Charlie Munger – my favorite lessons

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I have not been shy to admit that I am a huge fan of Warren Buffett. He is an inspiration, not only in terms of investing, but also on the subject of leading a good life and being the best you can be. I like the fact that he has a good sense of humor and is very down to earth. At the age of 86 his enthusiasm for his work is still strong and he is very sharp. I wrote an article about him on this site, Warren Buffett – Dividend Tycoon?

However, as brilliant as Warren Buffett is, many regard his business partner for the last 50 years or so, Charlie Munger, to be the intellectual giant of the two, and a true genius. Perhaps he has not contributed as much to the amazing returns of Berkshire Hathaway as Buffett, due to the fact that he is more a sounding board for Buffett, and Buffett is the CEO and runs Berkshire from Omaha, whereas Munger lives in Los Angeles.  Munger is now 93, and at the AGM last year still sounded pretty sharp.

Munger is perhaps best known for his deep thinking and work on mental models. He is a voracious reader of subjects such as psychology and has written on this extensively. One of his most famous papers was “The Psychology of Human Misjudgement”. I follow the well known investor Mohnish Pabrai and it is well worth watching some of his talks on youtube as he has a deep understanding of Munger’s concepts, and is very interesting himself.

Much has been written on the subject of Charlie Munger, so I do not really want to reproduce in detail what has already been written about him, but I thought I would take a look at the things that I personally found most interesting in the articles, speeches and books that have been written by or about him. It could be something I just found interesting, or funny, or something I felt I should make a note of in order to remind myself.

So below is a selection of my Charlie Munger favorites:

I thought though that I would start with some context, just to show that he was not born with any particular advantage in life, and through his learning and mental models, made a huge success of his life. I copied this passage about him from an article I once read but no longer know where:

“At 31 years old, Charlie Munger was divorced, broke, and burying his 9 year old son, who had died from cancer. By the time he was 69 years old, he had become one of the richest 400 people in the world, been married to his second wife for 35+ years, had eight wonderful children, countless grandchildren, and become one of the most respected business thinkers in history. He eventually achieved his dream of having a lot of money, a house full of books, and a huge family. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t face unbelievable challenges and tragedies.”

Charlie Munger has said a lot about reading. He has in fact attributed much of his success in life to reading. I became an avid reader later in life, but regret not having started earlier. The best way to sum up his views on reading is the following quote from him:

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people who did not read all the time-none, zero. You would be amazed at how much Warren reads-and at how much I read. My children laugh at me, they think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

Related to his views on reading is a theme I have recognized in his talks and writings, and that is that all one can do is try to improve yourself each and every day. There is not one big thing that one can do, but it is a progression of small things, and the theory that eventually you get what you deserve in life. The most striking quote on this to me is the following:

“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Systematically you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. Nevertheless, you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day – if you live long enough – most people get what they deserve.”

So perhaps even if you only have 20 minutes free time on a particular day, do not waste it. Read a book that will make you a bit wiser than the day before, but eventually the small increments in knowledge will add up. It certainly does not need to be an investing or business book, as long as you can learn something about the world or about somebody that you never knew before. You will accumulate knowledge that will come together and help you in some way, or just make your time on earth more interesting.

Again related to this, was his answer to somebody at a Berkshire meeting when asked how to find a good spouse. His answer, was that the way to find a good spouse, is to deserve a good spouse. I use this answer as I think it is a good example as to how he looks at the world. Most people would not have given that answer.

This leads to one of his favorite concepts, inverting. He believes that often the correct way of looking at something in order to understand what will make it a success is to rather look at what does not work, and will lead to a lack of success. For example, do not look at why a particular investment could be great, rather think about what could go wrong. If you want to be successful in life, look at things which could cause you not to be successful. For example, do not become a drug addict. Munger has a great sense of humor and perhaps his best example of inverting is this: “All I want to know is where I am going to die, so that I never go there.”

Munger is also known as the grumpier one. Whereas Buffett is always cheerful and upbeat and tends to say the more acceptable things, Munger does not seem to care who he offends, and can be quite harsh in his criticism if he sees stupidity or something that does not work.

I recently came across a quote of his which represents what I mean. “I don’t let people do projections for me because I don’t like throwing up on the desk.” The context to this would most likely be that Buffett and Munger have a complete disdain for using consultants to advise them. They know when a business is good or not, and do not need some highly paid management consultant to advise them.

Influence on Buffett regarding investments:

Warren Buffett’s mentor was Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing. Graham wrote ‘The Intelligent Investor’ which Buffett says is still the best investment guide ever written. Graham however was only interested in deep value stocks, that is where the stock was worth less than the assets the business owned. This provided safety. However, Charlie Munger came to like only the great businesses. He could see that these businesses would in the long term outperform the poor businesses that were selling cheaply. Buffett slowly accepted this, and his purchase of Coca-Cola stock is proof that it worked.

The problem with the great companies is that the stocks are normally expensive. Of relevance to me was a question somebody asked Munger at a meeting, where they asked how to find great companies at a good price. Munger’s answer is below:

“How do you get into these great companies? One method is what I’d call the method of finding them small, get ’em when they’re little. For example, buy Wal-Mart when Sam Walton first goes public and so forth. And a lot of people try to do just that. And its a very beguiling idea. If I were a young man, I might actually go into it.”

This was of relevance to me because I have been investing in a retail company called Choppies, which is growing in Africa, is still small and seems to be run by very ambitious entrepreneurs. Now, so far the investment has not been great, I am in fact down so far, but I believe in the story long term, and I am encouraged by the fact that Munger would give an example of a company so close in business model to that of my idea. (Note: Not a share tip, it is very risky).

Anyway, I will keep this stock unless anything changes, because Munger has preached sitting on your assets..

“There are huge advantages for an individual to get into a position where you make a few great investments and just sit on your ass. You’re paying less to brokers. You’re listening to less nonsense. And if it works, the government tax system gives you an extra 1, 2 or 3 percentage points per annum compounded.” (In the last sentence he was saying that by not selling you do not get taxed on any capital profit for as long as you hold the stock)

Conclusion

I would encourage you to read what you can about Charlie Munger as I have barely scratched the surface here, but these were some his insights which I found particularly useful, although there are many many more.

In conclusion, I was wondering what Charlie Munger would say if you asked him how to become a Dividend Tycoon? I think his answer might be something along these lines, “Do not – become a drug addict, get into debt, become a gambler, neglect reading as often and widely as possible, buy expensive or faddish stocks or blindly follow the crowd.” “Invert, always invert.”

Okay then..thanks Charlie!

Recommended reading:

Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger (Great book if you looking for his early background and life as opposed to just an investment book)

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, Expanded Third Edition

Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor (Columbia Business School Publishing)