Monday, 4 May 2009

Business Musings From Woodstock for Capitalists

Buffett and Munger Play the Main Stage: Views on Newspapers, Triple-A Ratings, Complex Math and More

Here are some highlights of Warren Buffett's and Charles Munger's remarks at the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholder meeting this past weekend.

Mr. Buffett on Newspapers

Mr. Buffett has long held himself out as a newspaper man. As a child, one of his first jobs was delivering newspapers. An Omaha newspaper Berkshire owned, Sun Newspapers, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 based in part on a tip Mr. Buffett provided. One of Berkshire's biggest investments in the 1970s was the Buffalo News, which it still owns. But his view on the future of the newspaper industry is dismal.
"For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price. They have the possibility of going to just unending losses."
[Warren Buffett] Reuters

Warren Buffett, left photo, noshes on an ice-cream bar at Berkshire's annual meeting in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday.

As long as newspapers were essential to readers, they were essential to advertisers, he said. But news is now available in many other venues, he said. Berkshire has a substantial investment in Washington Post Co. He said the company has a solid cable business, a good reason to hold on to it, but its newspaper business is in trouble.

"a national tragedy.... These monopoly daily newspapers have been an important sinew to our civilization, they kept government more honest than they would otherwise be."
A Washington Post Co. representative couldn't be reached for comment.

Mr. Buffett on Insurance

In response to a question about the worst possible development for Berkshire Hathaway's vast insurance operations, Mr. Buffett responded: nationalization. If inflation jumped and insurance policies became extremely expensive, pressure could rise on the government to nationalize the insurance industry, he said.
"When people get outraged, politicians respond."
It's highly unlikely that such a development would happen, he added. But he did note the example of Social Security, which is a form of a nationalized annuity.

Mr. Buffett on Housing

"In the last few months you've seen a real pickup in activity although at much lower prices."
Mr. Buffett was citing data from Berkshire's real-estate brokerage business, HomeServices of America Inc., which is one of the largest in the U.S.

[Berkshire Hathaway] Reuters

Attendees wait in a food queue on Friday at the meeting's kickoff celebration.

In California, medium and lower-price homes, under $750,000, have been selling more, though there hasn't been a bounce back in sale prices, Mr. Buffett said.

"We see something close to stability at these much-reduced prices in the medium to lower part of the market."

Mr. Buffett on Moody's

Mr. Buffett was asked about Moody's Investors Service, which gave a triple-A rating to billions of dollars of mortgage securities that subsequently lost value. Berkshire has a 20.4% stake in the company.
"Basically, four or five years ago, virtually everybody in the country had this model in their heads, formal or otherwise, that house prices could not fall significantly. It was stupidity and the fact that everyone else was doing it."
He said that if Moody's had started to take a negative view on residential real estate, the ratings provider would have been hauled before Congress to testify about why it was hurting the U.S. economy with its bearish ratings.
"They made a huge mistake, and the American people made a huge mistake."
[Fruit of the Loom mascots] Bloomberg News

One Fruit of the Loom mascot adjusts the hat of another at the Berkshire meeting on Saturday. The apparel maker is one of Berkshire's holdings.

A Moody's representative couldn't be reached for comment.

Mr. Buffett on Treasurys

Berkshire Hathaway had only one slide at this year's annual meeting. It displayed a Dec. 19 trade ticket showing a Berkshire sale of $5 million of Treasury bills. They were coming due on April 29 this year, roughly four months after Berkshire sold them. Berkshire sold the bills for $5,000,090.70. If that buyer had instead put their money in a mattress, by April 29 they would have been $90.70 better off, he said. Negative yields on Treasury bills show how tumultuous last year was, Mr. Buffett added.
"We may never see that again in our lifetimes."

Messrs. Buffett and Munger On Math and Theories

Messrs. Buffett and Munger made clear their complete disdain for the use of higher-order mathematics in finance.
"There is so much that's false and nutty in modern investing practice and modern investment banking, that if you just reduced the nonsense, that's a goal you should reasonably hope for."
Regarding complex calculations used to value purchases, he said:
"If you need to use a computer or a calculator to make the calculation, you shouldn't buy it."

Said Mr. Munger: "Some of the worst business decisions I've ever seen are those with future projections and discounts back. It seems like the higher mathematics with more false precision should help you, but it doesn't. They teach that in business schools because, well, they've got to do something."

Mr. Buffett said:
"If you stand up in front of a business class and say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, you won't get tenure....Higher mathematics my be dangerous and lead you down pathways that are better left untrod."

Mr. Munger on the Future

"As I move close to the edge of death, I find myself getting more cheerful about the economic future."
Mr. Munger sees "a final breakthrough that solves the main technical problem of man," he continued.

By harnessing the power of the sun, electrical power will become more available around the world. That will help humans turn sea water into fresh water and eliminate environmental problems, Mr. Munger explained. "If you have enough energy you can solve a lot of other problems."

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