Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Munger on Economics

In honor of Berkshire Hathaway's recent meeting, here is a 2003 speech Charlie Munger gave in California: [warning: PDF file]


Here's a fun snippet:

I think that economists would be way better off if they paid more attention to Einstein and Sharon Stone. Well, Einstein is easy because Einstein is famous for saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no more simple.” Now, the saying is a tautology, but it’s very useful, and some economist – it may have been Herb Stein – had a similar tautological saying that I dearly love: “If a thing can’t go on forever, it will eventually stop.”

Sharon Stone contributed to the subject because someone once asked her if she was bothered by penis envy. And she said, “absolutely not, I have more trouble than I can handle with what I’ve got.”

Also, Munger saw our financial problems well in advance:

[Question]: …financial destruction from trading of derivative contracts. Buffett said that the genie’s out of the bottle and the hangover may be proportionate to the binge. Would you speculate for us how that scenario can play out? [The question was garbled, but the person asked about derivatives, which Buffett has called “financial weapons of mass destruction.”]

Munger: Well, of course, catastrophe predictions have always been quite difficult to make with success. But I confidently predict that there are big troubles to come. The system is almost insanely irresponsible. And what people think are fixes aren’t really fixes. It’s so complicated I can’t do it justice here – but you can’t believe the trillions of dollars involved. You can’t believe the complexity. You can’t believe how difficult it is to do the accounting. You can’t believe how big the incentives are to have wishful thinking about values, and wishful thinking about ability to clear.

Running off derivative book is agony and takes time. And you saw what happened when they tried to run off the derivative books at Enron. Its certified net worth vanished. In the derivative books of America there are a lot of reported profits that were never earned and assets that never existed.

If you're interested, my review of Munger's 2008 shareholder meeting is here.

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