Friday, May 9, 2008

Wesco 2008 Annual Meeting Notes

A big thanks to Peter Boodell.

The only duty of corporate executive is to widen the moat. We must make it wider. Every day is to widen the moat. We gave you a competitive advantage, and you must leave us the moat. There are times when it is too tough. But duty should be to widen the moat. I can see instance after instance where that isn’t what people do in business. One must keep their eye on ball of widening the moat, to be a steward of the competitive advantage that came to you. A General in England said, ‘Get you the sons your fathers got, and God will save the Queen.’ At Hewlett Packard, your responsibility is to train and deliver a subordinate who can succeed you. It is not all that complicated – all that mumbo jumbo. We make bricks in Texas which use the same process as in Mesopotamia. You need just a few bits of ethos, and particularly engineering ethos. Think through the system, and get a margin of safety.

Q13: Scott from LA. With portfolio of $2m, vs. that of Berkshire, how would your mandate be different? Small vs mid, us vs intl, etc?

If I was managing smaller money I’d be looking in smaller places, I’d look for mispricing. But I don’t want to change places with you. [laughter]

Q21: Matt from NYC. How does Berkshire thru its subsidiaries manage an annual budgeting process?

We don’t have one. Obsessing over budgets creates bad incentives. Just eliminate unnecessary costs. Budget committees tend to do just the opposite.

Q24: Ashok from LA. Checklist?

I don’t have a simple checklist. You have to work at it a long long time. I still do dumb things after years of hard work. The more big ideas you have the easier. We exclude a whole lot of things because they are in the too tough pile. If you exclude, you do better. Then you must have field where rationality will be rewarded. Some of political ideas – it is very hard to know how they will work out over next few centuries. We are not trying to involve ourselves. We look for things that can be done. But I have no little short list. People who sell strong abs on TV at night might have one. I have no rule for a strong brain.

Q29: I’m curious, you are student of history. Does today remind you of any time in past, and why?

I punched premium channel in hotel in Tokyo, and out came exercise in pornography. I would argue Soddom and Gomorah is still around. I think Athens of Pericles is still around today. Our bullies are similar to past eras.

Q40: CA. Average investor should invest in index funds.

All intelligent investing is value investing. Calling something a value fund doesn’t absolve it. You can call yourself a ballet dancer if you dance like me, but it is not a good thing. I wouldn’t recommend people broadly invest with any value fund. I would avoid funds that have 100% turnover per year. It is a ridiculous way for an ordinary index fund to behave. It is imperfect, but best outcome for most know-nothings, in order to avoid being misled by fools and liars.

Q45: What has changed since you first started investing?

I owe a great deal to Mr Buffett. It took a while to convince me. Warren and I together got very good at reinsurance transactions and portfolio transfers. We’ve learned together at it. Berkshire would have been a mess if it had ever stopped learning. Only reason we’ve been able to keep a shred of decency in our record is that we have been hell bent to keep learning.


Book: Poor Charlie’s Almanack