Munger Goes Mentalhttp://www.fool.com/investing/general/2004/06/04/munger-goes-mental.aspx Whitney Tilson
June 4, 2004
Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK.A ) (NYSE: BRK.B ) Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are undoubtedly the greatest investment duo ever, so I think any sensible investor should try to learn as much as possible about these two men and how they achieved their success. In the case of Buffett, it's not hard -- there are many books about him, he's published lengthy annual letters for decades (you can read the last 27 of them for free on Berkshire's website), and he gives speeches and makes public appearances regularly. But Munger is more private; there are only two books about him, he is a far less prolific writer, and rarely gives speeches.
Thus, my heart skipped a beat when a friend gave me a recording of a speech Munger gave to the economics department at the University of California, Santa Barbara last Oct. 3. It's 85 minutes long and entitled, "Academic Economics: Strengths and Faults After Considering Interdisciplinary Needs."
With that kind of title, it sounds like a real snoozer, eh? But it's not. In this speech, Munger applies his famous mental models approach to critiquing how economics is taught and practiced, and I think the lessons he teaches are profound -- both for investors as well as anyone who seeks to be a better, clearer thinker.
I transcribed the speech for my own benefit, but after making such an effort (it took forever, as it's 21 single-spaced pages), I thought that others might be interested in Munger's wisdom, so I sent him a copy and asked if I could publish it. He asked me not to until he'd had a chance to review it and make some edits. He has now done so, so I'm delighted to share it with you: Click here to read it.
In this column, I will share some of the highlights of the speech.
When Warren took over Berkshire, the market capitalization was about ten million dollars. And forty something years later, there are not many more shares outstanding now than there were then, and the market capitalization is about a hundred billion dollars, ten thousand for one. And since that has happened, year after year, in kind of a grind-ahead fashion, with very few failures, it eventually drew some attention, indicating that maybe Warren and I knew something useful in microeconomics.
Efficient market theory
Berkshire's whole record has been achieved without paying one ounce of attention to the efficient market theory in its hard form. And not one ounce of attention to the descendants of that idea, which came out of academic economics and went into corporate finance and morphed into such obscenities as the capital asset pricing model, which we also paid no attention to. I think you'd have to believe in the tooth fairy to believe that you could easily outperform the market by seven-percentage points per annum just by investing in high volatility stocks. Yet.many people still believe it. But Berkshire never paid any attention to it.
Multidisciplinary education and "man with a hammer syndrome"
For some odd reason, I had an early and extreme multidisciplinary cast of mind. I couldn't stand reaching for a small idea in my own discipline when there was a big idea right over the fence in somebody else's discipline. So I just grabbed in all directions for the big ideas that would really work. Nobody taught me to do that; I was just born with that yen.
If one doesn't embrace all multidisciplinary thinking, Munger argues, then one is likely to fall into the trap of:
"man with a hammer syndrome." And that's taken from the folk saying: To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks pretty much like a nail. And that works marvelously to gum up all professions, and all departments of academia, and indeed most practical life. The only antidote for being an absolute klutz due to the presence of a man with a hammer syndrome is to have a full kit of tools. You don't have just a hammer. You've got all the tools. And you've got to have one more trick. You've got to use those tools checklist-style, because you'll miss a lot if you just hope that the right tool is going to pop up unaided whenever you need it.
Problems to solve
For the answers to these questions, you'll have to read the transcript.
Second- and third-order consequences and free trade