Friday, September 12, 2014

Jason Zweig: A Fireside Chat With Charlie Munger

Link to: A Fireside Chat With Charlie Munger
I don’t love Ben Graham and his ideas the way Warren does. You have to understand, to Warren — who discovered him at such a young age and then went to work for him — Ben Graham’s insights changed his whole life, and he spent much of his early years worshiping the master at close range. But I have to say, Ben Graham had a lot to learn as an investor. His ideas of how to value companies were all shaped by how the Great Crash and the Depression almost destroyed him, and he was always a little afraid of what the market can do. It left him with an aftermath of fear for the rest of his life, and all his methods were designed to keep that at bay.

I think Ben Graham wasn’t nearly as good an investor as Warren Buffett is or even as good as I am. Buying those cheap, cigar-butt stocks [companies with limited potential growth selling at a fraction of what they would be worth in a takeover or liquidation] was a snare and a delusion, and it would never work with the kinds of sums of money we have. You can’t do it with billions of dollars or even many millions of dollars. But he was a very good writer and a very good teacher and a brilliant man, one of the only intellectuals – probably the only intellectual — in the investing business at the time.


Confucius said that real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance. Aristotle and Socrates said the same thing. Is it a skill that can be taught or learned? It probably can, if you have enough of a stake riding on the outcome. Some people are extraordinarily good at knowing the limits of their knowledge, because they have to be. Think of somebody who’s been a professional tightrope walker for 20 years – and has survived. He couldn’t survive as a tightrope walker for 20 years unless he knows exactly what he knows and what he doesn’t know. He’s worked so hard at it, because he knows if he gets it wrong he won’t survive. The survivors know.

Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.


On how innovative Berkshire Hathaway has been:

There isn’t one novel thought in all of how Berkshire is run. It’s all about what [Mr. Munger’s friend] Peter [Kaufman] calls ‘exploiting unrecognized simplicities.’ We [Messrs. Buffett and Munger, their shareholders and the companies they have acquired] have selected one another. It’s a community of like-minded people, and that makes most decisions into no-brainers. Warren and I aren’t prodigies. We can’t play chess blindfolded or be concert pianists. But the results are prodigious, because we have a temperamental advantage that more than compensates for a lack of IQ points.

Nobody has a zero incidence of bad news coming to them too late, but that’s really low at Berkshire. Warren likes to say, ‘Just tell us the bad news, the good news can wait.’ So people trust us in that, and that helps prevent mistakes from escalating into disasters. When you’re not managing for quarterly earnings and you’re managing only for the long pull, you don’t give a damn what the next quarter’s earnings look like.