Investment Greats: Charlie Munger

Published in Investing Strategy on 29 May 2009

Warren Buffett may steal the headlines but his business partner is an exceptional investor in his own right.

While Warren Buffett is the the public face of the phenomenally successful Berkshire Hathaway, he is always eager to credit his second in command, Charlie Munger, with much of that success.

Munger may be less well known, and even though he gives fewer interviews than Buffett, he is not nearly as self-deprecating: "I have a black belt in chutzpah. I was born with it." When someone has his understanding of the world, why be shy about it?

Background

Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1924 -- nearly seven years before Buffett -- Munger joined the army and spent some of World War II working in their meteorology section in Alaska. He then got a degree from Harvard Law School and became an attorney in California.

He had a keen interest in investing, which he took up full time in 1965. Through the 1960s and 1970s he and Buffett, whom he first met in a restaurant in their home town in 1959, worked together on a number of deals, including the purchase of See's Candies in 1972.

It was not until 1978 that he officially joined Berkshire Hathaway as Vice-Chairman. He is also head of Wesco Financial, based in California, in which Berkshire Hathaway has a majority stake; his annual shareholder meetings are almost as closely followed as those of Berkshire, earning him the moniker 'the Oracle of Pasadena'.

Investment style

Munger believes in using all the tools at one's disposal, combining elements of psychology, mathematics, business, and so on, in making decisions, otherwise we are hampering ourselves. "To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks pretty much like a nail."

He is particularly scathing of academics who behave "like truffle hounds", exceptionally adept in their own areas of expertise, but unable to integrate the various disciplines. "If you want to go through life like a one legged man in an ass-kicking contest, why be my guest. But if you want to succeed, like a strong man with two legs, you have to pick up these tricks, including doing economics while knowing psychology."

And it's in the area of investment psychology that Munger really shines. His Psychology of Human Misjudgement speech at Harvard Law School, first brought to my attention by fellow Fool writer Alun Morris, outlines 24 modes of distorted thinking that afflict investors. Unless you believe we are all rational information-processing machines, this is essential reading.

He warns us not to mistake a bull market for skill, as so many novice investors have done over the years to their detriment. "Bull markets go to people's heads. If you're a duck on a pond, and it's rising due to a downpour, you start going up in the world. But you think it's you, not the pond."

As you might expect from a partner of Buffett's, he advocates buying the right companies and then sitting tight. "You do better to make a few large bets and sit back and wait. There are huge mathematical advantages to doing nothing."; or more colourfully: "If you buy a few great companies, you can sit on your ass".

And like his partner, he has little respect for the efficient market hypothesis, and has described the capital asset pricing model as an obscenity. "People calculate too much and think too little."

To some extent, though, his preferences can be a bit riskier than Buffett's, and it was he who persuaded Buffett to invest in the Chinese electric car maker BYD.

Current opinions

In the automotive sector, Munger has proposed combining the 'big three' auto makers into one business, writing off their debts, and seeing if they can cobble together a viable business. As regards the industry, he has even expressed concerns for Toyota.

Munger is not generally in favour of bailing out industries and businesses, but he supported the bank bailout as he saw no other choice. Although a supporter of the Republican Party (in contrast to Buffett), he is in favour of increased regulation.

He is vehemently against the ethanol initiatives, which he regards as pricing food out of the range of poor families, and also opposes cap-and-trade carbon policies as insane.

At the age of 85 I think it's fair to say that Munger will not be replacing the 78 year old Buffett at the top of Berkshire Hathaway, but as he said a couple of weeks ago, "Sometimes I feel my sole function is to show shareholders that they'll get another good seven years out of Warren". On that occasion at least, he was being far too modest.

More: Charlie Munger's Thoughts On Just About Everything

Books: Poor Charlie's Almanack

More investing greats:

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Comments

The opinions expressed here are those of the individual writers and are not representative of The Motley Fool. If you spot any comments that are unsuitable hit the flag to alert our moderators.

MrContrarian 29 May 2009 , 6:29pm

If you prefer to listen to Munger's speech: http://www.humyo.com/F/52471-630764471

Alun

RobinnBanks 02 Jun 2009 , 1:40am

I like all these stories of Investment Greats - keep them coming please.

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