This was a terrific opportunity to hear two of the smartest people (possibly the most influential) of the 20th and 21st century answer questions for 5 hours. Clearly, the contributions that Warren Buffett’s foundation has given to help in world health are incredible. This wasn’t from the meeting, but he has personally given over $25 billion to various health initiatives via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is MORE than Bill Gates has given (about $22 Billion).
The mood of the meeting was much happier than last year as there was the specter of the firing of David Sokol, one of his VPs, last year. In general, both Warren Buffett (WB) and Charlie Munger (CM) were upbeat about the economy. They always have subtle differences in their thought processes, so it is great to have the point-counterpoint of their repartee during the meeting.
Best quote of the meeting from Charlie Munger: As far as the current financial situation in the US goes: “Our current problems are quite confusing and if you aren’t confused, then you don’t understand it well …”
Next best quote from CM: “Knowing the edge of your competence is very important. It works very well in matrimony.” This, actually, is one of his common discussions and there is a whole article on this here: http://25iq.com/2012/12/22/charlie-munger-on-circle-of-competence-the-second-essential-filter/
Next best was re the Euro and prospects of the EU: CM: “Europe made terrible mistakes, but they have politicians too. Letting Greece into the EU was like using rat poison as whipping cream. “
Re Facebook: CM: “Memorializing the three dumbest things you did as a 13 year old is a dumb idea. There’s a time when your ignorance and folly should be hidden.”
Definition of a derivative: A new kind of asset that is good until you reach for it…
Talking about inheritances and how best to make sure kids turn out well: “More kids are ruined by the behavior of their parents than the inheritance.” The point was also made by Buffett that an inheritance of $100 million or more is better served to give to society than to figure out how to pass it on to your heirs so they can call the trust fund once a year to get their distribution.
One of the most interesting tidbits of the meeting was a discussion regarding the Bakken Oil Reserve. As you may know, Berkshire purchased all of the BNSF Railroad a few years ago. This decision was made during the recession, when railcars were lying unused on the tracks and collecting dust. There was a bit of a concern as to why they would do this when things didn’t look very good for the entire industry. This is another one of those prescient moves by Berkshire that are now unfolding…
As it turns out, BNSF has the only rail station close to the Bakken Oil fields in North Dakota, which means they have been super busy with oil deliveries. This year alone, they had a 3.4% increase in rail car loadings vs .4% for all other railroads, mainly due to the Bakken impact.
When asked if the Keystone Pipeline would impact this business if it is completed, Buffett answered that pipelines are quite slow in the actual delivery of oil and railroads can far outpace them. Additionally, he quoted a figure of 650,000 to 750,000 barrels of oil a DAY for the Bakken at present and possibly up to a million barrels a day in a year or so. This compares to 600,000 a day for the entire US prior to the Bakken being drilled. There is going to be a huge need for transport of oil and BNSF is poised to have a major payday for that!
They were asked about the future chances for the economy and said they don’t care what any economist feels about the future, because nobody knows for sure. “We know that there won’t be a substitute for BNSF railroad because there won’t ever be another opportunity to build one like it in the US and that leaves two important railroads in the east and two in the west, so BNSF is OK.” They said it is more important to know what is going on now as you can’t make a lot of money if you don’t. Knowing what is going on now is more important and just as hard as knowing what is going to happen in the future!
But they did say that the new normal is going to be less. Then, they said that if a surgeon is wondering about whether to retire now or work for the next two years, Charlie says to work for the extra two years!
Intrinsic value of Berkshire: One of the bedrock values of Berkshire is that of intrinsic value. Basically, what that means is that Berkshire always looks for other potential payoffs for a project. They feel that the book value of Berkshire Hathaway doesn’t ever relate the total value of the stock and feel there is, at the least, 20% in added ‘intrinsic’ value to Berkshire stock at present. They have often stated when they feel Berkshire is overpriced, much to the unhappiness of shareholders, so this is a number to be believed. GEICO is doing well and even though they don’t have Progressive’s Snapshot concept, they are adding 1 million customers a year at over $1500 value per customer or about 1.5 billion dollars a year. That’s huge. Almost all of their units are in great shape.
As for the future: Having capital when markets are in distress will allow their successors to succeed. They went back to 2008 and 2009 when folks were exiting the market and Berkshire was $75,000 a share, vs $162,900 now. They invested in Harley Davidson, Goldman Sachs and a host of other companies and returned a huge profit for it. They live for times of uncertainty as that is the best time to purchase things!
According to CM, his advice to his heirs: “Don’t be so stupid to sell your shares when we die”
They said the reinsurance business is very difficult to run in general, but they have done well with the brilliant help of Ajit Jain. He is rumored to be the next Warren Buffett, but no formal title has been stated. They had many good things to say about him, but mainly he has managed to adapt their risk portfolio in ways that no other company could do and avoid writing insurance that was a bad prospect. When asked about Global Warming and the prospect for decreased profit in this industry, they said they believe it is happening, but are overly pessimistic in their insurance models to take this into account. Interestingly, Charlie Munger is a Cal Tech trained meteorologist!
Warren: Paying up for an extraordinary business isn’t a mistake. Charlie: We always pay too much!
There was a question as to whether they are becoming too careful and making Berkshire more of a widows and orphans stock. They said they do have more challenges, but know a good deal when they see it and go for it, such as Heinz and BNSF.
Will the dollar be the reserve currency in 20 years? Yes, but not forever. They said there are naturally going to be fluctuations in what is the reserve currency for the world, but when the dollar goes out of favor, that will put it in a somewhat less positive position, but not terrible. They mentioned that Great Britain had the lead until the dollar and now they are still strong, yet not as strong.
If the rest of the world keeps bringing corporate tax rates down it puts US at a disadvantage as it forces companies out of the US. This is something they hope is addressed.
Does the variable nature of Berkshire units lead to an unwieldy company eventually? Yes, but that is why they have the diffuse management structure they have. If they had a top down organization it would be impossible, but this is the beauty of Berkshire and strong managers.
Their lowest entry spot for new businesses: Trying to acquire companies that are $75 million or more in business, but obviously they prefer to take on much larger companies as well.
GDP and inflation. Fed would like to have inflation as it makes their GDP look better, but obviously this has other, not so good, implications! We may have more inflation sooner than later and it is going to be tough as this period of low interest money has been quite unusual. Also, having Japan in trouble for so long has been helpful to the US economy as they haven’t been as much of a competitor as they could have been.
There was a question as to whether the Pampered Chef was the same business model as Herbalife? Their answer was no, as Pampered Chef isn’t dependent upon loading up folks on stuff they can’t sell from the get go. While it is a franchise, the issue with Herbalife is that they sock folks with large inventories and then many of them fail, predictably. CM said: “There’s likely to be more flim-flam in selling magic potions than in pots and pans”
They talked about the transition from value investor in the early days to purchaser of large companies and said they enjoyed both, but now it was more intelligent to be into the larger companies and they couldn’t really succeed in the same way as a value investor only at this point.
When asked why they’ve succeeded: We’ve always tried to stay sane in the markets…
When asked about why they can manage so many companies well – We’ve used the golden rule when it comes to subsidiaries and tried to be a good partner to them. CM wished he had thought of the golden rule, but is still happy to use it!
Other competitive advantage they have is that there are virtually no competitors to their model of purchasing businesses and keeping them intact. Most want to take them over, fire everyone and then reassemble them. For this reason, they are a great resource for someone who doesn’t want their life’s work destroyed when they sell it.
Energy: Coal isn’t as good an outlook as oil, but still has opportunity.
They said that when Harley Davidson had troubles in 2008 and came to them for a large loan, they never had any concerns. Paraphrasing quote: Any company that has folks tattooing ads for them on their chest has very little likelihood of becoming worthless.
There was more discussion about Snapshot, a tool by Progressive (a competitor to GEICO) that allows the company to install a camera/computer in the car to follow the driver’s behaviors and potentially save up to 30% and predict better drivers. When asked why they don’t have it, they said they don’t need it to predict rates of accidents and their business with GEICO remains incredible.
When Buffett was asked if he had indeed made a list of the top 25 projects each year and then pared it down to the top 5 and forget the rest, WB said “I’ve never made a list in my life, but that seems reasonable to do.”
There were a few questions re the newspapers and why they invested in them. Apparently, the after tax return for papers is 10% and earnings are going to go down over time, yet this was built into the price he paid for them. Additionally, he just wanted to do it as he regards the newspaper industry fondly.
Biggest looming problem: Healthcare costs are 17.5% of GDP in the US vs 9.5 – 11.5% in other countries which puts us at a huge disadvantage to others – WB
Biggest problem looming: CM feels securities and derivatives markets are revolting and mismanaged. Also the fact that graduates from Cal tech and Berkeley are going into finance rather than other jobs like medicine and engineering is concerning.
There was a question as to whether solar would eventually impact their energy companies, as it is now being used in relatively cloudy countries like Germany: CM: “Put me down as not completely charmed by the concept of rooftop solar units in cloudy areas.”
When asked about how they feel the prospects are for a child born today vs in their time they said that a child born today has much more opportunity, but competition is more acute now for those opportunities.
As for the financial arena, they said that back when they started in the 1960’s, they were drowning in ideas but no money, but now they are drowning in money, but no ideas!
Recurrent theme: Find things you like to do early in life and you’ll do well. You have to love something to do well at it. The intensity is part of that. Quote by Mae West: “The score never interested me – only the game.” This is what they related to the fact that they look at the game when they do their work and it interests them still.
They talked about how many insurance companies have gone off the rails by insuring stupid things or making deals that weren’t sound. “You get offered many opportunities to do something stupid, but just have to say no.” They gave the example of when they purchased a gas station in the 60s and there were gas wars immediately that made them sell gas for less than the price they paid for it. This was a good example of spending money to be in a stupid business.
Paraphrasing CM: Investing in bubbles, such as the housing market is much like the commandment: Don’t covet your neighbor’s ass. People see other people making money in flipping houses or crazy internet stocks and they say, ‘why shouldn’t I have that’ and invest unwisely.
Opportunity for women vs men: WB talked about the sadness that his sisters didn’t achieve the same things he did, even though they were as talented. He said that back then the result of this was that most teachers were women because opportunity wasn’t there for other professions, but that led to great teachers. He related the story of Katharine Graham of the Washington Post who didn’t believe in herself as much as she should have, even though she was hugely successful. He related the fact that women see themselves as in funhouse mirrors and suggested to read his article here:
Buffett talked about a website, www.Longbets.org, that placed odd or difficult bets. He has made a $1 million bet that the S&P will outdo a hedge fund portfolio over 10 years. He feels hedge funds are not a good deal after costs, etc are taken into account:
“Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.”
Protege Partners, LLC
will go to Girls Incorporated of Omaha if Buffett wins,
or Friends of Absolute Return for Kids, Inc if Protege Partners, LLC wins.
What is Berkshire going to look like in 5 or 10 years? BNSF will still have competitive advantage 15 years from now but not sure about Apple, which they don’t invest in. They dismissed, to some degree, math and number crunchers as they can’t always be used to advantage in evaluating companies. Sometimes it is just a gut feeling and other factors that CPAs can’t evaluate. Many articles and statements say that they don’t even get into evaluating numbers for risk of investment because they want to make sure there is no risk before they think about it.
From the article on competence: “Munger: Warren talks about these discounted cash flows. I’ve never seen him do one.” [“It’s true,” replied Buffett. “If (the value of a company) doesn’t just scream out at you, it’s too close.”] 1996 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting http://www.ndir.com/SI/email/q403.shtml
Of course, Buffett and Munger can do more mathematics in their heads that an average person can do on a calculator, but the point remains. Munger and Buffett want the mentally computable math to be overpoweringly clear and positive. Bill Gates has said on this point:
“… being good with numbers doesn’t necessarily correlate with being a good investor. Warren doesn’t outperform other investors because he computes odds better. That’s not it at all. Warren never makes an investment where the difference between doing it and not doing it relies on the second digit of computation. He doesn’t invest–take a swing of the bat–unless the opportunity appears unbelievably good.” http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1996/02/05/207334/index.htm
WB related how he came to purchase shares of AMEX early on. He was talking to the owner of Hertz cars in the 1960s, who was complaining that he had to offering to take AMEX for his business and that was going to lose him money in the long run. He said there was so much of a hue and cry that he had no other choice. WB said at that time that AMEX was the kind of business he needed to acquire!
Someone asked if they would now invest in airlines due to the industry consolidation and higher earnings. Reply: there are industries where even two competitors can hurt each other and not succeed!
They feel the airline industry has been an ‘investor death trap for over 100 years’, but now may finally be the time to consider it if it weren’t in the ‘too hard’ pile. So basically, still stay away from airlines. Then, comparing airlines to railroads, there isn’t the opportunity to build another railroad, but there are plenty of opportunities to build another airline and it is a sexy idea that many folks clamor to do, so they are happy to stay with the railroads!
When asked why they still don’t do short selling (and offered an incentive to do it for charity from one of the panelists) they said, “No. We don’t like trading money for agony…but we wish you well.”
Quote by CM: “The game of life is a game of everlasting learning if you want to win…” They talked about how every business changes and you have to adapt and that is one thing that Ajit Jain has been instrumental in arranging for them in the insurance business.
Talking about the financial crisis and US debt – They said the debt to GDP ratio after WW2 was higher than it is now, so although it is high, it isn’t as high as it was back then in relative values. They BOTH feel the stimulus plan was needed and there was no person who disagreed (Bush or Obama), yet ‘all of our problems are trivial if GDP can just increase 2% a year’. Policies just have to assure that.
They talked about Benjamin Moore paint and its distribution method. They kept their network of dealers despite being asked to be in big box stores many times and declined to purchase several other paint companies. This has been a good decision and has kept their dealers happy, despite not having the distribution that other paint companies have. They aim to serve the higher end of the paint market and it works, yet they admit that one company’s strategy can’t be applied to all businesses.
There was a humorous interchange between CM and WB. One person asked if the gifts to charity that WB is donating now are causing fluctuations in the stock. WB explained that he only gives away about 5% of his stock each year, so that is about $2 billion and that isn’t so much in comparison to other stocks that trade billions a day! Charlie quipped: “There’s nothing so insignificant to an old man as an extra 2 billion dollars.”
Railroad car loading data shows improvement in the economy with 3.5% for BNSF and .4% for other railroads, so the economy is coming back as well as the housing market. It is slow, but should get better.
Howard as non-executive chairman – There was some discussion on this, but basically WB thinks he will be a veto for a CEO that may not be good or turn bad after getting in power. That is a huge concern as they don’t know how a person will react to being in power. They have taken quite a bit of pride in not wielding their power in all businesses, such as the newspaper business. WB said that two of their papers came out for Romney and two came out for Obama and they were proud that they didn’t tell them what to do. Having a new CEO could have issues that require a veto. Still, this is a huge issue.
There was discussion of the life insurance industry in general and questionable investments they had made. WB made the statement that this was like the person who was in a switchblade fight and his opponent swooshed the blade at the neck area. The one who had possibly been hurt says, “Hey, I’m fine” and the person with the switchblade says, ‘Just don’t shake your head…” The implication is that the life insurance industry is in for a day of reckoning.
When asked if the housing market is once again heading toward a bubble, they said they don’t feel we are remotely near a bubble in it now, but they recommend refinancing now as rates are going to go up significantly soon!
Regarding the housing bubble, they said it was unfortunate because the situation where the Fed induced folks to purchase over their ability was like the government was encouraging folks to get drunk and instead of pulling away the punch bowl they increased the proof in it!
Pack mentality and seeing falling prices in the stock market makes for great purchasing opportunities.
Regarding social media and how pervasive it is – CM: Young people [in charge of all these companies] operating like crazy in all sorts of areas can’t be doing it very well.
CM: Accounting today is like the postal service in Italy where if you don’t like the mail piling up you can just throw away a few cartloads…
Lastly, there was a brief discussion of wills and how best to arrange them to give your children enough, but not too much. There wasn’t much of an answer to this, but Warren feels it is crazy to read the will for the first time after you’re dead. He feels it is best to read it while you are alive so they can figure out how to execute it and you are there to give insight into why you have done what you’ve done. Charlie disagreed with this and said it depends on the circumstances and wouldn’t ever do that. WB said this is just one way to make sure you have done what you want, but wouldn’t do it until the kids are grown and able to cope with the inheritance and concepts of it.