Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio) and Li Lu co-appeared in an interview in one of China’s top finance magazines. Needless to say, it’s an extremely rare occasion when either appears on an interview, not to mention both. The interview was conducted in Chinese, but Munger answered in English. Below is the first part of my edited transcripts. Hope you will enjoy.
Question: Let’s start with how professional investors set up the right investment philosophy. You have emphasized that investment depends on finding good opportunities and holding for the long term with patience. In a Chinese saying: It takes 10 years’ time to sharpen one's sword. Although many professional investors know this principle, they fail in being patient in spending long time. This leads to fruitless investment. So how do you make your actions be in accordance with your notions?
Munger: Yes, well if you invests the way people gamble in casinos, you are not gonna do very well. So it’s the long-term investment that works the best. But if you like the action of investing, sometimes winning some losing, just like the action when they gamble in the casino. Those people are not my people. I like the long-term investors who figure out something is going to work over the long term. The sooner the Chinese people gamble less and invest patiently for the long term more, the sooner they will do better.
Question: You also mentioned that patience is necessary for investment and patience is a born characteristic. Does that mean if a person is not born with patience, he or she shouldn’t be investing?
Munger: The world is full of foolish gamblers. They will not do as well as the patient investors. I think patience can be learned to some extent and to some extent you are born with it. There’s a saying in American they call a long attention span. They can keep their mind on a game or an activity for a long time until they’ve solved it. And the Chinese do have a long attention span, and that is hugely desirable quality because you are more likely to get the right answer if you think deeply and hard about the subject for a long time. And it’s odd that people who are so good at having a long attention span like to gamble so much, which is quite counterproductive.
Question: You said before most of what investors see are false phenomena. How should we think about that? Where is the truth then? How can we get to the truth?
Munger: A lot of people think there is such a thing it’s the truth in the market. And market tells you something just by bouncing around. That is not the way Berkshire Hathaway or Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio) invests money. We have a view as to what the intrinsic value is and what is being traded. And we only buy it when we think it’s worth more than we are paying. So we are trying to make a long-term investment by waiting for something to be underpriced and then buying it. And we don’t give a damn about all those gamblers in the market. To me they are so much froth. It’s a foolish way to spend your time if you want to get rich that way.
Li Lu: He answered what the truth is – it’s the real value of the company itself. Only by understanding this can we really make money. For those who only care about price fluctuations and make relevant investments based on such fluctuations, making money this way is a very stupid action.
Question: In China, many investors regard you, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Li Lu, as their idols. Could you talk about how much time it would take the Chinese capital market, which only has 30 years of history, and under what conditions would the Chinese capital market “produce” investment masters like you three.
Munger: Well the Chinese market is going to create a lot of successful investors. If you look at Hong Kong, which has been full of Chinese people, meshed in a capitalist order with good securities market. That is going to spread all over China and increase in respectability and size for decades ahead. I anticipate the Chinese securities market and investing practices will get better and better for a long, long time. There will be fluctuations to be sure, but the long-term trend will be toward more achievement and more respectability and higher prices.
Li Lu: He didn’t answer your question directly, but he’s saying some investment masters will definitely appear. The Chinese market will get better step by step.
Munger: The Chinese, who’ve got rich in Hong Kong over the last 50 years, are not the short-term traders and gamblers. These have been the long-term investors who’ve sought out good long-term investment and stubbornly held them for a long period of time. And just as I said words for the Chinese in Hong Kong, a little words for the Chinese on the mainland. It’s not the short-term gambler that’s good. It’s identifying the good long-term investment and sticking with it. For a long term.
Li Lu: The example of Hong Kong can also reflect well the future of China. Those who will make big money undoubtedly will be the long-term investors, rather than short-term traders.
Question: Mr. Munger, what is your most satisfactory and what is your most unsatisfactory investment in your life time?
Munger: My Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A, Financial) stock cost me $16 a share, and it’s now selling for almost $300,000 a share. That’s been a very good investment. It took a long time, and it was a long-term investment. I like the people I was investing with and I like the companies I was investing in. I just sat there for more than 50 years and low and behold it’s worked out really well. And there are lots of stories like that. Li Lu and I have been investing together in China for what? Thirteen years or 15 years? And we have bought a lot of securities and we sold very few. I’ve not made very many bad investments. There have been small ones but not very many. I don’t have many bad investments. Basically the Mungers have three stocks – Berkshire Hathaway, Costco and Li Lu’s partnership. Well along my 95th years, three things. You don’t need to own different things to get rich.
Question: There are more than 10,000 Chinese who came to Omaha to attend this year’s Berkshire’s annual meeting. China is a focus among those topics. Mr. Munger mentioned that the future of China would be very bright and you had already looked for potential targets in China. What kind of investment environment period is China now in? Is China’s market like the U.S. market in 1973, 1974 or even 1982? And what areas have you looked at to find your potential targets in China?
Munger: I know it’s very peculiar, and The New York Times asked me why are these people so interested in Berkshire Hathaway and Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio). Partly the book ("Poor Charlie’s Almanac"), yes, but why do the Chinese like the book? I think the answer is it sounds Confucian. China has a deep Confucian ethos. They want people to act modestly even though they are rich and powerful. They want people to constantly keep learning and behave with dignity and reason, and improves as they get old and keep working. Those lessons are not confined to one country. But it just happens that Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio) and I act like much of the people who take Confucianism very seriously.
The other reason is that Warren and I really like the Chinese. And of course everybody likes people who like them. Now you say, why have the Chinese got so popular with the couple of Omaha boys? There’s something that a lot of Chinese don’t understand. If you look at China with a viewpoint of a U.S. citizen, here is what you see. The Chinese first came in here, trying to build the Sierra, the trans-continental railroad, in the winter through horrible passes in the steep mountains. Nobody could do it. It was impossible. They were dying and it was just too hard. So they brought in like 15,000 Chinese labors, who in those days were practically slaves, and they took those labors to the mountains in the winter and said you build the railroad. And they did. And the Americans couldn’t do it by themselves. That of course made a very favorable impression. While fade in fade out, now we have Asians immigrants. What have those Asians done in America? Well they come in and rapidly become doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen and so forth, and succeeded mightily. If we go to a symphony orchestra, which used to have no Chinese. Every instrument that’s hard to play, and pick someone that are doing practice, you look up the instruments, there’s a Chinese face. Of course we find people popular who are succeeding so much in our country and not causing a lot of troubles. So naturally we like the Chinese.
And I don’t think the ordinary person on mainland China understands what an image of success China has in the United States. And the most extreme thing of all, nobody could have anticipated and nobody ever talks about it, it’s because there was so much poverty in China and it was so overpopulated, if an American couple were unable to have children of their own, they can always go to China and adopt a Chinese girl of a very poor family. So in every important city of America, people soon learned they got better babies, taking the unwanted Chinese girls from the remote Chinese farms. Those babies on average work out better than their own children. So everybody if they want to adopt a child they don’t want an American child. They want a Chinese girl. And of course all those girls worked out well. And most people in China don’t realize how extreme that’s been. That’s happened in every American city. Every American private school is full of the discarded Chinese girls from the Chinese countryside. They are getting all As and winning prizes. Of course they made a favorable impression. It’s just dramatic it’s all over America.
Question: How many books do you read every year and what subjects are they?
Munger: I either skim through or read through 20 books week. I read a lot of biographies, and some history. I read almost no fiction.