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Investing star Charlie Munger imparts a final few words of wisdom

Munger, billionaire Warren Buffett's investing partner for 46 years and vice chairman of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, meets with an audience of devotees in Pasadena for the last time.

July 01, 2011|By Tom Petruno, Los Angeles Times
  • Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has for decades run Pasadena-based Wesco Financial Corp.
Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway… (Jonathan Alcorn, Bloomberg )

The aging star met with his adoring fans for the last time Friday and basically told them to get a life.

"I don't want to be better known than this," Charlie Munger, billionaire Warren Buffett's investing partner for the last 46 years, told an audience of several hundred devotees at the Pasadena Convention Center.

Besides, he added with his trademark genial cantankerousness, "You people aren't normal."

Munger, 87, is vice chairman of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. holding company. He also has for decades run Pasadena-based Wesco Financial Corp., a mini-conglomerate that was majority-owned by Berkshire.

The annual meeting of Wesco has long been a high point of the year for Munger and Buffett fans for the opportunity to hear directly from Munger, whose unvarnished commentary on the economy, Wall Street and business in general has made him a cult hero.

Because Berkshire this spring bought the final 20% of Wesco, the company no longer will have shareholder meetings. But Munger had promised one last chance for shareholders to get together. He also opened the meeting to the public.

Munger used his opening remarks to take another jab at the "megalomania" of bankers who he says brought on the real estate bubble of the last decade. A lot of banking, he said, had become "gambling in drag."

He also said some of Wall Street's computerized traders were the equivalent of "letting rats into the granaries."

The audience ate it all up.

Herbert Yu, a 44-year-old executive at a Santa Ana printing company, said Munger and Buffett "are my heroes." Burned by dot-com stocks in the early 2000s, Yu said he soon after adopted the famed investors' "value" investing style. "I've been outperforming the market" since then, he said.

Yu brought his two children, ages 10 and 7, to the meeting because he said he wanted them to soak up Munger's wisdom — even if they weren't quite sure what they were hearing. "I made a deal with them: Sit here for one hour, and then you can go to the mall," he said.

Munger held forth for three hours, with the final two devoted to questions from his admiring audience. Many asked life-coaching questions — how to succeed in marriage, with children and in careers.

In business and in personal affairs, be patient but aggressive when you know what you want, Munger advised. He also stressed the importance of continuous learning. His current field of study: astrophysics.

Not surprisingly, some of his fans tried to draw him out for advice on individual stocks. He said Coca-Cola Co., a longtime Berkshire stock holding, was "not nearly as good a business as 20 years ago," but that as major companies go, it still was "one of my favorites."

Munger also praised Costco Wholesale Corp., on whose board he sits. The retailer "is about as admirable a capitalist enterprise as ever existed," Munger said.

A few attendees asked about Berkshire's controversial investment in Chinese automaker BYD, which has suffered a plunge in sales and earnings. Munger, who typically has great praise for China, said he "loved the people" at BYD and expected to hold the stock "to the end."

Asked whether Berkshire's own shares were a true value at the current price ($117,050 for a Class A share), Munger answered indirectly: "I think people who own Berkshire at the current price will do quite all right sitting on their patoots."

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