Inside the brain of Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s investment partner

Many serious investors make a study of the field. In particular, they read voraciously on the investment strategies of successful investors.

Few are more closely watched than the Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett. Less attention is paid to Charlie Munger, the man who has worked closely with Buffett for not far off half-a-century.

In this blog, Ian de Lange of Seed Investments takes a close look at how Charlie Munger assesses companies for their investment potential. What’s clear is that Charlie doesn’t rely on gut feel; he uses a range of what he calls mental models to help assess the risks and opportunities.

This is a reminder that there’s far more to picking great investments than having a general overview of a company and sector. If you want to make serious money consistently, you need to get down to some number-crunching and examine a proposition from many angles. – JC

By Ian de Lange

Charlie Munger: Poor Charlie’s Almanacimages-1

Over the Christmas break, I had the opportunity to read Poor Charlie’s Almanack – a compendium of insightful articles, essays about and talks from Charlie Munger.

Who is Charlie Munger? He is the partner of the better known Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of listed Berkshire Hathaway. He has partnered Buffett for some 45 years.  Munger, now 90 years old, is vice chairman of the Berkshire Hathaway and Chairman of Wesco Financial Corporation.

Munger is noted as an excellent thinker and this book gave some insight into how his mind works. Buffett said of him, “Charlie can analyse and evaluate any kind of deal faster and more accurately than any man alive. He sees valid weakness in sixty seconds.”

Munger has a systematic way of analysing problems and approaches to business analysis and assessment. Instead of making a standalone assessment of a company and its finances, he will rather conduct a more comprehensive analysis, calling the tools that he uses his “Multiple Mental Model”.

You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines and use them routinely – all of them. Not just a few. Most people are trained in one model – economics for example – and try to solve all problems in one way. You know the old saying, “to the man with a hammer, the world looks like a nail.” This is a dumb way of handling problems.”

When properly collected and organised, his Multiple Mental Models (around 100 of them he estimates) provides a context or latticework that leads to remarkable insights as to the purpose and nature of life. His models supply the analytical structure that enables him to reduce the inherent chaos and confusion of a complex investment problem into a clarified set of fundamentals. Some of the more important models that he knows well and uses often include:

  • Redundancy/backup, breakpoints and critical mass system model from engineering
  • Compound interest, permutations, probability and decision tree model from maths
  • Breakpoint/tipping moment/autocatalysis model from physics and chemistry
  • Cognitive misjudgement model from psychology
  • Accounting – double entry bookkeeping
  • Microeconomics – scale and competitive destruction
  • Chemistry

His most basic guiding principles and fundamental philosophy of life includes preparation, patience, discipline, and decisiveness.

As part of his decision making process, Charlie Munger firmly believes in using checklists for investing decisions. Such a checklist, not necessarily used by Munger, was outlined in the book and covered the following headings:

  • Risk – all investment valuations should begin by measuring risk;
  • Independence – only in fairy tales are emperors told they are naked;
  • Preparation – the only way to win is to work, work, work and hope to have a few insights;
  • Intellectual humility – acknowledge what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom;
  • Analytics rigor – use of the scientific method and effective checklists minimises errors and omissions;
  • Allocation – proper allocation of capital is an investor’s number one job;
  • Patience – resist the natural human bias to act;
  • Decisiveness – when proper circumstances present themselves act with decisiveness and conviction;
  • Change – live with change and accept irremovable complexity; and
  • Focus – keep things simple and remember what you set out to do.

Ian de Lange is director at Seed Investments, an asset management company with about R1,2bn under management. It offers multi-manager portfolios as well as its Smart Beta fund, which was launched recently with R50m in seed capital.  It has a strategic alliance with about 100 brokers and 15 wealth managers through Hereford Wealth Managers and acts as advisor for the Prescient Fund of Hedge Funds.