February 8, 2009

Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Bill Gates, philanthropist and Chairman of Microsoft, was in the news earlier this week for opening and releasing a jar of mosquitoes (malaria-free) in front of audience members at the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference. Mr. Gates, who now devotes much of his time and energy to the worthwhile Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was spreading the word on the problems of malaria in the world's less affluent countries. During the presentation, Gates playfully said "I brought some. Here, I'll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected."

Reading about Bill Gates made me think of his good friend Warren Buffett, the well-known investor and Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway based in Omaha, Nebraska. Buffett was identified as the world's richest person by Forbes in 2008, with an estimated net worth of 62 billion dollars. It is important to understand that Warren Buffett has pledged to give 85% of his Berkshire stock wealth to charity, with most of the shares being placed into the trustworthy hands of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The same Forbes article noted "The Oracle of Omaha issued a challenge to members of The Forbes 400 in October; said he would donate $1 million to charity if the collective group of richest Americans would admit they pay less taxes, as a percentage of income, than their secretaries." This gentleman is truly interesting.

To learn more about the respected investor, pick-up a copy of "The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life", a clear and detailed biography written by Alice Schroeder. Pound for pound...weighing in at 976 pages and approximately 3.5 pounds, it's amazing how much wisdom this book packs. For years we have been boring artist friends, colleagues, and even family members with talk of being aware of the dangers of debt, conspicuous consumption and the pursuit of "cool". But introducing otherwise nice and intelligent people to the ideas of "earn, earn, earn", and "save, save, save" always seems to be a losing battle. Following are several excerpts from Mr. Buffett's biography.

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"Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful."

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"In the National Guard, at first, the guys were very suspicious of me because my dad was in Congress. They thought I was going to be some kind of prima donna or something. But that didn't last long.

"It's a very democratic organization. I mean, what you do outside doesn't mean much. To fit in, all you had to do was be willing to read comic books. About an hour after I got there, I was reading comic books. Everybody else was reading comic books, why shouldn't I? My vocabulary shrank to about four words, and you can guess what they were.

"I learned that it pays to hang around with people better than you are, because you will float upward a little bit. And if you hang around with people that behave worse than you, pretty soon you'll start sliding down the pole. It just works that way."

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"I love it," he says. "When I'm around the country club, and I hear people talk about the debilitating aspects of a welfare cycle, where some woman had a child at seventeen, and she gets food stamps, and we're perpetuating a cycle of dependency. And these same people are leaving their kids a lifetime supply of food stamps and beyond. But instead of leaving a welfare officer, they have a trust fund officer. And instead of having food stamps, they have stocks and bonds that pay dividends."

"My kids are going to carve out their own place in the world and they know that I'm for them, whatever they want to do," Buffett said. But "just because they came out of the right womb," setting them up with a trust fund - which he considered "a lifetime supply of food stamps" - could be "harmful" and an "antisocial act." 

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The workers asked for severance above their contract guarantee and got a couple of months' extra pay. They wanted to see Buffett to discuss it with him. He said no. They thought he was heartless. Probably, he couldn't face them.

Through no fault of their own, they were in a position of being a horse when the tractor arrived. The free market did them in. If you're fifty-five and you speak Portuguese, and you've been working on a loom for thirty years and your hearing is shot, you've had it. And there wasn't any answer. When you talk about retraining people - it's not like they'll all go become computer technicians by taking junior-college courses or something like that.

The market isn't perfect. You can't rely on the market to give every single person a decent living.

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Buffett scorned the way these deals transferred riches from shareholders to managers and corporate raiders, helped by a long, long line of toll-taking bankers, brokers, and lawyers. "We don't do hostile takeovers," he said. The deals of the 1980s repelled him above all because they were loaded with debt. To those reared during the Depression, debt was something to be used only with a careful eye for the worst-case scenario. In the 1980s, however, debt became mere "leverage," a way of boosting profits using borrowed money. "Leverage" arrived at the same time that the U.S. government began running large deficits courtesy of "Reaganomics" - the supply-side" idea that cutting taxes would ultimately increase tax revenues by stoking the economy. Fierce debates raged among economists over whether tax cuts could actually pay for themselves and, if so, by how much. The economy was heating up at the time from consumer spending, also fueled by debt; John and Jane Q. Public had gradually been accustoming themselves to buying everything with credit cards, building up a balance that they would never pay off until from their plastic death did them part. The Depression-era culture of hoarding and saving had turned turtle, into a culture of buy now, pay later.

In a lengthy but kindly worded reply,  Buffett said no. He quoted Munger's saying that liquor, drugs, and debt are the main things that cause "smart fellows to go astray." Borrowing the down payment for a house, he said, provided no margin of safety.

Buffett had a mixed view of Reagan as president. He admired Reagan's handling of geopolitics. However, under Reagan the United States went from being the world's largest lender to its largest borrower. Just as junk bonds and leverage were ballooning on Wall Street, the government had been running up mountains of debt - which Buffett considered the Wimpy style of economics: I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. Buffett's style was to own the cattle ranch - and he had the balance sheet to prove it.

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Buffett had told his children, "It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."

Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.

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When his turn in the conversation came, Bill Gates said, "Shouldn't the measure of accomplishment be how many lives you can save with a given amount of money?" He agreed with Buffett that you had to make the money first in order to have the money to give away. But as soon as he had made a certain amount, Gates said, he was going to use it to save more lives in the present, by giving most of it away.

There is a carrying capacity to the earth. It's far, far, far, far, far greater than [Thomas] Malthus ever dreamed. On the other hand, there is some carrying capacity; and the one thing about carrying capacity is that you want to err on the low side....It's very hard to argue that the earth would be better off in terms of average happiness or livelihood with twelve billion people instead of six. There is a limit, and if you don't know what that limit is, you're better off erring on the safe side. It's a margin of safety approach for the survival of the earth.

Buffett had been especially moved by the logic of Garrett Hardin, whose 1968 article "The Tragedy of the Commons" laid out the way that people who have no ownership stake in common goods - the air, the seas - overuse and destroy them.

But that night, during the Cantonese dinner, his mind obviously flashing to the implications of the Ovarian Lottery, he said, "There could have been another Bill Gates among those men pulling our boat. They were born here, and they were destined to spend their lives tugging those boats the way they did ours. They didn't have a chance. It was pure luck that we had a shot at the brass ring.

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"Never," he said, when asked if it bothered him when people called him a has-been. "Nothing bothers me like that. You can't do well in investing unless you think independently. And the truth is, you are neither right nor wrong because people agree with you. You're right because your facts and reasoning are right. In the end, that's what counts."

"People ask me where they should go to work, and I always tell them to go to work for whom they admire the most," he said. He urged them not to waste their time and their life. "It's crazy to take little in-between jobs just because they look good on your resume. That's like saving sex for your old age. Do what you love and work for whom you admire the most, and you've given yourself the best chance in life you can."

To the students, he explained his "Twenty Punches" approach to investing. "You'd get very rich," he said, "if you thought of yourself as having a card with only twenty punches in a lifetime, and every financial decision used up one punch. You'd resist the temptation to dabble. You'd make more good decisions and you'd make more big decisions."

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He pointed out a growing army of hush-puppies and tax panderers whose job was to push for legislation that benefited the interests of the rich. He said, however, that nobody lobbied for the other ninety-eight percent of Americans. Lacking their own lobbyists, the best redress for the ninety-eight percent was to understand what was going on and quit voting for people who enacted laws that took taxes out of the average person's pockets so the rich could pay a lower share.

"Wealth is just a bunch of claim checks on the activities of others in the future. You can use the wealth in any way you want to. You can cash it in or give it away. But the idea of passing wealth from generation to generation so that hundreds of your descendants can command the resources of other people simply because they came from the right womb flies in the face of a meritocratic society."

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had grown since its establishment in 2000 to a multibillion-dollar philanthropy. Gates said that 4.2 billion people in the world, most of the earth's population, made less than $2 a day. Yet each of their lives was worth as much as any American's. These people lived in the here and now, not in some generation far in the future.

"Bill Gates is the most rational guy around in terms of his foundation. He and Melinda are saving more lives in terms of dollars spent than anyone else. They've worked enormously hard on it. He thinks extremely well. He reads thousands of pages a year on philanthropy and health care. You couldn't have two better people running things.

"They had done incredible work, they've thought it through, their values are right, their logic is right."

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"I packed my little snowball very early, and if I had packed it ten years later, it would have been way different than where it stands on the hill right now. So I recommend to students that if you start out a little ahead of the game - it doesn't have to be a lot, but it's  so much better than starting out behind the game. And credit cards really get you behind the game."

"The purpose of life is to be loved by as many people as possible among those you want to have love you."

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