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Worldly wisdom [ClearOnMoney]
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Commentary

Worldly wisdom

20 Feb 2012 by Jim Fickett

Today the Big Picture republished the text of a 1994 talk about worldly wisdom by Charlie Munger.

Munger makes the case that you have to be an educated person to invest well – you have to have some decent background knowledge in many areas. In this long talk, he meanders through many areas of human endeavor, talking about what you do and don't need to know. For one example in a nutshell, you need no deep knowledge of statistics, but you should thoroughly understand when the normal distribution is applicable and what, at a rule-of-thumb level, you can get out of it. Here is slightly more extended taste:

The great lesson in microeconomics is to discriminate between when technology is going to help you and when it’s going to kill you. And most people do not get this straight in their heads. But a fellow like Buffett does.

For example, when we were in the textile business, which is a terrible commodity business, we were making low-end textiles—which are a real commodity product. And one day, the people came to Warren and said, “They’ve invented a new loom that we think will do twice as much work as our old ones.”

And Warren said, “Gee, I hope this doesn’t work because if it does, I’m going to close the mill.” And he meant it.

What was he thinking? He was thinking, “It’s a lousy business. We’re earning substandard returns and keeping it open just to be nice to the elderly workers. But we’re not going to put huge amounts of new capital into a lousy business.”

And he knew that the huge productivity increases that would come from a better machine introduced into the production of a commodity product would all go to the benefit of the buyers of the textiles. Nothing was going to stick to our ribs as owners.

That’s such an obvious concept—that there are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that’s still going to be lousy. The money still won’t come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.

Conversely, if you own the only newspaper in Oshkosh and they were to invent more efficient ways of composing the whole newspaper, then when you got rid of the old technology and got new fancy computers and so forth, all of the savings would come right through to the bottom line.

In all cases, the people who sell the machinery—and, by and large, even the internal bureaucrats urging you to buy the equipment—show you projections with the amount you’ll save at current prices with the new technology. However, they don’t do the second step of theanalysis which is to determine how much is going stay home and how much is just going to flow through to the customer. I’ve never seen a single projection incorporating that second step in my life. And I see them all the time. Rather, they always read: “This capital outlay will save you so much money that it will pay for itself in three years.”

So you keep buying things that will pay for themselves in three years. And after 20 years of doing it, somehow you’ve earned a return of only about 4% per annum. That’s the textile business.

And it isn’t that the machines weren’t better. It’s just that the savings didn’t go to you. The cost reductions came through all right. But the benefit of the cost reductions didn’t go to the guy who bought the equipment. It’s such a simple idea. It’s so basic.

When it comes to stock picking, the main message Munger emphasizes is not about value, or management competence, but rather about making very few, well-understood bets:

look at the pari-mutuel system. I had dinner last night by absolute accident with the president of Santa Anita. He says that there are two or three betters who have a credit arrangement with them, now that they have off-track betting, who are actually beating the house. They’re sending money out net after the full handle—a lot of it to Las Vegas, by the way—to people who are actually winning slightly, net, after paying the full handle. They’re that shrewd about something with as much unpredictability as horse racing.

And the one thing that all those winning betters in the whole history of people who’ve beaten the pari-mutuel system have is quite simple. They bet very seldom.

It’s not given to human beings to have such talent that they can just know everything about everything all the time. But it is given to human beings who work hard at it—who look and sift the world for a mispriced be—that they can occasionally find one.

And the wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time, they don’t. It’s just that simple.

That is a very simple concept. And to me it’s obviously right—based on experience not only from the pari-mutuel system, but everywhere else.

And yet, in investment management, practically nobody operates that way. We operate that way—I’m talking about Buffett and Munger. And we’re not alone in the world. But a huge majority of people have some other crazy construct in their heads. And instead of waiting for a near cinch and loading up, they apparently ascribe to the theory that if they work a little harder or hire more business school students, they’ll come to know everything about everything all the time.

To me, that’s totally insane. The way to win is to work, work, work, work and hope to have a few insights.

How many insights do you need? Well, I’d argue: that you don’t need many in a lifetime. If you look at Berkshire Hathaway and all of its accumulated billions, the top ten insights account for most of it. And that’s with a very brilliant man—Warren’s a lot more able than I am and very disciplined—devoting his lifetime to it. I don’t mean to say that he’s only had ten insights. I’m just saying, that most of the money came from ten insights.

So you can get very remarkable investment results if you think more like a winning parimutuel player. Just think of it as a heavy odds against game full of craziness with an occasional mispriced something or other. And you’re probably not going to be smart enough to find thousands in a lifetime. And when you get a few, you really load up. It’s just that simple.

When Warren lectures at business schools, he says, “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches—representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.”

He says, “Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.”

Again, this is a concept that seems perfectly obvious to me. And to Warren it seems perfectly obvious. But this is one of the very few business classes in the U.S. where anybody will be saying so. It just isn’t the conventional wisdom.

To me, it’s obvious that the winner has to bet very selectively. It’s been obvious to me since very early in life. I don’t know why it’s not obvious to very many other people.