULD YOU LOOK AT THIS PROPERTY AS AN ASSET YOU WANTED TO HAVE?
CUBAN: YEAH, YOU KNOW, A LITTLE BIT LOWER I CERTAINLY WOULD. I THINK NOW IT IS AT THE QUESTION POINT WITH THE $10 BILLION MARKET CAP, BUT $6 BILLION MARKET CAP WITH $2 BILLION IN CASH, I WOULD BE A HUGE BUYER OF THE STOCK.
If you believe him, and I guess I do, somebody will buy Twitter soon.
So, there’s some stock price point at which that news will come out, and then the stock will go up some (probably). So if you want to gamble on that exact moment you can make money.
Seems like a sucker’s game to me, but if you love gambling it’s probably fun. Says Anonymous Investor:
Despite the fact that the company can’t make any profit, the stock is still selling for a high price. It’s selling for 5 times its revenue. That’s higher than average. The high valuation means that investors have the belief that in the future some of those revenues can be converted into profit. And other investors might have the belief that twitter could be bought out by another company for a market cap north of 10 billion dollars (or to be more accurate: north of around 8 billion, since Twitter holds about 2 billion in net cash).It’s all a matter of opinion. To me, both assumptions have a pretty high risk of not happening. So in order for me personally to buy Twitter, I’d need to be compensated for that risk with a lower price.
Did you know Jack Dorsey has a whole other company he’s CEO of?
Wait what? You’re telling me he’s working at most half time on fixing Twitter?
Yes he’s also busy being CEO of Square, the credit card payment company that might be hugely profitable or might be about to collapse?
Haha this guy. How does he explain that?
He says it’s easy with his “theme day” system:
The way I found that works for me is I theme my days. On Monday, at both companies, I focus on management and running the company…Tuesday is focused on product. Wednesday is focused on marketing and communications and growth. Thursday is focused on developers and partnerships. Friday is focused on the company and the culture and recruiting. Saturday I take off, I hike. Sunday is reflection, feedback, strategy, and getting ready for the week.
HAHA amazing. This guy.