Simon had Garfunkel, Batman had Robin, Hall had Oates, Dr. Evil had Mini Me, Sonny had Cher, and Malone had Stockton. In the investing world, Buffett has Munger. Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio) is one of the most successful and famous wingmen of all-time – evidenced by Berkshire Hathaway Corporation’s (BRKA/B) outperformance of the S&P 500 index by approximately +624% from 1977 – 2009, according to MarketWatch. Munger not only provides critical insights to his legendary billionaire boss, Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio), but he was also Chairman of Berkshire’s insurance subsidiary, Wesco Financial Corporation from 1984 until 2011. The magic of this dynamic duo began when they met at a dinner party 58 years ago (1959).
In an article he published in 2006, the magnificent Munger describes the “Art of Stock Picking” in a thorough review about the secrets of equity investing. We’ll now explore some of the 93-year-old’s sage advice and wisdom.
Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio) believes an individual needs a solid general education before becoming a successful investor, and in order to do that one needs to study and understand multiple “models.”
“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”
Although Munger indicates there are 80 or 90 important models, the examples he provides include mathematics, accounting, biology, physiology, psychology, and microeconomics.
Advantages of Scale
Great businesses in many cases enjoy the benefits of scale, and Munger devotes a good amount of time to this subject. Scale advantages can be realized through advertising, information, psychological “social proofing,” and structural factors.
The newspaper industry is an example of a structural scale business in which a “winner takes all” phenomenon applies. Munger aptly points out, “There’s practically no city left in the U.S., aside from a few very big ones, where there’s more than one daily newspaper.”
General Electric Co. (GE) is another example of a company that uses scale to its advantage. Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO, learned an early lesson. If the GE division is not large enough to be a leader in a particular industry, then they should exit. Or as Welch put it, “To hell with it. We’re either going to be # 1 or #2 in every field we’re in or we’re going to be out. I don’t care how many people I have to fire and what I have to sell. We’re going to be #1 or #2 or out.”
Bigger Not Always Better
Scale comes with its advantages, but if not managed correctly, size can weigh on a company like an anchor. Munger highlights the tendency of large corporations to become “big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.” An implicit corruption also leads to “layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They’re too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.”
Becoming too large can also create group-think, or what Munger calls “Pavlovian Association.” Munger goes onto add, “If people tell you what you really don’t want to hear what’s unpleasant there’s an almost automatic reaction of antipathy…You can get severe malfunction in the high ranks of business. And of course, if you’re investing, it can make a lot of difference.”
Technology: Benefit or Burden?
Munger recognizes that technology lowers costs for companies, but the important question that many managers fail to ask themselves is whether the benefits from technology investments accrue to the company or to the customer? Munger summed it up here:
“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.”
Buffett and Munger realized this lesson early on when productivity improvements gained from technology investments in the textile business all went to the buyers.
Surfing the Wave
When looking for good businesses, Munger and Buffett are looking to “surf” waves or trends that will generate healthy returns for an extended period of time. “When a surfer gets up and catches the wave and just stays there, he can go a long, long time. But if he gets off the wave, he becomes mired in shallows,” states Munger. He notes that it’s the “early bird,” or company that identifies a big trend before others that enjoys the spoils. Examples Munger uses to illustrate this point are Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Intel Corp. (INTC), and National Cash Register from the old days.
Large profits will be collected by those investors that can identify and surf those rare large waves. Unfortunately, taking advantage of these rare circumstances becomes tougher and tougher for larger investors like Berkshire. If you’re an elephant trying to surf a wave, you need to find larger and larger waves, and even then, due to your size, you will be unable to surf as long as small investors.
Circle of Competence
Circle of competence is not a new subject discussed by Buffett and Munger, but it is always worth reviewing. Here’s how Munger describes the concept:
“You have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.”
For Munger and Buffett, sticking to their circle of competence means staying away from high-technology companies, although more recently they have expanded this view to include International Business Machines (IBM), which they are now a large investor.
Market Efficiency or Lack Thereof
Munger acknowledges that financial markets are quite difficult to beat. Since the markets are “partly efficient and partly inefficient,” he believes there is a minority of individuals who can outperform the markets. To expand on this idea, he compares stock investing to the pari-mutuel system at the racetrack, which despite the odds stacked against the bettor (17% in fees going to the racetrack), there are a few individuals who can still make decent money.
The transactional costs are much lower for stocks, but success for an investor still requires discipline and patience. As Munger declares, “The way to win is to work, work, work, work and hope to have a few insights.”
Winning the Game – 10 Insights / 20 Punches
As the previous section implies, outperformance requires patience and a discriminating eye, which has allowed Berkshire to create the bulk of its wealth from a relatively small number of investment insights. Here’s Munger’s explanation on this matter:
“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….I don’t mean to say that [Warren] only had ten insights. I’m just saying, that most of the money came from ten insights.”
Chasing performance, trading too much, being too timid, and paying too high a price are not recipes for success. Independent thought accompanied with selective, bold decisions is the way to go. Munger’s solution to these problems is to provide investors with a Buffett 20-punch ticket:
“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.”
The great thing about Munger and Buffett’s advice is that it is digestible by the masses. Like dieting, investing can be very simple to understand, but difficult to execute, and legends like these always remind us of the important investing basics. Even though Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio) may be slowing down a tad at 93-years-old, Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio) and investors everywhere are blessed to have this wingman around spreading his knowledge about investing and the art of stock picking.