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I took my son to Berkshire Hathaway’s AGM

Dan Lefkovitz  |  10 May 2022Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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Word to the wise for parents thinking of bringing a child to Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting: mention “share repurchases” and you lose the crowd.

So why did I drag my son Isaac to Berkshire’s 2022 annual meeting? As Warren Buffett pointed out, he and his partner Charlie Munger are a combined 190 years old, so there may not be many more opportunities to see them in the flesh. (Full disclosure: this is what I said to myself in 2006 when I attended the meeting after buying a single B share.)

Nevertheless, Buffett, Munger, and Berkshire have been inspirations to me, and I wanted to expose my son to their wisdom, values, and humour. It was also something of a makeup for a spring break road trip derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Avoid the stupid and evil

Isaac and I spent the eight-hour drive from Chicago admiring the topography and discussing the time value of money. All right, if I’m honest, Isaac tuned out my investment lectures and will remember the journey for Dr Pepper, Casey’s gas station pizza (surprisingly tasty), Lemony Snicket audio books, and the Iowa radio station playing Olivia Rodrigo. We spent much of our time at Omaha’s CHI Health Center with Dairy Queen Dilly Bars and the NetJets flight simulator.

Few kids are like Buffett, who fell in love with stocks at age 11. Isaac completed seven games of Retro Bowl on his new iPhone during the meeting. But there were sparks of interest. He even guffawed when Buffett, after speaking at length, said: “That’s a short answer to a question I can’t remember.”

He was also appropriately shocked by Munger’s views on cryptocurrency: “in my life, I try to avoid things that are stupid, evil, and make me look bad in comparison with someone else.”

Predictably, Isaac responded to his mother’s questions about the experience with “good,” “fine,” and “I dunno.” Here are five lessons I hope he took away though.

Do the right thing

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Before Buffett, Munger and their successors took the stage for a Q&A, a short film played with commercials for Berkshire businesses (the Geico gecko, Brooks shoes, and Helzberg Diamonds were slightly more interesting to a 12-year-old than MidAmerican Energy), interspersed with self-deprecating skits starring the nonagenarian billionaires.

Also shown was Warren Buffett’s 1991 congressional testimony as interim CEO at Salomon Brothers. He famously asked Salomon employees to never do anything they would be embarrassed to see in tomorrow’s newspaper. “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless,” was his message.

Mistakes are forgivable, then; unethical behaviour is not. Throughout the meeting, Buffett stressed “partnership” with Berkshire’s 3.5 million shareholders. "We are honoured by your trust,” he said.

Ethics are also fundamental to Berkshire’s success. Business owners want to sell to Berkshire because they know they’ll get a fair shake. “Write your obituary and reverse engineer it” are indeed words to live by.

Safety comes first

Buffett talked about the importance of a cash cushion. Not volatile or potentially hard-to-sell investments, not crypto—which is worth what someone else is willing to pay—but cold hard cash prepares Berkshire’s insurance operations for any eventuality.

Cash allowed Berkshire to move decisively to snap up distressed assets sold by less-conservative sellers in the 2008 financial crisis. Isaac’s favorite Buffettism: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Emergency funds, seat belts, life jackets – you don’t appreciate them until you need them. Once you have enough cash on hand, you invest. Deferring immediate consumption to build for the future is a responsible thing to do.

Luck = preparation+opportunity

In telling the story of how Berkshire acquired Alleghany Insurance in the first quarter of 2022, Buffett said he had been following the company for 60 years, reading their annual reports, studying the company, and so on. When Alleghany management was finally interested in selling, Berkshire acted decisively. It’s hard for a 12-year-old, or anyone, to grasp reading decades of annual reports just in case. But achievement must be worked for and it doesn’t come overnight. “The most important investment you can make is in yourself,” Buffett has said. The best defence against inflation, according to Buffett: “you develop the skills that people are willing to pay for.” Continuous education and self-improvement are routes to both financial success and personal fulfillment.

Don’t follow the crowd

One of Isaac’s favourite moments was when a college student asked how she might discover her calling. Munger’s response can be useful: “Figure out what you are bad at and avoid all of it.” It’s a mental model known as inversion, and just one example of the unconventional thinking that powers Berkshire. In a culture of VIPs, Buffett treats all shareholders equally. In a world awash in jargon, Buffett writes a shareholder letter his sister can understand.

In an era of shrinking attention spans, Buffett and Munger are a study in patience. Their favourite metaphor for the power of time: “Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill.” Buffett gives hope for all of us when he says success is less about IQ than behaviour. “To be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful” is the ultimate motto for the independent thinker.

The future is uncertain

Some assume the “Oracle of Omaha” spends the meeting staring into a crystal ball. But Buffett and Munger repeatedly insist they have no idea what the future holds. Market crashes, recessions, natural disasters, and unnatural disasters all happen. Studying history is crucial. But nothing is the same the second time around.

When asked for his views on inflation, Buffett said: "people write a textbook based on the last experience; people read the textbook; so they behave differently; and they wonder why they get a different result.”

“Knowns unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” are part of life. Preparing for a range of scenarios is eminently sensible, and calculated risks must be taken. Diversification is known as “the only free lunch in investing,” but it makes just as much sense when it comes to diet, friendships, college applications, and so on.

Buffett and Munger aren’t gods. They are not to be admired just because they’re rich. The 40,000 shareholders who descend upon Omaha aren’t there for stock tips, recession forecasts, or secret moneymaking formulas. We might not agree with Buffett and Munger on everything, but exposure to and respect for different viewpoints shouldn’t be avoided. We come to learn and to laugh.

“You two have brought tremendous joy to all of us through the years,” started one shareholder questioner. Before he went on to offer a theory for how Berkshire times share repurchases that Buffett dismissed as overly formulaic, Munger interrupted with: “Now that’s my kind of question ... maybe you could sing it.” My son could do worse than emulate those two.

Dan Lefkowitz is a market strategist for Morningstar Indexes, and was formerly director of manager research services

is strategist for Morningstar’s Indexes group.

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