Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dang Le's Notes From Buffett Meeting 2/6/2009

A big thanks to Dang Le for these notes!
South Dakota:
You’ve recently invested in Goldman Sachs and GE. Is the financial sector a good buy right now?

No sector is a good buy unless you understand the business. However, I do believe that there is good value and great opportunity now in the financial sector because it is extremely unpopular. Sector’s themselves don’t make good buys, companies that are undervalued make good buys. You know how to value a business, you project the future cash flows discounted to present and buy with a margin of safety. The earnings prospects need to be greater than the current value. Anything that is unpopular is always great to look at. If I was getting out of school right now, I would take a look.

How much and how does risk factor into your investment decisions? Would you invest in emerging markets?

In general, emerging markets are not great for me because I need to put a lot of money to work. Risk does not equal beta. Risk comes around because you don’t understand things, not because of beta. There are normally 10 filters or so that I go through when I hear an idea. The first is can I understand the business and understand the downside not just today but five to ten years from now. There have been very few times that I’ve lost 1% of my net worth. I might be risk averse but I am not action adverse. Mrs. B saved $500 over the course of 16 years to start and build Nebraska Furniture Mart. Tom Watson Sr of IBM said, “I’m smart in spots and I stay in those spots.” I just stay within my circle of confidence. When I bought Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1983, Mrs. B took cash and not Berkshire stock. Why? She didn’t understand the value of stock. She understood cash and that is what she took. I need only need to be right a few times and can let thousands of ideas go by.

Ted Williams, who wrote the “Science of Hitting,” broke the strike zone into 92 ball shaped sections. He knew, if hit in his sweet spot, he’d hit 430, a little further out, and he’d hit 350. You have to know your sweet spot. The beautiful thing about investing is that it’s a “No called strike game” where unlike baseball the only strikes in investing are when you swing. I don’t have to swing.

When I do invest, I don’t care if the stock price goes from $10 to $2 but I do care about if the value went from $10 to $2. Avoid debt. I decided early on that I never wanted to owe more than 25% of my net worth, and I haven’t… exept for in the very beginning. I like to play from a position of strength. I always try to have the odds in my favor. When I go to Vegas, I don’t go around putting $5 dollars on the blackjack tables. If someone wants to come to my room and put $5 on my bed, well that’s fine. I like those odds better.

How do you think about value?

The formula for value was handed down from 600 BC by a guy named Aesop. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Investing is about laying out a bird now to get two or more out of the bush. The keys are to only look at the bushes you like and identify how long it will take to get them out. When interest rates are 20%, you need to get it out right now. When rates are 1%, you have 10 years. Think about what the asset will produce. Look at the asset, not the beta. I don’t really care about volatility. Stock price is not that important to me, it just gives you the opportunity to buy at a great price. I don’t care if they close the NYSE for 5 years. I care more about the business than I do about events. I care about if there’s price flexibility and whether the company can gain more market share. I care about people drinking more Coke.

I bought a farm from the FDIC 20 years ago for $600 per acre. Now I don’t know anything about farming but my son does. I asked him, how much it cost to buy corn, plow the field, harvest, how much an acre will yield, what price to expect. I haven’t gotten a quote on that farm in 20 years.

If I were running a business school I would only have 2 courses. The first would obviously be an investing class about how to value a business. The second would be how to think about the stock market and how to deal with the volatility. The stock market is funny. You have no compulsion to act and a bunch of silly people setting prices all the time, it is great odds. I want the market to be like a manic depressive drunk. Graham’s Ch. 8, in the book Intelligent Investor, on Mr. Market is the most important thing I have ever read. Now think about the NYSE. You have thousands of companies to choose from. For me, that universe has shrunk because I need to put large dollar amounts to work. Attitude is much more important than IQ. You can really get into trouble with a high IQ, i.e. Long-Term Capital. You need to have the right philosophical temperament.

You take great pride in keeping your schedule wide open. Do you believe that corporate America is overscheduled and overstretched?

[Showed his blank schedule book]. Bill Gates is overscheduled. I am extremely lucky and I can say no to anything because there isn’t an entity that can use economic pressure to make me do something. A lot of CEOs get into a lot of the rituals that are part of the job. I would rather deliver papers than be the CEO of GE. They have too much stuff to do that is a big pain. Don’t get me wrong, CEOs have it pretty good. I’d imagine that every CEO in the Fortune 500 would be willing to take the job for half of the money. The 76 or so CEOs that run companies at Berkshire don’t have to deal with bankers or lawyers. At Berkshire, we’ve never had a meeting for all of them anywhere. There are no presentations and no committees. They can be more productive, and it makes it attractive when they can do what they like to do best.

What are three traits of successful managers?

Passion is the number one thing that I look for in a manager. IQ is not really that important. They need to be able to work well with others and the ability to get people to do what you want them to do. I’d say intelligence, energy, integrity. If you don’t have the last one, the first two will kill you. All you have is a crook who works hard. If a person doesn’t have integrity, you want them dumb and lazy.

If you could put 10% of your future earnings on one of your classmates, you would pick the one that’s most effective at working with people. These are qualities that are elective. If you could pick one to sell short, it would be the person that no one wants to work with. You can elect to be the kind of person you want to be. Look at those qualities of the two people you’ve selected (one long and one short). They’re all qualities that you possess. It’s like marriage. If you want a marriage that’s going to last, look for someone with low expectations. Don’t keep score. Keeping score doesn’t build organizations, homes, etc. I have never had one fight with Charlie. When I took over Solomon I had to pick the best person to run it. I interviewed 12 people for 15 minutes each and I asked myself, “Who would I go into a foxhole with?” I never look at grades or where you went to school. When I picked Deryck Maughan, he never asked me about pay or options or indemnity. He went to work.

Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken. In terms of picking people how do you lead your life in a way that I’d pick you?