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Charlie Munger's Thoughts on the World: Part 1

By Morgan Housel - Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 7:49PM

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A great investor speaks.

"Most of you know exactly what I think about every subject, but you still come anyway. It's a damn cult."

So began this year's annual meeting with Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-B) 87-year-old vice-chairman Charlie Munger in Los Angeles. It was, sadly, the last we'll see of these gatherings -- formally the Wesco Financial annual meeting, and this year, simply labeled "A Morning With Charlie."

"You need a new cult hero," Munger said. "I'm doing you all a favor by not having another one of these meetings."

"We'll be talking about a lot today," he told the crowd of 500. "Some of it is academic. Some philosophical. And some will be about investments because I know you're all a bunch of greedy bastards."

Here's Part 1 of my notes in Munger's own words, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

On the Wall Street meltdown: It all started with an asinine bubble. The cause was a combination of megalomania, stupidity, insanity, and I would say evil on the part of bankers and mortgage brokers.

And it was widespread. Alan Greenspan was a smart guy, but he totally overdosed on Ayn Rand when he was young. You can't give bankers the freedom to create gambling games. That's what it was. Wall Street was a gambling house, and the house's odds were better than a Vegas casino. And real casino operators have to build parking lots, fly in entertainers, pay for bars and restaurants. It's expensive. Wall Street was like a casino with no overhead. It was hog heaven for them. But it created vast damage with terrible consequences to civilization.

None of us should fall for the idea that this was constructive capitalism. In the 1920s they called it bucket shops -- just the name tells you it's bad -- and they eventually made it illegal, and rightly so. They should do the same this time.

On opportunity: Patience combined with opportunity is a great thing to have. My grandfather taught me that opportunity is infrequent and one has to be ready when it strikes. That's what Berkshire is. It's amazing how fast Berkshire acts when we find opportunity. You can't be timid -- and that applies to all of life. You can't be timid in marriage when you find the right spouse. It might be your only opportunity to be happy in life. Too many people don't act when they should. That's why half of all marriages don't work out.

On Berkshire's valuation: Berkshire's stock is at a point Buffett and I never anticipated it would go to. Part of this is due to weather [insurance losses], part of it is Europe being welcomed into what I call adult life.

On the future of Berkshire: Investors owning Berkshire at current prices will do quite all right just sitting on their rear ends.

On banks: Bernie Madoff expressed sorrow in court to get a lighter sentence, but it was all false. In prison he told a guy that he carried his clients for 25 years, and now he's serving 150 years. He doesn't think it's fair.

Many people don't. I bet Richard Fuld [former CEO of Lehman Brothers] doesn't have an ounce of contrition. It's just megalomania. When it's like that, you need rules to prevent catastrophe. When banks are borrowing the government's credit rating [FDIC insurance, etc.], you need rules to prevent stupid things.

Clever derivatives broke dozens of companies. It killed them. Bankrupt. We don't need these kinds of innovation in finance. It's OK to be boring in finance. What we want is innovation in widgets.

On the power of Berkshire: People make contracts with Berkshire all the time just because they trust us to do well. They trust us to behave because they know others won't. It's a wonderful position to be in. And as the saying goes, "How nice it is to have a tyrant's strength, but how wrong it is to use it like a tyrant."

On lifetime learning: When we bought See's Candies, we didn't know the power of a good brand. Over time we just discovered that we could raise prices 10% a year and no one cared. Learning that changed Berkshire. It was really important.

You have to be a lifelong learner to appreciate this stuff. We think of it as a moral duty. Increasing rationality and improving as much as you can no matter your age or experience is a moral duty. Too many people graduate from Wharton today and think they know how to do everything. It's a considerable mistake.

Most of Berkshire's success grew from stupidity and failure that we learned from. I hope that makes you feel better about your own life.

On accountants: Banks showed income and assets for things that were neither/nor, and the accountants were totally fine with it. What kind of profession acts this way? The medical profession wants to eradicate epidemics. Accountants feel no similar responsibility toward their field. They feel no embarrassment about it. They just want to get the job done. It's contemptible behavior. At the top of an idiot boom, a bank's allowance for bad debt goes to zero. That's the accounting rule. What kind of maniac thinks this is good? A certified public accountant, that's who.

On financial collapse: The world learned what happened after World War I when we demanded that Germany repay. It was chaos and hyperinflation. The result, of course, was the rise of Hitler. And Hitler could have been more successful than he was; his kids or family members could still be in power today had things gone just a little differently. You don't ever want to do anything to push an economy to collapse. Terrible things result.                                     

Now think about this. During World War II, Japan tortured our soldiers to death. They marched them around. The Germans put people in ovens. Just awful. And what did we do after the war? We gave them money to rebuild. We said, "Let bygones be bygones." The result was a magnificent global economic system and a win for human rights.

Who deserves the most credit for this? That would be John Maynard Keynes and his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. People figured out he was right, and they just did it.

On our financial crisis vs. Japan's lost decade: There was an orthodoxy of the world that Keynesian tricks would goose an economy and solve and ameliorate recessions. Economists were so sure it would work that GDP would grind ahead. They thought it was a law, like the laws of physics.

But then came Japan. Japan's crash was caused by factors similar to ours -- an idiot boom that burst. They tried every Keynesian trick they could think of, and the result was stasis. And I mean they tried everything. I once noted that you cannot find a piece of garbage on a Japanese mountain. They hired as many people as possible to clean it up. Yet the result was still stasis. Twenty years of stasis! And think, this couldn't have happened to a better group of people than the Japanese. They're uniquely capable of handling tragedy. They're polite, respectful. The outcome of 20 years of stasis in the United States would not be nearly as good.

But it's more complicated than just looking at [Keynesian policies]. There are other explanations. Japan has an export-driven economy, and out of nowhere they suddenly faced huge and credible competition from China and Korea. Of course that will cause slower growth. It was a bad outcome all around.

On not jumping to conclusions: Matt Ridley wrote the terrific Book The Rational Optimist -- and that really is a good book. I've read it several times. But even someone as smart as him is too quick to jump to conclusions and a single explanation. His explanation for the success of modern capitalism is Adam Smith's division of labor. He repeats it over and over again.

But this is a totally inadequate answer. Joseph Stalin can achieve division of labor and there would be benefits. That doesn't mean it's capitalism.

The major success of capitalism is its ability to drench business owners in feedback and allocate talent efficiently. If you have an area with 20 restaurants, and suddenly 18 are out of business, the remaining two are in good, capable hands. Business owners are constantly being reminded of benefits and punishments. That's psychology explaining economics.

On taxes: During the Punic Wars, two-thirds of war debt was repaid before the war was even over. People who paid taxes thought it was the right thing to do. They had a sense of duty and patriotism. I don't like the idea that we can't add new taxes today when faced with such problems. At the same time, people are responding to real frustration. It's hard to be optimistic with current politicians. They just hate each other so much. It's all sound bites designed to please their constituents. Some of you might enjoy this. I don't.

On envy: There is nothing more counterproductive than envy. Someone in the world will always be better than you. Of all the sins, envy is easily the worst because you can't even have any fun with it. It's a total net loss.

On consumer credit: Banks don't offer free checking accounts because they don't want to make money. They do it because overdrafts generate big fees. Banks had computer programs to rank the largest withdrawal so as to generate the greatest number of overdraft charges. There's now a class action suit against this, as there should be.

I don't want to sell credit to people who are going to hurt themselves with it. You should only sell products that are good for the people who use them. Some disagree with this, but I know I'm right. That is to say, you're talking to a Republican who admires Elizabeth Warren.

On the investing climate: It's a very different world today. Bill Gross of PIMCO has a very good concept called "the new normal." Bond yields are so low, and prices will, of course, fall when interest rates rise. And there's so much other trouble in the world. It could mean very modest returns for some time to come.

On high-speed traders: Fancy computers are engaging in legalized front-running. The profits are clearly coming from the rest of us -- our college endowments and our pensions. Why is this legal? What the hell is the government thinking? It's like letting rats into a restaurant.

On tech stocks with low P/E ratios: I don't know much about them. But it's hard to imagine Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) not having a strong position in the future. I don't know how you can replace Google. For other tech companies, of course there are very real threats.

On what his favorite company is outside Berkshire: That's easy. It's Costco (NYSE: COST). Costco is a different kind of place. It's one of the most admirable capitalistic institutions in the world. And its CEO, Jim Sinegal, is one of the most admirable retailers to ever live on this planet.

Costco will continue making huge contributions to society. It has a frantic desire to serve customers a little better every year. When other companies find ways to save money, they turn it into profit. Sinegal passes it on to customers. It's almost a religious duty. He's sacrificing short-term profits for long-term success. More of you should look at Costco.

On parallels between Rome and America: Of course there are parallels. Every great empire passes the baton. The failure rate of empires is 100%.

But in one sense, the greatness of the past stays with us. What was great about the Athens of the past is still with us. You can be 100% certain America will pass the baton, but our best values will go with that baton. The most important people in Asia studied at American universities and learn from America like sponges. Most of what is achieved now will never die.

Click here for Part 2.

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