Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wesco Shareholder Meeting, May 7, 2008

Charlie Munger and myself

Charlie Munger and myself

President Jimmy Carter

If you're a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder, you know about Charlie Munger, the quick-witted lawyer who sits next to Warren Buffett and usually makes a brief comment that encapsulates in five seconds what Warren just took about three minutes explaining. Mr. Munger has his own company, Wesco (WSC), a subsidiary of Berkshire. To attend the meeting, which takes place after the Berkshire Hathaway meeting in Omaha, you can buy individual shares of WSC, or your ownership of Berkshire Hathaway automatically entitles you to admission. After going to the Berkshire meeting in Omaha, many fans, especially money managers, come to Pasadena, CA to hear Charlie speak. I saw so many money managers and dapper suits, I felt out of place with my jeans and more casual wear. The entire meeting, before it starts, really seems like one big networking event.

This year, the event took place at a special tent set up in the Pasadena Convention Center, about 25 minutes from Burbank Airport, the closest airport to Pasadena. Pasadena is a clean, diverse city that hosts the famous Rose Bowl and Rose Parade. I enjoyed walking around the older downtown area, i.e. the Old Pasadena section, which has several independent stores and old churches. While there, I discovered that President Jimmy Carter would be appearing at Vroman's bookstore to sign his new book about his mother. My friend bought a book, which came with two entrance tickets to see President Carter.

The meeting itself lasted about three and a half hours. Refreshments were basic--just coffee, some lemon bars, and some unsavory cookies. Mr. Munger had some interesting quotes, as always, in his version of "Socratic solitaire":

My favorite: "There will be a lot of chicanery in the new world."

We should expect returns of around 4 to 5% annually in the near future.

When talking about the overbuying of homes, which led to the bubble in housing prices, and the subprime mess, Mr. Munger talked about how investment "activities rely on momentum from self-fulfilling prophecies" and blamed greed, envy, and terrible accounting. Munger's fans were delighted when they heard, "Include me out," a favorite Mungerism.

Mr. Munger told a delightful story about keeping the big picture in mind and being willing to buck conventional thought. He talked about a boy in mathematics class who had to answer the question, "How many sheep are left in the pen when the gate is open and one leaves out of the ten?" The entire class told the teacher, "nine." One student, Billy, said, "ten." "Poor Billy," said the teacher, "you just don't understand math, do you?" Billy said, "No teacher, you don't understand sheep." That story got some uproarious laughs from the crowd.

"In accounting, liabilities are 100% good. It's the assets you have to worry about."

"Greenspan overdosed on Ayn Rand."

Those were some of the highlights of the day. Overall, it was fun listening to Munger speak, and I bought his book, Poor Charlies Almanack. Mr. Munger signed it and took a picture with me.

Afterwards, my friend and I went to see President Carter at Vroman's. Secret Service ushered everyone along very quickly, and people who wanted to take pictures could only do so for a few seconds before being told to move on. President Carter looked healthy and vibrant, and it was fun being in the presence of a former U.S. President, even if only very briefly. One tip: you cannot put your hand in your pocket anywhere near the President. I put my hand in my pocket to take out my camera, and was approached by two Secret Service agents almost immediately, who backed off only when they saw the camera.

I was exhausted when I returned to the airport the same day to head back to San Jose, but all in all, it was a pleasant experience, and one I would do again.

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