As a long-time student of Charlie Munger, I eagerly wait for his musings at the Daily Journal Shareholders Meeting every year. This time was no different! Here are some of my notes capturing Charlie’s wisdom at the DJCO 2023 meeting:
- Importance of under-served markets in software
Both Munger & Buffet are big believers in moats. Having witnessed the natural creative destruction of even the best companies like Kodak & Xerox, they understand the power of competition & what it can do to long term returns of investors.
Munger spoke about how the software business of DJCO, which offers a solution to automate legal courts, is operating in a large yet unaddressed market that incumbent software companies hate. It’s an unsexy business that has long sales cycles & as Munger himself said – “it will be a long grind”.
However, these same reasons also limit competition in the space. Munger believes that this combination of a large, underserved TAM + low competition is likely to drive superior long-term returns, as long as DJCO shareholders are prepared to ride through the grind & hold over the long term.
In my view, this idea also has some interesting insights for venture investors in the enterprise software/ SaaS space. Too often, investors start chasing the hot market of the year without realizing that a space that is obviously popular will end up attracting disproportionate competition & investor $$. And as history shows us, too much competition in a market drives down returns for everyone.
Therefore, there is some merit in looking at startups going after unsexy or under-served verticals. These non-obvious nooks & crannies often hold the most potential for contrarian-and-right bets.
2. Holding is tax-efficient
Munger spoke about how he hates to sell his holdings as California would straight-up take 40% away in taxes. As he went on a brief rant about how California is driving businesses away with its tax policies, the underlying insight stayed with me – how holding securities over the long term is a brilliant strategy for tax efficiency. A simple rule that anyone from Berkshire & DJCO to common folks like you and me can follow in our lives.
As the likes of Robinhood have leveraged the excess liquidity environment over the last several years to create a generation of young day traders, many of them don’t realize how tax-inefficient frequent trading is.
3. #1 bias is denial
When asked what the #1 behavioral bias is, Munger said “denial”. And it’s so true. Often times, when the present reality is too brutal to bear, our brain tricks us into living in a delusion. While this stems from an evolutionary survival mechanism our brains have developed, taking major decisions under this denial state can cause havoc in our lives.
Proactively trying to see & live in one’s reality at any point in time is the best way to behave rationally. If one thinks of all of grandma’s wisdom handed down to us in popular sayings (eg. “live within your means”), they all urge us to recognize & live within our own realities.
4. Betting big when the right opportunity knocks
I loved this sentence from Munger – “What % of your networth should you put in a stock if it’s an absolute cinch? The answer is 100%”.
While I am positive that Charlie wouldn’t like this to be construed as a stance against diversification, which is important for almost all portfolios in varying degrees, the spirit of this sentence is this – a few times in your life, you will come across a no-brainer opportunity with massive asymmetric upside. It will happen very infrequently, but when it knocks on your door & you are convinced about it, go all in & bet really big. Over a lifetime, these bets will drive the majority of your returns, financial or otherwise.
If there is one thing that separates the likes of Buffet & Munger from other investors, it’s the mindset of betting really big when the odds are extraordinarily in your favor. During the meeting, Munger mentioned how Ben Graham made 50% of his money from just 1 stock – GEICO. Also, he illustrated the importance of power laws by sharing how Berkshire’s initial $270Mn investment in BYD (made in 2008) is now worth $8Bn!
PS: I have previously riffed on this idea in my post ‘Only need to get a few right‘.
5. On using leverage
Munger admitted to having used leverage to buy Alibaba stock in the DJCO portfolio. When asked why he violated his own rule (his famous quote being “there are only 3 ways a smart person can go broke – liquor, ladies & leverage”), Munger responded with another fascinating quote:
The young man knows the rules. The old man knows the exceptions.Charlie Munger
The insight behind this is something I say a lot – context is everything! Rules & checklists are great for driving overall discipline & avoiding foolish behavior but as Munger demonstrates, it’s not wise to become a prisoner of your own rules. With experience, one should learn to spot exceptions & when the context is favorable, be bold enough to break the rules.
6. On long-term economic trends
While both Munger & Buffet generally hate to predict macro trends, Charlie mentioned a few interesting observations:
-Inflation is here to stay over the long run, given most democratic govts. globally have shown an ever-increasing inclination to print money.
-Most govts. across the world are going to be increasingly anti-business, with tax rates steadily going up.
-If one looks at economic history, the best way to grow GDP per capita is to have property in private hands & make exchange easy so economic transactions happen (the essence of capitalism).
If these trends are even directionally true, it makes sense to hold assets that can fight inflation (eg. stocks), as well as invest in a tax-efficient way, over the long term. Developing an investor mindset that can operate in a high-inflation environment will be important.
7. The playbook for success in life – Rationality + Patience + Deferred Gratification
When asked the thing that’s helped him the most in life, Munger said – rationality! Loved this line from him:
If you are constantly not crazy, you have a huge advantage over 90% of people.Charlie Munger
To significantly improve the odds in your favor, Munger prescribes combining 3 things:
-Rationality (which is often, just doing the obvious)
-Patience (take advantage of compounding)
-Deferred gratification (live within means, save & invest)
Like most things Munger says, the above ideas are simple & profound, yet hard to consistently follow for most people as their biases come in the way.
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