Our Money Narratives

As described in our review of Silver Spoon Kids, the following are the individual “Money Narratives” for the Wolf and I, as well as our thoughts on a new “Money Narrative” for our own immediate family. The book recommends constructing these stories based upon reflections from asking the following types of questions:

  • What is your earliest money memory (ie, the first important purchase you made)?
  • What did you learn from your father/mother about money?
  • What are some of your family stories about money (ie, the time grandpa was really cheap, or your aunt made a ridiculous purchase)?
  • What kind of financial education did you receive growing up?
  • What were the big emotional issues around money in your family?

The Lion’s Money Narrative

Looking back on my childhood, I find myself puzzled by my family’s simultaneous desires to acquire money and wealth while desiring that it not change them in any meaningful way. What good is striving after money if you’ll live your life essentially the same way with it as you would without it (maybe plus a bigger, nicer house, a fancier car and a more comfortable vacation experience)? We didn’t spend a lot of time openly talking about money in our family, and when others noticed our wealth, it was an uncomfortable and sore subject. I remember being bullied for being “rich” in grade school which confused me at the time because I wore the same clothes and ate the same lunch and rode the same kinds of bikes that other kids at school did. And it hurt because I didn’t think it was true (we never used that word to describe ourselves inside the family) and I didn’t think I had any control over it– why persecute me for something my parents did?

It’s all the more confusing to think of where those kids came up with it. They must have heard it from their parents. And their parents must’ve interacted with my parents and somehow, despite my parents trying not to let their success change them noticeably, it did. When I shared the fact that I was being bullied, I remember being told, “We’re not rich, we’re just well off. And it’s none of their business.” Not very helpful advice for a young child dealing with these social issues! I learned a few things from that experience: that money could be dangerous even if you weren’t “rich”, and that even if I or my family were “rich”, I didn’t deserve it and was a worse person for having it. As an adult, that lesson has lingered and I’ve struggled at times with a sense of being happy with what I have, whether that’s been a lot or a little or something in between!

A positive aspect of wealth that I learned from observing my parents is that it can be used to help others. We’ve helped out friends and family members when they’ve found themselves in a tight place. And while we’ve enjoyed many nice vacations, a good fraction of those included friends or relatives joining us at family expense. It has informed my own sense as an adult that if I have the capability to provide for others with less in some situation, I can do that without either party making “a thing” of it and instead just focusing on the opportunity for mutual enjoyment.

Sadly, I did not get much financial instruction growing up. I observed my parents being budget-conscious and balancing a checkbook back when that was something you had to do (they still do this although I’ve encouraged them to set up an electronic account management system many times) as well as reviewing utility and credit card bills to ensure there were no erroneous charges. But aside from having my own bank account to collect gift monies and being encouraged to operate lemonade-and-cookie stands or hold summer jobs as a youngster, I wasn’t taught much about how to make money or how to manage investments. Looking back on it, I don’t think my parents had anything to teach. My dad got swept up in the excitement of the Tech Boom in the late 90’s and I remember him coming home one day crowing about the wild price action in his AOL stock, and then coming home dejected the following week when it had just as unexpectedly crashed. I would watch Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser on PBS on Friday nights with my dad, but we never talked about it and I didn’t fully understand what they were discussing on the show or what the stock market was. I didn’t realize I could invest in stocks on my own until well into college when I discovered the works of Benjamin Graham, somehow without ever hearing about Warren Buffett! Certainly no one ever sat me down and taught me the wonders of compound interest and the importance of getting an early start for a lifetime of successful investing.

And the greatest single source of wealth in our family, our privately owned business, was considered a taboo subject for dinner table discussion because my mom didn’t want her children to feel pressured to be a part of it. Conflicted is definitely a polite way of putting our family’s relationship with money, although on the whole I seem to have picked up a few healthy attitudes and habits because I’m a big saver, abhor the use of debt and credit and have no misgivings about money growing on trees or magically replenishing itself with use.

The Wolf’s Money Narrative (as transcribed by the Lion)

Part of my family’s culture involves exchanging red envelopes full of money on special holidays or in recognition of significant life events. My earliest memories of money are receiving lots and lots of these envelopes, so much so that they filled up an old Swiss milk chocolate candy jug I used to contain them and overflowed the brim! I didn’t understand why I was getting this money or what it was for but I wasn’t going to complain. I mostly just saved the money because I received so much more than I had wants or needs despite growing up humbly.

I learned from my mother that money is not for spending. You work really hard, you earn a lot of money, save it all, don’t spend it, don’t enjoy life. Money is hard to come by. I learned from my father you work really hard, you don’t earn a lot of money, you don’t spend it, and you don’t enjoy life. And that’s not what he told me, that’s what I gathered from observing him. And you let your wife or the smarter person of the couple manage it for you.

Everyone in my family worked really hard, but none of them made enough to feel satisfied. They never explained how much they’d have to make to feel satisfied. And they didn’t seem to have time to enjoy their money anyway because they were always working too hard trying to get more of it!

Money was not a numerical, quantitative thing, it was just some abstract concept.

I spent all of my red envelope money on totally inconsequential things once I realized I had the ability to spend money as a teenager. I didn’t think about what I needed, I just thought “I have money, I guess I’ll spend it”. I wasn’t a conscious spender. My parents never taught me anything, so I just followed my impulses. I didn’t know what we were hoarding money for so I figured I’d just spend it. I wish someone had told me what money could be used for so I could’ve been more thoughtful about the way I decided to spend it back then!

Some things I admired about my family’s attitude toward money is that they saved it. It takes a lot of discipline to save money and not to take vacations or be tempted by material things. The only unethical thing about money I remember is that my uncle gambled a lot of money and this was embarrassing for the family. It was considered wasteful. It was taking risks but not on a sure thing. Tempting fate. Casinos are not seen as having honor and integrity, so it’s frowned upon to be seen there.

I had an accounting class in middle school, but I didn’t learn budgeting until I got married and the Lion taught me. He was also the one who taught me about retirement savings, IRAs and investing.

One big emotional issue about money growing up was that I learned my extended family helped pay for my college education so I wouldn’t have debt. It was very touching and as a result I feel obligated to return the favor by treating elder family members to meals and travel.

When I think about my own affluence, I think “What affluence?” It’s hard to view our position as actually mine, that it doesn’t really belong to me because my husband is the breadwinner and I am the homemaker. That being said,  I feel good about it, I feel lucky. I feel like I’ve come a long way. It’s a privilege to not have to worry about money and feel taken care of. That is not the way I remember growing up in terms of money.

Our New Money Narrative

We want to demystify money in our family and treat it with transparency. We also don’t want to fool ourselves or others about what money means to us, how we acquire it, how much we have and what we plan to do with it. Our plan is to talk about money early and often with our children and as much as possible find age appropriate ways to include them in family money management.

Just as we find activities for our Little Lion to contribute to the household well being, often tasks he himself comes up with after observing us, such as sorting laundry piles, sweeping the floors, assisting with meal prep and clean up, etc., we will look for ways he can be part of our money economy in the family.

At the present stage, when we buy something we let him hand over the means of payment and sign any receipts as necessary, so he understands that to get goods and services from others we have to pay for them. As our children grow, we will include them in dinner conversations about how work is going and where we stand on our budgeting. When it’s appropriate to provide them with an allowance, we’ll introduce them to the concept of budgeting and help them to develop ideas about how they can generate their own income beyond their allowance. We’ll also talk about savings and delayed gratification and the power of compound interest over time to help them conceptualize the tradeoff between some now or more later.

As a family that plans to homeschool, we’re particularly interested in the ways we can integrate math and financial literacy into real life activities. Grandma Wolf has a seasonal baked good distribution business and we look forward to sending the Little Lion to be a (paid) apprentice on her route from time-to-time, learning about marketing and customer service, costing and profit calculation and the value of a hard day’s work. We’ve also thought ahead about stock investing and portfolio management for an enterprising youngster with savings. We see no reason why our children can’t learn about investment selection and management in their adolescence and be in a position by their teenage years to fully research and manage their own portfolio of business interests. This is also appealing because it’s a way for our children to “follow their parents” into an activity and one where we can model the behaviors because we’re doing them ourselves.

We don’t want to give our children the impression there is anything shameful about having money, getting money or talking about money (or even wanting it!) We also don’t want to give our children the impression that simply having money or being able to get it makes a person valuable by itself. Life is complex and money is just one means and one end to be sought in a productive, interdependent life. That being said, we intend to have honest and frank discussions with our children about why some people have a lot more than others and why some people have a lot less– and the answer is not just “luck.” This may seem controversial or a way to invite social problems with children struggling to understand the nuances of life, but we see no way around acknowledging these fundamental realities. Some people are poor for a reason and some people are massively wealthy for a reason.

We are also giving great consideration to the concept of “philanthropy” versus “charity” in our family values surrounding money and wealth. We’re skeptics of “charity” generally and our children will not see us shipping checks to everyone who comes begging or has an emotional story to tell while we pat ourselves on the backs and feel good regardless of impact and outcomes. They also won’t get the impression that we feel guilty or a need to “give back”, or that giving away or gifting money is the only way to make contributions to their community or humanity. If “philanthropy” really does entail any act or service that makes the world a better place to live for everyone, then we will help our children to understand that being the best people they can be, putting their talents to their best use and living lives of principled striving for their conception of the good are all philanthropic endeavors that make the world better off, as also are donating to public and private causes they feel passionate about, serving in leadership roles in public and private life, giving their time and physical presence to various organizations and efforts and so on.

In summary, we want to raise our children with an awareness of money and wealth, a desire to make their own contribution to the family’s stores of value in their various forms, and with confidence that they can make their own contribution through their thinking and efforts. And with this stable foundation and sense of themselves, we want to see them go out boldly into the world around them, wherever that might be, and help others to build wealth and security of their own.

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Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part V, Chap. 43-52

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder (buy on Amazon.com). This post covers Part V: The King of Wall Street, Chap. 43-52

The modern Buffett

In Part V of the Snowball, we see Buffett’s transformation from the early, cigar butt-picking, Grahamian value-minded Buffett, through the filter of his Fisherite partner, Charlie Munger, into the mega cap conglomerator and franchise-buyer Buffett who is popularly known to investors and the public the world round.

It is in this part that we also see Buffett make one of his biggest missteps, a stumble which almost turns into a fall and which either way appears to shock and humble the maturing Buffett. It is in this era of his investing life that we see Buffett make some of his biggest rationalizations, become entangled in numerous scandals he never would’ve tolerated in his past and dive ever deeper into the world of “elephant bumping” and gross philanthropy, partly under the tutelage of his new best friend and Microsoft-founder, Bill Gates.

The lesson

Buffett made a series of poor investments but ultimately survived them all because of MoS. There will be challenges, struggles, and stress. But after the storm, comes the calm.

The keys to the fortress

From the late seventies until the late nineties, despite numerous economic and financial cycles Buffett’s fortune grew relentlessly under a seemingly unstoppable torrent of new capital:

Much of the money used for Buffett’s late seventies spending spree came from a bonanza of float from insurance and trading stamps

This “float” (negative working capital which was paid to Buffett’s companies in advance of services rendered, which he was able to invest at a profit in the meantime) was market agnostic, meaning that its volume was not much affected by the financial market booming or crashing. For example, if you owe premiums on your homeowner’s insurance, you don’t get to suspend payment on your coverage just because the Dow Jones has sold off or the economy is officially in a recession.

The growth in Buffett’s fortune, the wilting of his family

Between 1978 and the end of 1983, the Buffetts’ net worth had increased by a stunning amount, from $89 million to $680 million

Meanwhile Buffett proves he’s ever the worthless parent:

he handed the kids their Berkshire stock without stressing how important it might be to them someday, explaining compounding, or mentioning that they could borrow against the stock without selling it

Buffett had once written to a friend when his children were toddlers that he wanted to see “what the tree has produced” before deciding what to do about giving them money

(he didn’t actively parent though)

Buffett’s private equity shop

Another tool in Buffett’s investment arsenal was to purchase small private companies with dominant franchises and little need for capital reinvestment whose excess earnings could be siphoned off and used to make other investments in the public financial markets.

Continuing on with his success in acquiring the See’s Candy company, Buffett’s next private equity-style buyout involved the Nebraska Furniture Mart, run by a devoted Russian immigrant named Rose Blumkin and her family. And, much like the department store chain he once bought for a song from an emotionally-motivated seller, Buffett beat out a German group offering Rose Blumkin over $90M for her company, instead settling with Buffett on $55M for 90% of the company, quite a discount for a “fair valuation” of practically an entire business in the private market, especially considering the competing bid.

An audit of the company after purchase showed that the store was worth $85M. According to Rose Blumkin, the store earned $15M a year, meaning Buffett got it for 4x earnings. But Rose had buyers remorse and she eventually opened up a competing shop across the street from the one she had sold, waging war on the NFM until Buffett offered to buy her out for $5M, including the use of her name and her lease.

One secret to Buffett’s success in the private equity field? Personality:

“She really liked and trusted me. She would make up her mind about people and that was that.”

Buffett’s special privileges

On hiding Rose Blumkin’s financial privacy: Buffet had no worries about getting a waiver from the SEC

Buffett got special dispensation from the SEC to not disclose his trades until the end of the year “to avoid moving markets”

The gorilla escapes its cage

Another theme of Buffett’s investing in the late 1980s and 1990s was his continual role as a “gorilla” investor who could protect potential LBO-targets from hostile takeover bids. The first of these was his $517M investment for 15% of Tom Murphy-controlled Cap Cities/ABC, a media conglomerate. Buffett left the board of the Washington Post to join the board of his latest investment.

Another white knight scenario involved Buffett’s investment in Ohio conglomerate Scott Fetzer, which Berkshire purchased for $410M.

Then Buffett got into Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street arbitrage shop that was being hunted by private equity boss Ron Perelman. Buffett bought $700M of preferred stock w/ a 9% coupon that was convertible into common stock at $38/share, for a total return potential of about 15%. It even came with a put option to return it to Salomon and get his money back.

But Buffett had stepped outside of his circle of competence:

He seemed to understand little of the details of how the business was run, and adjusting to a business that wasn’t literally made of bricks-and-mortar or run like an assembly line was not easy for him… he had made the investment in Salomon purely because of Gutfreund

Buffett’s disgusting ignorance and hypocrisy

Buffett:

I would force you to give back a huge chunk to society, so that hospitals get built and kids get educated too

Buffett decides to sell the assets of Berkshire’s textile mills– on the books for $50M, he gets $163,122 at the auction. He refused to face his workers and then had the gall to say

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

Buffett on John Gutfreund:

an outstanding, honorable man of integrity

Assorted quotes

Peter Kiewit, a wealthy businessman from Omaha, on reputation:

A reputation is like fine china: expensive to acquire, and easily broken… If you’re not sure if something is right or wrong, consider whether you’d want it reported in the morning paper

Buffett on Wall St:

Wall Street is the only place people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from people who take the subway

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part II, Chap. 5-19

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This post covers Part II: The Inner Scorecard, Chap. 5-19

The beginning of Buffett

In a letter to a family member from one of Warren Buffett’s ancestors, Zebulon, the elder Buffett counsels his grandson to

be content with moderate gains

almost as if some strain of value investing ethic permeated his lineage from before Buffett himself had even heard of The Intelligent Investor. Buffett’s family represents a long line of business minded people. Yet, despite this heritage,

Buffett always credited most of his success to luck

It’s an odd, likely guilt-laden existential belief to carry around with oneself! But it is maybe no surprise. Love doesn’t sound like it was given much attention in Buffett’s childhood home, and self-love is probably included, as we learn that:

Politics, money and philosophy were acceptable topics for dinner-table discussion at the Buffett house, but feelings were not. Nobody in the Buffett household said “I love you,” and nobody tucked the children into bed with a kiss.

Any guess as to where some of Buffett’s later self-hating charitable giving ideas might have come from?

[Buffett’s mother, Leila’s] favorite stories told of her and Howard’s sacrifices… anything for Howard. “She crucified herself”… But Leila’s attitude of duty and sacrifice had another, darker side: blame and shame.

If you guessed his psychotic, clinically depressed mother, you answered correctly!

It is Buffett’s relationship to his mother and his vulnerability to her rage as a child that we actually see Buffett in the most sympathetic light. We see as Warren recounts his relationship with his mother this grown, aged man “weeping helplessly”, and we also learn that despite the savage treatment from his mother, which his idolized father was aware of, Howard “didn’t intervene.”

The most vulnerable people in any society are children– they’re physically, intellectually AND emotionally unequipped to make sense of and thoughtfully respond to the irrationalities and volatilities of unstable and violent adults. It is actually quite touching imagining this young, budding genius, Warren Buffett, suffering at the hands of his psychologically diseased mother and developing a precarious existential belief system that leaves him feeling so guilty for the remainder of his life that after all he has (legitimately) achieved, he is still convinced it was mostly due to luck! What an absolute tragedy of human imagination! It would be nice to imagine the poor, hurting and timid child inside of Warren Buffett eventually being freed to go on his way and let Warren wrestle with these childhood demons no more.

What a different world it would be if Warren was a hero entrepreneur rather than a man so tormented by his past that he carries his fears and anxieties into his public persona and recommendations for society at large!

We also see in this information the source of Warren’s fascination with other people’s mothers (who he often developed crushes on), with motherly women in general and with his tendency to have a cadre of close female friends in both his personal and professional life, all while simultaneously having a troubled and distant relationship with his own wife and children later on. What a sad development for an otherwise triumphant individual.

The search for a system – Buffett the handicapper

One of the central themes of Part II is the young Warren Buffett’s search for a “system”: a predictable, confined process for predicting and handicapping the odds of various events in his life. Starting with his bathtub marble race, extending to the racing track (horses) and eventually culminating in his quest for an investment system (part of his initial attraction to Graham, who was especially formulaic, scientific and systematic in his approach to the investment question in general).

And a system, once found, is only valuable if it has a lot of information to process:

There were opportunities to calculate odds everywhere. The key was to collect information, as much information as you could find.

We also begin to see hints of the later, “original” Buffett, with his love of monopoly as a competitive advantage. The anecdotes of Buffett and his friend Russ collecting license plate information in the hopes of eventually providing it to the police to catch a bank robber are examples of Buffett’s early obsession with  the value of a monopoly. Similarly, while the young Warren was holed up in a hospital with an illness, he took to collecting the fingerprints of the nurses so that if one of them committed a crime,

he, Warren Buffett, would own the clues to the culprit’s identity

This is a pretty astounding conclusion for a young child to reach, even if it is innocently done. It appears Warren had something of an intuitive understanding of the value of a restricted supply granted by a monopoly on a particular resource.

He also was perplexed by the way so much valuable information (valuable to someone with a system in place for interpreting and analyzing it) went uncollected and unused. An early example is Buffett’s collecting of bottle caps nearby soda dispensers:

The numbers told him which soft drinks were most popular

Do you see the future investor in Coca-Cola beginning to formulate his understanding of the value of consumer habits and patterns?

In the 1940s, Buffett started visiting horse racing tracks where he learned

The art of handicapping is based on information. The key was having more information than the other guy

Buffett ended up reading HUNDREDS of books on horse handicapping before he eventually learned the Rules of the Racetrack:

  • Nobody ever goes home after the first race
  • You don’t have to make it back the way you lost it

Buffett later connected these experiences to his investing and understood

The market is a racetrack too. The less sophisticated the track, the better… the trick, of course, is to be in a group where practically no one is analytical and you have a lot of data

In this way, a handicapper or investor can develop informational asymmetries which grant him the all-important edge. Interestingly, Buffett earned a college scholarship in just this way, as he was the only person to show up to a scholarship committee session and thus earned the scholarship by default because he had no competition.

This is where the quote about Buffett sifting through the Moody’s Manuals company by company, page by page (all ten thousand) comes from, and the famous quote,

I actually looked at every business– although I didn’t look very hard at some

In a similar vein, Warren’s classmates at the Columbia Business School completely ignored the opportunity they had, right in front of them, to learn investing from the premier guru of their era, Benjamin Graham. Instead,

They were a remarkably homogeneous group of men, mostly headed to General Motors, IBM or U.S. Steel after they got their degrees

These young men were being trained to become managers. Meanwhile, Buffett was training to become an owner (and he would later own IBM, while the other two American stalwarts died slow, painful deaths). Or, as Buffett later put it,

U.S. Steel was a good business… it was a big business, but they weren’t thinking about what kind of train they were getting on

Buffett also learned the importance of “swinging at the right pitches”:

You’re not supposed to bet every race. I’d committed the worst sin, which is that you get behind and you think you’ve got to break even that day

Simultaneously, Buffett was realizing the importance of thinking for oneself and not being a mindless trend follower. Granted an opportunity to play “the echo” to another trumpeter in the school band, Buffett found himself in a confusing and embarrassing situation in which the lead player played the wrong note and Warren didn’t know what to do as his “echo”. The lesson?

It might seem easier to go through life as the echo– but only until the other guy plays a wrong note

He also became enamored with Dale Carnegie and his social system, one of the most important lessons of which he felt was “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.”

In addition, Buffett studied the biographies of great businessmen such as:

  • Jay Cooke
  • Daniel Drew
  • Jim Fisk
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • Jay Gould
  • John D. Rockefeller
  • Andrew Carnegie

looking for the keys to their “system”.

History repeats itself, or at least rhymes

In Part II we also get a glimpse into the way that early themes and experiences in Buffett’s life replayed themselves as important investments in his later life as the world’s best known and must successful investor. For example:

  • as a child, Buffett sold chewing gum door-to-door; he later successfully invested in Wrigley’s chewing gum
  • as a child, Buffett collected soda bottle caps; he later successfully invested in Coca-Cola
  • as a child, Buffett was obsessed with model trains and always dreamed of owning a train set; he later successfully invested in Burlington Northern railroads
  • as a child, Buffett met Sidney Weinberg, an important figure at Goldman Sachs, during a field trip to Wall St with his father; he later successfully invested in Goldman Sachs
  • as a child, Buffett had a paper route in which he distributed, amongst many other papers, the Washington Post; he later successfully invested in the Washington Post and other dailies

Warren catches the wealth-bug

It was on his trip to the Stock Exchange in New York City in 1940 with his father that Warren first understood the money-making potential of stock investing. Witnessing exchange members who had servants roll custom cigars, Warren realized

the Stock Exchange must pour forth streams of money… he worked with a passion for the future he saw ahead of him, right there in sight. He wanted money

Later, Warren came across a book entitled “One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000” or, in Warren’s mind, how to make a million dollars. This was it. He was going to be a millionaire. The book had hopeful, helpful and optimistic advice that we would all well consider and pay attention to in the event that we become similarly motivated:

the opportunities of yesterday are as nothing compared with the opportunities that await the courageous, resourceful man of today! You cannot possibly succeed until you start. The way to begin making money is to begin… Hundreds of thousands of people in this country who would like to make a lot of money are not making it because they are waiting for this, that or the other to happen

Buffett also learned around this time the power of compounding and decided

If a dollar today was going to be worth ten some years from now, then in his mind the two were the same

Early Buffett investments, and why he made them

Before he had even graduated from college, the young Warren Buffett had made a number of stock and private investments:

  • Cities Service Preferred; bought three shares at $114.75 for himself and his sister, the shares fell and then recovered; Buffett sold at $40/share for a $5 profit, only to watch the shares rise to $202, lessons learned:
    • Do not overly fixate on the price paid for a stock
    • Don’t rush unthinkingly to grab a small profit; it can take years to earn back the profit “lost” through opportunity cost
    • Buffett didn’t want to have responsibility for other people’s money unless he was sure he could succeed
  • Around age 15, Warren had invested in “Builders Supply Co.”, a hardware store owned and operated by his father and his father’s business partner, Carl Falk, in Omaha
  • Around age 15, Warren bought a 40-acre farm for $1,200 that he split the profits of with a tenant farmer; he sold it when he was in college (5 years later) for $2,400
  • Buffett invested “sweat equity” in a paper route which earned him $175/mo in an era when a grown man felt well-paid on $3,000/yr
  • Buffett started a used golf-ball retailing business with a friend, selling golf balls for $6/dozen, through a wholesaler in Chicago named Witek
  • Buffett bought a pinball machine for $25, placed it in a barbershop and recouped $4 in the first day; he went on to purchase 7-8 pinball machines for “Mr. Wilson’s pinball machine company”, learning the principle of capital,  money that works for its owner, as if it had a job of its own
  • 1949, Buffett shorts automaker Kaiser-Frazer, which went from producing 1/20 cars to 1/100 in the market; Buffett saw a trend in the statistics
  • Preparing to enter Columbia, Buffett invested in Parkersburg Rig & Reel, purchasing 200 shares after discovering the company “according to Graham’s rules” in The Intelligent Investor
  • At Columbia, Buffett was invested in Tyer Rubber Company, Sargent & Co. and Marshell-Wells (a hardware company) of which he had jointly purchased 25 shares with his father; Marshell-Wells was the largest hardware wholesaler in the US and traded for $200 but earned $62/share, making it similar to a bond with a 31% yield
  • After visiting with Lou Simpson at GEICO, Buffett dumped 3/4ths of his stock portfolio to buy 350 shares of GEICO, which was trading at 8x current earnings at $42/share and was rapidly growing; Buffett felt his margin of safety was a growing, small company in a large field meaning it had a lot of opportunity ahead of it, especially because it was the lowest cost provider
  • Grief Bros. Cooperage, a barrel maker and Ben Graham stock
  • Philadelphia Reading Coal & Iron Company, selling for $19/share with $8/share worth of culm banks
  • Cleveland Worsted Mills, textile manufacturer selling for less than its current assets of $146/share; the company cut the dividend which was part of Buffett’s investment thesis and he sold the stock in disgust
  • A gas service station, which he bought with a friend for $2,000; the property never made money as they couldn’t entice customers from the nearby Texaco station; Buffett lost his investment and learned the value of customer habit

Related to the theme of early Buffett investments is the course of the young Buffett’s savings and the accumulation of his capital stock:

  • Age 14, his savings totaled around $1,000, “he was ahead of the game… getting ahead of the game, he knew, was the way to the goal”
  • Age 15, his savings totaled around $2,000, much of which was from his newspaper route
  • Age 16, his savings totaled around $5,000 ($53,000 in 2007 dollars), much of it from his pinball and golfball businesses
  • Age 20 (1950), his savings totaled $9,803.70 which was partly invested in stocks, as well as a $500 scholarship and $2,000 from his father for not smoking
  • Age 21, his savings totaled $19,738, he had boosted his capital 75% in a single year and he felt “supremely confident in his own investing abilities”, he also was willing to take on debt equal to a quarter of his net worth, or about $5,000, for total capital of around $25,000

Miscellaneous Buffett lessons

On betting and deal-making in general:

Know what the deal is in advance

What Buffett learned from Graham:

  • A stock is the right to own a little piece of a business
  • Use a margin of safety so the effects of good decisions are not wiped out by errors; the way to advance is to not retreat
  • Mr. Market is your servant, not your master
On influence:

it pays to hang around 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

Buffett’s authorship of the article “The Stock I Like Best” on GEICO attracted the attention of a later financial backer, Bill Rosenwald, son of Julius Rosenwald and longtime chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part I, Chap. 1-4

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This post covers Part I: The Bubble, Chap. 1-4

Why Warren Buffett is driven to make money

The first chapter of The Snowball opens with the author interviewing Buffett in his office at Kiewit Plaza. She asks,

Where did it come from, Warren? Caring so much about making money?

Interestingly, Buffett’s response is something of a non-sequitur:

Balzac said that behind every great fortune lies a crime. That’s not true at Berkshire.

Are we supposed to believe this means Buffett is ultimately a moralizer? That he’s driven to make money just to show it can be done in an honest fashion? If so, where does THAT come from? You see, Buffett didn’t answer the question posed to him.

We also learn that Buffett reads voraciously, and that he watches CNBC (on mute, just to get the scroll of news stories and market developments). Every good investor knows CNBC is a bunch of noise, it is not edifying and it is distracting. It’s peculiar that a long-term oriented, value investor like Buffett would make CNBC part of his daily routine.

Buffett travels to Sun Valley, Idaho, July 1999

We begin to see Buffett as a completely self-absorbed individual. As he travels with a contingent of his family (children and grandchildren) to the Allen & Co. “elephant-bumping” retreat in Sun Valley, the man never looks out the window of his G4 and

He sat reading, hidden behind his newspapers, as if he were alone in his study at home

where, apparently, he treats his significant other, Astrid Meeks, in similar fashion, as noted in a later chapter which depicts Astrid as something of a live-in hamburger-making, Coke-delivering otherwise-invisible person who tries not to disturb the Great Warren during his nightly routine of hours of online bridge and conversations with his insurance lieutenant, Ajit Jain, at 10PM at night. Everyone’s entitled to their flaws and interpersonal relationships seem to be one of Buffett’s.

Which is interesting, because he goes to great pains in Sun Valley to be liked by everyone. Buffett

liked few things more than getting a free golf shirt from a friend [Allen & Co.’s president and organizer of the outing]

and he

went out of his way not to be disliked by anyone

Somewhat peculiar juxtaposed social relationships for a man who waxes philosophical about the Inner Scorecard versus Outer Scorecard in life, one being a measure of self as seen by self, the other being a measure of self as seen by others. You’d think neglecting your family while making pains to impress social acquaintances would register on the Inner Scorecard, but no matter.

This isn’t a Beat Up Buffett blog– the man has a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn. I just find these items odd as I read.

The festivities in Idaho are noteworthy because of what an extremely above-average experience it is for the people involved when compared to daily existence for the Average American, let alone the Average Human Being. To wit, after “white water river rafting” down a stream lined with ambulances and quick response teams for safety (and, one might imagine, helicopter gunships for security),

the guests were handed warm towels as soon as they put down their paddles and stepped out of the rafts, then served plates of barbecue

In addition,

Reporters were banned [from covering the outing]… [the various money managers in attendance represented] more than a trillion dollars [in combined wealth under management]

This is unusual company, an elite group within society, wittingly or not. There is nothing wrong with this level of affluence, it’s simply worth mentioning to set Buffett’s life into context– he’s not of us, at least not at this point in his career.

The key scene at Sun Valley is Buffett’s economic-prediction-as-financial-market-lesson-speech in which he lectures the newly minted tech bubble millionaire crowd on economic cycles and sound investing. A few notes:

  • Most people treat stocks like chips in a casino; Buffett sees the chips represent ownership in businesses (entities that create more chips over time)
  • Technology is not a guaranteed win for investors; history is replete with new technologies that made huge improvements in everyone’s standard of living, yet few had made investors rich (ie, the automobile, and the 3,000 original manufacturers that had over time combined into 3 major firms in the US; airline industry, $0 made in the aggregate stock investments in the industry’s lifetime)
  • Valuing is not the same as predicting
  • What you’re doing when you invest is deferring consumption and laying money out now to get more money back at a later time. And there are really only two questions. One is how much you’re going to get back, and the other is when.
  • As interest rates vary, the value of all financial assets change
  • Three ways the stock market can grow faster than the economy:
    • interest rates fall and remain below historic levels
    • share of the economy going to investors as opposed to employees, government, etc., remains above historic levels
    • the economy grows faster than normal
  • Book value: the amount of money that had been put into the business and left there
  • Ultimately, the value of the stock market can only reflect the output of the economy; on average, the return of the stock market is about 6% a year

Buffett also makes reference to “Lord Keynes”; not that it’s a big secret, but I don’t know anyone who isn’t a Keynesian who refers to Keynes that way (with prestige and respect for the State-granted honorific). If it wasn’t obvious otherwise, I’d say this is evidence enough of Buffett being a Keynesian.

Buffett also lives by the rule, “Praise by name, criticize by category.” That’s very Dale Carnegie-esque.

Enter the Munger

In Part I, we’re also introduced to Buffett’s curmudgeonly friend and business partner, Charlie Munger.

Munger is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He also

admired [Benjamin] Franklin for espousing Protestant bourgeois values while living as he damn well pleased

We also learn a curious fact about Munger’s charitable practice, which

took the form of a Darwinian quest to boost the brightest

but often took the form of “noblesse oblige” because he attached many strings to his giving which were “for the recipients own good, because he knew best” (Schroeder’s articulation). Munger and Buffett are famous for their hands-off, passive management approach to their acquired businesses; yet when it comes to charity, Munger is a world-saver who tries to micro-manage things to an almost tyrannical degree. It seems like a mismatch, but, when combined with his love of Franklin’s philosophical pragmatism and his background at Harvard, it fits the egotistical elitist mold quite well.

Munger, like Buffett, reads a great deal, tearing through newspapers and periodicals everywhere he goes. And Munger, like Buffett, seems quite impressed with his father– Munger carries his father’s old briefcase and vacations at his father’s old Minnesota cabin, while Buffett has a shrine-like portrait of his father in his office and claims he’s “never seen anybody quite like him.”

Revisiting the theme of “Why does Buffett watch CNBC?”, Buffett is subscribed to several newsletters about stocks and bonds and he reads the daily, weekly and monthly operating reports of the Berkshire subsidiary companies. For someone with a long-term orientation, it seems puzzling he would be fascinated or concerned with this kind of contemporaneous minutiae, but perhaps his is simply a mind that thrives on volumes of data to create patterns, impressions and meaning.

Finally, when we learn about Buffett’s two scorecards, we also learn that Buffett pays “close attention” to the rankings of the world’s wealthiest people. This standing would appear to reside on the Outer Scorecard which Buffett warns against measuring one’s life against.

The Concentration Of Wealth Is A Social Blessing, Not A Curse

A common condemnation of a free economic system is the insistence that without periodic redistribution of wealth by a central authority (the government), wealth would come to be concentrated increasingly in the hands of a select few who would, via such concentration, deprive everyone else in society through their hoarding and thereby impoverish the great mass of the people. Even more horribly, over time, the economic wealth of a society comes to be vested in the hands of the do-nothing descendants of the original wealthy, meaning that not only is wealth controlled by a few but now those few didn’t even do anything (good or bad) to acquire the wealth save to be born into privilege.

Aside from the obvious and upfront nefarious implication of this belief (namely, that it’d be a social “good” for any private person to randomly steal from such a wealth accumulator, as such redistribution would be a form of dissipation of accumulated wealth which is itself a bad, making the theft a good), this fear rests on a multitude of fallacies and ultimately leads to several absurd conclusions.

None of these make any sense. Each will be examined in turn. But first, let us start with an exposition of the actual operation of an unencumbered (intervention/violent redistribution-free) economic system.

In a free market, capital is always in the most capable hands

According to the common criticism of free economic systems, the normal functioning of voluntary exchange amongst willing individuals will inevitably result in accumulation of real wealth by a select few and de-accumulation of real wealth by most others.

The insinuation is that exploitation is involved– the only way someone could come by “more than their fair share” is if they steal from or defraud others.

While this is certainly a true observation with regards to the operation of a band of thieves, or an agency of government (aka, an official crime syndicate), this makes no sense in the context of a market consisting of voluntary exchanges amongst willing individuals.

In a free economic system, wealth is defined subjectively according to individual preferences and values. Similarly and importantly, wealth is exchanged on a voluntary and subjective basis. The existence of an exchange implies that each party believes he is getting more than he is giving up. If this were not true, a voluntary exchange would not occur.

What people are exchanging is that which is produced. To be able to make more exchanges, one must therefore be more productive (defined as being more able in terms of producing things people want in quantity, or things people strongly desire above other things they might exchange for).

It follows, then, that wealth in a free economic system tends to concentrate in the hands of the “most able”, where “most able” is a synonym for “most productive” and where most productive is defined in terms of having strong ability to produce for others the things that they desire.

In short, in a free economic system, capital finds its way over time into the hands of those who are its most able owners, for the benefit of everyone in society.

The benefits of naturally occurring wealth concentration in able hands, even across generations

Why is this wealth concentration a benefit for all of society and not just those few who come to own it?

Because that wealth is only valuable insofar as it is used to produce goods and services for others.

This idea is dependent upon the fact of an economic technology known as “the division of labor”. The division of labor adds value to society through operation of what is known as “comparative advantage”, namely, that everyone is relatively more skilled in some forms of production and relatively less skilled in other forms of production and that individuals can increase their own productivity by specializing in those tasks which they are relatively best suited for and leaving those tasks which they are relatively unsuited for to others in society (the division of labor) who are relatively best suited for them and then exchanging part of their production for the product of others in these areas in which they chose not to specialize.

Further, it is by the concentration of wealth (the accumulation of savings, or capital) that allows for the supercharging of the division of labor. Capital supercharges the division of labor in two primary ways:

  • through the mechanism of time-saving
  • through the creation of certain technologies which enable production methods which can not be replicated by manual labor, no matter how vast

Capital provides a means of leveraging a productive process through time-saving (in essence, this is what capital is– labor-productivity stored across time for later use). It enhances the division of labor because the multiplier effect of saved time is akin to employing even more individuals in the division of labor and applying them to a specialized task. Similarly, capital allows for the creation of certain technologies which possess productive attributes that can not be matched by even an infinite number of skilled individuals (consider a nano-circuitry robot which is able to perform tasks on a circuit board at a scale no human can).

The only way to enjoy these benefits is through the accumulation of wealth. And the more wealth is accumulated by one individual, the more hyper-specialization through the leveraging of capital can occur with regards to a particular task or method of production.

And obviously, these effects persist across generations, so if X was accumulated in generation 1, the further accumulation of capital by a factor of Y in generation 2 means there is now X+Y capital available to enhance the division of labor in the current and subsequent generations.

The natural dissipation of wealth from unable hands

The fear of increasing concentration of wealth in unable hands across generations through the unencumbered operation of a free economic system is groundless.

As we have seen above, wealth only accumulates in the hands of the able– those who are more productive are more successful at accumulating wealth because other market participants are more eager to exchange for the value they produce.

The image of the lazy, idiotic wealthy heir to a fortune who comes by a greater fortune over time simply because he inherited much to begin with is a contradiction. Either such a person is unproductive and gradually manages to dissipate their accumulated, inherited wealth over time due to their inability, or else they have been mischaracterized for, as “lazy” and “idiotic” as they may be, if they as owners of their accumulated capital manage to grow it over time, they have demonstrated they are productive and to that extent they are able.

No one deserves condemnation for ableness in increasing their wealth simply because they were born with much to begin with– their ability to produce further wealth stands as a testament to their ability to produce and thereby “contribute to society”. And one does not need to be condemned for disability in this area, as the gradual diminishing of one’s accumulated wealth is punishment (and judgment) enough.

The subjectivity of ableness

Ableness with regards to wealth creation (productive ability) is at all times a subjective notion.

In terms of market exchanges, other individuals in the market place will only reward the production of wealth they find subjectively valuable.

Ableness is not constant nor is it objective. Ableness can grow and diminish within a person or organization over time. It is subject to dynamism, the constant changing whims and preferences of the market place. It is not permanent. One may be able at producing X but not Y and once the market favors Y, one is no longer able.

The contemporaneous nature of ablest hands

The caricature of “permanent wealth” is another fallacy, the idea of an indomitable tycoon who can’t help but grow his wealth ever larger and whose descendants only become wealthier still are phantasms.

Because ableness is a subjective consideration, it is also contemporaneous. A man who is a legend in creating wealth through horseshoes may be reduced to miserliness in an era of automobiles.

In a free economic system, concentrated wealth can only remain concentrated across time to the extent that the current owners of it respond to the popularity of certain goods and services through time. The aforementioned horseshoe-fortune can not perpetuate itself indefinitely following the advent of automobiles unless the heirs to the fortune re-allocate capital to this new technology (or some other profitable venture) and away from the now unprofitable technology of horseshoes.

In this way, the constant service of concentrated wealth is guaranteed toward the highest valued uses of society viewed as a whole. One can not create a fortune in horseshoes and then “hoard” this wealth in this useless industry as automobiles arrive on the scene and expect these riches to further accumulate over time.

How many John Rockefellers have begotten new John Rockefellers in the immediately subsequent generation?

Ableness is subjective. Few heirs can match their forefathers in ableness in the family industry and rarely does the value of the family industry to society at large persist for long periods of time (generation after generation).

The impossibility of wealth being “hoarded”

Only a very small fraction of a person’s fortune is being consumed by them at one time. If they suddenly consumed it all it’d be gone forever and they’d be impoverished.

True, wealth is accumulated by most people in order to be consumed. It is assumedly subjectively valued as wealth so that it can one day be consumed. But wealth can not be both possessed and consumed. One can not have their cake and enjoy its sweet, supple flavors at once. These ends are mutually exclusive, doing one makes impossible the other.

It makes no sense to accuse those who possess concentrated fortunes of “hoarding” wealth, of keeping it out of the hands of others.

Wealth can be:

  • consumed
  • invested
  • loaned

If it is loaned, it is being made useful to others. If it is invested, it is being made useful to others and is engaged in the production of further goods and services demanded by individuals in society. If it is consumed, it is used up by the one who had produced or exchanged for it and so long as they didn’t do anything criminal to acquire it in the first place, this is their right. Consumption could come in the form of literally consuming or using something up, such as eating a foodstuff or utilizing a machine which can wear down, or it could come in the form of accumulating a stockpile whose sole purpose is to aid its owner in providing the comfort of knowing it is there. Such a stockpile could only be acquired by voluntary exchange in a free economic system so it would be within an individual’s right to “waste” it in such a manner.

A man may be worth $100M. But this does not mean he enjoys the ability to consume $100M worth of wealth at all times. In reality, he might own a few homes of a few million each, wear clothes worth thousands of dollars, eat food costing hundreds. The vast majority of his millions of accumulated wealth are not utilized for direct consumption, not now and likely not ever.

If he ever actually utilized this wealth all at once, consumed it (likely, made his worth liquid by exchanging his capital for cash, and then spending it on consumption goods and services) it would be gone. Assuming he was not employed by someone else and in possession of a current income as a result, the liquidation of his various equity positions would leave him not only penniless after this consumptive spree, but wealthless. He would have had his “last supper.”

He would go, in a matter of moments, from a wealthy man, to a pauper.

Wealth can not be “hoarded” and kept away from others. And if it is consumed, it is consumed for good. Consumption is not a renewable process, unlike production.

Wealth implies capital accumulation and preservation

The individuals in society who manage to amass great fortunes (accumulate large amounts of wealth or capital) in a free economic system have demonstrated a great ability not only to produce, but to restrict their own consumption, that is, to save.

Without borrowing, a person can consume only that which they produce. And a highly productive person also has the privilege of being a highly consumptive person. They can make many more exchanges with their additional product and consume an equivalent amount of goods and services they have exchanged for.

However, if instead of maintaining a net worth of zero, their net worth grows over time, they are exhibiting their discipline for restricting their own ability to consume. This means, rather than consuming all that they could because of all they produce, they actually reserve part of it and, through loans, investments and even voluntary acts of charity, allow other people to use this wealth to produce and consume themselves.

The caricature of the wealth accumulator is one of a cruel miser– somehow, by managing to gather into his arms a great fortune, he has denied many others their ability to consume.

But the reality is just the opposite! The only person whose consumptive desires have been denied are the wealth accumulator’s, while instead everyone else in society is allowed to make use of his additional capital in their own projects and consumptive desires.

The act of saving, the presence of accumulated wealth or capital, indicates a disciplined decision to underconsume relative to productive capacity. It implies a permanent restriction on total ability to consume insofar as this pile of wealth is maintained or even grows.

The encumbered market

None of the above applies to the context of a system of exchanges which are partially or primarily involuntary in nature. In other words, none of the above applies to wealth accumulated via means of plunder, whether they be public or private means.

Outside of this context, however, the accumulation of wealth is not a curse for society and, in many ways, it is a blessing. Further, it is not permanent nor is it arbitrary. The concentration of wealth in an unencumbered market always, over time, reflects the greatest ableness as defined by the greatest social uses and values of the time in question. No one who comes by wealth comes by it accidentally and those who were the special beneficiaries of luck or heritage must demonstrate their own ableness lest their wealth get away from them and into the hands of those who are more capable than themselves.

No individual can consume his wealth in its entirety and expect to remain wealthy. And those who restrict their consumption in order to preserve their wealth merely act to make their wealth available to others for their productive or consumptive use.

Those who have amassed great wealth by voluntary means should be cheered, applauded and thanked for the service they provide to everyone in society. Those who come by their wealth through plunder and malice should rightfully be derided, castigated and even violently prevented from further predations, if judgment calls for it.

Review – The Richest Man In Babylon

The Richest Man In Babylon

by George S. Clason, published 1926, 1988

The Richest Man in Babylon

Do you want to know the secret to wealth? Do you want to know how the richest man in Babylon came to a prosperous life?

He never forgot, A part of all you earn is yours to keep.

Seven Cures for a Lean Purse

  1. Start thy purse to fattening; save at least 10% of everything you earn
  2. Control thy expenditures; budget your expenses so you never spend more than 90% of what you earn on necessities and luxuries alike
  3. Make thy gold multiply; put your savings to work and let your wealth multiply
  4. Guard they treasures from loss; always ensure first that you don’t lose what you have and that you can get your money back out of any investment you make
  5. Make thy dwelling a profitable investment; own your own home
  6. Insure a future income; your financial planning should take into consideration the fact that you will have decreased earnings power as you age, and that one day you may pass on and leave dependents behind who need financial sustenance
  7. Increase thy ability to earn; cultivate your own powers, study and grow wiser, learn new skills and enhance your ability and number of ways you can earn income

Meet the Goddess of Good Luck

Men of action are favored by the goddess of good luck

The Five Laws of Gold

  1. Gold comes easily to anyone who would put aside 10% of his earnings to provide for an estate for his future and his family
  2. Gold will work for the wise person who finds safe investments in which it can multiply on its own
  3. Gold clings to the owner who looks after its safety in his dealings
  4. Gold slips away from those who invest it carelessly or in ways he is not familiar with
  5. Gold flees the man who has unrealistic earnings expectations, listens to tricksters and schemers or who follows his passions and desires rather than consideration and experience

The Gold Lender of Babylon

Better a little caution than a great regret

The Walls of Babylon

We cannot afford to be without protection

The Camel Trader of Babylon

Where determination is, the way can be found

Concerns of Meaningless Peons

The following is a running list of observed concerns and conditions of individuals which would suggest they may be living the lives of meaningless peons, updated as observational faculties permit:

  1. Owning less than an acre of land
  2. Not contemplating life from an Eames chair
  3. Emotionally invested in professional sports
  4. Arguing economics on the internet with idiots trying to vouchsafe wanton criminality in sophistry
  5. Leasing everything, owning nothing
  6. Primary pastimes revolves around drinking with your friends and Facebooking your exploits
  7. Fretting about how to get your child into a “good” public school

Note: the composer of the above list may be guilty of some or even all of the infractions mentioned.