Charlie Munger is an amazing investor and Warren Buffett’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway. He recently gave an interview to CalTech alumni that has a lot to teach us about investing. There were many insights for investors in that interview, but I want to focus on one segment, where a viewer asks Charlie:
“How would you encourage mentees to take big bets on big edges, and how should this be taught at CalTech?”
To which Charlie Munger replied:
“I don’t think CalTech can make great investors out of most people. That’s because to some extent they are like great chess players – they are almost born to be investors.
Obviously you have to know a lot. But partly it is temperament. Partly it’s deferred gratification. You have to be willing to wait.
Good investing requires a weird combination of patience and aggression. And not many people have it.
It also requires a big amount of self-awareness about how much you know and how much you don’t know. You have to know the edge of your own competence.”
Let’s deconstruct Charlie’s response:
1. Some people are born to be investors – Charlie is pointing out that not everything can be learned in investing. Yes, you can read all the great investing books out there. And you should. You can study all the prior great investors. And you should. However, that is necessary but not sufficient. You also need certain qualities that some people have and others… just don’t.
2. Temperament – What are these qualities? Well, it’s best described as temperament. What does that mean? Imagine a scenario where everything is going wrong for you as an investor. The stock market is marking your investments way down. Your peers disagree with you. Your clients are starting to doubt you. You haven’t had a good year in the market in some time. Can you still stick to your well-reasoned investment process? Or will you fall apart and give in to the pain and start to deviate in order to try to catch up sooner rather than later?
3. Patience – It seems so simple. Just do nothing when there is nothing worth doing. And yet, this seems so elusive to most investors. They convince themselves, or are convinced by others, that if only they were smart enough, work hard enough, that there is always something intelligent to do. So they slide down the slippery slope of “good enough.” Each compromise seems minor, or not a compromise at all, but eventually they are well down-hill from the commanding heights of investing discipline that they had aspired to.
4. Aggression – Despite all their activity when patience is required, when it is actually time to act, most investors are… not active enough! I remember Peter Lynch coming in to give a talk to Fidelity portfolio managers and analysts early in my career, circa 20 years ago. He told the audience that when they find a great idea they should, triple-, quadruple-weight it. Not just have a small “overweight” position vs. their benchmark. There was silence. Nobody disagreed with the legendary investor. And yet when the portfolio managers went back to their offices the next day, I didn’t observe anyone change their approach or their portfolios, which typically contained hundreds of small, individually-insignificant investments.
5. Self-awareness about the edge of your own competence – Knowing the edge of your circle of competence is crucial as an investor. If you are not sure if something is within it, the answer is simple: it’s not. The penalty for waiting in investing is low, as long as you are aggressively pursuing the few great investment opportunities that you encounter. And yet so many try to answer hard questions that as an investor they should be leaving in the “too tough” pile and moving on. If that’s not overconfidence bias in action, I don’t know what is.
Charlie Munger has given us plenty of insights on investing before. To stay rational. To appreciate a company’s quality, not just the statistical cheapness of the stock. To pay attention to the acumen and integrity of the management team.
In the end, none of these are enough to make us good investors if we cannot do two simple, but not easy, things well when it’s most difficult to actually do them. To be patient when there is nothing to do, and to be very aggressive on the rare occasions that the stars align and there is a great investment to be made.
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