This is Part II of the Berkshire shareholder meeting 2015. Part I is here.
Question regarding consumer staples firms being undermanaged: Is there potential for further consolidation in the industry like Kraft-Heinz, or are factors like Nestle's recent squawking about the deal enough to keep further consolidation at bay?
Buffett: Coca-Cola sold more cases of beverages last year than any year in their history, and they'll sell more this year. A strong brand is really potent stuff.
Heinz has 60% brand share in the U.S., and it's higher elsewhere in the world. Brands and retailers will do battle like they traditionally have; if consumers want to shift to private labels, which have been around forever, then they will.
Munger: We've almost exhausted this topic (layoffs). There's no question about the fact that waves of layoffs frighten people. A job is a very important part of someone's life, and it's no small thing to lose it. But what would our country be if we kept everybody on the farm?
Shareholder question about investing in international markets where perceptions and/or behaviors are different than in the U.S.
Buffett: I apply the same principles when approaching investments irrespective of borders.
Munger: I don't think I would change the principles at all. The Chinese have a history of being very entrepreneurial and gambling heavily when they have the opportunity. I think China would do much better to be more value-investment-minded rather than being speculative.
Question regarding value investing.
Munger: Who in the hell doesn't want value when they buy something?
Question about Buffett's optimism about the future of America, which he has touted as having a superior economic system: What's the risk of security as chemical, nuclear, cyber attacks are concerned? How do these threats affect your outlook?
Buffett: They are a great threat to the United States. I believe America will continue to enjoy a robust and rich economic system.
The things that make the U.S. economy strong have not been mitigated by these threats, even with modest economic growth of recent years.
There will always be people who will always be searching for ways to inflict destruction, pain and suffering on society. We need extremely vigilant security operations in the United States.
Munger: I think I probably lived in the most ideal era a man could ever have been born in. But I don't think we should get too smug. China has come up a lot faster than any other big nation has come up. That makes it critical that the U.S. and China work together on friendly terms to collaborate and mitigate the potential for bad outcomes from bad actors elsewhere in the world.
Question about Buffett's assertion in the past that the Berkshire of the future will have a CEO and a CIO: Do these positions need to be mutually exclusive?
Buffett: A chief investment officer should have a significant array of skills that also would be useful for a chief executive officer. But I would also say that I would not want to put anybody whose sole experience had been investments in charge of Berkshire if they didn't have significant operating experience. My own experience coming up and acquiring dual experience in investments and operations was quite valuable.
Question from an attendee from Columbia Business School: Comment on the investment philosophy of Ted Weschler, who manages billions for Berkshire Hathaway with Todd Combs.
Buffett: Not only is the investment acumen of these men valuable, but they posses enviable personality characteristics. Berkshire really wants terrific investment managers who are also terrific humans being.
We've seen people self-destruct in pursuit of making money they didn't really need because they were already rich.
Munger met Combs first, I met Weschler first. In addition to talking about their investment prowess, we talked about the kind of people they were and we weren't disappointed. These men also help oversee businesses in addition to their investment oversight.
Munger: Trustworthiness is more important than the brains. We wouldn't hire anybody, no matter how able they were, if we didn't trust them.
Noon break is coming up, folks. I'll turn back on the stream so you can see what everyone else has to say about the shareholder weekend in Omaha.
Which BRK businesses would suffer most from sudden inflation?
Buffett: Real estate in general is good during inflation. If you built your house 50 years ago like Charlie and I did, it's a one-time outlay.
If you're in a business such as the utility business or the railroad business, (inflation) keeps eating up more and more money; any business with heavy capital investment tends to be a poor business to be in during inflationary periods.
Brand businesses are good, however. See's Candies is a good example.
Historic example: Gillette purchased the rights to air World Series broadcasts in 1939 for $100,000. Imagine the impressions that made on the minds of baseball fans who came to associate Gillette's name with the Series.
Munger: You never know how it will end up. We don't want inflation because it's good for See's Candies.
The combination of inflation and World War I paved the way for Hitler to rise to power later.
Shareholder question: What practical mental model/models would you impress on a young, enterprising individual to build an important enterprise with a similar distinction/impact to BRK, Microsoft?
Munger: That takes time. There's no sure way to do it, but you've got to have a strong reputation.
Very few people get a sudden reputation like Charles Lindbergh. Hardly anything is more important than behaving well as you go through life. We actually have tried to behave better as we've grown more prosperous. You'd be crazy if you didn't.
Buffett: Sage advice from a former Fiat leader: "Whatever reputation you have when you get old, it's probably the one you deserve."
Berkshire has benefited from its strong reputation, which wasn't necessarily the end goal.
You have maintained global warming hasn't affected its models, where other insurers say otherwise. Explain?
Buffett: Some people do put in (climate change) as a risk factor; basically we price our business every year. It's not like a life insurance company where you've set a price for 60 or 70 years into the future. That's not the property and casualty insurance business we're in.
I see nothing that tells me on a yearly basis that global warming is something that causes me to change my prices.
It is not something I would put in the 10K as a threat. Charlie?
Munger: I don't think it's totally clear what the effects of global warming will be on extreme weather. I think there's a lot of guesswork involved. It's not that global warming isn't happening; it's that you can get so excited about it that you can make all sorts of crazy extrapolations that aren't necessarily correct.
Gregory Warren question about holdings of COP and Exxon Mobil: Most of what has been sold in last six years has been sold at a loss. Does it make more sense to leave future energy investments in Greg Abel's hands?
Buffett: BH Energy is really in a dramatically different industry than Exxon (XOM, Financial) or Conoco Phillips (COP, Financial). We wrote Conoco Phillips down because we were required to by auditors. We actually made some money on it.
In the end, we look at the cash and at available opportunities both in investments and in businesses and we make investments sometimes where we eventually change our minds.
Munger: With interest rates being so low and the dividend on Exxon Mobil being what it was, it wasn't a bad cash substitute.
Shareholder question about the "obviously broken" U.S. tax code: What can be done to affect real change for a simple, more rational tax code?
Buffett: Well, it takes 218 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 51 senators and a president that will sign the bill. Despite the tax rates all the corporate chieftains complain about, the share of GDP accounted for by corp profits is at a record. Corporate taxes 40 years ago were 4% of GDP. They're now 2%. Payroll taxes have increased, too. Changes in code are really hard to remove once they're in, absent a major change.
I credit Ron Wyden and Orrin Hatch, who are capable of working out something neither of them likes very well, but that will work. In terms of cash abroad, you can bring it back, but our corporate taxes are at 35% and early on with 52%, 48% tax rates, our company grew at a good rate.
I think there could be a much more equitable code in terms of corporate tax, but I do not think the 2% of GDP being raised from corporate taxes. I do not think that's an onerous number. For people who are getting a quarter or half a percent on CDs who have retired, with American business earning intangible equity close to 15%, I think equity holders are getting treated extraordinarily well compared to debt holders.
Munger: It's amazing, the idea of driving rich people out. Who doesn't want rich people coming in and spending money in their state?
Munger: Adam Smith is one of those guys who are widely recognized as one of the wisest people that ever came along. The lessons he taught were taught again when communism failed in places like Singapore.
Buffett: The idea you let other people do what they're best at and you do what you're best at, I carry from mowing my own lawn to philanthropy.
Munger: You didn't do your own bowel surgery, either.
Do you find managements of formerly public companies have more trouble making decisions with minimal concern for short-term results? Is there more that can be done to combat that? Also, are compensation structures based over long term or short term?
Buffett: No real problems come to mind. We tell them we think about 100 years out, and they know we mean that. I think we set the right example, and I think we use the words to convey that belief as strongly as we can. It is evidenced in our annual report. We believe in hammering the same message out again and again.
Not to say they ignore annual results, of course.
I don't think they're unimportant, but we don't live by them.
What differences in corporate culture between German and U.S. companies?
Munger: We've had a hard time buying things in Europe. That's been quite rare. I think the traditions are different in Europe than in the U.S. and some other countries. Germany, of course, has a long tradition of being very good at technology and capitalism, and we admire the Germans. They actually work a lot fewer hours than Americans, and they produce a lot more. Warren and I are very good at that.
We admire the Germans from the engineering side, and we've been thinking about them for a long time.
Buffett predicts that Berkshire will buy a German company within the next five years.
Buffett: I would really be surprised if we don't make at least one deal in Germany in the next five years. I've had probably four or five letters in the last couple months, ever since the Louis deal was announced. We're eager, we have the money, and we do fit the family situation occasionally. Prices may be a little more attractive there than in the U.S.
Becky Quick with submitted question about actuarial models used at GEICO. Shareholder, 78, has long-time accident-free driving record. But even with the shareholder discount, GEICO couldn't beat the existing rate. Why?
Buffett: It's the same reason we can beat the rate about 40% of the time. We have our own underwriting criteria that involve many different variables, one of which is age, which isn't a dominant one, but we make our calculations, and our competitors have somewhat different underwriting ratings, and sometimes they come in below us.
Essentially, you can win some of them all of the time, but you can't win all of them all of the time.
Question from Gary Ransom about reinsurance market changes in recent years: What is it that BRK is planning to do to take advantage?
Buffett: Reinsurance has become a fashionable asset class, but it is something you can sell to entities like pension funds. If you go to Bermuda and start a reinsurance company, for example, you can run a hedge fund, too. When you get a whole lot of people bringing money in and they need your reinsurance to cover up what their motivations are, you're likely to get less attractive prices in reinsurance. That's been happening at a fairly large scale. I expect reinsurance in the next 10 years to not be as good as it has been in the last 30 or so years. It's a business whose prospects have turned for the worst and there's not a lot we can do about it.
Munger: We don't particularly like the way the reinsurance game is being played.
Shareholder question: How do you get people to like you and want to work with you?
Munger: I was pretty obnoxious when I was your age, and not everybody liked me. The only way I could get people to like me a little bit was to get very rich and very generous.
Buffett: Both Charlie and I were on the obnoxious side when we were younger. I have learned to become a better person with age.
If I admire someone, why wouldn't I want to take on their better qualities? If you look around at the people you like in your school, write down what you like about them, and do the same for the bad qualities of people that turn you off.
Munger: That really works in marriage. You can change yourself easier than you can change your spouse.
Buffett: Look for someone with low expectations.
Question about NetJets from Andrew Ross Sorkin: Pilots are picketing outside. Please address. Also, was buying NetJets a mistake?
Buffett: It was not a mistake. In terms of ROI is not the best way to look at it. We resell those planes to owners, and we have a core fleet that represents an investment, but investment is held in very large part by the owners themselves.
At Berkshire, we've had hundreds of labor unions over the years. In 50 years, we've had only three strikes I can remember. We had a four-day strike at BH textile operation, one at Buffalo News, and another at See's Candies.
We have no anti-union (sentiment) whatsoever.
Buffett praising professionalism of pilots over time: It's human nature to sometimes have differences about how people get paid.
Flight volume is up, and owner volume in the U.S. is up. It's a business I'm very glad we own.
Gregory Warren question about Duracell: It has provided steady cash flows and has a strong brand, but core biz in decline. Buffett has been willing to hang onto businesses like this in the past as long as they provide strong cash flow, but the question is: would you have done the deal without tax considerations?
Buffett: Both P&G and BRK had tax advantages in the deal; that goes for both price and tax from both sides.
It's somewhat similar to the real estate exchange agreement where you can exchange it and defer taxes a little bit.
The answer is that there wouldn't have been a transaction from P&G standpoint or from BRK standpoint if there hadn't been an exchange. The plan is to hold for a very, very long time.
The deal probably won't close until the fourth quarter, by the way.
Shareholder question: At the annual meeting a couple of years ago, I asked Buffett about the estate plan to leave kids with enough they could do anything, but not enough they could do nothing. What about decision to sign giving pledge, which gives at least half of assets to charity?
Buffett: Actually, I promised to give 99 percent, in my case. As you know, the estate tax exemption has been moved up substantially so I might have a very different feeling if I'd had a child who worked very actively to help me build this, and it was a small business that I wanted to give to him.
The options get fairly limited when it comes to figuring out what to do with your money. The question is, where does it do the most good? Stock certificates left in a lockbox 50 years ago have absolutely no utility to me. They have enormous use in other parts of the world so why in the world should they sit there for me or for some fourth generation of great-grandchildren when they can do good (elsewhere)?
Carol Loomis with submitted question: Would it make sense (or be legally permissible) for BRK to distribute at sometime in the future any or some of the long term equity investments like Coca-Cola or AmEx to shareholders?
Munger: I don't think we can do that with American Express and so forth. (Yahoo!) is a bad example because we have no way of doing that.
Buffett: That's because the tax code prohibits it. You can't distribute something like that to shareholders without paying capital gains taxes. What Yahoo has done hasn't gotten rid of their tax (liability).
Question from Jonathan Brandt regarding BRK's ownership that benefits many singles. Jobs are more plentiful, but household formation has lagged behind expectations. What could explain this? Will the U.S. become more like Europe where children live with parents longer? Or is this a cyclical phenomenon?
Buffett: My impression is that formation has turned up somewhat. I expect it to turn up. It always turns down in a recession.
Munger: I think I speak for many in the audience when I say I have grandchildren who I wish would find someone suitable to marry soon.
Shareholder question from Omaha shareholder who has a son living/working in Indonesia. The contrast between where he is sitting today and where I am sitting couldn't be more dramatic. How can corporations be encouraged to make an even greater impact of those who are not shareholders?
Buffett: I really feel I've got everything I need, but I also feel I'm working for the shareholders, and they should determine their own philanthropic activity. It's their money.
At the same time, I don't think it's my business to write a check to my alma mater and draw it on company funds.
Becky Quick with submitted question: Would it be a good call for France to quit the Eurozone economy and go back to the franc?
Munger: I think the euro had a noble motivation and had promise of doing really good, and it undoubtedly has done a lot of good. However, it's a flawed system in some ways.
Clearly its being strained by problems in Greece, for example. There are countries in the eurozone that shouldn't be there. That lowers standards for everyone involved.
Buffett: Just because the system has flaws doesn't mean it should be permanently condemned. Problems should be fixed. Presumably, we could've had a common North American currency with Canada and could have made it work. It might have even been useful. But we couldn't have had a hemisphere-wide currency.
Munger: Because of Argentina!
Buffett: He has to name names.
Early rules pertaining to the euro were broken early on by countries that weren't Greece with strong economies. Those were early headwinds that set a bad example.
In its present firm, it's probably not going to work. Charlie? I don't know why I'm giving you another shot.
Munger: I think I've offended enough people.
Gary Ransom question about Van Tuyl: What would you do to bring more customers to this relationship, (i.e., selling more auto insurance) if anything?
Buffett: That's not necessarily a strategy.
GEICO's success depends on delivering first-class insurance, so I would doubt we do anything along that line. I think those two companies do better if they function as two independent businesses.
Munger: I agree that that's a very dumb idea so I won't get into it.
Shareholder question about fiscal policy and ownership of silver (implication that it could be a safe haven as an investment): Your stance?
Buffett: I haven't paid much attention to silver for a very long time.
Munger: And it's a good thing, too!
Andrew Ross Sorkin with question about activism: Charlie said in the past he saw activism getting worse before it gets better. If Warren is giving his shares away to charities over a term, what if activists interfere? Would it be a travesty if Berkshire were broken up later?
Buffett: If it's run right, there won't be a premium if it's broken up. It might look like it, but that wouldn't be the case. There are a lot of benefits to BRK in terms of having the companies on the same corporate tax return. I think it's unlikely that, on any long-term or intermediate basis, the value of the parts is greater than the value of the whole.
The best defense against activism is performance. Lately, with so much money poured into activist funds, it has been a successful way of getting money to flow.
I think, if you're talking about my shares getting dispensed 10 years after my estate's settled, I think by the time that's a reality, Berkshire's value will be so great that activists won't be able to do much about it.
(Looking at the history of share repurchases) it falls off like crazy when stocks are cheap and vice versa. That's not what we do with Berkshire. We'd like to buy it by the bushel basket at 120% because we think it's worth a lot more than that over time.
Munger: I can't think of many activists I'd want to marry into the family.
Gregory Warren question about AmEx competition for cardholders and hits to members: With restrictions on interchange fees and other industry pressures, how does AmEx respond?
Buffett: All aspects of payments will be subject to innovation and various modes of attack.
Leadership has done a great job of navigating headwinds to this point before referring to the brand's strength as an additional asset.
Munger: I liked it a little better when they had a little less competition, but that's life.
Shareholder question about financial literacy education: Any advice on teaching in foreign countries?
Munger: I think, if you don't know how to save, then I can't help you.
Buffett: The important thing is that you've got good habits early on. The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they're too heavy to be broken. Teach your children well early on. It can be life-changing. I was $9,000 to $10,000 ahead when I left college, and that helped me start a family right away.
Buffett: We think we can use excess cash to buy businesses, but that's opportunistic, and you can't plan for that at specific increments.
If someone told us 50 years ago we'd be able to borrow euros for a long duration at 1 percent, we'd have ended up with a far different balance sheet.
We don't want to drop our standards too fast only because the cost of borrowing is so low.
We are not going to deleverage Berkshire. I see no drain on funds of any consequence from the float for as far as the eye can see.
Logically, the company should probably take on more debt since costs of borrowing are so low, but that's not necessarily going to happen.
Munger: There just hasn't been an opportunity so great that I have felt the need to stretch capital.
Shareholder question: Is the dealership situation in China different enough from that in the U.S. to make a difference in the scale Berkshire builds in the automobile business?
Buffett: We need managers in this business that run dealers as independent businesses.
Question: What's your secret to staying so energetic? Please don't say because of Coca-Cola. And are you warming up to the internet?
Munger: Well, the answer is Warren is a far bigger user of the internet than I am.
Buffett: If I had to give up the plane or the internet, I wouldn't want to give up either one of them, but I'd give up the plane. (The plane costs $1 million a year.)
Munger: Like it or not, we're living in a modern reality. I don't like multitasking. I have to think for such a long time to do anything that the idea of multitasking has never occurred to me.
(Buffett uses the internet to play bridge, perhaps to Munger's disapproval.)
It's amazing to me how dramatically the internet has changed our lives in the last 20-25 years, and the game is not over yet.
Buffett: It has made a big difference in trying to round up three guys to play a game of bridge on a snowy day.
Question concerning shareholders' dismay when Buffett weighs in on social or political issues: How concerned are you about income inequality?
Buffett: I think income inequality is extraordinary in the United States. Since I was born in 1930, the average GDP per capita in the U.S. has gone up 6 for 1. My parents thought they were living in a reasonably decent economy in 1930.
If they'd known that it would go from $8,000 to $9,000 to $54,000, they would have thought everyone in America is living a terrific life, but they're not.
I do think that everybody who is willing to work should have a reasonably decent livelihood in a country like the United States.
I have nothing against raising the minimum wage, but to raise it to a point where it has a reasonable impact would cost a lot of jobs.
I have plans to write something on the subject soon.
I'm much more a believer in reforming and changing the Earned Income Tax Credit, which rewards those who work but also helps those whose skills don't necessarily fit well in a particular job market.
Munger: You've just heard a Democrat speaking, but raising the minimum wage would hurt the poor. A lot of people go through college and don't learn much of anything. When the financial crisis hit, a lot of colleges realized they were overstaffed.
Right-sizing in that instance wasn't all bad. But sticker shock is still a real problem. You have to find your best option and go with it.
Question about increasing college costs: Parents seeing sticker shock at places where costs are over $60,000. How will the average American family afford this and what are your views?
Munger: The average American family doesn't like going to less expensive places and getting massive subsidies. Most people are paying less and getting subsidies, and I think it is a big problem that education has kept raising the price and raising the price.
College-educated people do better, but maybe they do better because they were better to start with.
Buffett: A college education is worth this much on paper, but it could be a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma.
Munger: As long as it works, they'll keep raising the prices. That's pretty much the way the system works.
Next question concerns structural changes in China: What are you reading and what advice can you offer?
Buffett: I think China will do very fine over a period of time.
Munger: I'm a big fan of what's happening in China. I just ordered a bust of the ex-prime minister of Singapore. One of the things he did in China was to stop the corruption. I consider it the smartest damn thing I've seen a country do in a long, long time. It's hard to set the proper example if a country's rulers are a gang of kleptocrats.
People have been shot in China, presumably for corruption.
Buffett: America's ascent to claim a massive portion of global GDP was impressive, and look at what China as done in 40 years. That shows you the human potential when you find a system that unleashes it. We found it 200 years ago and they found it 40 or 50 years ago.
It's just amazing that you can have people go nowhere, basically, in their lives, for centuries, and then it explodes. It just blows me away to see it. It's the same human beings, but they found a way to unlock their potential, and I congratulate them for it. China and the U.S. will be superpowers for as far as the eye can see. I think it's imperative for two countries with nuclear weapons in this kind of world that they find a way to see the virtues and flaws in each other.
Next question deals with when the company was beginning: How did you figure out the operational metrics for a new investment in which you had no previous experience?
Buffett: First we didn't have it thought out that well. But we did have a feel for it. In terms of knowing we were getting enough for our money, it was easier then.
We kept looking at things as they came along and in those days we were capital-constrained so we usually had to sell something if we wanted to buy something else. When you're measuring something like that, you hold it against something else.
Munger: Part of it was because we had people that worked (together) so constructively. But there's also good timing and we made some of our luck by being curious and seeking wisdom and we certainly recommend that to anyone else.
Buffett: There were also failures. We had plenty of them, and the bad experiences put the good ones into perspective.
Also, have fun: If you're enjoying what you're doing, you're likely to get better results than if you go to work with your teeth clenched every morning.
Munger: We owe a considerable amount to the families we were raised in. Mentors and good examples are critical.
Next question: How were you able to persuade your early investors that weren't family and friends to overcome doubts and fears?
Munger: We didn't do very well until we had a winning record.
Buffett: I started selling stocks when I was 20 years old. Although I was 20, I looked like I was 16 and behaved like I was about 12.
The people that joined me, a sister and her husband and others, those people just had faith in me. My father-in-law gave me everything he had, so they knew I'd done reasonably well by that time, and I was in a position by the time I came back to Omaha from New York that I had about $175,000.
Early successes coalesced and the momentum built as I kept plodding along.
Munger: At first, that's the way you start. You just avoid being a perfect idiot and you have good character, it's amazing how well things will work.
Next question was about what matters most to the pair.
Munger: I think I had an unfortunate challenge in that I was better at figuring things out than I was at anything else. I was never going to succeed as an athlete or an actor. My grandfather said your main duty was to become as rational as you could possibly be. Since I was good at that and no good at anything else, I think rationality is a moral duty. I think Berkshire is a template for rationality.
That's the way I did it. That goes beyond the technique for amassing wealth. For me, that's a moral principle. I think you have to be generous to be generous because it's crazy not to.
Buffett: What matters to me most now and probably has for some time is that, basically, I'm in a position where we probably have a million or more people that are involved with us, and it just so happens that it's enormously enjoyable to me so I can rationalize the activity. But I would not be happy if Berkshire weren't doing well.
Munger: We hate losing somebody else's money. Warren, don't you hate losing Berkshire's money?
Buffett: That would keep me up at night. What bothers me is if I do something that actually costs Berkshire long-term value.
Munger: A good doctor doesn't like it when a patient dies on the table.
Next question concerns what might have been done differently with early funds, when capital was less bountiful.
Buffett: The game was still fun then. It's actually a pretty easy game, and it does require a certain emotional stability, and I went at it hammer and claw, but I was enjoying what I did.
Between ages 7 and 19, I had the same enthusiasm for business but hadn't been enlightened yet by the teachings of Benjamin Graham. Afterward, I had a philosophy.
Munger: I do think it's an easy game for somebody who has the temperament for it and keeps at it.
I don't like being too much an example to people who want to get rich by being shrewd and buying and holding securities. I don't think that's an adequate contribution in exchange for what you're doing.
Last question before moving on to the annual meeting: Several years ago, Buffett made a point about the old Wall Street Journal. He said the WSJ had significant competitive advantages. What were those advantages?
Buffett: Going into the era of the enormous wealth of value of financial information, Dow Jones owned the field. They had a ticker, and people identified the WSJ with finance.
This was around the 1960s-70s. But, they just totally missed what was going to happen. They had a situation where a lawyer basically controlled the family and starting with this position of a trusted name, they provided every brokerage in the country with a news ticker. It couldn't have been in a better place.
But they just didn't capitalize on it.
Munger: They didn't destroy their fortune. I'm not so sure (we would have done the right things, either).